On Reflection: Week 9, Module Two

“On the corner is a banker with a motorcar,
The little children laugh at him behind his back.
And the banker never wears a mac,
In the pouring rain.
Very strange … …”

… …

Video, video, video! Nemesis!

I thought I knew myself, and the way I work, very well.

This week, however, presented an opportunity to learn so much about myself in a number of different areas.

Preparing video presentations is not my favourite way of passing time, to be honest I see them as very much a necessary evil. And due to the influence of several other factors, this one had to be” thrown” together with less than five days to spare – much less time than I normally like to available for these things.

In honesty, I wasn’t happy with the result but had to cut it lose. I am a perfectionist and will work and work until I reach a standard I am happy with. Having said that, I have [got to learn] to be more pragmatic, appreciating when to invest the time and when not – there isn’t always mileage in achieving “perfection”.

Could I have planned better, started work on the script for the video presentation earlier? No, in all honesty. Somethings have their own place in time, have to be done sequentially (and to be fair, the bulk of the critical review was done and therefore available to form the basis, subject to tweaking, for the video). Timing wasn’t the issue, and some factors simply cannot be accounted for in advance – life just gets in the way sometimes.

What else have I learnt? I’m getting a bit too long in the tooth for “all-nighters” pouring over textbooks until dawn.

I may grow, one day, to quite like making videos (can’t see it, but I can’t rule it out either). But, as with so much in life, the thought of something which perturb us is often much worse than the reality.

For future reference, video presentation is something I really need to work on. There has got to be a better, more efficient way of producing a more sophisticated end product.

And in the midst of this, Sischy!

Ingrid Sischy’s article “Good Intentions” in the New Yorker (9 September, 1991), in which she discusses the appropriateness of aesthetics within photojournalism, really did not gel with me at all.

In my opinion, the article has all the stimulating properties of chloroform!

(Give me Barthes any day).

Nevertheless, the central point of the article, the appropriateness of aesthetics in photojournalism, is an important one. The ethics of “dressing up” images which are meant to be factual and have documentary value is something we, as photographers, need to consider.

Whilst offering composed images as opposed to those which are factually accurate may not be what desensitizes us to events (personally, I think that is largely down to volume of images and not really content related), but arguably it does bring into disrepute the profession of photojournalism specifically, and photography in general.

As dull and “dry” as Sischy’s article might be, its sentiment is further cause of me pausing to evaluate how my images are interpreted.

… …

By the way, it might not be “wet beneath”, but the suburban skies are blue.

 

References:

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991) (Online). Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf (Accessed: Wednesday 29 March 2017)

 

Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?

“The Big Meal” was an advertising campaign launched by McDonald’s in 1971.

Big Meal

The Big Meal” (McDonald’s, 1971)

The poster shows a metal tray holding a large-sized beef burger, a very generous portion of [French] fries, and a large cup drink. The tray is being presented by a smiling waiter. A card placed next to the food on the tray features the words “The Big Meal”.

The advert clearly intends to promote a tasty and nutritious meal which is obviously offered at an attractive price – indeed, the advert describes accordingly:

“Grab the Big Meal at McDonald’s. And you’ll have yourself a Big Mac, a very large order of fries and a great big drink. All of which should make your stomach very happy. Not to mention your wallet.”

Food is an absolute necessity of life, however eating together, sharing food and sharing time with family and friends, is culturally important to us – it is something that we enjoy and which is a cornerstone of family life, it is an important “social lubricant”. However, this advertising campaign would appear to subvert the desire for social eating by placing the emphasis on selfish eating – a large meal to be consumed presumably alone, there is no mention of a bargain meal for the family, because “you deserve a break today”.

So, devoid of any reference whatsoever to social dining, the intended audience would appear to be those with some disposable income who are attracted to eating in a fast food environment, quite possibly accustomed to eating alone, and also quite possibly time poor.

Was this advertising campaign successful?

Yes, undoubtedly so. Not least of all because this and similar adverts appeal to a fundamental instinct at a time when we are vulnerable, in other words, when we are hungry.

Fast food companies invest huge amounts in advertising, including research and development for the most effective way to design adverts – they are well aware that we “eat with our eyes”.

Perhaps this was the start of the obesity crisis in the Western world – a fast food company prompting, urging, cajoling, manipulating us to “go large”.

Sischy informs us that “the photographs that have made Salgado’s reputation also have punch, but it comes from the pathos of the lives of his subjects” (Sischy, 1991). Whilst I actually find this an extremely patronising and condescending point of view, perhaps largely due to the way in which the point of view is expressed, it may have some foundation and seems to connect quite well with the “hypodermic syringe” theory which suggests that an adverts audience sleepwalks into yielding to the will of the advertisers.

