Just for fun – after Nigel Shafran

Inspired by Nigel Shafran’s ‘Washing Up’ series and a sense of fun, I produced this after a kitchen-sink developing session.

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“Pasta with bacon and tomato. Three rolls of HP5”

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Archives and Fae Richards

Fae Richards is a 20th-century African-American actress, singer and civil rights activist – fictionally. She, and her equally-fictional archive, was created as a plot device in Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman (IMDb). The film has layers of plot-within-plot in which the protagonist, Cheryl, (played by Cheryl Dunye who also wrote, directed and produced the film) a video store assistant and aspiring documentary film-maker, is researching the life and times of an actress credited in films only as ‘Watermelon Woman’. This is Fae Richards and (the film version of) Cheryl discovers a remarkably complete archive of photographs and film of her life.

The Fae Richards Photo Archive comprising 78 images, was created by Zoe Leonard, in collaboration with Dunye, to supply the background to the fictional Richards’ life (Wikipedia). What started as a set of film props has subsequently taken on its own life as a gallery exhibition and a book (Lubben). The book is staged as a ‘found notebook’ with distressed photographs, handwriting and captions produced on a manual typewriter (Lubben) to give it authenticity.

The overall Watermelon Woman project has a message and significance, as a response to the suppression and anonymisation of African-American people (particularly women) in 20th century history. As Dunye explains “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” (Dunye, quoted by Vaughan). However, I do not see the images as anything more than a movie prop, and I note that Leonard’s Wikipedia entry makes no reference to ‘Fae Richards’ among her other work. Although produced in impressive detail, I question whether ‘the archive’ is very different in type from the closing sequences of Titanic (1997) or Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

An overtly fictional archive, such as Fae Richards’ points up some of the unconsidered issues surrounding archives in general, such as the FSA archive. While an archive might appear to be objective, we must consider the purpose for which it was collected, and by whom. In the case of the FSA, there was some notorious censorship (the ‘black suns’ created by Stryker’s hole punch); in other archives it might not be known or acknowledged.

The course notes ask, “Do you have any archives that you could have access to? Might you be able to use it for the beginnings of a project? Blog about some ideas that you could come back to some day.”

I have my father’s colour slide collection, mainly family images from 1958 to the mid-1970s, which I digitised in 2003 and distributed to my siblings and cousins on CD. I also selected images for a 2004 ‘family archive’ calendar but did not repeat the exercise in subsequent years. This is a very literal use of an archive and has not been ‘published’ far beyond the circle of participants. It is possible to speculate on the use that Nicky Bird would make of it.

An archive that I had, briefly, was a 1970s photograph album from a works social club (which had been disbanded by the time I received it). Although I had it for prosaic reasons – the building was more relevant than the people for my professional purposes – I did speculate on who these people might be, their relationships and interactions.

The archives of my Rotary club are available to members online (I contributed probably 50% of the photos). An obvious use would be to describe the history of the club. A less-obvious and more subversive use would be a typography of the images, dividing into categories such as ‘grip-and-grin’, ‘holding-the-giant-cheque’ or the more active hands-on involvements. Similarly, I have a lot of photographs of regattas held by my sailing club over the past 10 years.

References

IMDb (undated) The Watermelon Woman (1996) [online] Available at <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118125/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Lubben, K. (undated) Kristen Lubben on Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye The Fae Richards Photo Archive [online] Available at <https://aperture.org/pbr/kristen-lubben-zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye-fae-richards-photo-archive/&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Vaughan, S. (undated) Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye [online] Available at <http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye/&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) The Watermelon Woman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Watermelon_Woman&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Zoe Leonard [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoe_Leonard&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Exercise – Question for seller

Nicky Bird’s ‘Question for Seller’ is a conceptual performance art project involving photographs. There is a beginning, a middle and an end; Bird assembled an archive of old photographs, bought by one form of auction (eBay) exhibited and sold in another auction.

Bird works with ‘found’ images to explore the nature of memory, social and personal histories, and deeper questions about our relationship with the past and the value we ascribe to it (Bird s.d.). Describing a photo as ‘found’ is, of course, only a point of view. To their original owners, they are lost, abandoned or discarded.

In ‘Question for Seller’, Bird bought lots of old photographs in eBay auctions, selecting by bidding only on those with low initial prices and no other bids – they were about as unwanted as it is possible to be. She then contacted the seller with the same question

How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them?

The answers are collected in a document on her website and range from a brusque “These were from an ordinary purchase. No further information available other than my description on site.” to some detailed and fascinating stories.

