Assignment 5: updated title and statement

Title

For the longest time I had in mind a specific title for this work:

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

The significance of the phrase was to evoke the overly-simplistic mindset of voters in the EU Referendum: that the vote would either validate a comfortable life or transform an uncomfortable one – continuity vs disruption.

However, as time has passed (quite a lot of time as it happens) my intended message has evolved, and I’m trying to distill it down to be potentially less obscure (or even confusing). To start with my interest was in the vote aspect of the referendum – why people voted how they voted. But as more time passed I became much more interested in the aftermath: how new tribal identities – some self-identified, some insulting – had emerged, and how the over-simplification that beset the campaign was carried over into stereotyping and name-calling that still persists.

So with all of that in mind I am now considering the working title to be:

Two Kinds of People

This better fits the ‘politics of division’ / oversimplification message that I’m aiming to communicate. It is of course a reference to the aphorism: “There are two kinds of people in the world…” – sometimes used seriously but more often these days the lead-up line of a joke. The association of the phrase with jokes based on absurd over-simplifications is hopefully going to help my satirical message intent.

Statement of Intent

This refinement of concept and title means that I have redrafted the Statement of Intent, again:

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave? This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories – do you want continuity or disruption? The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”.

Narratives that emerged to explain the shock result represented a doubling-down of the politics of division that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight – some self-identifed, some insulting: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; an intellectual or a bigot.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Numbers, words and photographs are all, in their own ways, inadequate descriptive systems.

With these images I aim to provoke thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values. I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are accurate, even if none are ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press

Assignment 5: working towards final images

After a long gap I went out shooting again this week. I went through the new images and revisited the older ones I’ve taken and decided to make myself start building the final assignment instead of continually overthinking things :-)

Today I gave myself the challenge of producing at least one usable final image from each of the shooting locations, using only what I’ve shot already.

Now, I’m not wholly happy with all of these, but it has helped me enormously in terms of seeing the final output take some kind of shape. After considering a mixture of presentation formats I’ve settled on the simplicity of the pie chart construct.

(A reminder of the concept: in a nutshell, it’s deliberately stereotyping places based on their voting record in the EU referendum, to highlight the absurdity of over-simplification – so some of the captions are deliberately provocative)

Burnley 1

Middlesbrough 1Pickering 1Dewsbury 1

Only 11 more to go…

Lessons so far

The main thing I’ve realised in putting these together is just how ridiculously hard I’m making it for myself!

For the images to work, several conditions need to be met:

  • Interesting individual images
  • No people
    • Rationale in a separate blog post
  • Pairs of images communicating the respective labels, taken in the same location
    • e.g. there’s no point in finding a ‘Poor’ in Pickering if the only ‘Rich’ I can find is in Middlesbrough
  • Some kind of visual relationship between the component parts (complementary or oppositional)
    • For this reason the Pickering image above doesn’t work yet – the lower image needs to contain circular elements like the upper image
    • Whereas the Middlesbrough one works via a complementary colour palette
    • And the Burnley one works due to the construct of the shop front layout
    • Whilst the above examples are complementary, the Dewsbury pairing works (in my view) as it juxtaposes opposites – colourful, varied, soft textures vs harsh, monochromatic, rough texture
  • Finally, the images need to work in a pie chart format
    • i.e. the minimum visual data required to make out what the subject is needs to fit into an obscure shape

Assignment 5: word association

Almost a month has passed since I last blogged (busy with other things rather than avoiding study, honest) and this week I planned to throw myself back into the assignment, having closed off most of the other distractions for now.

The idea was to get out to one or more of the remaining locations (Dewsbury, Barnsley and my current home of Pickering) for full days of shooting – but the weather forecast is for persistent rain in all three locations for the rest of the week. I know bad weather shouldn’t be a deal-breaker but having wasted a rainy day in Accrington early on in this assignment I think it’s worth waiting slightly longer for drier weather.

So even though it sometimes feels like I’ve been doing too much planning and not enough shooting, I intend to use at least some of this week to refine my shooting plan per town – not in such a way that restricts me, more in a way that amplifies the points I’m aiming to make.