And this is not something that is limited to a specific era – a decade upon decade McDonald’s staple offering is “The Big Mac”, with a more recent and extremely popular offering being the “Big Tasty”.

Nor is the insistence that we succumb to “upselling” unique to McDonald’s with other fast food chains also promoting large size meals.

They all want us to go large. And invariably we are obliging … …

So, how does this relate to my photographic practice?

I think it is extremely relevant because, as photographers we have a duty to act responsibly – we need to be aware of the various ways that different audiences may interpret our work, and the consequences associated with these interpretations: could it have been foreseen in 1971, for example, that “The Big Meal” campaign might act as a catalyst for what is now our obesity crisis?

We should question what we are doing, and why, and how to ensure we are working in an ethical way. And we should be aware that the way in which images are interpreted may not be the way that we as photographers intended.

 

References:

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991) (Online). Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf (Accessed: Wednesday 29 March 2017)

A Force for Change?

French sociologist Émile Durkheim first used the phrase “collective consciousness” to refer to the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which act as a force of unification within society.

Nachtwey informs us that “when an image enters our collective consciousness, change becomes possible and inevitable” (Nachtwey in Ritchin, 2013, p.74), whilst Frith writes that: ‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

Here then, Nachtwey is clearly in agreement with Frith in believing that there has to be a link between the “collective consciousness”, or system of shared values, and the images we see before any change is effected by those images.

Whilst not all images are propaganda, it would appear that Hitler clearly had an understanding of the fundamental way in which mass media must operate within society in order to be effective: ‘propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed’ (Hitler, 1925).

Fundamentally, images work in the same way irrespective of whether they are documentary shots informing us of wars or disasters in faraway lands, or images promoting the latest “must have” – images need to tug on our emotional strings, they need to appeal to our sense of what is right and what is wrong in some way (either positively or negatively), they need to create a desire in us to act in a specific way: to go out and change the world, or make a new purchase.

Images of the war in Vietnam placed the American public much closer to the front line than many were comfortable with, images such as Ronald L. Haeberle’s “And babies” taken in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre in 1968.

mylai_gallery_20

 Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968. And Babies

Outrage at such atrocities, viewed by the American public from the safety of their homes, proved to be a catalyst for the withdrawal of American forces from the conflict. This is, therefore, a clear example of photography influencing change.

There is an obvious case for filtering sexually orientated material away from mainstream viewing and especially away from minors, but is there a case for the censorship of “shocking” material?

No, I don’t think there is. We all live in one world, and the events that happen in that world are not always pleasant, but they are real, as are the people who experience these events. I think we have a duty to ourselves and to society to be informed as to the events taking place in our world – it is only when we are aware of disaster or injustice that we can bring about change. Ignorance does not put food into the mouths of starving children in Africa – only by being aware of the plight of others can we target those that need our help. I wonder if those who propose censorship enjoy life in their little sanitised “bubbles” of existence?

Ignorance is bliss? Or does ignorance breed ignorance?

This is perhaps something to which Sontag alludes when she writes ‘shock can become familiar, shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t one cannot not look. People have a means to defend themselves against what is upsetting, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images’ (Sontag, 2003, p. 73).

Sturken and Cartwright would appear to agree with my view when they write ‘the enhanced circulation of images, even ones as troubling as these, play a key role in exposing injustice around the world, even when the making and circulation of the images can be bound up in that injustice’ (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 259).

So, do we become desensitised to and by the images that we see?

Szarkowski suggests that ‘after a while people get inured to the suffering in the photograph and that is not good for anyone. In that sense, each successive image has less impact than the one that came before it’ (Szarkowski in Carr, 2003).

Gardner also informs us that ‘if the same message and same tactics are being used all the time, then it just becomes wallpaper to a person and makes it far easier to ignore’ (Gardner in Williams, 2009).

Really? Honestly?

These are sentiments that I cannot wholly agree with.

Look at this image of a starving Ethiopian child taken during the 1984 famine. It is an iconic image, widely regarded as summing up the suffering of millions at that time. Can anyone look at this and tell me they don’t find it as harrowing now as they did then? Like a sticking plaster ripped off an unhealed wound, this image allows the “blood” of emotional memories to pour forth … …

Famine

Untitled (BBC News, 1984)

Ingrid Sischy is very scathing of an aesthetic approach to documentary images, saying that ‘to aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy, 1991, p. 22). This raises an interesting question, if a particular aesthetic is applied to a documentary photograph, is that in itself a form of censorship?

I think integrity is extremely important in relation to photojournalism. We expect our news to be unbiased and factual. The integrity of photojournalism is brought into question when images which are “constructed” are held out as being truthful depictions of events.

