PHO703 Week 6: Exhibitions

This week has been about thinking what an ‘exhibition’ really means and perhaps whether what we think of as an exhibition is really the best thing to be doing at all. In the end, one is offering one’s work to an audience and there are many ways of achieving that beyond the traditional gallery-style art exhibition. Installation art and participatory art are two of them, although the terms are double-edged. Is one going to allow the viewer to decide what the art is or is one going to impose an idea of art upon them?

I do agree with Brian O’Doherty (O’Doherty 1999) that the traditional gallery exhibition can be a trap. These spaces can impose an idea of what ‘art’ is and, in fact, their day may already have passed. In his words about these specialized and denuded places, ‘The ideal subtracts from the art work all cues that interfere with the fact that it is “art”. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. … Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial – the space is devoted to the technology of aesthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display’ (O’Doherty 1999: 14-15).

And, one might say, in an eternity of boredom, as a visit with teenagers to a large gallery or museum will soon reveal. I suspect that audiences today want more than these traditional forms of ‘high art’ that fix what ‘art’ means in the definitions of 150 years ago. They want an experience and they want to be involved. Pictures on a wall offer neither to most visitors. That might well not have been true before the era of mass media. Today, however, one can visit any gallery anywhere and view any work of art online. So the question is, what does the real, physical version have to offer that is compellingly different?

One answer is suggested by Claire Bishop who emphasizes that installation art is an experience of being there and being in it, something than an online offering cannot match:

‘Installation art therefore differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. Rather than imagining the viewer as a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance, installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. This insistence on the literal presence of the viewer is arguably the key characteristic of installation art’ (Bishop 2005: 6).

Another aspect of installation art is that it is decentring: ‘fantasies of “centring” perpetuated by dominant ideology are masculinist, racist and conservative; this is because there is no one “right” way of looking at the world, nor any privileged place from which such judgements can be made. As a consequence, installation art’s multiple perspectives are seen to subvert the Renaissance perspective model’ (Bishop 2005: 13). I think the same would probably apply to participatory art, community art, events and happenings, and in most contexts in which the viewer’s involvement is integral to the nature of the artwork being offered. And in the era of Black Lives Matter and the yearning for true equality among peoples, an awareness of centring and decentring is more important than ever.

No doubt there are other ways of approaching photographic art and its display. Charlotte Cotton (Cotton 2014) looks at many contemporary artists whose work combines different media and is very far from the nature of a traditional print: a flat rectangle with a probably indexical image inside, against a bare white wall. As she says, ‘In combination with other media, photography becomes just one phrase in an overall statement, subjected to a consciously ambiguous but highly specified treatment’ (Cotton 2014: 229).

How might these ideas affect my practice? I am not yet sure. A conventional gallery-style exhibition of my work at Falmouth has never figured in my plans, largely because exhibitions here in Oxford are difficult and expensive due to lack of suitable venues. However, a participatory event or an off-gallery collaboration of some kind might be easier to arrange and sounds far more attractive and enjoyable. So, I am glad to have had these new ideas put before me.

I think the challenge is this: how to offer something that allows the viewer to make their own choices about the ‘art’ involved, that engages and involves the viewer as an experience, and that does not offer the traditionally indexical photographic image as the be-all and end-all of the affair. To sound a little cheesy, perhaps, how does one allow the viewer to fall in love with the experience and remember it as an event that was really worth turning up for?

References

BISHOP, Claire. 2005. ‘Introduction’. In Claire BISHOP (ed.). Installation Art: A Critical History. London: Tate, 6–13.

COTTON, Charlotte. 2014. ‘Chapter 8: Physical and Material’. In Charlotte COTTON (ed.). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 218–49.

O’DOHERTY, Brian. 1999. ‘Notes on the Gallery Space’. In Brian O’DOHERTY (ed.). Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 13–34.