To recap, the concept is to juxtapose pairs of images of specific northern English towns based on stereotypes / clichés of how the population voted in the 2016 EU Referendum – as a comment on the absurdity of extreme over-simplification.

The visual treatment is based on the images being in the proportions of the Remain/Leave vote ratio so the images will resemble infographics to some degree.

Burnley test round

The text labelling is key – I will be using pairs of increasingly provocative labels to highlight the extent to which we tend to generalise about populations.

The list I brainstormed a while ago is as follows, though here I have reordered it to build up from neutral/innocuous to more judgemental/offensive, to give a loose narrative arc (or at least a sense of escalation):

  • Remain / Leave
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Young / Old
  • Urban / Rural
  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down and Out
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • Establishment / Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Strivers / Skivers
  • Foreigners / Racists
  • _____ / _____ (I intend to leave the labels blank on the last pairing, with the implication that the viewer can make up their own stereotypes)

Some of these lend themselves to particular towns more than others and so I will look to group them accordingly:

  • Young / Old and Urban / Rural are most appropriate for Pickering, which has notable extremes of both
  • The Establishment / The Workers could work best in Middlesbrough or Barnsley as both have experienced notable industrial decline in recent times
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind aligns well with Burnley as it has examples of both extremes
  • Foreigners / Racists (undoubtedly the most provocative pairing) will work best in Dewsbury which has a high ethnic minority population

The challenge I’m setting myself whilst I wait for better weather is to think of associations with these words that might lead to subject ideas. Again, I don’t mean this to be prescriptive but to open up some neural pathways :-)

I want to see if I can work in some metaphors and metonyms that allude to the labels in some way; I don’t mind if they are obscure, as it’s mostly for my own inspiration that I wanted to do this word association thing.

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Globalist
    • Travel agents
  • Nationalist
    • Union jack
  • White Collar
    • Skyscraper
  • Blue Collar
    • Working men’s club
  • Young
    • Micro scooter
  • Old
    • Mobility scooter
  • Urban
    • Wine bar
  • Rural
    • Farm shop
  • Rich
    • Car dealership
  • Poor
    • Bus stop
  • Have
    • Smartphone
  • Have not
    • Phone box
  • Multicultural Middle Class
    • Coffee shop
  • White Working Class
    • Chip shop
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building
  • Metropolitan Elite
    • Delicatessen
  • Left Behind
    • Food bank
  • Establishment
    • Council offices
  • Workers
    • Factory
  • Enemies of the People
    • Court
  • The People
    • Shopping centre
  • Strivers
    • Briefcase
  • Skivers
    • Bookies
  • Foreigners
    • Mosque
  • Racists
    • Graffiti

To be realistic it’s very unlikely (and overly limiting) that I’ll be using this as a subject checklist while I shoot – the value in this exercise was simply to expand my horizons on potential subject matter.

In parallel with this text brainstorming, I’m also spending some time this week looking at how other photographers have captured places, specifically English towns, without relying too much on pictures of people. A separate research post on this will follow shortly.

Assignment 5: slight change of scope

Assignment 5 is back in planning phase for various reasons – mostly to do with time (first of all an ambulatory injury and then diary logistics not allowing shooting trips away from home for most of April), but also to do with me revisiting what I’ve done so far and not yet being happy with the way the assignment has been progressing. My last target date of completing the assignment by the end of April – and submitting the whole course for assessment by the end of May) – is no longer viable. So I am in a ‘taking stock and deciding next steps’ phase (again).

Revisiting scope

One aspect of the assignment scope that had been niggling away at me recently came to a head and I think I’ve now resolved it to my satisfaction.

My starting point for the assignment, several months ago now, was very much driven by a socio-political point about inequality being an underlying factor in the Brexit vote. I chose the shooting locations based on a set of criteria that specifically included a high Leave vote (>65%) as this suited my intended message. The shortlist was as follows:

  • Accrington (66.2% Leave / 33.8% Remain)
  • Barnsley (68.3 / 31.7)
  • Burnley (66.6 / 33.4)
  • Hull (67.6 / 32.4)
  • Middlesbrough (65.5 / 34.5)
  • Redcar (66.2 / 33.8)

However: the assignment objective has moved on from making a socio-political point in a straight documentary photography style, towards more of a postmodern critique, using documentary photography to make a comment on the absurdity of over-simplification. The Brexit vote is now the context, the backdrop – not the main content.