These topics are highly relevant to my project, the aim of which is produce a body of photographic work which not only has a painterly aesthetic reminiscent of the old Dutch masters, but which also provides a narrative on the social issues associated with our relationship with food.

The images I produce will have an element of “construction”, the mise en scene will be staged in order to tell a story. Doing this in a way which gives the story credibility, which convinces the viewer to question the way we produce and consume our food, and the implications of the way in which we do so will require some balancing.

 

References:

Carr, David (2003) ‘A Nation at War: Bringing Combat Home: Telling war’s deadly story at just enough distance in The New York Times (7th April 2003) [Online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/07/business/nation-war-bringing-combat-home-telling-war-s-deadly-story-just-enough-distance.html (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Hitler, Adolf (1925) Mein Kampf [Online]. Available at: http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/mkv1ch06.html (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Ritchin, Fred (2013) Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary & the Citizen. New York: Aperture

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991)

Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin

Sturken, Marita & Cartwright, Lisa (2009) Practices of Looking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, Matt ‘Does Shock Advertising Still Work’ in Campaign (24th April 2009) [Online]. Available at: http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/close-up-does-shock-advertising-work/900778 (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

 

On Reflection: Week 8, Module Two

The writings of Ming Thein on what constitutes art resonated with me this week, very much so.

Well, it’s a subjectively biased interpretation of something – whether that something is an event, a place, a person, or a thing, is irrelevant. It’s the bias that makes it interesting: Monet’s waterlilies are interesting because they show us his unique interpretation of the scene, according to the impressionist school — which is yet another subjective way of looking at the world. Picasso’s works are interesting because they show us his interpretation of the world. In both cases, the interpretations present us with such a unique — unprecedented — result, that we are forced to stop, look, and think. The value here is in the uniqueness of the interpretation: what the artists see is so far beyond the normal realm of comprehension for most that it becomes akin to visual magic. It’s also worth remembering that seeing is but half of the puzzle: execution is just as important.” (Thein, 2013).

For me the takeaway message from this week’s exploration of the interaction between art and the contexts in which it is viewed has been not only that there is enormous value in recreating, or at least learning to recreate, “tried and tested” works of art, but also that art is highly subjective so it is important not to overlook the value in trying something new, pushing boundaries, developing new skills and refining existing ones, and in so doing, establishing a niche, a unique style which differentiates and adds value.

Extending this further, and thinking in practical business terms, that’s what underpins every successful business – “adding value”, differentiation, a unique selling point – offering the customer something different that they can’t get anywhere else and which creates a desire within them to consume.

I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the theory of “critical theory” and as a result forget that, at the end of the day, photography is just like any other business where an end product with added value is supplied to a customer.

So, how can we, as photographers, as artists, “add value” to our work?

I think this is answered very cogently by Thein when he writes about a “unique interpretation”. In essence, I think it comes down to taking images which simply illustrate a situation in order to convey information, or being creative in expressing your response to experiences in the world. The latter adds value.

And that leads me very nicely onto the subject of my photographic practice, and more specifically my project.

A few breakthrough moments this week. Work on the project has gone very well. Significant progress has been made in terms of both the Critical Review of Practice and the Work in Progress Portfolio.

Not feeling quite so certain about the CRJ though. I think all the “low-hanging fruit” has pretty much been picked, it’s reaching for the parts that are less easily accessed now. Think I’m aiming off target slightly in some areas.

I really need to make up some ground concerning the coursework early on in the forthcoming week to free up as much time as possible studio work. I want to have the work in progress almost complete by the end of the week, at least that is the aim. There are lots of things I wish to experiment with and techniques I want to try out.

It’s also been an interesting week of research into contexts for the dissemination and consumption of photographic work. Apparently “Moles Breath” is a very specific colour. Time has been somewhat limited over the course of the last week and as a result I have yet to complete my preliminary research in this area and to formally document this. However, this is something I will continue to research – partly because it’s highly relevant to the exhibition of work at the end of the MA, but also because I find it extremely interesting.

 

Thein, Ming (2013) ‘The Line Between Art & Photography’ in The Huffington Post (18th November 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ming-thein/art-and-photography_b_4297646.html (Accessed: 18 March 2017)

What Is Art?

Cardboard - Orton

Morris, 2017. Cardboard

Cardboard” is a deliberately ambiguous photograph. Its ambiguity gives the viewer something to search for.

A story is hinted at but remains untold, the ending is not revealed, and it is left to the viewer to complete their own narrative.

An abstract from a larger image still in progress, “Cardboard” exhibits a style which is a departure from that usually seen in food photography, a partly consumed meal is the subject of a subversive still-life image.

Illuminated only by natural light, dapples of light and dark play over the subjects to create rich chiaroscuro reminiscent of an Old Master.

