On Reflection: Weeks 12 – 15, Module Two

A consolidated account of the weeks post-module two assignments …

A time to take stock, step back and review the learning opportunities presented by module 2.

The period of time between 23 January and 01 May is best described as intense, and the latter few weeks – the period immediately before the assignment submission dates – best described as stressful.

Module two realised a number of challenges, aside from being heavy on theory and therefore also a major time investment in terms of research, I don’t think any of them were unique: preparing a video appraisal of my photographic practice was just as stressful for module two as it was in module one.

On the theme of video presentations, it was interesting to begin to look beyond the rather simplistic PowerPoint presentation, which is adequate up to a point. That said, there are many alternatives but they are far from all being equal – there are advantages and disadvantages to each and a fair number have many more cons than pros. Video presentations play a major part of future assignments and consequently this is an area for ongoing research.

Results show a reasonable improvement when compared against the marks from module one – need to keep the momentum going.

Work shows a “sound awareness of photographic and image-making processes”, and “an accomplished level of technical expertise, applied appropriately according to the practice specialism”.

The target is to achieve an “in-depth understanding of a range of photographic and image-making processes”, and “sophistication in the application of techniques that are appropriate to the practice specialism”.

I think that, somehow, crossing this boundary isn’t going to be all that easy.

Looking ahead to module three “Surfaces and Strategies” and a small preparatory standalone project based on a work of our choosing by Ed Ruscha proved to be both a refreshing change and an antidote to the assignment stress. This mini-project was a valuable chance to step away from major project related photography, a chance to see things in a non-project based way (see also “Inspired by … Ed Ruscha”).

The mini-project also provided an invaluable opportunity to evaluate surfaces appropriate for the display of images. My immediate thought was to produce an interactive ebooks. However, this was problematic due to the fact that the software needed to produce and subsequently read interactive ebooks is not universally available. Furthermore, interactive ebooks requiring HTML5 are especially problematic for Mac users. Again, an area for further research.

An Alternative View …

The intent for my project is to provide an alternative view of our relationship with food.

It is my opinion that we take food for granted. I want to promote the idea that there are implications, ultimately for everyone, because of the way we eat. Consequently, I aim to produce images which not only have a painterly aesthetic (“Towards a Painterly Aesthetic”, 17 April 2017), that is portraying the characteristics commonly regarded as giving paintings their appeal, but which also bring into question our relationship with food.

I want to produce images which exist in their own right as beautiful works of art, even if the subjects are not visually appealing – exploring the tension between beautiful form (aesthetics) and ugly content (subject matter) – fig. 1.

bloodshot

Fig. 1. Morris, 2017. Bloodshot

This is far removed from the project concept as it stood in May 2016: a photographic exploration of British cuisine, iconic dishes and fresh regional produce with the working title of “British Food”. As “British Food” developed into “The Great British Food Project”, the project was in danger of becoming as much to do with cooking as it was photography, if not more so.

Time for a major rethink …

I think food photography has a very narrow objective which is limited solely to the promotion of food and its consumption (“Where Am I Now?”, 29 January 2017).

Sischy (1991) writes that “beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (“A Force for Change”, 29 March 2017). Whilst I do appreciate the beauty of food photography (it really is my passion), I do think it is exclusively focused on the aesthetic and could fulfil a greater purpose.

The Photographic Art of Food”, then, provides a commentary on the issues associated with our food and the way we eat it (fig. 2).

Earholes, eyeholes and _

Fig. 2. Morris, 2017. Eyeholes, earholes and

Additionally, the project has a visual anthropological dimension, recording the evening meals consumed by school pupils on Tuesday 07 March 2017 in order to produce a series of ten photographs (fig. 3). This body of work will take a similar documentary-type approach to that of Mat Collishaw’s “Last Meal on Death Row” (“Last Meal on Death Row” … Mat Collishaw”, 3 April 2017).

Chicken Chow Mein

Fig. 3. Morris, 2017. Sam

Both strands of the project, ““Junk” Food” and “Ten” have been interesting, informative and entertaining. Exploring the social issues associated with our food has provided a challenge in terms of subject matter, whilst both ““Junk” Food” and “Ten” have provided a creative challenge.

Where next? Research is continuing into the paintings of the 17th century Dutch artists which inspire me so much (in addition to looking at the work of contemporary photographers). There is still lots of scope to develop ““Junk” Food” and there is plenty of opportunity to explore variants of “Ten” – ideas are already on the drawing board.