With this shift in tone and message, the fact that I had specifically selected locations with high Leave votes risked becoming a distraction – the socio-political message was potentially competing with the more subtle message on over-simplification.

A more neutral framework

I started thinking about other frameworks I could use to select shooting locations, less politically-charged and hopefully better able to communicate the intended message about the dangers of generalisation.

The one approach that seemed to make most sense was to look (dispassionately) at the towns I’ve lived in as an adult:

  • Middlesbrough (65.5 / 34.5)
  • Accrington (66.2 / 33.8)
  • Burnley (66.6 / 33.4)
  • Barnsley (68.3 / 31.7)
  • Dewsbury (54.7 / 45.3)
  • Pickering (55.3 / 44.7)

There’s some overlap with the original list, which is interesting. I’ve lived in a bunch of Leave-heavy areas in my 20s and 30s, peaking in Barnsley, followed by slightly more balanced places in the last 15 years or so.

The good news is that I have already shot in the first three of these.

The other good news is that widening the net a little allows me to use a broader set of ‘generalisations’ to play with, as different areas have their own variations on the media clichés. For example, Dewsbury has a diverse ethnic population and one of the angles locally is the ‘multiculturalism vs nationalism’ trope. Similarly, Pickering offers alternative stereotype pairings such as ‘young vs old’ and ‘urban vs rural’.

The assignment asks for 15 photos – I’m planning to deliver 15 pairs (or diptychs, or composites). I’m thinking three pairs each from five towns. As there’s six in the list above, I need to remove one. My current thinking is that Accrington and Burnley are geographically very close, so I should pick one. From my shoots so far, I think Burnley has more potential.

Wild card

There’s a wild card that I could include that would change the shape of the whole assignment: for four years (up to the start of last year) I spent just over half of the year working away from home during the week, in…

  • Richmond-upon-Thames (30.7% Leave / 69.3% Remain)

Now, Richmond is not only an outlier in my list, it’s quite an extreme Remain outpost full stop – it’s already had a by-election that was decided on the Brexit question and so is probably the most famous Remain-y place in the UK.

For this reason, I feel like there’s a risk that including Richmond might upset the balance of the rest of the assignment (not to mention the tenuous definition of ‘living there’ if I was actually dividing my time between there and ‘home’).

However, I also think that this imbalance might actually be a good thing! It’d be a different visual challenge for a start. It might add a little tonal texture / light and shade to the overall series.

So – I need to decide whether to include Richmond or not. And if I do, I will need to think about if I remove another northern town to make space for it.

This is not an immediate decision though – I can continue working on the ‘northern England only’ version of the assignment for now and decide later if I want or need some variation.

Sources

BBC EU Referendum Results http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36616028 (accessed 19/04/2017)

Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

bowery_NCRstewed.jpg
from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.

Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 13/04/2017)

Exercise: Post-documentary photography

Brief

Read the article ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ by Ine Gevers (Documentary Now! 2005).

Summarise in your learning log the key points made by the author.

Response

I didn’t get on with this essay particularly well; first of all I found it quite hard going due to its overly complex language, and it took me a few sittings to get through it and digest the line of argument. Once I felt I’d understood its main points I decided that I disagreed with a number of them.

My main issue with the essay, or more specifically the way it is written, is that it generalises to a distracting degree: opinions are attributed to whole groups of people and universal claims are made that are too easily questioned, and I found this tendency to exaggeration diluted the core arguments put forward in the the essay.

As the brief is to summarise the key points I will do so here but can’t resist adding my own commentary alongside, whether I found it insightful or infuriating.