Use of selective focus provides the shallow depth of field needed to draw the viewer’s eye to the main subjects and does so in the characteristic manner of Vermeer and Chardin.

Technically and aesthetically, I feel that the image is successful and achieves the aims that I set when designing the image.

With regard to developing a unique style of photo-artistry, techniques used to give the image a painterly aesthetic have had mixed results. The technique used works very successfully with lighter images such as this, and has a similar effect as applying wet paint to wet paint, allowing the two to flow together, giving soft edges – a technique used by Vermeer. The same technique does not work at all well with darker images, rendering them overly dark in a way which is visually unattractive.

Katherine Frith provides a “layered” method of analysing photographs.

Firstly, the surface reading shows the remains of an unfinished meal of “junk” food: a burger and some fries, together with their cardboard containers and a drink.

The intended reading is designed to show a “fast-food” takeaway meal in a way which is much less than attractive. This subverts the usual purpose of food photography which is to portray how a recipe should look when prepared, or persuading customers to make purchases in cafeterias or restaurants. In both cases instilling a desire in the viewer to consume produce.

Finally, the cultural reading. Here the image is enticing the viewer to question something. In terms of subject, does the image make a socially relevant statement about our relationship with food?

Is the cardboard referring to the “junk” food, or the packaging in which it is contained? Perhaps both?

Is the image merely documenting one of the many uses we have found for “cardboard”? Perhaps it is a statement about the nutritional value of “junk” food? Or the impact that packaging for this type of “takeaway” food has on the environment, both in the way it is produced and disposed of?

For me, the image is aesthetically appealing even if this is not the case for the subjects themselves.

De Zayas states that ‘Photography is not Art. It is not even an Art. Art is the expression of the conception of an idea. Photography is the plastic verification of a fact’ (De Zayas, 1913, p.125).

It would appear, then, that De Zayas’ opinion agrees with, but is limited to, views held by several theorists when they suggest that photography is indexical, or provides trace evidence of something having existed.

Barthes, for example, referred to photographs as being a “certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1980).

Snyder and Allen write that “Most people, if asked, would no doubt say that, whereas the painter can paint whatever he wants, the photographer must depict “what is there.”” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 148).

Scruton, meanwhile, helps clarify the situation when he writes: “In other words, if a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject exists” (Scruton, 1981, p. 579).

Further clarification is provided by Tagg who writes: “What the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that ‘the thing has been there’: this was a reality which once existed, though it is ‘a reality one can no longer touch’.” (Tagg, 1988).

Do I agree with De Zayas’ point of view? Is photography the “plastic verification of a fact”?

No, I don’t.

What is art? Who decides?

Ming Thein, writing in The Huffington Post, attempts to answer these questions:

“Well, it’s a subjectively biased interpretation of something – whether that something is an event, a place, a person, or a thing, is irrelevant. It’s the bias that makes it interesting: Monet’s waterlilies are interesting because they show us his unique interpretation of the scene, according to the impressionist school — which is yet another subjective way of looking at the world. Picasso’s works are interesting because they show us his interpretation of the world. In both cases, the interpretations present us with such a unique — unprecedented — result, that we are forced to stop, look, and think. The value here is in the uniqueness of the interpretation: what the artists see is so far beyond the normal realm of comprehension for most that it becomes akin to visual magic. It’s also worth remembering that seeing is but half of the puzzle: execution is just as important.” (Thein, 2013)

I think his comments answer these two questions authoritatively. His eloquent rationale I feel justifies such a lengthy and complete quote.

Perhaps more formally, art is defined as:

“The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017).

Most people would acknowledge that a great many photographs are produced in order to be appreciated for “their beauty or emotional power” and, indeed, fine art is a genre of photography specific to this aesthetic which is both established and respected.

Furthermore, photography is not restricted to photographing what is presented before the camera lens happenchance. Images can be constructed both before the shutter mechanism is operated, and afterwards in post-processing. Both provide equal opportunity for photographers to be creative in expressing their response to their world around them, which is, after all, what art is – an artist’s response to the things they experience.

Here it is perhaps relevant to remind ourselves that Wall (in Horne, 2012) stated that all photographers are either farmers or hunters, with the former carefully cultivating their images over a period of time, and the latter stalking their images, seeking a photographic opportunity.

Quite clearly, then, what is lacking from De Zayas’ appraisal is an awareness that images can be cultivated, or constructed, over a period of time.

Placing De Zayas’ comment into historical context, it was written in 1913 – a time when computer technology was undreamt of and post-processing techniques were very limited. Ample opportunity still remained, however, for photographers to creatively “construct” images and “pictorialism”, where photographers aim to create images with a painterly aesthetic, is one of two important movements which had their origins within the formative years of photography which are discussed by Price et al, “straight photography” (akin to naturalism or realism) being the other (Price et al, 2015, pp. 15 – 17).