As module 2 of the MA inches closer to completion, it will be nice to head off for a while and look at other, non-food related subjects to photograph – a few portraits and some still-life images – just to keep things fresh.

A Little Bit About Aesthetics

To say that an object is beautiful or ugly is seemingly to refer to a property of the object. But it is also to express a positive or negative response to it, a set of aesthetic values, and to suggest that others ought to respond in the same way. Such judgements are descriptive, expressive, and normative or prescriptive at once. These multiple features are captured well by Humean accounts that analyse the judgements as ascribing relational properties. To say that an object is beautiful is to say, in part, that it is such as to elicit a response expressing pleasure in certain observers. The observers in question must not be ignorant, biased, insensitive, or of poor taste, and they must not base their evaluations on aesthetically irrelevant properties of the subjects they judge” (Goldman, 1990).

Aesthetics is a word which is used a lot within an art context. We commonly hear phrases telling us a painting has a particular aesthetic, indeed my project aims to explore the “painterly aesthetic” seen in 17th century Dutch paintings.

But what exactly does the word “aesthetics” mean? I think a relatively small number of people actually have some knowledge in this area, and could provide a decent, credible definition of the word – it is after all, a very complex and specialised branch of philosophy. I also think it’s a word that a lot of people hear, and then repeat, without really going back to basics and doing some research to establish the meaning – I think it “assumed” knowledge.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms defines aesthetics accordingly:

“The philosophy of the beautiful in art and “taste”. The present usage of the term originates from its adoption in 1735 by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to distinguish the study of the sensory, the beautiful, from that of logic, the study of reason and intellect” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms, p. 5)

The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition:

“The philosophy of the beautiful or of art; a system of principles for the appreciation of the beautiful, etc.; the distinctive underlying principles of a work of art or a genre, the works of an artist, the arts of a culture, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017).

So, we have at least established that “aesthetics” is three things: “the philosophy of the beautiful”, “a system of principles”, and “distinctive underlying principles”.

Sibley suggests that aesthetic qualities, such as grace, power, balance and originality, require “taste” on the part of the observer in order to be ascribed to an object (Sibley in Goldman, 1990). However, Goldman argues that, without a knowledge of what “taste” is, this is a less than helpful definition.

Kant posited that whilst there are no universally shared principles by which aesthetic qualities are ascribed to objects, judgements which ascribe qualitative descriptors to objective properties are more universal (Kant, 1966). Kant goes on to suggest that because the pleasure derived by “disinterested observers” (i.e. those deemed not technically qualified, or educated, to make philosophical judgements) is based on commonly held human faculties, the ability to ascribe aesthetic qualities should also be commonly held – in essence, there are no guiding principles. An objective property, universal to all beautiful objects, does not exist. To determine whether an object is, or is not, beautiful, pleasure must be derived from perception of the object.

What of “taste” as referred to by Sibley and the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms?

Sibley’s usage of the word seems to suggest that taste is a sense, present only in limited circumstances, in addition to the standard five senses.

Alternatively, taste might simply be interpreted as meaning a sensitivity to aesthetic properties.

Taste, however, can also suggest that an ability to perceive all the non-aesthetic qualities of an object is not, by itself sufficient to judge the aesthetic qualities of the same object: to perceive an object’s aesthetic qualities, one must first perceive the non-aesthetic. The ability to perceive non-aesthetic qualities does not preclude the inability to perceive aesthetic qualities.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines taste accordingly: “mental perception of quality; judgement, discriminative faculty” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017).

“Taste”, therefore, can refer to a predisposition to evaluate in a certain way. Ascribing aesthetic qualities to objects is relevant to our evaluation of those objects – aesthetic judgements are justified by using qualitative descriptors as a standardised reference point.

Any aesthetic qualities which are assigned to an object are relational, that is they compare the non-aesthetic properties of an object with similar properties in other objects, which may be similar or dissimilar. Such properties include structural characteristics such as tone, shape, and colour.

A comparison of physical non-aesthetic properties is, therefore, the basis, and justification for, the ascription of aesthetic qualities, which in turn is the basis and justification for aesthetic judgements. As Bender informs us “we might say that aesthetic attributions function either to offer critical evaluations of an artwork or to offer the reasons supporting those evaluations” (Bender, 2005).

