Background Analysis

An ongoing evaluation of background materials and their effect upon the image aesthetic … …

The qualities which denote whether or not a background is a success are difficult to both identify and quantify – they are very subjective in nature.

This post, and all subsequent updates, is an attempt to identify those qualities, and provide a method of quantifying them.

To remove some of the subjectivity, the investigation will adopt a scientific approach: aiming at achieving repeatable and reproducible results, manipulating the independent variable, keeping all other variables constant

As an opener, an attempt to promote further discussion (and investigation), I would suggest that the qualities which make a good background in an image, are similar to those which make a good context within which to view an image, albeit for different reasons. In summary, these are as follows.

The material should be of a nature which avoids specular highlights, unless there is a specific reason why this should be the case.

Colour should avoid competing with the subject.

The background should avoid providing a distraction, for example, by being heavily patterned.

Investigations will, therefore, look at these three key areas: finish, colour and pattern.

1). Slater Harrison Colourcard, “Black Surf”, 260 gsm

Tizer

Morris, 2017. Silent Killer

2). Colorama “Black” (LL CO 568)

Morris, 2017. Hasret

See also: Da Vinci on … Backgrounds

A View from a Window

The following schematic shows a lighting set-up which is very simple but highly effective. It can be adapted, with minimal equipment, to produce either beautifully soft light with gradual transition between light and shade, or dramatic hard light with immediate transition.

Lighting set-up

Subjects, placed in front of a background, are lit by a single source of light, a window (south-west facing) which is 45˚ front left of the subject (viewer’s point of view). Diffusion material (approximately 1.3 stops) is used as required, and light reflected from the room’s interior surfaces provides soft fill.

The key to success, in image terms, is in making the light from this source appear like light from a north facing window.

So, what’s so special about north facing windows anyway?

Direct sunlight, as observed from a south facing window is extremely bright, resulting in washed out colours and high contrast. Additionally, as the sun progresses through the sky during the day, the quantity and quality of the light varies enormously. Sometimes this harsh, volatile light can suit the subject or the mood of a painting and was widely favoured by the Impressionists.

But not always …

Indirect, or reflected light is a more stable in terms of both quantity and quality: having a steady output throughout the day and a colour temperature which is much more consistent.

From an artist’s point of view, indirect light has significant advantages over direct light. Reflected light has a strong diffused characteristic which bathes both the subject and the painting in the same light, greater control over values (the lightness or darkness of a colour), subtle colour changes (hue or saturation) and contrast (determined by the difference in the colour and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view).

Diffusing harsh, direct south light, giving it the characteristic appearance of north light, is relatively simple – at least in theory.

A variety of diffusion equipment is commercially available, but speaking from experience “one size does not fit all” – whatever size window aperture you have, the diffuser will either be too big, or too small, and whatever fittings the diffuser comes with, they won’t integrate with your window.

And that’s before you even start to consider adapting the diffuser because it only comes as a 1-stop diffuser and you calculate you need at least 2-stops of diffusion … …

As discussed, the set-up shown in the schematic is simple but effective. It is also repeatable.

What it is not, however, is robust.

I need to carry out further research, evaluating systems which are modular so that they can be adapted to fit different window apertures and are easily fitted – to fit into different window types.

They also need to customisable in terms of the amount and type of diffusion – clearly the number of stops of diffusion makes an enormous difference to the finished image, but so does the type of diffuser used.

And the final requirement is that the systems are robust enough to withstand repeated use.

Photographer Sue Bryce is highly skilled at creating mini-environments from wallpaper, textiles and other materials – the images she produces place the viewer in the scene, for all intents and purposes we are in the room with the model – and the room has presence. The reality, however, is that the scene extends only a short distance either side of the model. Bryce is also highly adept at working with natural light, modifying it to be beautifully soft with gradual transition from light to shade whilst retaining its ability to reveal form and value.

The following still image, taken from CreativeLive’s “Natural Light with Sue Bryce” shows one of the various types of diffusers available commercially (possibly a Lastolite Skylite Rapid).

Sue Bryce Diffuser

Natural Light with Sue Bryce” (CreativeLive, Photoweek 2015)

See also: Looking West

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

 

“Silent Killer”

Silent Killer” is an image which aims to subvert the form, an image which aims to use food photography to achieve something different – to bring into question a socially relevant issue.

Tizer

Morris, 2017. Sent Killer

Post-processing techniques have been applied to the digital image in an attempt to give the image a painterly aesthetic, that is to say portraying characteristics commonly regarded as giving paintings their appeal.

It is still early in the development phase, but attempts to produce a painterly effect using post-processing methods have met with only limited success – some images have been extremely successful, whilst others not so: pushed beyond a certain point, which is image dependent, the images take on an appearance of having “in-camera” artefacts.

Tizer - error

Morris, 2017. Silent Killer – over-edited

“One size does not fit all” and post-processing success lies in finding the correct treatment on an image by image basis, for example, the most appropriate background, texture or overlay. Greater success will be achieved as knowledge and experience increase in this area.

In essence, some images are more sensitive to post-processing than are others.

This was found to be the case with “Silent Killer”. The image demonstrated a very limited ability to withstand integration with a texture in order to produce a painting-like effect before the image became “corrupted”.

Silent Killer” does portray some of the characteristics which give paintings their visual appeal, post-processing is very lightly applied (for the reasons explained),it does benefit the image and it is best seen full screen, it could take more – I think it is quite a strong image – but only if a method could be found of applying a painterly aesthetic to this image without overcooking it.

Moving this forward, there are two areas I wish to explore.

The first is to clarify how and why some images are better suited to post-processing.

The second is to look for alternative, less invasive methods of post-processing.

Photographer Sergei Sogokon is particularly skilled at producing images which have a painting-like aesthetic – it is very subtle, but it there and it deceives the eye time and time again.

Still-life with fish

Sergei Sogokon, date unknown. Still-life with Fish

See also: Towards a Painterly Aesthetic

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)