PHO702 Week 6: A Sea of Images

Two things in particular stood out for me this week. First is the degree to which our images put out a view of the world – an ideology, in fact – whether we are aware of it or not. And second, that in a largely visual culture now almost drowning in images, it is easy to forget that what we may take to be real, solid, permanent very often isn’t at all. What is required here is what Andy Grundberg identified in his review of the 1988 exhibition ‘Odyssey: the Art of Photography at National Geographic’ (Grundberg 1998): ‘Rather than approach the Geographic archive as a resource that required decoding and a context, they apparently settled for connoisseurship. … what is required is a critical point of view’ (Grundberg 1998).

So what arises is the question of objectification in images, intentional or otherwise. While this was certainly the case in the long-gone glory days of National Geographic and its coverage of tribal cultures around the world, in fairness National Geographic never claimed to offer more than ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. Like Life magazine, National Geographic was a very successful piece of popular culture, and perhaps it still is though much of its output is now online. National Geographic offered a window on the world to many people who had no other and it also offered a host of science-based articles on animal behaviour, biology, archaeology and so on. It is easy to be overly critical of the National Geographic approach. In the magazine’s heyday, many of its readers would have been aware of a very different reality – war, famine and chaos – around the world offered to them nightly on TV news, so perhaps they saw through the dream too but enjoyed it all the same.

Nevertheless, the need for contextualization and decoding remains and is important. (They are, to begin with, a foundational approach to dealing with advertising.) Examples are the objects of popular culture decoded with striking insight by Roland Barthes in Mythologies (Barthes 2009). This approach has been wittily updated by Peter Conrad in his BBC Radio 4 series 21st Century Mythologies (Conrad 2014). The upshot is that is it easy to see the surface and miss the deeper picture, whether it is the story and power dynamics behind the Nando’s Chicken franchise or the Shard (Conrad) or behind wrestling spectacles or steak frites (Barthes). Many practitioners do try to contextualize their work, too. Stephen Shore has talked widely about his practice (Shaw 2018), as has Richard Misrach (Harris 2015). The essays and reviews of Robert Adams can all be read as contextualizations of his landscape practice (Adams 1981) which then emerges in bodies of work such as Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986).

However, the message of the week is that the sheer number of images in our world makes contextualization and decoding both harder and more important than it used to be. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 79). In Simulcra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggested that the modern world’s multiplication of signs, symbols and images leads us to take representations for reality, or even representations of representations for reality (Baudrillard 1994). Baudrillard went on to say that ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland … The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp’ (Baudrillard 1994: 12-13). – statements that have stuck because, I suspect, they are both absurd and strangely true at the same time.

A final point. Images can also show us what we cannot normally see, often because something happens too quickly for our ordinary vision. In this regard images can heighten our reality – the hyper-real. This is a problem in the Baudrillardian sense because we can only actually see a representation of what happened – for example, a bullet passing through an object in a millisecond. However, this is also a source of art and freedom. At their best, images which catch these things freeze a moment from the flow of time and offer it to us as something that was there – a fleeting combination of elements – but which normally we simply would not notice. An example is this tableau by Alex Webb, a moment when everything came together, then fell apart (Webb 2020).

WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti
Fig. 1: Alex Webb 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti.

I shall be covering my work in progress and how this week’s idea impact it in a following post.

References

ADAMS, Robert. 1981. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Millertown, N.Y. : New York: Aperture .

ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

CONRAD, Peter. 2014. 21st Century Mythologies. [radio broadcast]. BBC Radio 4, 2014.

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1998. ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. New York Times 18 Sep [online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html?pagewanted=all [accessed 04 Mar 2020]

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. MOMA video [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

WEBB, Alex. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H [accessed 25 Mar 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Alex WEBB. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti. From: Alex WEBB. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H [accessed 25 Mar 2020].

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze and My Practice

In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:

… all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal (Harris 2015).

Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.

To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.

I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.

First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig,1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.

For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.

CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2019. Oxford at Night.

Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:

First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.

I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.

There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.

References

ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html [accessed 25 February 2020].

Figures

Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze

The gaze – how we look at and in turn are looked at – is a wide and complex subject. I am not sure how much I have taken in after barely a week’s acquaintance so I have divided this topic into two parts. Here, I will say what I understand so far about the gaze and in the next post I will try to explain how I think it impacts my photographic practice.

The consensus is that the gaze is about power. It is the expression of a society’s power relations and the degree to which we objectify others. Photography itself is also an expression of power.

The best definition I have found so far is from Sturken and Cartwright: ‘To gaze is to enter into a relational activity of looking. … The gaze, whether institutional or individual, thus helps to establish relationships of power. The act of looking is commonly regarded as awarding more power to the person who is the object of the look. The traditional of institutional photography, in which prisoners, mental patients, and people of various types were photographed and catalogued … function to varying degrees to represent codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness’ (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 94, 111).

Ironically, the gaze is easiest to see when furthest away. It is very hard to see in oneself. Thus is it not hard to recognize the colonial gaze fixed upon unruly natives, the cold gaze of the penal system (‘mugshots’), the dehumanizing forensic stare of the medical gaze at least in the nineteenth century or the bizarre humiliations arising from the gaze of crackpot theories like eugenics. There are also the gazes of class and privilege – think Eton or Harrow, household servants, miners or today migrants and refugees. See Figure 1.

Jimmy Syme-toughs-v-toffs-1937
Fig. 1.: Jimmy Syme 1937. Toffs and Toughs. This classic image was taken outside the Grace Gates at Lord’s Cricket Ground during the Eton v Harrow cricket match. However, it is important to remember that the class (power) relations it shows are mediated by both the photographer’s choices and the context in which the image was shown (a newspaper).

But all that, one might argue, is ancient history. In recent years critics and practitioners have turned their attention to the gazes that define the power relations of the contemporary. Thus the male gaze and patriarchy in general have become a key element of feminist discourse (Mulvey 1975) and extend into subjects not immediately obvious, such as landscape photography (Bright 1985). This in turn has spawned an interest in the female gaze (Jansen 2017). I suppose I should bring in voyeurism and scopophilia here but I will try to cover those in my next post.

