PHO703 Week 2: Strategies of Mediation

The best overall reference to mediation have found is Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation : Understanding New Media (Bolter and Grusin 2000). This sets out the ground and describes some of the basic terms.

Questions this subject raises for me are these:

What is and what is not a ‘photograph’? Can any photograph any longer said to be transparent and immediate? For Barthes, this was key to the photograph’s power: ‘More than other arts, Photography offers an immediate presence to the world’ (Barthes 2000: 84). However, as Bolter and Grusin point out, ‘Although Barthes does not discuss digital photography, clearly any reworked photograph can no longer enjoy this simple and powerful relationship to the past. It becomes instead an image of a second order, a comment on a photograph or on photography itself, and therefore a representation of the desire for immediacy’ (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 110).

Is any photograph (or any other work of art) ever finished? Appropriation and remixing by later artists gives almost any work or idea an indefinite life. Perhaps we are really dealing here not with images but with symbols that migrate across media over time: ‘the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph’ (McLuhan 1964: 23-24).

Are appropriation and remixing really ways of accommodating – and understanding – the past in the present? Time is essentially a mystery to us. ‘Appropriation then is about performing the unresolved by staging object, images or allegories that invoke the ghosts of unclosed histories in a way that allows them to appear as ghosts and reveal the nature of the ambiguous presence’ (Verwoert 2007: 7). The ambiguous presence of the past is very much what Tacita Dean seems to be expressing in Floh.

Can one any longer say there exists an ‘author’ of any work, and if there exists no author then can anything be said to original?  ‘ … it can be argued that in the contemporary world innovation is possible only within the framework of a practice of remix … Remix culture can therefore be seen as the final destination of that process of disintegration of the modernist myth of originality … It is therefore only in the remix culture that the originality, in its literal sense of something that exists from the beginning or something that is not copied or imitated, finally dies’ (Campanelli 2017: 77-78).

These ideas are something of a Wow! to take in all at once in one’s practice. So this is currently where I am:

Appropriation strikes me as a normal part of human history. There are ethical concerns around it and there are also copyright laws. The important thing for an artist, however, is to bring it off with some imagination and pizzazz.

The remixing I most enjoy is by artists such as Tom Hunter, Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. I will single out here Tom Hunter’s series Persons Unknown, after Vermeer, a superb reinterpretation of another artist’s vision (Hunter 2020). It captures not only the aesthetic qualities of light but also Vermeer’s domestic settings, while adding some real social bite about equality in a society obsessed with private property. It is also a carefully considered work, as Hunter’s own essay on the project’s development shows (Hunter 2011).

tom hunter woman reading a possession order
Fig. 1: Tom Hunter 2011. Woman Reading a Possession Order.

Does it matter if everything has already been photographed? Not really, because nearly everything has not yet been photographed by me. That is all I worry about.

Am I doomed to the unoriginal unless I remix my work? I think that is the wrong question. I am not in this to be original but for self-expression. The challenge therefore is to find a mode of self-expression as free as possible of unconscious biases and repetitions. This is a Jungian project, in fact, to uncover and integrate the shadow (Hollis 2010). The result manifests in images.

Do I need to be the author of my own photographs, in the modernist sense of sole fabricator (and Romantic hero)? Yes, because the act of making a photograph is an intentional act, following Szarkowski’s ‘five things’ (Szarkowski 1980) or Berger’s view that ‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292).

Do I plan to remix images in my own project in the sense of combining images into collages or composites? No, I do not plan to do this.

Do I plan to remix images by acknowledging or appropriating some of the masterworks from the photographic canon? Yes, I am very open to this if I can find a way that is playful, original and relevant to contemporary concerns. I do not know how to do this at the present moment, but it is an important idea I would like to keep in mind. Likely it would not be difficult to re-stage of some the classic night-time shots of Brandt or Brassaï, for example even though, right now, my intent is different, concentrating on the unpeopled and uncanny.

Can I remix the outcome of my practice by presenting it as more than, say, a conventional fine art photography book? Yes, very much so. For example, I could collaborate with a writer as David George has done (Falconer and George 2015), or with a film-maker or any other artist. I could open an online gallery (and Instagram account) in which my images are only the starter for similar work by many others. The result would be a wider collaboration on night photography and probably much the stronger for it. This might be more of a proposition for a gallery curator than just one person’s work. And I can present my work in many different ways, for example through zines, postcards or videos on YouTube. I could even make it didactic, for example offering an online tutorial course on night photography skills using my images as the starting point.

The greatest remixes of all, I think, are Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures know as the ‘Prisoners’ or ‘Slaves’. The reason is that in order to free these forms from their imprisoning blocks, the viewer must remix what is seen purely as an act of his or her imagination. No viewer will ever free the prisoners in the same way. Ultimately, therefore, remixing is an act of imagination. It is all in the mind.

References

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

BOLTER, J David and Richard A GRUSIN. 2000. Remediation : Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts : MIT Press.

CAMPANELLI, Vito. 2017. ‘Toward a Remix Culture: An Existential Perspective’. In Eduardo NAVAS, Owen GALLAGHER, and Xtine BURROUGH (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. New York: Routledge, 68–82.

FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

HOLLIS, James. 2010. What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. Reprint ed. New York: J. P. Tarcher/Penguin Putnam.

HUNTER, Tom. 2020. ‘Persons Unknown’. Tom Hunter [online]. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/persons-unknown/ [accessed 21 Jun 2020].

HUNTER, Tom. 2011. ‘Under the Influence’. Tom Hunter [online]. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/ [accessed 21 Jun 2020].

MCLUHAN, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1980. ‘Introduction [IN] The Photographer’s Eye’. In John SZARKOWSKI (ed.). The Photographer’s Eye. London: Secker and Warburg, 6–11.

TRACHTENBERG, Alan. 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, Conn: Leete’s Island Books.

VERWOERT, Jan. 2007. ‘Apropos Appropriation: Why Stealing Images Today Feels Different’. Art & Research 1(2), [online]. Available at: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/verwoert.html [accessed 14 Jun 2020]

Figures

Figure 1. Tom HUNTER. 2011. Woman Reading a Possession Order. From: Tom Hunter. 2020. ‘Persons Unknown’. Tom Hunter [online]. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/persons-unknown/ [accessed 21 Jun 2020].