Preamble

  • Defines post-1970s blurring of disciplines (art/documentary) as ‘post-documentary
  • Focus is “the ethical positions of artists, many of whom make use of documentary photography” (Gevers 2005: 1) [my emphasis]
  • Interested in “stretch[ing] the boundaries of perception in such a way that space is offered to that which exists beyond the stereotype or the already known” (ibid: 1)

Introduction

  • Starts by framing debate in terms of aesthetics and ethics
  • “In antiquity, aesthetics stood for the capacity to remove yourself from your own framework so you could learn to see the unprecedented from that new viewpoint” (ibid: 1-2)
    • Did it? This is a peculiar definition of aesthetics (“relating to perception by the senses”, OED) that sounds moulded to fit the line of argument
  • “Thoughts about beauty and truth seem to have ended in stalemate” (ibid: 2)
    • I’d be very surprised if thoughts about beauty and truth ever ended
  • Gevers posits that the “function [of aesthetics] of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite; it gets in the way of our view” (ibid: 2)
    • My big beef with the language here, repeated throughout the essay, is that it contradicts another key aspect of the text I agree with…
    • Gevers supports the Barthesian position of the viewer as collaborator (which in turn implies a multiplicity of meaning) yet simultaneously attributes homogenous opinions and behaviours to groups of people en masse – she writes as though she speaks for everyone
    • She uses ‘definitive’ language about matters that are infinitely more nuanced and complex than implied here
  • She closes the introduction with mention of post-documentary photographers that are attempting to foreground ethics over aesthetics in their engagement with their subject matter

Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial

  • Here she expands on the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ concept mentioned in the preamble, to make the point that too much photography does the opposite: it objectifies
  • Documentary photography got off to a bad start by presenting itself as true and authentic, a reputation that has unravelled over the decades
  • “Although nobody believes any more in the ‘reality effects’ of documentary film or photography, everyone is still expected to behave as though they do.” (ibid: 3)
    • Really? This is another sweeping generalisation that weakens Gevers’ argument; the idea that ‘everyone’ has come to a conclusion about documentary is incredibly simplistic
  • “Representation in its totality is in a crisis” (ibid: 4)
    • I respectfully suggest that this is hyperbole; there are undeniably elements of representation that are questionable, problematic, shifting – but a crisis?

Examples

  • Gevers makes a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photographer who uses documentary photography
    • This is the insight that I found the most useful in the whole essay
  • Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula are presented as practitioners who incorporate documentary photography into their work but in a way that holds it up for examination
  • Rosler “manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word” (ibid: 5)
    • A fascinating aspect of Rosler’s “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” (1974/5) – quite apart from the fact that it self-announces as inadequate – is the exclusion of people (it shows empty street juxtaposed with words for drunkenness)
    • In an odd way excluding the people who are nominally the subject of the work is a way of letting them retain their individuality; it’s the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ that Gevers refers to
    • I want to come back to this idea of deliberate exclusion of the subject in relation to my current assignment – a later blog post I think
  • When discussing Sekula, Gevers uses an interesting phrase: “The photographic work never stands by itself.” (ibid: 5)
    • I get this; there’s an extra layer of context that gives the work the deeper meaning that lifts this kind of work above generic documentary photography
    • I am fascinated by this area of photographic study: how and why documentary photography ‘works’ (or doesn’t), and how this has been / is being examined by photographers / photographic artists

Representation – interpretation – counter-presentation

  • Gevers discusses how documents of inhumanity can be ‘distorted’ by presentation to an audience, using the example of the S-21 archive of photographs covering Cambodian genocide
  • She asserts that the presentation of the photographs as first of all an exhibition and subsequently a book (The Killing Fields, Niven & Riley 1995) irreparably changed the archive: “Suddenly, instead of something that concerned everyone, it now seemed to manifest a clear class difference between the prisoners sentenced to death as representatives of naked life and those observing from a safe distance.” (ibid: 6)
    • I confess that I either fail to understand the point being made, or if I do understand it correctly, I disagree with it – Gevers seems to suggest that the very act of sharing such images is divisive and perpetuates difference
    • Gevers doubles down on this aversion to public presentation of documentary material by accusing MoMA of being “oblivious to [the S-21 archive’s] problematic role in the politics of representation” (ibid: 6) which strikes me as a subjective opinion rather than an evidenced fact
    • “The public, however, regarded the photographs as art, an aesthetic appreciation that was nurtured with no shame whatsoever. Visitor numbers did not lie, after all” (ibid: 6) – this was the extract that I found most problematic in the whole essay; again, false universality in projecting a reaction onto an entire viewing pubic, compounded here by the non sequitur of visitor numbers that implies that its very popularity is proof that it was misunderstood