These things are important because they define the fault lines that run through our societies now. For example, our attitudes towards disability, race, ethnicity and gender have changed greatly in the past half century. How we look – our gaze – reflects those changes. Unless we are aware of these things, we will understand neither current social issues nor artists and practitioners creatively involved with them. Another example is the many expressions of the gaze and of social issues in portrait photography (Angier 2015).

However, in each case it is important to remember that the gaze is mediated by the photographer. How the photographer chooses to make the image is also a form of gaze and will have a influence on how we read the result. This matters because visual experience is not nearly so straightforward as we may think.

Vision is a reciprocal process and reality is largely a mental construct. That what we see is created inside our heads – a blend of vision, personal experience and learned behaviour – is in the opening verses of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). James Elkins has the modern take on this: ‘My principal argument has been that vision is forever incomplete and uncontrollable because it is used to shape our sense of what we are. Objects molt and alter in accord with what we need them to be, and we change ourselves by the mere acting of seeing’ (Elkins 1997: 237).

Looking as a culturally determined and learned behaviour has a long history. Larry Friedlander has an interesting essay on this considering among other things Rembrandt’s portraits, particularly his self-portraits, and ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez (Friedlander 2011). Of course both Rembrandt and Velázquez were expressing their own conditioning and the cultural assumptions of their time, but the point is that their paintings suggest they were well aware that a complex and reciprocal process of ‘looking at’ was involved.

The object does indeed stare back and each time we look at it both we and the object have changed. By the time one gets to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863), the process has become much clearer and both the nature of the gaze and our ability to understand what is going on are far more overt. ‘Olympia’ caused a stir we can very easily understand today, given that it depicts a courtesan who is defiantly not submissive: ‘the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position’ ( Butler 1990: vii). See Figure 2.

Edouard-Manet-Olympia-1865
Fig. 2: Edouard Manet 1863. Olympia. The ‘Odalisque’ stares back.

The study of painting makes clear that the gaze is not binary. We look at and are looked at, but we also look into a painting (or text) and the objects inside it may look back at us and/or at each other, or they simply look outside the frame altogether. And in photographic terms, the lens adds a kind of meta-gaze across the whole field. This is a cat’s cradle of reciprocity and is not at all easy to unpick.

Two final points have arisen from this for me. First, in none of the week’s readings has there been much mention of wonder, curiosity, lyricism, even joy, or the calm and neutral meditative gaze encouraged by for example Zen Buddhism and which has in turn inspired a whole movement in contemplative and dharma arts including photography. One might argue that these are hardly pressing social issues but it is wearisome to live in a world of politics alone, one that has no time for the extraordinary talents of a Lartigue.

Second, I wonder whether it is possible to flip the gaze. The key ingredient here is trust. This is a subject well touched on by Teju Cole discussing the work of African photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Zanele Muholi in the post-colonial and post-apartheid eras (Cole 2017: 121-5). Once there was fear and distrust but after independence people were able to meet as equals and therefore as themselves. Keïta’s famous ‘Odalisque’ (‘Reclining Woman’ from the 1950s–1960s) offers a proud, free, independent woman. And as Cole says of Muholi, ‘ … she shows people as they wish to be seen. … Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence – they are independent – but she makes their independence visible’ (Cole 2017: 124). See Figure 3.

Zanele-Muholi-Ntozakhe-II-Parktown-Johannesburg-2016
Fig. 3: Zaneli. Muholi 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

In other words, the gaze and its politicising tendencies are a form of imprisonment. We impose our values on something and thereby objectify it. But when people trust that they are meeting as independent equals, there is no need for such power plays. The gaze falls away, leaving what it was always trying to deny or to destroy: freedom.

References

ANGIER, Roswell. 2015. Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. 2nd edn. London: Fairchild Books/Bloomsbury.

BRIGHT, Deborah. 1985. ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’. Exposure 23(1), Winter [online]. Available at http://www.deborahbright.net/PDF/Bright-Marlboro.pdf. [accessed 25 February 2020].

BUTLER, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, vii

COLE, Teju. 2017. Known and Strange Things : Essays. London: Faber & Faber.

ELKINS, James. 1997. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

FRIEDLANDER, Larry. 2011. ‘Friending the Virgin’. SAGE Open 1(2), 215824401141542 [online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244011415423 [accessed 25 Feb 2020].

FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.

JANSEN, Charlotte. 2017. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. British Journal of Photography (Issue 7859. Vol. 164. May 2017). London: British Journal of Photography.

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html [accessed 25 February 2020].

STURKEN, Marita and Lisa CARTWRIGHT. 2009. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press.

Figures

Figure 1. Jimmy SYME. 1937. Toffs and Toughs.
Figure 2. Edouard MANET. 1863. ‘Olympia’. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Figure 3. Muholi ZANELI. 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

PHO702 Week 4: Advertising

My understanding is that the point of the week’s overall topic – advertising – is to learn how to study and ‘read’ an image very carefully in order to tease out the intent(s) the image expresses. This is particularly clear in the case of advertising because by its very nature the advertisement is highly likely to be full of manipulative or hidden intents in order to persuade us to do something not necessarily in our best interests – following on from Barthes’ classic exposition of the (Panzani) advertisement in his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes 1977).

Such a study can then be put to very good use when we focus on the intent in the images we make ourselves. And it is also true that the images we make ourselves may contain hidden messages – that is, unconscious assumptions or biases we have not yet revealed to ourselves but which others can see.

So overall, I found this a very useful lesson. However, not an easy lesson to learn because in the case of advertising I am simply an oppositional person to all forms of it because I am looking at an advert. I am not really a fully signed-up member of the status quo and I try quite hard to keep advertising and other intrusive things (like ‘news’ which isn’t and lots of TV) out of my life. This means that dominant and negotiated readings (to bring in the full trifecta) don’t come into my view of advertising whereas they do very much with, for examples, the practice of other photographers or with cinema.

However, looking is a reciprocal process. Looking at an advert can change the way I think, and knowing more about its background can change how I think about it too. For example, I did not know when I wrote below about a Nespresso advert that George Clooney had used some of his endorsement fees to support the people of the Sudan (Nguyen 2013). Or that Clooney recently expressed support for a report which revealed the user of child labour on coffee plantations in Guatemala (Guardian 2020). Good man. It’s just a job and it is only an advert.