PHO703 Week 5: Three ‘Surfaces’

I have spent most of this week preparing for the Landings exhibition and looking at commissioning a book dummy. I have also read Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks (Colberg 2017) and Ralph Rugoff’s ‘You Talking to Me? On Curating Group Shows that Give You a Chance to Join the Group’ (Rugoff 2006).

Both were really helpful, especially Colberg’s book. After 25 years working in commercial book publishing, I know from my own experience that his key points are spot on. The points that emerged for me are

  • Who is going to buy this book? Without a convincing case for an audience interested enough and large enough to support the work by buying it, one does not have a project.
  • Collaboration is very important. A book is a team effort in many respects. It is a collaboration between reader and photographer. It is also a collaboration among the design and production team. A good curatorial eye from, say, an experienced graphic designer is very important.
  • A photobook must be conceived from the start as exactly that. It is not just a book that happens to contain photographs.
  • Clarity of concept and intention are absolutely vital. Without them, one cannot make a coherent case to the market about ‘Why buy this book?’ or ‘What subject section should the book go into?’ One cannot tell a strong story either, nor make a convincing marketing campaign (and marketing is key to sales).
  • Good curation and sequencing are absolutely vital, too, and are a much more nuanced affair than one might think. Good curation is an art in itself. It takes time and it also takes standing back from one’s own images enough to make informed judgements about what works and what does not work in a sequence. This means that part of the skill of a good photobook is skill at elimination at the editing stage. Most of what one does as a photographer will end up being left out. Yes, one has to learn to kill off one’s own babies sometimes.
  • The photobook represents an entire body of work in its own world. It is a place, a venue, somewhere to welcome in the visitor and let them explore. This means close attention to every detail of the world of the book – design, paper, size, binding, the cover, et al.
  • Compromises are inevitable. One is not aiming for the ideal book but for the very best book that can be made in the circumstances. Budgets (particularly) and deadlines are part of those circumstances.
  • Know your strengths and your weaknesses. If what you are really good at is making the images, then concentrate on that and find or hire the best advice you can to cover all the things you don’t know about. Otherwise, you are likely to end up with a rather amateur effort and in commercial publishing, at least, the amateurs almost always end up being dished by the professionals.

Ralph Rugoff’s essay was sparky and very enjoyable (Rugoff 2006). I am not sure how useful his points will be for my work at Falmouth, but I can already see how useful they will be for my work with Oxford Photographers (the collective to which I belong) since we usually hold a joint exhibition each year as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival. I love his emphasis on an exhibition as an experience, something we are in, respond to, move through. It is not just about pictures on a wall, devoid of all context – although that is what people often think of when they think of ‘art gallery’ or ‘museum’.

I particularly like Rugoff’s distinction between the story that an exhibition purports to tell – often its theme – and the story it actually tells which emerges from interactions among the works displayed and which might be quite different from the ostensible theme. In his words, ‘The best group shows thus take on some of the qualities of installation art: rather than a chance to contemplate isolated objects, they involve us in an implied yet elusive narrative that we end up putting together ourselves as we move through the exhibition. … Finally, and most importantly, good theme shows take risks in how they address their audiences’ (Rugoff 2006: 48).

So, overall, a week rich in new ideas.

References

COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.

RUGOFF, Ralph. 2006. ‘Chapter 4: You Talking To Me? On Curating Group Shows That Give You a Chance to Join the Group’. In Paula MARINCOLA (ed.). What Makes a Great Exhibition? Philadelphia: Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006, 44–51.

PHO703: Larry Towell

There is a good interview with the veteran Magnum photographer Larry Towell on Vice (Elkaim 2015). Towell is a one-off, a Canadian farmer and something of a log cabin recluse who is also a documentary photographer in powerful black and white of injustice and civil strife in Palestine and Central America, of Mennonite communities and of life from his own front porch (Towell 2020). Towell does not buy into much of the modern world, particularly social media which can easily become an ego-fuelled, celebrity-driven maze. He has some good comments for people who are starting out on serious photography, people like me in fact.