Fundamentally, though, De Zayas’ suggestion rings hollow for the following reason.

He suggests that art “is the expression of the conception of an idea” and we have established that this lies at the heart of the definition of the word “art”. But De Zayas goes on to say that “photography is the plastic verification of a fact”.

Yes, photography does provide trace evidence of the subjects having existed, and it is used to factually record events, forensic photography for example. But are photographers not being creative when they “design” or compose an image, for example arranging a still-life to hang on a wall or organising a group of people to document a wedding?

In terms of the development of my photographic practice, how is this relevant? How can it be applied?

Photographer Guido Mocafico specialises in still-life photography. His work is something to which I have a mixed reaction. Some of his projects I like, a lot whilst others not at all.

His project Nature Morte de Table is a series of images which recreate the lighting and composition of the great Dutch masters, with subjects which are also true to these paintings. These photographs are outstandingly beautiful. They also evoke a response, a question: “what is the value in recreating a series of images which are so faithful, in terms of lighting, composition and subject, to the paintings of the great Dutch masters?”

Clearly there is merit in studying the techniques of the old masters, and reproducing great and famous works of art has long since been a reputable, valued and established method for artists to do so.

Additionally, potentially obviously, the images exist in their own right as works of art.

But what else can I take from Mocafico’s work? What can I learn from it? How can it inform my practice – defining, shaping and refining?

The real value for me, though, is in appreciating, in really understanding, the importance of differentiating by creating something which is unique, and innovative.

Established techniques can be used to produce images which have enormous aesthetic appeal and there is tremendous value in doing so. But those techniques, the knowledge, skills and experience then can be used to record subjects which provide a different narrative, which bring into question our relationship with the world.

By creating something which is unique, we not only push ourselves to develop new skills, but we also create something which has value due to its scarcity. In other words, we create the special value which Karl Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism” suggests obscure or “mystify” the real condition of artworks as commodities in a system of market exchange (Marx, 1990, p. 163).

“art, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/11125?result=1&rskey=wfSFeZ& (Accessed: 18 March 2017)

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang

De Zayas, Marius (1913) ‘Photography’ in Trachtenberg, Alan (1980) Classic Essays on Photography New Haven, Leete’s Island Books

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Horne, R. (2012) “Holly Andres, “Farmer” of Photographs” in The Wall Street Journal (3 January 2012) [Online]. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2012/02/03/holly-andres-farmer-of-photographs/ (Accessed 9 February 2017)

Marx, Karl (1990) Capital: Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin Books Limited

Price, D. (2015) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 90-93

Scruton, R. (1981) ‘Photography and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343119 (Accessed 29 January 2017)

Snyder, J. and Allen, N. (1975) ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 143-169 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342806 (Accessed 03 February 2017)

Tagg, J. (1988) ‘The Burden of Representation’ PhotoPedagogy [Online]. Available at: http//www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html (Accessed 30 January 2017)

Thein, Ming (2013) ‘The Line Between Art & Photography’ in The Huffington Post (18th November 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ming-thein/art-and-photography_b_4297646.html (Accessed: 18 March 2017)

 

 

Being Informed By … Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, b. 31 October 1631, d. 15 December 1675.

“The Master of Light”, Vermeer specialised in painting indoor scenes which depicted everyday middle-class life.

Vermeer’s ability to capture the way light illuminates objects, and to portray the texture of materials was astounding. For me, these qualities are awe-inspiring and unsurpassable.

The light fall-off on the back wall of “The Milkmaid” (1658) shows a tremendous level of observation, and a superb degree of craftsmanship.

Sublime … …

Vermeer_Mood Board _11Mar2017

On Reflection: Week 7, Module Two

Last week words failed me. This week, technology fails me … …

Least said.

On the plus side, I now have an (enforced) opportunity to start writing the Critical Review of Practice for the forthcoming assignments (deadline 1 May – as I write that’s seven and a half weeks away, the amount of work seems daunting and the available time feels tangibly like seven and half seconds …).

As it happens, I have a plan.

I found the work of German photographer Daniel Gustav Cramer very intriguing this week, images from the “Trilogy” exhibition portrayed a certain ambiguity which draws the viewer into them. I keep coming back to that, ambiguity – something to search for – makes for a better viewing experience, something the viewer wants to prolong.

Interviewed in 2010 by Klat Magazine, Cramer indicates the importance of recognising the “concept” underpinning each of his projects and how he views that concept as a roadmap, outlining the journey each project will undertake as it evolves – perhaps, then, “roadmap” is not the best analogy, more, perhaps, a “map of roads”?