Anyway, this is an abbreviated version of what I wrote about advertising in the weekly discussion forum:

This is a Nestlé Nespresso advertisement featuring George Clooney who is or was the face of the brand.

nespresso-george-clooney-2020
Fig. 1: An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

As with all advertisements, I think it pays to look first at what the parent corporation says about its brand values:

‘Nespresso is not just a coffee. It is a sensorial experience. It is a lifestyle that is simple yet refined, offering timeless elegance … We continually infuse our brand with original ideas, flavours and innovations … Nespresso enhances the consumer experience with creative offerings at every touchpoint. This includes our presence at exclusive events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Le Bocuse d’Or. Our association with some of the most celebrated talents in design and gastronomy brings to life the perfect coffee moments enjoyed by consumers worldwide. … Nespresso has fostered a passionate global community with some of the most discerning coffee connoisseurs. Our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit and dedication to quality, style and service. They have made Nespresso a part of their lifestyle’ (Nestlé Nespresso 2020).

I am sure this advert has multiple meanings appealing to different people. Clooney is himself a brand, of course, so to begin with we have a double encoding, a brand within a brand.

Clooney’s brand values include elegance, discernment, unruffled success and sexual appeal. He is shown here in a dark, deeply lit, somewhat devilish light which I presume ties in with the brand’s stress on the exclusive, the passionate, the refined and the elegant. But – since the brand cannot speak of this openly – the advert’s unstated intended meaning suggests that behind these socially acceptable qualities lie dark, saturnine powers of caffeinated sexual potency that only Nespresso can elicit (hence the black expresso in Clooney’s hand). Another, similar advert shows Clooney with a finger on a gold Nespresso capsule in an obviously suggestive way so not much is left to the imagination here.

I interpret the strap line ‘What else?’ as saying two things at once. The stated meaning is that Nespresso is the default choice for the discerning connoisseur. The unstated meaning is buy this or else – there is no other choice. What else … nothing else. A slight sweetener is provided by the line in Portuguese ‘Café com corpo e alma’. This implies one might be taking part in something authentically ethnic (Brazilian) but in reality Nestlé is a Swiss-based multinational and the  more pressing  Brazilian connection – poverty and slavery – was revealed by the Guardian newspaper in 2016 (see below).

It is also important to note the presence of a Nespresso machine in this and almost all the other adverts I have seen. Nespresso works by trying to lock people in to buying coffee capsules from the manufacturer. This rather crude though successful and widespread retail model is here presented as membership of an exclusive club (‘our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit …’). So by purchasing a packet of Nespresso capsules or opening an online account you too can make a lifestyle choice, roll with George and become a sophisticated multi-millionaire sex bomb.

However, I do worry that decoding advertising in this way is also potentially missing the point. The real issue for our societies is not what the advert ‘really’ means but what it says about the power relations of major brands and their sometimes unwholesome effects on our lives. So the story with Nespresso is not really about Clooney. It is about sustainability, environmental damage and headlines like ‘Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations’ (Guardian 2016). These are what matter, I would argue.

References

BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

GUARDIAN. 2016. ‘Nestlé Admits Slave Labour Risk on Brazil Coffee Plantations’. The Guardian 2 Mar [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/02/nestle-admits-slave-labour-risk-on-brazil-coffee-plantations [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

GUARDIAN. 2020. ‘Children as Young as Eight Picked Coffee Beans on Farms Supplying Starbucks’. The Guardian 1 Mar [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/01/children-work-for-pittance-to-pick-coffee-beans-used-by-starbucks-and-nespresso [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

NESTLÉ Nespresso. 2020. ‘Nestlé Nespresso: Brand Essence’. ‘Nestlé Nespresso [online]. Available at: https://www.nestle-nespresso.com/brand/brand-essence [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

NGUYEN, Vi-An. 2013. ‘George Clooney Uses Nespresso Money for Satellite to Spy on Sudan Dictator’. Parade [online]. Available at: https://parade.com/59699/viannguyen/george-clooney-uses-nespresso-money-for-satellite-to-spy-on-sudan-dictator/ [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Undated. An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

PHO702 Week 3: Independent Reflections

The brief this week is to ‘find an image that interests you regarding multiple interpretations of the world and a “constructed” approach’.

The image I have chosen is from Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (Soth 2017). It is captioned ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002’. See Figure 1.

SOTH, A. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota
Fig. 1: Alec Soth 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota.

Like all the portraits in this book, the photograph strikes me as substantially posed. An important reason for that is the use of an 8” x 10” field camera which necessitates ‘slow photography’ and a formal procedure.

Charles is shown wearing overalls, a balaclava, thick gloves and holding two model aeroplanes. He could be a modelling hobbyist emerging from his studio but given that he is holding model aeroplanes of a fairly vintage design he could also be acting the part of an early aviation pioneer and particularly in American terms Charles Lindbergh (this observation is not original to me), in the overalls, gloves and floppy leather headgear of the early aviators. The image therefore becomes iconic and carries a shot of American myth-making.

However, other elements in the image run counter to this. Charles looks a little eccentric (the round John Lennon glasses) and scruffy and down at heel (note the stained overalls, worn shoes and rough-cut hair). He is standing, possibly on a roof, in a rather dilapidated spot among pieces of building material such as a breeze-block. The weather looks like bleak midwinter, maybe by a house, maybe on a river boat. The image adds a touch of uncertainty and disorientation in this respect.

The suggestion therefore is that Charles is quite possibly a bit of an outsider, perhaps a loner, a rather eccentric person on the margins, in a tough spot, someone who does not find life easy. On the other hand, the image’s uncertain aspects, muted colours, shallow depth of field and light contrast – all somewhat dreamy – undercut that a little. Yes, that may be true but one cannot be entirely sure. There is both fact and fiction in this gentle image.

Alec Soth’s book is full of similar characters. In my view they are portrayed with restraint, compassion and understanding although they are often posed or set up to plug into America’s native myths. No judgement is involved. (See also the superb portrait later in the book, ‘Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002’. I have admired a print but unfortunately it was £10,000.)