Alienation as strategy

  • Gevers uses the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers as an example of how, in an age where we are numbed by visual imagery (she mentions Debord’s Spectacle but I was also put in mind of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality), a presentational strategy of not depicting things visually can be more effective than image overload
  • She uses Michael Moore’s use of black screen in his Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary film and Alfredo Jaar’s 2002 installation on Rwandan genocide Lament of the Images (where only one photo was visible and the rest were sealed in black boxes) as examples of such ‘negative presentation’
    • This passage put me in mind of an exhibition I saw in Arles last year by the name of Nothing but Blue Skies (2016) which collated artists’ responses to 9/11 – one whole room was newspaper front pages and another was floor-to-ceiling looped TV views footage, so I really got the sensation of image overload that Gevers refers to. The most interesting exhibit was a video by Michal Kosakowski called Just Like the Movies, a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the New York attacks, so it ‘shows’ you what happened but doesn’t show you the real thing, only the movie scenes that it reminded you of
  • Gevers takes this complaint of over-stimulation of the senses to an extreme in saying that “the whole idea of ‘contemplation’ has become implausible” (ibid: 8)
    •  I find this hyperbolic in the same way I find much of Debord and Baudrillard – they are either catastrophists or deliberately exaggerate for effect

‘The artist’ in aesthetic terms

  • Gevers quotes Alain Badiou on the question of ethics and ‘truth’, concluding that “Truth is therefore not something that can be communicated, it is not just a matter of opinion. Truth is something you encounter (in the form of an event)” (ibid: 9)
    • Without disappearing down a philosophical rabbit hole, is Gevers differentiating between the truth of an event and the “truth” of the representation of that event”?

Personal is political

  • Gevers returns to Rosler to pick up on her stance that documentary photography has moved beyond ‘Grand Narratives’ and onto smaller and more personal subjects
    • Generalisation: both ends of the continuum and a variety of intermediate hybrids continue to exist
  • She moves this line of argument round to an appreciation of Barthes’ concept of punctum: “It is up to the viewer as co-author to give weight to the image” (ibid: 10)
    • I certainly go along with this line of thinking – Gevers gives one of the best articulations of the experience of punctum that I have read:
    • “That is the moment when we no longer just appear to be collecting information in an appropriately distanced manner – aesthetically in the narrow sense of the word – but when, in a moment of being affected, we add something to it” (ibid: 10)
  • This is where the “consummation” of the essay title becomes clearer: the viewer consummates rather than simply consumes the image
    • However, my view on the punctum is that it can’t be deliberately inserted into an image as it is inherently the role of the viewer to bring it to the image
  • What I think she is saying here is that this is the kind of image where aesthetics and ethics are reconciled
    • But to my previous point, this reconciliation is an individual, uncontrolled response and not a universal, controlled one
    • I don’t read this essay as instruction on how to achieve such reconciliation, more a recognition that it can occur

That was heavy going. It provoked a lot of thought. I found some key insights to agree with and want to explore more – and I found a maddening degree of over-simplification that eroded the credibility of the overall line of argument.

Sources

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

Exhibition: Strange and Familiar (study visit)

Manchester Art Gallery, 08/04/17
Tutor: Derek Trillo

I was looking forward to this exhibition for its subject matter and curatorial approach: in a nutshell, it is Britain as seen by non-British photographers. It was curated by Martin Parr and much of the content is from his own collection. I was curious to find out how much one would be able to discern the curatorial hand of someone with such a distinctive style (in the end: not much – it came across as the work of Parr the photography enthusiast more than Parr the photographer).

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Study visit group

My particular interest at this point in time is how the exhibition could inform my current (slowly progressing) Assignment 5. I could do with some inspiration on how to see familiar places in a different light, so seeing work on Britain by other nationalities could be just the ticket.

I was curious as to the intent of the photographers at the time of shooting; were they:

  • deliberately aiming to capture their vision of a country foreign to them?
  • shooting for a more specific project that happened to be placed in Britain?
  • just shooting what they liked the look of, unaware of the context in which the work would later be placed?

Spoiler: it’s a mix of all of the above.

It’s a pretty big exhibition and I won’t comment on all the participants. Instead I will pick out some themes and photographers that resonated with me.