Preparation for a forthcoming discussion on exhibitions has posed some interesting questions. It’s also precipitated me looking at contexts and audiences from (yet) another perspective.

What makes a good exhibition? What are the challenges in setting up an exhibition? What challenges are common to exhibitions irrespective of the media? And what challenges are unique to an exhibition of photographic work?

Is there a “rule of thumb” guiding the number of images for an exhibition? What determines this?

I found it very interesting to watch a video of a photographer preparing for an exhibition, and suggesting that a level of care is taken over the naming of images that are for sale at an exhibition. The value of using a simple name in order to direct the thoughts of potential buyers into thinking positively about the image, and to draw enthusiasm for the image, was firmly reinforced. In other words, avoid politically or socially loaded titles, or titles which make potential buyers think of mental images that they would rather their minds didn’t dwell upon.

It was also interesting to note that background neutrality was strongly emphasised, the gallery featured had neutral grey walls.

In terms of curating the images, psychological responses were alluded to, and it was discussed that viewers “typically enter an image through the lightest point near the frame”, their eyes then search around for a focal point which is typically the area of highest contrast, where the brightest whites meet the darkest blacks. Images are best arranged so that if anything leads a viewer’s eye out of the image, it does so by leading it into the next image.

All fascinating stuff and, of course, basic knowledge for photographer – but it’s always good to go back and revisit the basic periodically, just to keep the knowledge fresh in the memory and give a certain “grounding”. I think this separates how we read an image into two discrete areas: the first is how we respond to photographs in philosophical terms, and the second is our psychological response to images.

In relative terms, few people are aware of Barthes, Sontag and the whole bus load of other theorists. So, when the majority of images are viewed they are not looked at in terms of “icons”, “symbols”, “the signifier and the signified” and “surface, intended and cultural meanings”. Knowledge of these concepts is rather restricted to those who have been trained to think critically. What is common, however, to both those with and without training in critical thought, is a psychological response to the images they view.

This is something I really need to research in greater depth. Back to how some level of ambiguity, some level of us having been told something, but only just enough to pique our interest and leaving us to finish the story, makes for a more appealing image.

So, there we have it. A trifle earlier this week than normal, but I really am mindful of the deadlines for the forthcoming assignments and want to press on accordingly.

Wonder what next week will bring?

Hopefully, I’ll be in a much better position in terms of my Critical Review of Practice … …

(Did I tell you I have a plan … …?)

Jean Cazals – Positioning Practice

Paris-born Jean Cazals is a London based food photographer and winner of The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2012 award.

Without question a dominant player in the industry, how did Cazals become a photographer? “It’s like a lot of arts, you actually feel it, I don’t think you become one just by accident, making (a) living of it” he informs us.

And what does he suggest is the reason for specialising in food photography?

In an interview with ProductionParadise.com, he points out: “If you don’t like to love to eat then there’s no point being a food photographer” – applies to all forms of photography.

Barthes suggests that photographs are irrefutable evidence of the subject having existed: “In photography, I can never deny the thing has been there” (Barthes, 1993, p. 76).

Fontcuberta, however, reminds us that images can be false: “My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored…” (Fontcuberta in Bainbridge, 2014).

He goes on to state: “I use photography in the sense of it being an authoritarian tool. When we see a picture, we believe it is a picture of a fact, but this is just a convention” (Ibid.).

Credibility is something Cazals feels strongly is a key element in terms of being a successful photographer: “I’d say integrity, I think it’s integrity in everything you do”. He explains accordingly:

“You’ve got to follow the brief but you’ve got to follow the brief with your integrity. So, I think integrity and believe and love what you do is the main thing. Otherwise you become just a number doing something”.

Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearance” (Berger, 2013, p. 52).

In terms of appearance, the importance of unique personal style is something that Cazals is very clearly aware of, and utilises in establishing and maintain his niche: “don’t fall into the trap of trying to satisfy someone, you have to satisfy your client but you can satisfy with something that you like and you believe in. Because if this client comes to you, it’s because he likes what you do.”

Cazals is in great demand, with work being used in advertising campaigns, consumer magazines, food industry journals, and recipe books. Be in no doubt that this is quality work. But is it truly differentiated from the work of other contemporary food photographers?

Yes, I think it is. I say this because Cazals does indeed have a unique approach to food photography owing to his ability to demonstrate an “under-the-skin” understanding of his subjects. Understanding a subject on this level is one thing, conveying the characteristics of a real-world experience using two-dimensional medium is another. This Cazals achieves through the use of unique materials to bring in a range of colours and textures which, by comparing or contrasting with the subject, place the viewer in the frame. Consequently, images appeal as much to the senses of touch and smell as they appeal visually.