Whilst aesthetic evaluations are subjective, the characteristics upon which they are based are, nevertheless, real. In philosophical terms, “real” refers to the ability to be recognised and agreed upon by a non-qualified consensus – e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are commonly taught, and it is universally agreed and accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc. Recognition of such characteristics, by nature, is independent of the observer’s opinions.

The ascription of qualitative descriptors is, however, context based: “‘powerful,’ when applied to a locomotive, generally refers to a nonaesthetic property; when applied to Beethoven’s Third or Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, it refers to an aesthetic property” (Goldman, 2001).

In conclusion, aesthetics can be regarded as a system for the qualitative, if subjective, evaluation of objects – most commonly works of art. Evaluative aesthetic judgements have as their basis, non-aesthetic characteristics which are normally the physical properties of an object. The observed characteristics of an object are compared with characteristics in other similar, or dissimilar, objects – in doing so they provide a standardised point of reference. Such characteristics are “real” in that they are commonly recognised and agreed upon by non-specialist observers.

 

References:

“aesthetics, n.”. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/293508?redirectedFrom=aesthetics (Accessed 08 April 2017).

Bender, John (2005) ‘Aesthetic Realism 2’, in Levinson, Jerrold (ed.) ‘The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics’. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clarke, Michael (2010) Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Oxford University Press

Goldman, Alan (1990) ‘Aesthetic Qualities and Aesthetic Value’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 1990), pp. 23 – 37 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2026797

Goldman, Alan (2001) ‘The Aesthetic’, in Gaut, B. and McIver Lopes, D. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. London: Routledge

Kant, Immanuel (1966) Critique of Judgment. Translated by J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner

“taste, n.1”. OED Online. Oxford University Press. March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198050?rskey=ZIgoCw&result=1#eid (Accessed 16 April 2017)

On Reflection: Week 11, Module Two

With a voracious appetite for knowledge of the subject, I thought I knew a fair amount about the use of natural light in photography.

Reading books and articles, watching videos … absorbing it all.

That is until this week, when I caught up with an online broadcast by fashion photographer Sue Bryce.

Material which I already knew was delivered in a refreshingly different way – and its always food to have a recap.

Bryce is a photographer who, during the early part of her career, has seen lean times and as a result has had to “hack”. It is her systematic and non-defeatist approach which has enabled her to identify the fundamental characteristics of light and light behaviour, in practical terms, which has allowed her to utilise familiar materials in unfamiliar ways to overcome problems which, at one time or another, plague every studio photographer, for example, the diffusion of “hot” light and the subtle reflection of light.

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest, in fact, so simple that they are overlooked.

The majority of time this week has been spent on preparation for the forthcoming assignments: Critical Review or Practice, Work in Progress Portfolio (and of course, maintaining the online journal)

Practical work on the project has gone well this week – a few things went wrong, but that is OK because it provides a moment to stop, pause, catch breath and analyse what went wrong, and why, and then develop a corrective measure.

What have I learnt this week?

Well, putting thoughts into words – shooting with natural light brings its own unique “challenges” – not enough light and everything is lost in shadow, too much light and there is glare, or blown out highlights, try to control that phenomena and (arguably) it reaches a point where you are no longer shooting with “natural” light.

Bryce’s broadcast was most certainly informative and I did learn something new, but the main thing I learnt is a new way of looking at light and analysing its interaction with a subject.

I’m looking forward to implementing the ideas which have arisen as result of viewing this broadcast over the forthcoming weeks.

In addition to shooting images for the WIP, practical work has focused on diffusion material and backgrounds with considerable success. The preliminary research this week has identified opportunities for future exploration.

Finding props for still-life food photography isn’t always an easy task, the task is a lot more involved than it at first seems. However, this week I found “prop nirvana”, an absolute goldmine of food photography goodies … …

On Reflection: Week 10, Module Two

Dutch photographer Bas Meeuws specialises in creating floral still-life images in the style of the 17th century paintings.

Each still-life is carefully assembled, flower by flower, from a library of individually photographed flowers. This faithfully recreates the method of 17th century artists, van Oosterwijck for example, who were denied access to real flowers due to their excessively high cost and consequently painted from tulip books which were widely available at the time.

Where Meeuws’ differs from Dutch 17th century art is in the use of lighting.

