I don’t photograph biscuits, that’s not what I do. Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the Benjamin Stone archive


I visited the current small exhibition of Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the City Library in Birmingham, which is their response to the Sir Benjamin Stone archive; and to view both the Daniel Meadows retrospective, which is quite impressive.

This is the third work I have seen that responds to that archive, Anna Fox’s ‘Back to the Village’ was inspired by it and I went to listen to a talk by Faye Claridge last year as she spoke about her residency working on the archive . Before attending the talk by these two collaborators I went to see the work (definitely a work in progress), which is on display very near the Daniel Meadow’s work.

But back to the collaboration. As the work is displayed/mounted I could sense the ‘openess’ of the work, how by the images are placed within the mount they provoke a response to the plate as a whole. These plates all have five images, even if an image is a text and even if the image is missing, because the mount has apertures for five images (the structure of the plates are similar – one central large aperture surrounded by four further apertures in the corners of the plates). This plate structure implies a determined placement of imagery, as if there was an association between those on a similar plane, connected by a purpose.

And text. Text which provided an anchor it seems, to the plates of images; seeding/suggesting/implying a narrative direction from which to drift from or to, even if that might be sub-conscious perambulation. I wondered about the presentation and soon after the talk at BIAD later in the early evening started I could see how that came about.

Sir Benjamin Stone’s collection appear in album’s: album 46 for example is titled “types of English, French and Russian women” – and page after page are photographs of women, interestingly there is no denotation of which women came from which country, just pages of female portraits looking out at the viewer, almost as catalogue entries, and perhaps they were.

Rickett and von Zwehl had landed upon Album 31 as their entry (not an easy task it appears) into the archive. Album 31 is entitled “miscellaneous” – though no explanation as to why these images became privileged to be entered in that album, but no matter – it is there they reside. The collaborators used the visual artifacts of album 31 to work out their response and thereby answering my earlier question.

The talk was interesting from a number of perspectives: it was clearly unrehearsed and founded on a PowerPoint presentation with all of it’s traducing potency fully realized. The initial thoughts that were expressed was about their collaborative methodology, and this talk was about how that approach was echoed by the ‘collaborativeness’ of the talk – each taking the lead or withdrawing easily as if the language they spoke was one, but without disguising the ‘seperatedness’ of their travels to the starting point of this work together. It was engaging, serious, often amusing and the talk was better for this unrehearsed, almost haptic, approach.

There were distances between the two artists, most notably when discussing their personal practices, and whilst not meaning to appear pejorative in that assessment because their delivery when talking about their own work was not about the two of them, but a reflection of themselves as a working artist– the collaboration though – which had its own, completely ‘other’ character.

The other significant thought that I took away with me was about the work itself, how these artists, with a common voice, had interpreted the archive and made another piece of work. Similar to the work of Fox and Claridge, whose personal perspectives delivered equally individually voiced reactions, the work presented here gave yet another. Making more work from a base settled in late nineteenth and early twentieth century imagery might enable a freer interpretation and departure from the original photographic presentations. However this work employs very personal work, work that was both discarded but revered enough to not be jettisoned; these artists took from their own archives images that were perhaps consigned to their own miscellaneous album. Images that still had some reason not to be shredded, but without the original target left in them; their resurfacing through the editing process provided the ability to recontextualize themselves. Rickett spoke purposefully about the shifting contestability of images – losing the ‘preciousness’ of the images, how once they meant or spoke about one thing but through the mediation of time and memory they are given permission to present another element in another narrative. Images of half eaten biscuits photographed on impulse for their beauty and resonance, as they lie discarded by a daughter on the wooden floor.

These two artists met every Thursday and went through the process of curating images (text as imagery as well) until coming collaboratively to an agreement. They spoke about how that process would reveal information about themselves to themselves, how sometimes there were disagreements, sometimes evident in the work itself, how it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

I am interested in ‘Open’ works, about the free interpretation of artworks and this collaborative venture by Rickett and von Zwehl presents this viewer with a set of short episodes in a narrative of my own making, their presentation of such a scale that it needed close examination, a strategy that drew me closer to the work and helping to exclude extraneous confusions.

A quite inspiring evening.