I am simply pointing out that many of the portraits in Sleeping by the Mississippi can be ‘read’ in more than one way and it looks to me as if Alec Soth set them up with that in mind. These are not just characters. They are American characters and part of the American foundation story.

Why do I read these portraits in the way I do? First because Alec Soth has said of making his images: ‘The process is a little bit like day dreaming. I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination’ (Bubich 2015). This is exactly what I like to do. I do not like to stray too far into fiction even though I do feel that much of the power of a photograph happens when ‘the poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation’ (Wall and Galassi 2007: 337).

Second, because I too have an affinity for the marginal and the dispossessed. Somehow I just know. Perhaps I tend to notice them more or feel that way myself.

Third, because I am strongly opposed to the museum-gallery complex and its steam-rollering tendencies. Fashionable artists come ready-packaged like luxury products. It is almost impossible to approach their work fresh. One is told exactly what their work is about, what it references and what one should think of  it. I have found this a difficulty with truly appreciating the practice of Jeff Wall. I like and admire Wall very much, an unusually thoughtful and original artist. But add in the Gagosian connection, the multi-million sale prices and the forests of adoring and often rather empty comments on every website, and my feeling is that Wall’s best work risks being swallowed up by commerce and fashion.

I would position my own photographic practice much closer to Soth than to Wall or for example Crewdson, Hunter or Sherman. Without some kind of anchoring reality to the world and my fellow humans, I think the risk is of emotionally dead work trumpeted as intensely real but which is more likely to be intensely unreal and rather stilted. I have certainly felt that looking at the work of Crewsdon, Hunter and Sherman. I hugely admire their artistry and awesome technical and organizational skills but the results are too conceptual and they simply do not sing to me.

I do not feel that way with Wall: perhaps he is a finer artist or I am just more on his wavelength. I wanted to analyse his superb ‘Card Players’ of 2006 and its Cézanne connection for this CRJ entry but soon realized that it was impossible to approach it other than through reams of pre-existing comments and opinions, the packaging of the luxury good. There seemed no chance of a fresh view. A pity; it is a marvellous work with a witty touch.

References

BUBICH, Olga. 2015. ‘Alec Soth: “Photography Is a Unique Pursuit with Its Own Mix of Variables”‘. Bleek Magazine [online]. Available at: http://bleek-magazine.com/interviews/alec-soth/ [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. London: MACK.

WALL, Jeff and Peter GALASSI. 2007. Jeff Wall: Selected Essays & Interviews. New York: MOMA

Figures

Figure 1. Alec SOTH. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. From:  Alec Soth, Patricia Hampl and Anne Tucker. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. London: MACK.

PHO702 Week 2: Further Questions of Authenticity

The second question for discussion this week was about further questions of artifice and representation, and whether ‘photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation’. This takes one back to the well-known article of 1975 ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ by Allen and Snyder asking whether there is anything peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography (Allen and Snyder 1975).

Allen and Snyder’s article is written by two sparky people who give the impression they enjoyed writing it. However, it is quite hard to work out what the take-away is. Once you have discounted the visual model, then the mechanical mode, then deconstructed Dennis Stock’s image of James Dean, what is left? Perhaps only: ‘We can also ask what it [a photograph] means, who made it, for whom was it made, and why it was made in the way it was made’ (Allen and Snyder 1975: 169). That, and acknowledging that looking at a photograph is an experience, not an intellectual exercise.

The pitch that photography is special and different, and that it requires unique evaluative tools, strikes me as yesterday’s argument. Does it matter? Photography is now long established as a contemporary artistic practice and various forms of it almost swamp our daily life. Photography’s field is far wider than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, encompassing video and multi-media, it is considered much more ephemeral and a huge proportion of it today (on social media) is much more casual. And since Allen and Snyder wrote, photography has also embraced fiction (typified by the work of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson), something that began in the experiments of conceptual art in the 1960s. In fact, you could say that today fiction in photography has long been normalized and the photograph freed from being chained to truth by representation.

I can think of only two things that may – only may – distinguish the photograph. The first is that all photographs are and always will be deeply and essentially ambiguous. That is the source of their power and it derives from the tension between representation and reality. We know we are seeing a representation, but a part of us still sees it as real. We can never be sure how much is a representation we have made up ourselves and how much is ‘real’, meaning a direct indexical trace of what was there. We can never be sure we are reading the photograph accurately, and yet a part of us always thinks we are. It is neatly phrased in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth and the myth that it doesn’t.

This was one of the points of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of portraits from 1999 using wax models created by Madame Tussaud’s. They challenged the notion that we can understand a person’s inner character merely by looking at a photographic representation of them. As Sugimoto has himself said of these works, ‘If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now’ (Sugimoto 2020). We are not our photographs.

SUGIMOTO, H. 1999. Fidel Castro.
Fig. 1: Hiroshi Sugimoto 1999. Fidel Castro. The image shows a wax model created by the staff of Madame Tussaud’s.

The second aspect is that whatever is seen is altered by the act of being photographed and presented as art. This is an often-made point that, for me, is related to the selectivity the photographer has employed and the context in which the image is presented. This is also expressed in Stephen Shore’s remark that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it’ (Shore 2007: 97). The classic example here is William Eggleston’s 1970 image of a child’s tricycle, Untitled (Memphis). Just a rather battered child’s trike? No. Anything but. The same is true of Shore’s 1975 image of an LA gas station. Both images changed the way we look at the world by depicting things in a way they had not been seen before.

Fig. 2: Stephen Shore 1975. Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California.

A third aspect, possibly, is suggested by Hans Belting: ‘photography reproduces the gaze that we cast upon the world’ (Belting 2011: 154). Viewing a photograph is an exchange of gazes – ours and the photographer’s (and, depending on the image, that which gazes back at us). Photography for Belting is a medium between two gazes; ‘We see the world with the gaze of another, a past gaze, but we trust that it could also be our present gaze’ (Belting 2011: 154). The argument, in essence, is that all images are symbols and therefore it’s all in the mind.

