I imagine the point of this week’s coursework is to encourage one to think about what a photograph actually is, what it might mean and try to express, and how all that might change completely depending on the context in which the photograph is presented. In the words of Allan Sekula, ‘The photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning’ (Sekula 1982: 91).
If one doesn’t do that, then trying to curate one’s photographs and assemble them into a portfolio that says something is going to be very hit and miss, not much more than ‘Well, this one doesn’t look too bad.’ Good curation strikes me as a learned skill that comes with practice.
Part of the process is opening oneself to the connections, patterns, suggestions that arise when a group of photographs is assembled together on a table, perhaps in no particular order. The task is to order them by finding those connections. Another part of the process is considering, carefully, what one is trying to say across a portfolio (or exhibition or book). It may be a story, and perhaps there are words with the images that help to form one. Or it may be an anti-story, a story that refuses a narrative, obliging us to concentrate only on the image before us, as with Cramer or Barth: ‘Images shot through with story and place, but which demand we ignore both place and story. This is what we are, they say, but what are we?’ (Darwent 2007 on Daniel Gustav Cramer). Either way, whether one believes that photographs are good at storytelling or not, behind it all there does sit ‘what are we?’. Paul Strand said that ‘Your photography is a record of your living’ (Adams and Byrne 1994: 119) and today, we might add, of your unconscious mind too.
I am locating my own practice in a long tradition of Fine Arts photographers who have either concentrated on the modern urban world, particularly in North America, or who have often concentrated on photography at night – there is plenty of overlap. Thus as influences I would cite among others William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power in the first group and Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and David George in the second group. But either group, of course, can be traced all the way back to practitioners like Stieglitz or Steichen.
My project is an exploration of my hometown – Oxford and its environs – after dark. My intent has three aspects. To express the uncanny, to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and the mundane (sometimes a part of the uncanny, in fact), and to show our modern urban world as I see it today, which means power relations and inequality. All of these aspects are found in one degree or another in the practitioners mentioned above. My challenge is to take this and distil it so that it becomes my own personal vision and not merely channelling or, worse, copying what others have done. That is a challenge every time I press the shutter and equally a challenge of curation too. It takes time and practice and is not the work of a moment.
Finally, the most original book I have read over this module is Hans Belting’s An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting sees the photograph (and possibly all of art) as primarily an exchange of gazes, the gaze of the photographer or artist and our own gaze. Belting calls this encounter ‘a symbolic perception’ (Belting 2014: 154) because he believes that images are distinct from the medium in which they appear. They float free and migrate across history from one medium to another, but they are always found in the present moment. I find this both comforting and very exciting. Every time we make an image of any kind, we are also returning to the caves at Lascaux. Uncanny.
ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.
BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
DARWENT, Charles. 2007. ‘Daniel Gustav Cramer: Mountain (Trilogy Part Three)’. Domobaal [online]. Available at: https://www.domobaal.com/exhibitions/41-07-daniel-gustav-cramer-07.html [accessed 22 Apr 2020].
SEKULA, Allan. 1982. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’. In Victor BURGIN (ed.). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan, 84–109.