Strangeness is subjective

The exhibition’s full name is Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographer. It’s easy to play semantics but I did find myself checking my reactions to images against the nominal scope of the exhibition, and found the title to be more ambiguous and nuanced the more I thought about it.

On the face of it the exhibition concept can be interpreted as: subject matter that is strange to the (non-British) photographer but familiar to the British viewer. However, some of the content is inherently strange, even to most Brits. Some of it is either strange or familiar depending on exactly where you live (Paul Strand’s series on the Outer Hebrides would be alien to a Londoner but familiar to a Cornwall farmer) – Britain is incredibly diverse for a relatively small landmass. Perhaps this is Parr’s overriding message.

Some of the subject matter is universal and has no inherent Britishness (Bruce Gilden’s grotesque close-ups happen to have been taken here but could have been from anywhere in the world).

At least some of the strangeness is down to the temporal distance: the past is a foreign country. In a sense the combination of where and when may be more significant than the where and who, and I occasionally found myself wondering whether a British photographer could have taken a particular picture and retained the sense of otherness to a contemporary viewer. I considered whether cultural differences between nations were more pronounced in the past, and the relative isolation of an island nation meant that shooting in the UK was much more novel to the international eye in previous decades (up to the 1960s/70s?) than in the more homogenous, globalised now.

The notion of strangeness also made me think of the Solomon-Godeau essay “Inside/Out” and its debate on the relative merits of being an insider or an outsider. The insider can be too close to the situation to be objective, while the outsider can lack the depth of local knowledge to interpret situations appropriately. It’s interesting that a few of these projects were book or magazine commissions where the outsider status was seen as an advantage (the shadow of Robert Frank, the outsider who nailed America, looms over much of the 60s work). From reading the potted biographies it came across that some of the best work came from ‘semi-outsiders’ that had settled in British communities for long enough to absorb some of the local culture whilst retaining their eye for ‘otherness’.

Photographers and themes

I mention Henri Cartier-Bresson mainly to document a rare disappointment with his work, both from a content and an aesthetic point of view. He covers royal events from the 1930s and 1970s, which came across as shallow, touristic subject matter, and the 1977 work was (whisper it) unremarkable – he looks like he had lost his keen eye for compositional geometry in his later years.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Gian Butterini, Raymond Depardon are presented as social documentarians. Perhaps it’s trying to say that it’s easier – less awkward? – for an outsider to starkly capture social deprivation. Whilst this works as a theory within the construct of this exhibition, it is diluted somewhat when one considers the number of British photographers who captured such conditions equally well (Nick Hedges, Chris Killip, Chris Steele-Perkins et al).

Cas Oorthuys, Evelyn Hofer and Bruce Davidson were displayed close to each other, and they had in common that they took photos for books or magazines with a specific brief of showing representative visions of Britain, or particular cities. Each did inject their own personal voice into their work, especially Davidson, but I found most of these interesting only as historic documents rather than great photographs.

By contrast the same room devoted a wall to much more experimental, expressive work by Sergio Larrain, a new name to me but the star of the show. His work had a Frank/Americans vibe (though broadly contemporary so possibly coincidentally) in terms of disregarding technical and compositional norms and capturing random fleeting moments of visual beauty. The fragmentary presentation matched the style, with the images framed small and hung haphazardly.

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Sergio Larrain

Similar but different was Shinro Ohtake, whose snapshot aesthetic really appealed to me. Ohtake took the idea of stream-of-consciousness photography to the streets of Britain and managed to simultaneously remind me of Martin Parr and Daido Moriyama. Another student on the study visit commented that Ohtake’s work was the first set where the aesthetics of the output was identifiable to the nationality of the photographer, in terms of the use of light and shade in particular images being reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Again the presentation complemented the visual style – some pinned unframed to the wall, some as tiny snapshots in vitrines.

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Shinro Ohtake

In the same way that Ohtake often managed to make suburban England resemble Japan, Garry Winogrand replicates his US street style so well that he makes London look like New York. These two are probably the most successful examples of photographers bringing their home country aesthetic to the UK – in a spin on the exhibition concept, they appeared to be (subconsciously?) making the strange more familiar to themselves, rather than emphasise the strangeness. If that makes sense…

Whilst most of the content is from mainland Britain, some of the most interesting images are from Northern Ireland, documenting the Troubles. Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura captured strikingly strange scenes that show, especially with the passage of time, just how other-worldly Northern Ireland could seem to British eyes. Peress used black and white which gives many of his images a timeless quality, while Okamura displays a keen eye for rapidly-captured surreal detail. Both created memorable images that accentuated what an unusual time and place they documented.

