Vision 2020 at Falmouth was above all fun, informative and enjoyable. I really liked the theme of sustainability and climate change because the presentations showed me how much I don’t know about the world today and the outlook of those who in a few years will be running it.
Standouts: the workshops on studio lighting, medium format photography, speedlights and preparation for print. The first two were entirely new subjects for me and both were fascinating. I particularly liked the way medium format imposes its own slower and more considered approach to making photographs.
Zed Nelson’s film The Street was a definite high point (Nelson 2019). I have walked that street in Hoxton countless times and never noticed the half of it. This is a great example of the power of in-depth research and it also raises a point about hyper-realism: the extent to which stills and film show us what is really there but usually hidden by our own inattention and the flow of time. The Street is a fine example of visual storytelling with so many lives woven in and out of the film. And these lives raised so many ‘what if’ questions: what if the developers had left the street alone, where is he moving to, will the pie and mash shop survive, what if Colleen had married her beau all those years ago? An image is only a fleeting slice of time but as the film showed, in reality that time stretches back seven or eight decades in the memory of some. To them that time is real and in its many interviews with the street’s residents the film brought that time to life.
The Street is also a story about the often confusing and brutal realities of change in modern Britain with its unequal power dynamics. This has encouraged me to reflect on the degree to which I too am involved in a project which will tell a story whether I like it or not. Therefore it is up to me to identify the story I am in fact telling, analyse it and identify its key elements. So, a bitter-sweet and compelling work that is helpful for my practice.
I was deeply impressed by the quality of the work and enormous care that had gone into each of the FMJ presentations. And I really appreciated the longer presentations by Toby Smith on ‘Visualising Climate Change’ and also Jo Coombes’ work on the Adgreen agency. Both struck me as great examples of how to build a career (or photographic practice) ethically, intelligently and with purpose. The do’s and don’t of marketing one’s work effectively were helpful in both cases – something else I need to know a lot more about.
Penryn is a lovely campus. The welcome was warm. The thought and preparation that had gone into Vision 2020 were awesome. I am very grateful and hope to visit again next year. It’s too good to miss!
NELSON, Zed. 2019. The Street [Film]. London: Verve Pictures
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.
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.
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.
In Week 1 we were asked to offer an image of “The View From Your Window”.
I offered a black-and-white image looking across an estate of houses in Oxfordshire on a wet and gloomy Sunday afternoon. And between the seer and the seen there is a veil – a suburban net curtain.
“How far is distance?” is a question his small son asked a friend of my wife the other day. Like many children’s questions it is so brilliantly simple and direct that it defies an easy answer, for what do people really mean when they say something is “in the distance” or “distant”? They may not even be referring to a physical object but to an anticipated future event or to an emotional state – to an abstraction, in fact. No wonder it can be hard to understand.
In my case it proved a good fit. I did feel emotionally distant that afternoon and I don’t actually know what goes on across the estate here. I am looking without much of a clue at other lives, other people, other states of being. So yes the view is veiled, because not fully understood. One of the points of this course is to start prodding and pulling at the veil so that eventually it will fall away.
Day One. Ground Zero. My MA Falmouth Photography course kicks off with a first entry in this journal. I am excited, curious and somewhat terrified all at once. What have I got myself into? Will I be up to the task? I guess the best antidote to such self-absorption is to go out and make some photographs, visit galleries, listen to lectures, take part in discussions and read some interesting books.
I am going to try to concentrate on new thinking, new ideas and experiments, new images in this journal. I do not want to include too much here that I’ve already done before. Dragging along the assumptions and habits of the past is a block to learning so it’s time to let them go, at least for now. I am sure some will manage to sneak back in again. This is about starting over and starting fresh, seeing fresh in fact. In one word: change.
I am going to ask a wise companion to come with me on the journey, however, at least in my imagination. I love animals of all kinds and I particularly love the much misunderstood wolf. So here we are: my partner on the road, a gentle giant called Massak (Labradoran Inuit for Soft Snow) I believe.
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