Meeuws’ art employs quite harsh artificial lighting which is in contrast with the soft natural light employed by artists such as Rachel Ruysch. Meeuws still makes effective use of light and shade to create a sense of depth, and to separate the subject from its environment whilst emphasising colour and texture. But is something lacking in these images?

Quite clearly, Meeuws images have visual appealing. I wonder, however, how much more appealing Meeuws’ images would be if the lighting was softer and consequently they had a more painterly appearance?

And this leads me very nicely onto the story of the great diffuser caper.

I can never quite make my mind up as to whether it is harder to control natural light or artificial light. The easiest one always seems to be whichever one I am not working with at the time.

The past two weeks have brought some interesting challenges. Speaking from a still-life point of view, sometimes it’s possible to work with whatever natural lighting is available and make the subject “fit” in to it to achieve the desired effect – perhaps with just a minor tweak here and there.

But what about when the subject, the environment and the lighting won’t work together to achieve a particular aesthetic, at least not without major modification?

Then we are into shaping light.

And this is where diffusers come into it.

Various types of translucent paper, enough different kinds of textiles to make the studio look like the Old Bazaar in Cairo, masking tape, packing tape, Sellotape, blue tack, white tack, (don’t mention the glue) … …

Ultimately, I was able to rig something that was quite successful, I was pleased with the results (just don’t make any sudden movements should it all come crashing down).

What’s successful? Well, it has to (relatively) easy to use, don’t want it taking hours to set up and/or take down, it has to allow me to achieve the desired effect, and something which to me is essential but which is quite often overlooked, it has to be repeatable – if it isn’t repeatable, it isn’t controlling light, it’s blagging it.

For now, I have my method, it is fairly easy to set up but whether it is “robust” is another question, it does allow me to achieve the desired effect, and it is repeatable.

So, the next step is to design something which is much more robust.

Feedback from the (dreaded) video presentation was very encouraging. Again, as previously stated, it’s so often the case in life that the thought of doing something is much worse than the reality.

Consequently, I feel that I am in a much stronger position, not only in terms of the forthcoming Critical Review, but also looking ahead to future video presentations – success leads to success.

“Last Meal on Death Row” … Mat Collishaw

In 2011 the Analix Forever Art Gallery in Geneva hosted a photographic exhibition with a difference.

Cornelius-Gross

Mat Collishaw, 2011. Cornelius Gross

Artist Mat Collishaw’s innovative body of work was a photographic record of the last meals of death row prisoners.

Images for “Last Meal on Death Row” make great use of chiaroscuro, pools of soft light illuminating the subject whilst the background and surrounding environment is allowed to fall into deep shadow.

The contrast between light and dark creates not only a sense of drama but also a sense of depth within the images.

Named after the person who requested the meal, each of the 13 images is a simple, but effective, composition devoid of any props and portraying only the main subject.

Borrowing terminology from cinematography, the “crushed blacks” of the perhaps foreboding background are reminiscent of the style of Willem Kalf, the 17th century Dutch artist from whom Collishaw draws much inspiration.

Kalf regularly used a black background in order to emphasise the colours and textures of the subjects he painted. An effect Collishaw has recreated exceptionally well.

That Collishaw’s work is heavily influenced by the still-life paintings of the 17th century is very apparent. The image “Jonathan Nobles” has a definite painterly aesthetic – to the point it deceives the viewer’s eye as to whether it is a painting or a photograph.

Jonathan Noble

Mat Collishaw, 2011. Jonathan Nobles

Kalf, Willem, 1619-1693; Still Life: Fruit, Goblet and Salver

Willem Kalf, c. 1660. Still-life with Fruit, Goblet and Salver

This image, compared alongside Kalf’s “Still-life with Fruit, Goblet and Salver” (c. 1660), demonstrates very clearly Collishaw’s ability to define and portray in a photograph those characteristics which give paintings their visual appeal.

There is a great deal in Collishaw’s work which can be used to shape my own practice. “Still-life with Citrus Fruits” is one of the best examples to date of my ability to create the kind of chiaroscuro seen in many of the old masters and in Collishaw’s “Last Meal on Death Row”, but there is still ample opportunity for improvement and this is apparent when my work is evaluated alongside Collishaw’s.

still-life-with-cirtus-fruit-l

Morris, 2016. Still-life with Citrus Fruits

 

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)

 

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