‘First of all, you will see change immediately, but the change will be you. You will change. That’s the first step. Beyond that, the bad guys will never tell you that you affected them. Sometimes change takes generations. The main thing is to be on the right side, and if you’re not on the right side… then you’re probably going to make a lot of money. But If you believe you have to change the world with your work, which is a very pretentious belief, then if you don’t change the world then you failed. But that’s the only way to look at it. The only thing that makes sense, so you have to be governed by an inner clock, an integrity. I think that’s what we should be doing. We lose it sometimes – I know lots of photographers who come in as journalists and go out as corporate advertising photographers making rather than $400 a day $15,000 a day. I know lots of those people. …

Fig. 1: Larry Towell 1988. El Salvador 23
Fig. 1: Larry Towell 1988. El Salvador 23.

‘The first book is always bad. At the time, you think it’s great. My first books, I won’t even show them to anybody. I’ve got boxes of them downstairs. I won’t even take them out.

‘It’s a process. Each one gets better, you get better at it, you become a better designer, you become a better photographer, or you become a better storyteller, become a better craftsman at your own work.

‘You have to be self motivated and you have to be able to take a lot of rejection. You have to be able to enjoy rejection until rejection becomes so wonderful that you just can’t wait to get another rejection so that you can get back to the grindstone so you can get more rejection. …

‘I guess the main thing is, you’ve got to get out of bed in the morning, you’ve got to get on a plane. Somehow, you have to find how to get somewhere and you have to be with the people you’re with. That’s all you can do. And not everybody is going to survive, let’s face it. There are two things everyone is in the world: one of them is a photographer and one of them is a poet.’

References

ELKAIM, Aaron Vincent. 2015. ‘You Will Change: Magnum Photographer Larry Towell Has Advice for Young Photojournalists’. Vice [online]. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/yvxpj7/you-will-change-magnum-photographer-larry-towell-has-advice-for-photojournalists-519 [accessed 09 Jul 2020].

TOWELL, Larry. 2020. ‘Larry’s General Store’. Larry’s General Store [online]. Available at: http://www.larrytowell.com/ [accessed 08 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Larry TOWELL. 1988. El Salvador 23.

PHO703 Weeks 3-5: Work in Progress

I have continued with my current research project, Hometown Nights, an exploration of my home city of Oxford after dark.

For the past few weeks I have mostly concentrated on the river Thames and the structures along its banks as it flows through the city. I still need a visit or two to the Oxford Canal, which begins here, and to one or two bridges as the Thames leaves Oxford – but, broadly, I have now covered most of this element of the project at least on a ‘first pass’ basis. It will look different, and in fact may look better, at other seasons of the year. We will see.

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Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. Converted warehouses near Osney
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Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. St Frideswide’s at Osney.
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Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. St Mary’s at Iffley.
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Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge.
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Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge.
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Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. A sluice near Osney.
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Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By River Garden.
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Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. The Folly at Folly Bridge.
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Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge.
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Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. Donnington Bridge.
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Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. In Osney.
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Fig. 12: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Osney.
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Fig. 13: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. The bank at River Park.
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Fig. 14: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. North from Osney Bridge.
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Fig. 15: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Donnington.
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Fig. 16: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge.
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Fig. 17: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. Osney Bridge.
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Fig. 18: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge.
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Fig. 19: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. The lock-keeper’s cottage at Iffley.
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Fig. 20: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights. In Iffley Village.

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Converted warehouses near Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. St Frideswide’s at Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. St Mary’s at Iffley. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. A sluice near Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 7. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By River Garden. Collection of the author.
Figure 8. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Folly at Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 9. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Donnington Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 11. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. In Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The bank at River Park. Collection of the author.
Figure 14. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. North from Osney Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 15. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Donnington. Collection of the author.
Figure 16. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 17. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Osney Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 18. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 19. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The lock-keeper’s cottage at Iffley. Collection of the author.
Figure 20. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. In Iffley Village. Collection of the author.