Assigment Three re-working


Looking back, final edit

Looking back, final edit

I had a meeting with my course tutor Sharon to review my coursework and to discuss the assessment submission. Assignment three had a series of images of my mother that in the main had her looking back in a reflective stance. After talking it around a little while it was thought that maybe instead of a series of images one might suffice, this highly edited image above. The image says a lot about what I’ve thought about through the course, firstly it is a construct, two images of two different times creating a narrative that is fairly directive. My mother regards me, her son, at a point in my life – the point was my first date with Elaine (she saw the sweater and decided she didn’t want to be seen with me so sartorially challenged and avoided me (but that’s another story). The front wall of the house, the door and myself date from an earlier time, my mother and the rest are contemporary. It is therefore a series of truths and not a truth, to tell a story albeit in single image form.

The square format reflected the original image format – it was one of a very few that my father made of me – and I thought the crop to those dimensions fitted the with the sense of narrative that I wanted to project. I like her stance, outside of the property borders to a house that she dwelt in for most of her life, bore five children in (she brought three children with her when she moved in). She regards me, I look slightly away. There is life in this image (for this viewer).

Wall hanging - with light

Wall hanging – with light

Sharon suggested I put the image on the wall and re-photograph it. I must say that I wasn’t immediately enthralled by that prospect as it would suggest that I am honouring the moment, exalting it – ‘framing it’. And because I know the core of the emotion I found difficulty in that concept, I thought about it some more and decided to try it, though purposely askance. I was really pleased with the light as it echoes some of my other work with transient light in assignment five. I was’t sure then and I’m still unsure now. I want to recognise something here, again suggested by Sharon, which is about ‘letting go’. Images have strength, for those that have a connection to the image it is understandably difficult to render that emotional connection void, something that I’ve been encouraged to do when working with archives. Honouring the emotional connection of an image is a noble thing of course, but to make images that develop another narrative, then leaving that connection behind is perhaps  a requirement. It might though be difficult to recognise when this has taken place when the original connection is personal and when it hasn’t when working with personal imagery, or imagery that has a proximity. These constructed images do not, and indeed cannot, contain the original intent and I am very pleased to ‘let-go’ of whatever I imagine might be going on in the photograph, though I fully recognise that a viewer knowing the cast of characters might question that…..

With a patina of dust

With a patina of dust


I also had another look at the image from an another angle and tried to pick out the ‘fingered dust’ on the glass. I have a strong feeling what this might denote/connote and would wonder if anyone else would gather similar information from the image.

I had another thought which was to shatter the frame with the photograph in it and then re-take the image, I may still do that, but I realise it is a once only exercise and considering assessment – sending the framed image intact would be good deal easier (and safer) than trying to gather the shattered and splintered remains of a broken frame, but then that may provide evidence that I haven’t left everything behind……..


Ornette Coleman and the ‘Open text’

Not many people have accused Ornette Coleman’s album ‘Free Jazz’ an easy ride, whether it was the ‘First take‘ (released as a track in it’s own right and only 17 minutes long) – or the seminal album version – covering both sides of a 33 1/3rd rpm long playing vinyl album (subsequently transcribed to a CD providing a single track of nearly 40 minutes – here *). It takes some investment. The double quartet had not rehearsed the piece very much, if at all, and the opening section has that sound that a friend once described to me once as ‘scribbling’; atonal, discordant and lacking in any natural sense of structure and harmony. The opening section – the introduction therefore – is, even after all this time from first tackling it, an effort of will.

I was reminded of this work when I began to study Umberto Eco’s ‘Open Work’, not so much the difficulty of the text, which isn’t easy and not least the introduction by David Robey (which I decided to leave until another time (a time which has yet to arrive)), but with the concept of searching for or, releasing the hold on the narrative. My purpose as an artist had, I thought until getting to grips with this concept, to provide a course for the reader to follow. To direct the flow from tributary to stream, from river to sea and resolve the outcome to a satisfactory – even if troublesome – conclusion, much as a rhythm section might do in a jazz quartet.