Cazals macarons

Jean Cazals, 2013. Cosmopolitan

Observing that “websites are the key of everything nowadays”, Cazals points to the internet being a significant factor in his promotional armoury, allowing him to reach a global audience. More specifically, he refers to the successful marriage between ProductionParadise.com and his own website: “because you show some example of your image then it goes forward to your own personal website”.

ProductionParadise.com is an online promotional tool for artists working in visual media. It may very well be the case that Cazals interview has been rehearsed as a promotional video, however, Cazals answers are consistent with sentiments he expresses in other forums and therefore have some credibility, which we have is important to Cazals.

At this juncture, as I prepare to write my critical review of practice, and in terms of my practice in general, Cazals interview underlines the need to identify and evaluate contexts for consumption.

Furthermore, it reinforces the importance of staying true to a personal vision, understanding that this is something which develops organically over a period of time. Undergoing constant evolution, being refined by personal experience, and informed by continuing critical contextualisation, but never redefined to meet the requirements of any one commercial brief – your style needs to remain exactly that, you own unique and personal style.

 

Bainbridge, Simon. (2014) ‘Spanish Lies’ in British Journal of Photography, 20 July 2014 [Online]. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/07/joan-fontcuberta-interview-photography-exhibition-london-bradford/ Accessed: 03 March 2017)

Barthes, Roland. (1993). Camera Lucida London: Vintage

Berger, John. (2013) Understanding a Photograph London: Penguin

“Trilogy”

“Photography can only reveal the surface of things” (Ruff in Dorment, 2003). To find meaning in Cramer’s work we have to look, we have to search because, without doubt, these images are packed full of content. We need to scratch to reveal that which is beneath the surface.

Daniel Gustav Cramer’s “Trilogy” is an exhibition in three parts.

“Woodland (Trilogy Part One)” exhibited in 2004 and is a series of images which capture woodland landscapes. Nature moves very slowly – minute changes being made incrementally over a long period of time. Consequently, it is not the element of “freezing” a moment in time that Cramer brings to the subject, because, from our point of view, nature is pretty much “frozen” anyway. What Cramer’s photography does bring is a sense of nature having been left untouched by human intervention.

This is also true for “Underwater (Trilogy Part Two)”, and “Mountain (Trilogy Part Three)” exhibited in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

Interviewed by Chiara Parisi for Klat Magazine in October 2010, Cramer states that one intent behind his work is that of it being an archive. However, he goes on to say that whilst the archive is a “concept”, it is also merely an initial idea, a point from which his work can grow: “the concept is rather a starting point from where I can freely explore the potential that has been laid out” (Cramer, 2010).

Speaking more specifically about the “Trilogy” exhibition, Cramer points to the documentary value of his work:

“These days I probably spend an hour a day researching on YouTube and other sources into what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now. The worst thing, next to all the fatalities in the animal world, is that BP is not questioned or criticised. The media accepts things as they are.”

He goes on to state “Using photography to document nature as an abstractum is working so well.”

So, how can we, as viewers and photographers, interpret Cramer’s work?

daniel-gustav-cramer-mountain-09-domobaal

Daniel Gustav Cramer, 2007. Mountain 09

Frith (1997) suggests that there are three meanings associated with an image, and that these operate at different levels.

The surface meaning, the overall, initial impression obtained upon viewing the above image from Cramer’s “Mountain”, shows towers of rock which appear to show sedimentary layers. The rocks are surrounded by swirling mist, possibly cloud.

The intended meaning is what the photographer wishes to portray – this is the “preferred” meaning, the way in which Cramer “expects” viewers to interpret an image. Here Cramer is trying to portray a feeling of isolation in nature, but it is not an isolation that excludes the viewer, rather the ambiguity of exactly what it is that the viewer is looking at draws the viewer into the image.

Finally, the cultural meaning. The interpretation of this meaning is dependent upon the cultural knowledge and social background of the viewer. Cramer is showing us that much of the natural world remains unchanged by human activity, and in doing so reminds us of the great harm that is done when human activity does take place. He is providing a socio-political commentary in addition to documenting some of the world’s more remote places.

In semiotic terms, the rock towers are indexical in that they are providing direct evidence of this piece of landscape having existed, whilst the rock towers may not always exist, Cramer’s image provide trace evidence of their existence. Furthermore, the rocks are symbolic of the ruggedness of nature, of its ability to endure and, in cases where human’s drastically change a landscape as a result of their activities, to reclaim the “land” once human occupation has ceased.

Barthes (1977) makes reference to the signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which an image attempts to communicate to the viewer.