So, two criteria possibly unique to photography and a third for consideration. How does this relate to my practice? The honest answer is that I don’t yet know. I am certainly aware of ambiguity and consider it very important. Changing how we think of something through the way it is represented photographically sounds rather like magic and I would like to explore this idea a lot more. Hans Belting’s notion of rooting photography in an exchange of gazes is intriguing, not least because it neatly sidesteps the whole of the reality-representation debate, but I have not yet worked out whether the idea really stands up and can have a practical expression.

References

ALLEN, Neil Walsh and Joel SNYDER. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 2(1), 143–69 [online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1342806 [accessed 12 Feb 2020].

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SUGIMOTO, Hiroshi. 2020. ‘Portraits’. Hiroshi Sugimoto [online]. Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/new-page-50 [accessed 12 Feb 2020].

Figures

Figure 1.  Hiroshi SUGIMOTO. 1999. Fidel Castro. From: Hiroshi Sugimoto. 2020. ‘Portraits’. Hiroshi Sugimoto [online]. Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/new-page-50 [accessed 12 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Stephen SHORE. 1975. Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California.

PHO702 Week 2: Authentication and Representation

The question in the main discussion forum this week was what Roland Barthes may have meant when he said in Camera Lucida: ‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’ (Barthes 1980: 89) – and how this might affect both my own practice and that of others.

I think Roland Barthes may be saying that the evidential force of a photograph is often taken to be greater than whatever it depicts. Thus the fact of being shown a photograph of himself at an event he had forgotten all about is more forceful than the fact that he was there: ‘And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where)’ (Barthes 2000: 85). But, crucially, Barthes qualifies this by saying that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not in fact about the object depicted but about time (Barthes 2000: 89).

We can and do make common-sense assumptions about photographs being directly representational, but even so the reality-appearance debate is on very shaky ground. It has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted in people by showing them doctored photographs of them doing things they have never in fact done (Wade 2002). And the apparent ‘reality’ of a photograph might be a simulacrum: how real is Disneyland? Perhaps reality is only a shifting mental construction. Probably we should bear in mind that an ambiguous experience can become solidified into certainty when our belief system kicks in. We believe what we want to believe.

So when we look at a photograph perhaps we first check whether it conforms to our sense of reality. If it does we may think the image shows something real, authentic, even if it actually doesn’t (like the venerable Loch Ness hoax). And if the image doesn’t conform to our sense of reality we may say that it is fictional. It doesn’t ‘authenticate’ our ideas about either reality or ourselves – like the fantastically brilliant ‘centaur’ image by Joel-Peter Witkin in Figure 1.

Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town
Fig. 1: Joel-Peter Witkin 2007. Night in a Small Town

However, a child would probably think quite differently about the centaur image and why should their reaction be invalid? Magical realism is central to myths and human creativity of every kind.

This leads on to Roger Scruton’s insistence that a photograph is a photograph because it is involved in a causal chain of direct representation that can only be broken at the price of the image no longer being a photograph at all: ‘The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance’ (Scruton 1981: 594-5). Scruton maintains this is what painters do but his argument privileges figurative art above all else. I presume Scruton would have said that Joel-Peter Witkin’s work was really a painting pretending to be a photograph. But it manifestly is a photograph. Oh well.

It’s been suggested that Barthes may have said that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not about the object depicted but about time because he could not account for the sheer emotional impact certain photographs had on him. This makes what Barthes says more personal than general, and throws his original statement into doubt, but at least it allows him to present the photograph not as Scruton’s cold objective form but as felt experience. It’s not about theory, and not particularly about representation per se. A photograph is where the what-has-been hits the here-and-now. Maybe our ideas about authenticity arise from that clash.

In this, Barthes and Sontag agree: ‘All photographs are momento mori … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’ (Sontag 2008: 15).

To be honest I don’t really know where this leaves my practice. One can riff on these ideas all day but they seem completely detached from my daily life. The danger here, apart from insanity by theory, is paralysis by analysis.  What I need to do is drop the generic – the photographs anyone else could have taken – and concentrate on the images only I could have taken, good or bad – but at least they may be reasonably authentic in a personal sense and from a consistent point of view.

In this light, here is an image I made over the assessment period. Yes it is a bit forlorn but it’s an authentic assessment of how I was feeling at the time. By that stage, in late December, I had had enough of Christmas.

Mark Crean. 2019. Christmas Reindeer.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2019. A Night in the Suburbs.

 

References

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

SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. ‘Photography and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 7(3), 577–603 [online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1343119 [accessed 03 February 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.

WADE, Kimberley A., Maryanne GARRY, J. Don READ and D. Stephen LINDSAY. 2002. ‘A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(3), 597–603.

Figures

Figure 1. Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2019. A Night in the Suburbs. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 1: Photography – the Shape-shifter

Week 1 has posed a lot of different questions, too many to address in a single entry in a research journal. Some of the questions are complex and lack any one answer. In fact they may not have any answer at all.

To cut to the chase, my understanding is that the current focus of the module is the intention of my practice, but in order to get a fuller idea of that I need to have a better idea of the nature of the photographic image itself.

John Szarkowski’s five characteristics of the photographic image strike me as practical and helpful though Frame, Detail and even the Thing Itself are not necessarily exclusive to photography (Szarkowski 1980).

Stephen Shore’s interpretation of similar ideas – his three levels of the physical, depictive and mental and his four tools – are equally practical and helpful, but again not all of them are exclusive to photography (Shore 2007). Both Shore and Szarkowski reference framing techniques in Japanese painting and printing, for example.

To this one might add two things. First there is Ming Thein’s proposal of the four things that make an image work effectively, something not to be overlooked by a working photographer (Thein 2014). Second, there is Mary Price’s observation that ‘The use of a photograph determines its meaning’ (Price 1994). In other words, context is all.

While all of these ideas contribute to an understanding of the characteristics of a photographic image, however, none of them tell us what a photograph actually is and in my view all of them struggle not only with the ontology but with distinctly separating the photograph from other media in which images are presented.

It seems to me that if detail, framing and ‘the Thing Itself’ are only questionably exclusive to photography, we are left with only two distinct qualities of the photographic image: time, and indexicality (photography as a trace of reality ‘out there’). Neither is straightforward.