A handful of photographers’ work seemed a poor fit with the concept and the content of the rest of the exhibition: Bruce Gilden’s aforementioned grotesque close-up portraits are not distinctively British (having seen them online previously I had projected US nationality onto them, oddly), Tina Barney’s aristocracy shots look overly glossy and glamorous, and the Rineke Dijstra work is surprisingly small-scale (three portraits) that are nominally about Liverpool nightclub customers but are devoid of contextual cues. These may have been shot in Britain but say little or nothing about the nation. Interestingly there was one Gilden image I did appreciate as it did exude Britishness in a meaningful way: the dirty tattooed worker’s arm. I just didn’t see his portraits as successful in this context.

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Bruce Gilden

For me the photographers whose work best fit the construct of the exhibition were those who found a view on idiosyncratic British scenes that made them look simultaneously strange and familiar – those who identified the quirk and held it up for examination in quite a deliberate way. Two in particular were Jim Dow, who found mesmeric patterns in the repetition of sweet shop jars and tower block stairwell tiles, and Hans van der Meer, whose wide shots of local football games in unlikely environments made me smile, and said more to me (as a non-fan) about the peculiarly British appeal of football than the usual shot of a premier league stadium.

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Study visit group discussing Hans van der Meer

Summary

I found this to be a fascinating and insightful exhibition, with thoughtful curation and sequencing that subtly accentuated themes and connections, with only a couple of exceptions (forgivable of course, as it’s all so subjective and a show as diverse as this can’t please all the people all the time). A few exclusions struck me as odd – no Bill Brandt, for example – but I’m sure there’s good reason for that.

I came away with the sense that the diversity of the photographers and the imagery is analogous to the diversity of the United Kingdom itself. The message seemed to be that Britain is – or has been – all of these places, as seen by these ‘outsiders’. Can anyone really ‘reveal’ Britain? Only in parts, and even the amalgamation of the ‘Britains’ revealed in this exhibition is just one version of the bigger picture.

But to revert to an earlier point: is it really the non-British status of the photographers that enabled a particular eye for the strangeness? Val Williams and Susan Bright edited How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) which is full of idiosyncratic images of Britain, and the vast majority of photographers were British. My take is that it doesn’t specifically take an outsider to nail the distinctly British, although they may have a natural advantage; the British insider can also capture such imagery as long as they possess an enquiring mind and an observant eye.

Finally, as ever I really appreciated the study visit format as it gives me an opportunity to discuss what I’m seeing with like-minded people, and to bounce ideas and interpretations off each other. It’s a really enriching part of the study experience, and I should do more of it.

Takeaways

For my own assignment research this was a useful reference and inspiration source. There are some specific pointers I took away:

Firstly it reinforced the increasingly strong sense I have (and wish to communicate with the assignment) that documentary photography is just so inherently subjective. That a couple of dozen photographers can take the same subject matter (albeit as broad as a country) and find such a diversity of imagery is testament to the individual reflexivity brought to the task. The overriding lesson I’ve learned on the entire Documentary course is that there is no such thing as a single truth. This exhibition was a good reminder.

The main new point of inspiration is to look to isolate small details more than I have been doing. Often a close-up of a small part of a scene can intensify the significance. I need to look more closely for the details that can communicate my message. the Ohtake and Larrain work was particularly inspirational in this regard.

Sources

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Manchester Art Gallery. Friday 25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Bright, S. and Williams, V. (2007). How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

Assignment 5: updated Statement of Intent

As the concept and communication intent of this assignment have been evolving since its inception last year, I thought it was time to articulate my current thinking in an updated Statement of Intent. (original for reference). As ever this is subject to change, but it reflects the way I am currently approaching the work.

I Woke Up And Everything Was Fine

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave. This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories.