PHO703 Week 4: Using the Apparatus

My experience of this week’s activities:

We were asked about our relationship with our chosen apparatus. I do not really have a relationship with my chosen apparatus. It is just an electronic box – pleasant to use and it mostly does what I want. I am sure a dozen other, similar camera systems would also be both. So, overall, I am not particularly fussy about what I use. It just needs to be competent for the task in hand.

For this week’s activity – making images with a totally unfamiliar apparatus – I chose an old Canon compact camera I have never used before and probably about 15 years old. To be frank, I though it was rubbish. It was poorly designed with very small and fiddly controls and the images it produced were crude in the extreme. Any modern smartphone would be better than this by an order of magnitude. The Japanese camera industry’s decline has roots long in the making.

I used to do a lot of ‘contemplative photography’ as part of a meditation programme. It was called Miksang which is Tibetan for ‘good eye’. The basic idea is to meditate for half an hour, then go out with a camera while trying to maintain the meditation but with a specific task in mind: for example, looking for a certain colour, looking for only dots or splashes of colour, looking for textures, looking for space (my favourite), and so forth. No photograph would be made unless there was a ‘flash’ of recognition and contact with something in the physical world. When that happened, the task was to use the photograph to express that moment of recognition, which is not necessarily the same as simply showing what is there. Andy Karr and Michael Wood organized these ideas into a programme and published them as a book (Karr and Wood 2011).

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘contemplative photography’. As a mindfulness practice, it is somewhat based on the Zen idea that if the archer’s mind is clear and empty of all discursive thought (i.e. distractions) then the arrow has already hit the target before it is released. Or, the image has already been made (in the mind) before the shutter is pressed. These ideas do express a truth, in my view.

I can see this being a way towards the freedom that Flusser talks about (Flusser 2000: 81-2), because if the image has already been made in the mind then it is free of dependence on an apparatus. I should probably make more of these ideas in my practice, because I know from experience how useful they can be. I don’t think they are suitable for every circumstance but they probably tie in quite closely with my temperament and with my current project.

I made five images with the Canon compact, as requested. I also made a completely accidental ghosted exposure with my regular camera while having to move it a couple of times during a long exposure. The results are quite pleasing, in fact. I have experimented with the results in Photoshop, to see how they might look if expressed in other ways. However, the problem that soon arose is that experimentation is aimless without a clear intent. I do not have a clear intent so at present experimentation is just messing around. While that’s fine, I do not feel it is productive.

So for now I will leave these experiments and ideas and let them swirl around in my unconscious. Later, something new will probably emerge. I have to be patient.

References

FLUSSER, Vilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion, 76–82.

KARR, Andy and Michael WOOD. 2011. The Practice of Contemplative Photography : Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes. 1st ed. Boston: Shambhala.

 

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Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, taken with an old Canon compact camera and the jpeg converted to black and white in Silver Efex.
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Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, This image was made by converting Fig. 1 above using Photoshop warp and paint filters and then applying a split tone using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
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Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley – accidental image ghosting caused by moving the camera during a long exposure. This image was made with my regular Olympus camera.
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Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by applying a Photoshop mosaic filter to Fig. 3 above, using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
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Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a (digital) cyanotype using Photoshop.
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Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a split tone using Photoshop. The key colours are taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.

Figures

Figure 1: Mark CREAN. 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, taken with an old Canon compact camera and the jpeg converted to black and white in Silver Efex. Collection of the author.
Figure 2: Mark CREAN. 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, This image was made by converting Fig. 1 above using Photoshop warp and paint filters and then applying a split tone using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley – accidental image ghosting caused by moving the camera during a long exposure. This image was made with my regular Olympus camera. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by applying a Photoshop mosaic filter to Fig. 3 above, using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a (digital) cyanotype using Photoshop. Collection of the author.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a split tone using Photoshop. The key colours are taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.