With reference to Cramer’s image, the signifiers are clearly the rock towers and the swirling mists. The signified could be an order, within a randomness, within an order. Natural objects, trees for example, are unique – it is a basic requirement that trees have leaves, but no two trees will have the same leaf arrangement – and this is due to randomness. Despite this, trees still conform to a basic body plan – a form of order – and it is this which makes trees recognisable as such. Alternatively, the signified could be the simple beauty of the natural world which is captured by Cramer’s abstract images, or it could be Cramer’s intention, by contrasting that beauty, to remind us of the damage we, as humans, do to the natural world in order to make it more “hospitable” for us as a species.

Again, it is this sense of ambiguity which makes Cramer’s images so appealing.

Something which is very striking, devoid of any artefacts of human existence, it is impossible to apply any sense of scale to the subjects in the Cramer’s images, despite the subjects themselves (trees, rocks, etc.) being easily recognisable features of a natural landscape.

Hodgson (2013) points out that we are familiar with discussing images as being “of something” but not so adept at seeing that images are also “about something”. For me this is a fundamental point in the analysis of any image, accepting that we have to keep looking until we see.

In terms of my practice, Cramer’s “Trilogy” illustrates the importance of understanding the reason for embarking upon a particular project, of having a “roadmap” to clearly define the starting point and the intended destination. It is so easy to become side-tracked during a project, especially a major project which is developed over a protracted period of time, and in so doing lose a sense of purpose or identity. Understanding the reason, the “intent” behind a body of work helps to maintain focus.

 

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Cramer, Daniel Gustav. (2010) ‘Daniel Gustav Cramer’. Klat Magazine, #04, October 2010, pp. 46 – 63

Dorment, Richard. (2003) ‘Photography in Focus’, The Telegraph 29 May 2003 [Online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3595514/PHOTOGRAPHY-IN-FOCUS-The-deadpan-images-created-by-Thomas-Ruff-of-nameless-individuals-and-equally-anonymous-places-are-masterpieces-of-austere-neutrality.-By-Richard-Dorment-Now-for-something-completely-indifferent.html [Accessed: 08 March 2017]

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

 

On Reflection: Week 6, Module Two

“Spring Fever!”

Where a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts … …”

The words so easily permeate my mind as I try to summarise my week in words. It’s just not happening. Anything, everything, is seeping into my mind and swamping what I actually want to be there… …

So, this week!

As it stands, my project proposal involves using photography to explore the knowledge and techniques employed by the great Dutch masters. Pinning down exactly what it is that gives a great painting it’s appeal has been something I have tussled with all week, and don’t closer to anything like a conclusion now.

Pretty much have a handle on the photography side of things, issues like bringing a “painterly aesthetic” to my work are proving a little more elusive at the moment. Just what is the “painterly aesthetic”?

One thing that really struck me, is the extent to which painting is a discriminatory process, whilst photography is indiscriminate.

If an artist wants a mark, the artist makes a mark. If the artist wants a line, the artist draws a line. Perhaps more importantly, is what the artist can just as easily, perhaps more easily, decide not to include in a painting or drawing.

Photography, on the other hand, portrays what is there. It is the “indexical” of nature.

Why is this relevant? Well, because of the debate concerning power and responsibility in photography.

The Big Painting Challenge (BPC) – wow, what a programme. I do see things (very) differently now, much more so than even a few short months ago. I’m much more able to appreciate art, and see the positive and the negative aspects to a specific piece of art. I’m better able to quantify, and qualify, the aesthetics of an image. Looking at it as a YTS MA, there is now so much in there to think about and to make me question. Individuals waging a personal “battle” to express themselves creatively – know how that feels.

I watched an artist turn a non-expressive mouth into a smile by adding a tiny white line of paint to one part of the upper lip as an accent – its seeing THAT level of detail, it’s THAT level of knowledge.

That ties in very nicely with a comment by a mentor on the BPC, Pascal Anson: “Something that is really important for amateur artists is to look for 90% of the time, and draw for 10%.”

Do we, as photographer’s, spend as much time looking?

Wall suggests that photographers are either “hunters” or “farmers”. But, for those who are farmers of images, how much time is really spent “cultivating” images? I suspect in this sense there is little difference between the two.

This week, by accident more than by design, I have been led into studying two of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen – simply breath taking. Even the backgrounds in these two paintings I find to be stunningly beautiful and far from simplistic.

George_Stubbs_Mares_and_Foals_1762

George Stubbs, 1762. Mares and Foals without a Background

whistlejacket-(41860)

George Stubbs, c. 1762. Whistlejacket

I actually feel quite privileged. If I had never embarked upon these MA studies would I have been able to appreciate these paintings as much?

A difficult week, I really haven’t felt like writing. My thoughts have really dwelled on other activities. More than anything I’ve wanted to break away from my desk and use my camera.

I’ve hit a wall, I’ve got whatever the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block is.

Perhaps it’s a form of “spring fever”.