It became tempting to believe that such a blunt instrument could either cement your comfortable existence or drastically change your miserable one; that this one magic bullet will fix everything. The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”

It may have solidified into accepted wisdom now but one aspect of the result was a genuine shock: the extent to which economically deprived areas, particularly in the north of England, had voted Leave. The narrative that emerged to explain this was a doubling-down of the oversimplification that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; multicultural middle class or white working class.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived and worked in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Is a town really 33% intellectual, 67% bigot?

With these images I aim to provoke thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values. I also want to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: framework and presentation questions

My last post on Assignment 5 from a few weeks ago was optimistically titled ‘The clouds part‘, but I’ve spent most of the time since being dissatisfied with my work to date and struggling to ‘find a way back in’ to this assignment… so the clouds hadn’t so much parted as shifted around slightly. However, I am finally starting to see real chinks of daylight.

My concerns

There have been two related obstacles:

  • Dissatisfaction with the content of the photos so far
  • Concerns that my concept may not be clearly communicated

Unhappy with my photographs

My basic problem over the last few weeks has been dissatisfaction with my photos taken so far.   I’ve taken over 500 photos in four locations over five shooting days since November last year. Very few of them are standing out as good photos individually, and almost no pairs of images to juxtapose are making themselves apparent to me. I have a strong sense of how I want these images to end up looking like, but am not yet being successful in finding subjects that match my visualisations.

Part of it is down to an ongoing debate I’m having with myself on whether to include people in the project or not (I will do a separate blog post on this particular point). Part of this is related to the conceptual communication point I come onto next.

Lacking confidence in the communication of the concept

As mentioned in several recent posts (a fact in itself that reveals how unsure I am about its clarity) my overarching communication intent is about the perils of oversimplification, and the conceptual approach I am taking is to juxtapose binary stereotypes (which happen to be based around the EU Referendum vote).

My fear is that using stereotypes to draw attention to stereotyping as a phenomenon is inherently risky, as there is a danger that the viewer simply sees the stereotyping… :-/

I needed to find a way of making the use of stereotypes more self-evidently deliberate and therefore significant.

My ideas

I have been wrapping my head around these two interrelated dilemmas and am gradually evolving my approach in a way that I think might – might – resolve both concerns.

Framework

First, I came to the conclusion that to improve the success rate of the photos themselves I needed some kind of framework to the images I want to capture – a shooting list. I’ve been shooting with two sets of keywords in my mind but it’s still been a little too vague to be useful. I need to really hone my visualisations down to a subject matter level.

In order to do this I also started thinking of ways of making the underpinning ‘stereotypes’ concept more obviously deliberate. I started thinking of how supporting text can be extremely useful, and so how to work stereotypes into the captions. To this end I enlisted some OCA Facebook buddies to brainstorm Remain and Leave stereotypes with me, and between us we came up with the following list:

  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Posh / Plebs
  • Experts / Man in the Street
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • The Establishment / The Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Thrivers & Strivers / Skivers & Survivors
  • Smug Liberals / Angry Bigots
  • Swots / Uneducated
  • Fat Cats / The Great Unwashed
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down & Out
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • Unpatriotic / Patriotic
  • Losers / Winners

A subset of these, or something similar, could become briefs for specific image pairings, and in turn appear as captions of some kind.

Presentation format

I’ve been trying to think creatively about how to visually communicate the message about binary oversimplification by using the exact Leave/Remain vote percentages from the specific towns and cities as the ratio of the two parts of the composite image.

My initial approach to this was quite straightforward, juxtaposing the pairs of images as two appropriately scaled rectangles:

However, I wasn’t sure whether this really drove home the binary categorisation that I was looking to project. I started thinking about infographics and data visualisation, and hit upon the idea of using a pie chart (it was National Pie Week…) with the segments labeled to form the captions:

Please note that I am not sure about these specific images – these are just mockups to test the concept.

My current feeling is that the visual concept does broadly work in terms of data visualisation, but it’s not necessarily easy (depending on the specific images) to visually decipher the two component parts due to the irregular frame shapes.

Hmmmmm…

Next steps

  • Review existing images (again) against the ‘stereotype pairings’ discussed above
  • Shoot new images with stereotype pairings as image briefs
  • Consider the pie chart visual treatment more, and potentially gather some peer feedback