Time in the sense Barthes uses it as ‘not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing … but an awareness of its having-been-there’ is in constant conflict with the present and the context in which the photograph is viewed (Barthes 1977: 44).  It is problematic, too, because we cannot be sure what was really there to begin with. What is time anyway? Like water, it cannot be grasped.

Reality ‘out there’ is not something the modern world is any longer comfortable with. Reality is taken to be a mental construction and post-modernism has blown up the notion that there is any one ‘true’ reality to which to appeal. In fact some artists like Wall and Crewdson have gone so far as to construct entirely artificial ‘realities’ for their photographic practice. ‘The world must be staged so that it will deliver images that explain it’ (Belting 2014: 164).

A third category might be the photographic print itself to which Shore pays attention (Shore 2007). However, images taken with a camera can be presented in many media now and photography is not limited to the print alone as once perhaps it was, so the print is a very shaky category these days.

As for the ontology of the photograph, perhaps this cannot be ascertained. Geoffrey Batchen looks at the question and then slides away from it, citing Derrida that the search for essences means ‘the establishment of an origin as the basis of a hierarchy that always wants to privilege the first or purest terms over all subsequent ones’ – though ruefully admitting that origin stories are ‘a historical necessity’ because, presumably, we cannot help but look for them (Batchen 2013: 58-9). And in the search for the El Dorado of ultimate meaning in the practice of Cindy Sherman, for example, many critics have been braving the jungles of theory for several decades now and are no nearer their goal.

The best approach to these questions I have found is that of Hans Belting in his fascinating book An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting reminds us that images are first created in the mind. The form in which the image may appear is secondary and is heavily influenced by culture and technology. In fact in Belting’s view, ‘Photography constitutes a short episode in the old history of representation. But even so, the world changed in our eyes when it began to be photographed. “The world after photography,” as the American conceptual artist Robert Smithson calls it, turns into a kind of museum of itself’ (Belting 2014: 147).

Belting’s long view from the Palaeolithic to today connects the photographic image to all the images and all the arts in human history. There is no need for exceptionalism – that photography is somehow special and different – and no need to become gloomy and think photography is ‘over’. What was photography in the first place? Photography changes all the time and the technology changes too. The analogue print was, perhaps, a passing phase but the images taken with cameras will continue to come even if perhaps they are closer to the reality-distrusting conceptual art on display in What is a Photograph? (Squiers 2013) than to the landscapes of, say, Adams or O’Sullivan. Belting again:

When an image finds its way into this technological medium, it is a symbolic product of the imagination that has already come a long distance. To force the issue, one might say that what is at issue is the journey of the image to the photograph. From this perspective, photography, the quintessential modern medium, operates like a mirror in which images of the world appear. Human perception has repeatedly accommodated itself to new pictorial technologies, but in keeping with its nature it transcends such medial boundaries. Like perception, images too are inherently intermedial (Belting 2014: 145).

This has been a long post on some very complex topics (for me, at least) that I barely understand. It will take a long time for me to work out how these ideas influence my practice. I have no instant answers, though Belting is very close to answers that works for me.

I will end it by saying that I am open to offering my work in any medium – images being in Belting’s view ‘inherently intermedial’ – but I am most at home with classic photography because at present that is all I know. And I do not want to lose the emotional connection with my practice that much conceptual art seems to lack. It strikes me as emotionally sterile.

I am also aware that culture has changed a great deal since many of the writers cited here were at work. Notions of ‘the real’ may have had far more force 30-50 years ago than they do today, in our world of digital simulacra. Television news has replaced stills photography as the index of the now and may have pushed stills photography towards the after-event, ‘Late Photography’, addressed by David Campany (Campany 2003).

The rise of digital imaging is likely to change everything over again. For example, it seems fairly clearly that traditional photography as an art form has largely retreated to museums and art galleries. And it could be argued that most (but crucially not all) of the photography on social media – by far the bulk of all the world’s images now – is not really photography at all. The photograph on social media is not there for itself but simply as carrier for other information that can be summarized as ‘I have a human need to communicate’ or ‘I would like to sell you something’. Once that message has been received, the photograph can be discarded. It was always ephemeral and was never the point.

However, I said ‘most’ – but not all. My impression is that there is also a flourishing, semi-underground and highly creative practice among young people online. See, for example, the zine scene on Instagram. In time their work will perhaps become mainstream, and it will invigorate us all.

References

BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2013. ‘Photography: An Art of the Real’. In Carol SQUIERS. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico, 47-62.

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 19 Jan 2020].

PRICE, Mary. 1994. The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SQUIERS, Carol. 2013. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico.

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

THEIN, Ming. 2014. ‘The Four Things’. Ming Thein [online]. Available at: https://blog.mingthein.com/2014/09/17/the-four-things/ [accessed 30 Jan 2020].

PHO702: Human Choices and My Practice

John Berger’s statement about ‘human choices’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292) – ‘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’ – is qualified later in the same essay by another and potentially more interesting statement about the message of a photograph: ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 294).

My practice – and so my current project Oxford at Night – is now quite heavily concerned with that second statement in the light of studying three photographers in particular over the assessment period. I can probably explain this best with an image from my work-in-progress portfolio submitted in PHO701 (Crean 2019) and comparing it to some of the ideas in the work of Thomas Struth.

CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.

In the first place, this image is taken (unadventurously) straight-on, a framing that Struth began with perhaps under the influence of the Bechers but then moved beyond with beneficial results. More importantly there is this statement from Struth: ‘I always enjoy and pay a lot of attention to the context and atmosphere which certain groups of buildings create … architecture and the space it creates have to read in relationship to the human body and mental condition’ (Struth 2012: 51).

In other words, buildings are something we relate to and live among. They influence how we think and feel (or thought and felt in the case of old buildings) and therefore as assemblages they become social and political statements. Struth again: ‘Just as it is not possible to take photographs “objectively”, and any approach is innately subjective, it is also innately political. Unpolitical practicality doesn’t exist’ (Struth 2010: 151).