Of course I am aware of unresolved works, but most works of art I have encountered through the course of this study have a purposeful purpose. Artists have wanted to lead me somewhere even if it is to face a conclusion of my own drafting directed by them. To connote and denote by the artifices available to them, some I must say more successfully than others, to conclusions that they themselves have probably decided on. I don’t find this in any way a dishonorable act; most works tend to flow, novels, musical scores and photographic artists (most usually in bodies of works, though sometimes in single images); the ebb and flow of narrative to deliver the reader to a place where a question has been posed leaving the reader to think about responding.

Coleman’s work drifts, the initial assemblage of noises transforms after a while upon a bedrock of percussion, to snatches of melody, melodies that perhaps unconsciously form between the players used as they are used to ad-lib with others, the resultant soundscape starting to provide more immediate comprehensive imagery. Listen again, and whether it is familiarity of performance or form, and it becomes easier. The listener becoming more adept at comprehending the piece. It’s a journey.

When I first looked at Larry Sultan’s work some time ago I was reminded of Chekov’s visions of family life; what seemed disrupted visions of a dystopian life in California seemed to have an echo of the late, expiring, Russian bourgeois life, and those connections were made by familiarity in both works through which I was led to a place. Both Sultan and Chekov’s narratives wanted me to explore what they were concerned with, wanted me to consider my reaction to the issues they were interested in. And the connections made are mine alone; Sultan and Chekov, Coleman through Eco. Eco’s ‘Open’ vision is to not declare intent but to provide very minimal vernacular tools to explore personal stories. But I wonder how loose this process can be?

Yellow ribbonc2

By selecting a range of texts for contemplation already some direction has been created. I know from my own first attempt at an ‘open work’ that I have used visual aesthetics to build phrases for example in tone or contrast. I recognised similar structures in Coleman’s work as well as in Freddie Hubbard’s (trumpet). I don’t think I want to extend the corollary with Coleman’s work anymore, after all his is a genius talent and I wouldn’t want to draw comparison with my work, but music is a linear narrative more directed than most, it is never experienced other than in the forward direction and serially; a text though can be experienced in many forms and the time base is under the control mostly by the reader. Forwards or backwards, sideways or reverse, it leaves the author and becomes a new piece of work. Music is ephemeral, text is physical.

I have a sense of ‘floundering’ with this attempt, not knowing if the conscious and deliberate image making which has informed all these images is not deep enough or in fact too deep, I have no depth charting sonar. I have made statements about what the thought processes were when I made them – here – and I can still see them in the images in this post – they are real and palpable to me. However, as I am want to do, I have jumped in at the deep end with a strong sense of how this will inform how I might go about my practice in the future, how, like Anna Fox’s statement about using stories to tell truths, or maybe telling stories about stories.

I asked a tutor very early on in my studies about language, about whether it was necessary to comprehend and then utilise an artistic vernacular in order to communicate to another artist, or maybe just within the artworld as a whole. I didn’t get an answer, but I am now sure that what my purpose has been about is about how I might articulate through imagery, certain ideas and thoughts, about the situation I find myself in the world. I am determined not to find myself constructing polemics about things that I find myself becoming emotional about. I don’t want to make work about things that make me angry, I want to channel my emotion into work that describes how I see things on a smaller scale, but about the biggest issues of love and fidelity and so on, and to do that I have to continue to strive to develop a syntax that is accessible to whomever might read my work. As much as Sultan’s readers can determine isolation in his work, Chekov’s (breaking) society within (breaking) society and, after some investment, a picture derived within from Coleman’s double quartet.


* Free Jazz, owes a lot to abstract expressionism rather than ‘Open Works”

Making stories about the truth.

reprinted with the kind consent of the artist Anna Fox

“‘There is nothing wrong with avarice as a motive, as long as it doesn’t lead to dishonest or antisocial conduct’. Business 1986” – reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

I’m not sure if Anna Fox said those words at the study visit to UCA, I know I wrote them, but I think she did; either way the notion of a fiction about truth found a resonance with this listener. I have written before about this idea, that to explore truths it is perhaps best accomplished by a narrative held in check by a storyteller.

I continue to think that the conquest of fallacy is best fought not with banners heralding the ‘truth and the light’ but with the muted tones of inference and suggestion, asking questions of the reader and not through the ‘imperative truth’ of ‘the answer’. Anna Fox’s fictions are carefully constructed to elicit inquiries from the reader, to suggest though that they are truths is as far removed from veracity as claiming that they falsehoods. These stories are neither, Fox’s constructions are stories. And the stories do not provide a didactic ordering of the universe, rather suggesting I think, of the lifting of the lids of our prejudices.