So for my practice I need to dial down the ‘pretty picture’ effect or a straining for the sublime and start looking much more carefully at the kind of statements – political, social, psychological – that groups of buildings make. A large part of that is looking at different framing choices and focal lengths. This is not simply for effect or variety. Richard Sennett has pointed out that as Struth has progressed in his work, he has used off-centre framing and choice of subject to introduce an awareness of the past, present and future (Struth 2012: 60). This can be seen by contrasting the formal and straight-on approach of his early monochrome images from Germany or New York with, for example, this image:

STRUTH, T. 1995. Jiangha Lu, Wuchan
Fig. 2: Thomas Struth 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan.

In Figure 2 there is the past (a street market), the present (current buildings, what the camera recorded) and a possible future (new development).

Finally, Struth’s images are never what they seem. That is their power. This has been well expressed by James Lingwood: ‘ … there is a double subject in Struth’s work: the specific places and the people pictured but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them. Beneath or beyond the immediate subject of the photograph … there is always an underlying enquiry’ (Struth 2010: 169).

The enquiry, I suspect, is that what ties together much of Struth’s various projects – architecture, the ‘Paradise’ series on vegetation, the museum series, the family portraits and more recently his images of science laboratories – is the power of the human network, whether latent or overt, and its resilience (or not) in the face of the overwhelming power of science and technology. These are all points well made by reviewers or in documentary interviews with Struth (Hodgson 2011, Bloomberg TV 2017). Cities are networks, of course. Perhaps I should try harder to see Oxford as one and start to express that in my own practice.

The second photographer who is causing me to re-evaluate my practice is Stephen Shore. Shore has spoken widely of several things that resonate with me. There is ‘conscious attention’, ‘attentionality’, ‘the presence of attention’ (Shore 2018). This heightened awareness and conscious seeing is the difference between the way we naturally see and the perhaps more formal and distanced way we may choose to make photographs, a distinction which Shore likens to the difference between speaking and writing (Shore 2018).

In other words, no matter how monumental or sublime a photograph may be, it will still need to be filled with the kind of detail and conscious attention Shore is talking about. This is something I need to pay much more attention to.

These ideas are taken further in Shore’s excellent book The Nature of Photographs (Shore 2007). He outlines the photographer’s four tools: flatness (i.e. depth of field effects), frame, time and focus. But the tools lead to the same place: the mental level of an image and the relationship between this and the depictive level.

The mental level begins with the photographer: ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organization of the photograph’ (Shore 2007: 117). However, this is not going to be communicated fully unless the photographer is also aware of how we ‘read’ an image visually and construct a 3D illusion from a 2D original: ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level’ (Shore 2007: 97).

So, using these ideas, here is an image from my work in progress portfolio which I think works quite well:

CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.

I had a mental image immediately I saw this: the 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper. My ‘mental map’ helped me to frame the image as long diner windows, crop it slightly to give a more noir cinematic look, ensure there was enough detail of the building and street to convey the impression of being outside at night and looking in – and then quite simply wait until the customers inside the diner had moved into what struck me as an appropriate position. This, I hope, goes some way towards meeting Shore’s criteria for conscious attention and the relationship between mental and depictive levels.

Even so, I need to hold the mental and the depictive levels in my mind more forcefully in future before pressing the shutter.

The third photographer I have been paying a lot of attention to is Todd Hido, a specialist in night photography. During PHO701 I often tried to channel his look and failed. This image, for example, doesn’t come off at all, but having spent more time with Hido I think I can see why.

CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2019. In East Oxford.

First, Hido is interested in narrative and is carefully selective about what starts off a story: ‘Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window – that’s what catches my attention. …  I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there.  … I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. … I recognized that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships’ (Hido 2014: 19). Hido is careful with angles, framing and leading lines. He does not often shoot straight-on and is no slave to the rule of thirds. These are all things my own photograph has failed to accommodate but which Figure 5 below has accommodated.

Second, Hido (like Stephen Shore) brings ‘attentionality’ to the details. The image in Figure 5 is not any old house but in John Berger’s terms a human choice being exercised: ‘The way people present themselves to the world says a lot about what’s happening inside their home. … These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible, the subtle psychology of the space. … I find myself drawn to places that reveal more of a story’ (Hido 2014: 25). The viewer is asked to pay attention and the image itself offers the details that will allow a story to form. This is where I need to be going.

HIDO, T. 2001. From House Hunting.
Fig. 5: Todd Hido 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting.

Third, Hido is interesting on how he processes and prints his images: ‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter … the interpretation comes in making the print’ (Hido 2014: 53). Colour casts may be added or subtracted. More or less use is made of flare, reflections, smudges from ice or rain on windscreens. By contrast, I have so far processed my images straight, with few changes and nothing major by way of re-interpretation. Perhaps I should start experimenting.

Hido reiterates all these points in his YouTube videos (Christie’s 2017, Van Vliet 2018) so they must be important to him.

Finally, here is an image from my work-in-progress portfolio that I think works quite well, but not well enough:

CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.

In the light of all the foregoing what I would say here is this: The image shows a strong and apposite contrast but it would be more expressive if it were not straight-on, used a wider angle for more context, if the lighting to the rear of the image was reduced in post to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and if there were people in the image. I might have had to wait to a while, but the right people in this image would have added both dynamism and (the point of the image) social comment. The Devil is always in the many small decisions that make or break an image.

To sum up what these three photographers have inspired in me:

  1. The psychology of space, which leads to the politics, social conditions and aesthetics of the space. This is the double subject: the contrast and mingling of the mental and the depictive.
  2. ‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
  3. Post-processing and printing are really important, painterly approach or not. The photographer in post influences how the viewer reads the image and creates the illusion of a 3D image and story in the mind.

So, my hopes for the coming term.

  1. The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
  2. I am considering revising my project and may change it to Oxford in daytime as well as at night. Months of unusually wet weather and consequent flooding and damage/disruption in the Thames Valley now are seriously limiting opportunities for night photography.
  3. People may be present by their absence in much of the foregoing work but I would prefer it if people were more central and present by their presence in mine. Better people skills in my practice will remain a goal and a challenge. In fact I keep thinking about Daido Moriyama … If I could blend Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido and Daido Moriyama into one then I think I might be on to something.