Text and image, image and text. Anna Fox’s combinatorial use of these twin illustrators isn’t universal in her work, however I was struck by how the artist described her process. In what appeared to be an identical means to how I constructed the narrative in assignment five – “Dear John”, however text isn’t a major factor in most of her her work, unless it is about the text as in ‘Cockroach Diary

Kareoke night, 2011 - reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

Kareoke night, 2011 – reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

The two nouns that I found myself considering quite often through the talk and for some time after were ‘time’ and ‘construction’. The artist opened her talk describing how time is fundamental to her practice and process and indeed, perhaps to all photographers – I’m now not sure that this precept wouldn’t apply to all artists, but be that as it may. Fox prefers film. And large format film at that. Her choice of medium dictates the speed that she can work at, despite often using a digital medium format camera as back up Fox takes time because of the restrictions of the format (mistakes are costly), and her most recent work exacerbates this stretching of time. Some of her most recent work , a commission from France (Rennes, I think) has the artist constructing images with multiple exposures and stitching them together – ‘joining time together’ – half a dozen or more images stitched together. Each image a construction in itself and then combined to create a story from several episodic instances time. I had a conversation after the event about what value the stitching together brought to the narrative – couldn’t for example, the artist employed more people in the tableau and simply made one construct? I have thought about that a lot, my first thought was that on the face of it there might be no additional narrative value in making half a dozen images with the same ‘cast’; but then I wondered about knowing that they were the same players juxtaposed in various locations on the canvass, providing another layer of context to the narrative. And what I got out of the image may not be what others get out of it, it will, in all likelihood denote/connote something other than my comprehension/feeling for the story.

Another aspect of the talk was something that struck me about how Anna Fox acknowledged her accomplices in the work she produced. There was a determined, albeit natural, desire to acknowledge as many of her assistants/directors/fellows as the work she presented unfolded and I wondered if this wasn’t a particular aspect of this artist, or whether it was a feminine/feminist trait. Either way, it was something that appeared entirely natural as it was often, and something to be remembered. I was particularly interested and impressed by the amount of her work she passed round in published book form and how she emphasised that the presentation of the her work, especially in bound volumes is very important to her.


There was lots to think about and it was a very rewarding trip to UCA.

The Sargasso Sea

image 1

image 1

The Sargasso Sea lies at the western edge of the route from Britain to the Caribbean, it is encompassed by currents on all sides and has no land for its waters to break on. The currents north and south of it were responsible for the traffic that populated the islands, re-populated, welcomed and then repatriated for over four centuries.

Colonial rule, that pernicious device of the ‘Old World’ gave rise to the cultural heritage of the islands, providing the backdrop to its history and the population that was ‘peopled’ by its oppressor are left with a legacy that presented itself to me as echoes in varying forms.

These images depict and document how I ‘see’ those reverberations from the past. The patronage and subjugation, and subsequent rise of independence followed by the re-patronage through commercial dependence on the world that created an aberrant society with societal norms that had no connection with their own heritage.

‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys is a novel about displacement, about ‘otherness’, about colonial/post colonial issues (it may also be a feminist novel and even a post-modern novel!). The novel’s situation of a white creole being ousted by her native people and then ending her days in an ‘other’ place – Britain – kept returning to me as I made these images. I saw these symbols of the changing face of colonialism and the effects of post-colonialism, The diasporas of people whose fates have ebbed and flowed, much as the seas between the two continents have, still holding those islanders in a place of dependence. And that is what I wanted to show, my reaction to the past’s inflictions on the present.

image 4

image 11

First edit

Just wondering whether there is any point in putting this up here – it is how I ‘see’ the narrative that I had in my mind when I made the images, however I cannot believe that even if anyone else sensed a narrative of their own – assuming anyone looked at this image – they would get anything out of this. It’s just too small.

Here’s a photo-shopped version – still not much better….

But I’ll leave that there and focus on other printing and assessment requirements I think.

Edit 1bc2