The question asked is ‘Outline your plans for further development within the module PHO702 – where are you going next?’ I would like a much sharper and more nuanced understanding of modern photographic practice. I would like to know – because I am practising it – where I fit in to this wide river. And I would like to incorporate the ideas discussed above in order to become a ‘better’ photographer. Or, as Stephen Shaw puts it, ‘To make all my decisions conscious, I started filling the pictures with attention’ (Shore, 2018).

References

BEZZOLA, Tobia. 2019. ‘Vanishing Point: Thomas Struth’. Photo London Fair interview [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbzm9dGYiUE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=5&t=12s [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Bloomberg TV. 2017. ‘Thomas Struth: A Life in Photography’. Brilliant Ideas Ep. 51 [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoOP6DSY3O4 [accessed 20 Jan 2020].

CHRISTIE’S. 2017. ‘Todd Hido: Studio Visit’. Christie’s documentary [online]. Available at: http://www.christies.com/features/Todd-Hido-Studio-Visit-8191-3.aspx [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

CREAN, Mark. 2019. ‘Oxford at Night’. Work in progress portfolio [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/oxford-at-night [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

HIDO, Todd. 2016. Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.

HIDO, Todd and Greg HALPERN. 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

HODGSON, Francis. 2011. ‘Thomas Struth: An Objective Photographer?’ Financial Times 8 Jul. Available at: https://www.ft.com/video/634f1212-a5ba-3859-a61c-618d87ed6e9a [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: the Photographer with Stephen Shore’. MOMA documentary [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SHORE, Stephen, David CAMPANY, Marta DAHO, Sandra S. PHILIPS and Horacio FERNANDEZ. 2014. Stephen Shore: Survey. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

STRUTH, Thomas, Anette KRUSZYNSKI, Tobia BEZZOLA and James LINGWOOD. 2010. Thomas Struth : Photographs 1978-2010. Mosel: Schirmer.

STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.

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

VAN VLIET, Masha. 2018. ‘In Conversation with … Todd Hido: Bright Black World’. REFLEX Amsterdam documentary [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGxQ71WXxNk [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Thomas STRUTH. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From: Thomas Struth and Richard Sennett. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2019. In East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Todd HIDO, 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From: Todd Hido. 2016. Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford. Collection of the author.

PHO701: First Term Reflections

A large part of taking this course, apart from the challenge and the excitement, is in order to come to a clearer idea of what I don’t know, which is the most of it. That is the only place to start from. My impressions of the first term may therefore seem a little baffled, but they are these:

There is no such thing as an innocent or disingenuous photograph, not even a holiday snap. All photographs (all images, in fact, of which photographs are only a subset) reveal far more about both photographer and subject than either may realize.

Independent and well-reasoned criteria exist for assessing a photograph (or image) and placing it in a context. Without those one is at the crude level of ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. A key text in this regard has been Paul Martin Lester’s lesson in ‘Visual Analysis’ (Lester 2011: 115-132).

There is no such thing as a single, stand-alone photograph. A photograph is always part of a much larger whole. It will have arisen in stream of images and so will have been curated, just as it will have arisen in a steam of time and human experience of which it is only a slice. The photograph will have arisen in a particular era and culture and will have been framed and made by a particular personality. The photograph is like a leaf on a river of ideas that change all the time (Instagram is barely a decade old, for example). A photograph can be de-embedded, of course, and perhaps placed without attribution in an archive on a far-away continent. But in that case its original meanings will have changed completely and the photograph may need to be regarded as, now, a completely different document. Indexicality is both plain and surprisingly slippery.

The photographer is not stand-alone. Far from being a lonely auteur, he or she is embedded in a web of activity – social, professional, artistic, familial. One of the most interesting parts of the first term has been the cooperative assignments and those, like the oral presentation, that involved placing oneself in a web of others.

If the photographer is not stand-alone, then two more words come to the fore: gaze and ethics. The photographer needs to be aware that he or she is embedded in a society that looks at things in particular ways (not all of them desirable) and which organizes itself according to particular ethical and legal codes. Forget all that and one could be in trouble, literally.

And if the photograph is not stand-alone then another word comes to the fore: narrative. A photograph can tell or suggest a story within itself but it is also part of a much larger story which the photographer may choose to tell or to withhold. One of the pleasures of the first term has been discovering the excitement and complexities of stories and narratives – or projects. Two key texts in this regard have been Grant Scott’s ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015: 82-109) and Alec Soth’s marvellous visual essay Sleeping by the Mississippi (Soth 2017). Both have helped me to appreciate that there is so much more to photography than I once thought.

Finally, this term has shown me that making and viewing photographs is also an experience which, like all experiences, language cannot fully describe. Photographs are all about time and what we may take for reality, but time and reality are very challenging ideas for almost everyone, except perhaps for a great philosopher. We do not really understand them, and perhaps that is why photography has always hovered at the edges of art, news, culture, family, social relations. It is difficult to pin down.

Photography is essentially mysterious. No one can ever ‘capture reality’. We make a mental image of a tiny part of something and communicate the result to a viewer who in turn forms a mental image of what they see. Reality in this regard is a mental construct. It is our mind that turns a 2D print into a 3D world and again our mind that draws feelings and inferences from an illusion on a piece of paper or a screen.

This is the understanding that informs the most interesting book of the term for me, Camera Lucida (Barthes 2000). By withholding the key image of the text – the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his mother, if in fact there ever was one – Barthes obliges every reader to create their own Winter Garden, turn it over in the mind, ruminate on it, analyse it, respect it, and by so doing perhaps learn a little more about what photography is, and perhaps about who we are, than simply by reading yet another narrative history of the medium that lays out the story like cold plates upon a table.

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

LESTER, Paul Martin. 2011. ‘Visual Analysis’, in Paul Martin LESTER. (ed.) Visual Communication: Images With Messages. 5th. ed. Boston, MA.: Wadsworth, 115–132.

SCOTT, Grant. 2015. ‘The Power of the Personal Project’, in Grant SCOTT (ed.) Professional Photography: the New Global Landscape Explained. New York: Focal Press, 82–109. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/falmouth-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1734212&amp [accessed 19 January 2020].

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. London: MACK.