The archive was then exhibited, some photos in a mocked-up family album/scrapbook and some fixed to the walls. All were accompanied by text including the purchase price and the seller’s answer. At the end of the exhibition, all lots were auctioned off, live. Part of the process is recorded in a Vimeo clip.

The auction represents the end stage of the project, with the collected archive once again dispersed and by a similar mechanism.

Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:

Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

This echoes a question that I sometimes ask myself when viewing exhibitions. Is a 5’x3′ photograph on a gallery wall inherently ‘better’ that the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope? The ‘art world’ appears to think so, but I am not convinced.

In the case of ‘Question for Seller’ there is a simple test, comparison of the buying auction price with the selling auction price. There is a disconnect between ‘price’ and ‘value’, but an auction can be considered to offer the best evidence of both. We are not given the full information, but the Vimeo clip shows one lot being sold for £12 that was bought for £3.50, albeit the one with the most interesting history, and Schuman (2007) records that the album was sold for £205.

Where does their meaning derive from?

In general, photographs have a meaning, even if only a description of their content. In the case of these ‘found’ images, the meaning will change as a result of losing their original context; with a family snap, the subject and/or the photographer will be known to most interested viewers (boredom with other people’s snapshots is a cliché) but this changes when viewing previously unknown images in an exhibition. The meaning “This is a couple standing outside a beach hut – look at the archaic costume” takes over from “This is Uncle Fred and Aunt Mabel at Margate in 1920 – that was a great holiday”.

In ‘Question for Seller’, there is a value-added element of meaning, from Bird’s work in collecting the images, the research inherent in asking the question, and in the new relationships and juxtapositions between images resulting from their location in the exhibition.

One aspect that fascinates me is the question of what these photographs are doing on eBay in the first place. Why were they not kept, if valued, or thrown in the bin, if not? Bird and Sharon Boothroyd address the question briefly in their Photoparley conversation (Boothroyd 2013). It seems that there is a real reluctance to throw away memories, even somebody else’s. Personal history has an important rôle, even when it is more history than personal.

When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

As noted earlier, it seems that the monetary value (using the economist’s definition of value ‘the amount that a willing buyer is prepared to pay and a willing seller prepared to accept’) of the photographs has increased. It is a moot point whether this is due to (a) different circumstances in the auction (live rather than online auction, different audience) (b) Bird’s value-added input or (c) the fact that they have been exhibited as ‘art’. I suspect a combination of all three.

However, in my view the artistic value derives from being collected and exhibited as an archive, rather than being imbued in the individual images, and that value is lost on dispersal. It would be an interesting exercise to contact the purchasers now, ten years on from the auction, to discover how they now regard their purchase. Are the photographs still valued or are they once again in a attic, like the stereotypical raffia donkey souvenir from Benidorm?>

References

Bird, N. (undated) Nicky Bird: About [online] Available at <https://nickybird.com/about/&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Boothroyd, S. (2013) Nicky Bird [online] Available at <https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Schuman, A. (2007) Found: Question for Seller [online] Available at <http://seesawmagazine.com/sellerpages/sellerintro.html&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Unconsidered circles – censorship, archives, dots and black suns

Belfast Exposed was formed in 1983 as a response to perceived censorship of images arising from what were euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It is an archive of photographs from press, commercial and domestic sources and includes some 14,000 contact sheets. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin were invited to make works based on the archive, which culminated in a book and exhibition in 2011 (Mack s.d.), repeated in 2015 (Belfast Exposed 2015). The book is out of print in its original form but is now available as an ebook.

The work is in two parts. In ‘contacts’ (Broomberg & Chanarin 2011-1) we see contact sheets and individual images marked-up (or just marked) as a result of use and public access over the years. Archivists have marked images as they were used, ordered or recatalogued. Some members of the public have scrawled over their own faces to obliterate them, fearing reprisals for their involvement, which is a form of censorship in its own right. There is an interesting question to be asked, whether censorship is any better or worse for being performed by the ‘participants’ rather than some faceless authority figure.

One of the ‘marks’ that appeared on many contacts was a sticky dot, in various colours. This was semi-random and simply indicated that an image had been selected or approved for some purpose (reverse censorship perhaps) but formed the basis for the second part of the project, ‘dots’. Broomberg and Chanarin peeled back these dots and published, in circular format, what had been hidden behind them. According to the artists,

Each of these fragments – composed by the random gesture of the archivist – offers up a self-contained universe all of its own; a small moment of desire or frustration or thwarted communication that is re-animated here after many years in darkness. (Broomberg & Chanarin)

Another archive marked by small circles is the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary project of the 1930s and ’40s. The head of the FSA Historical Section, Roy Stryker would, notoriously ‘kill’ photographs that did not fit the FSA message by removing part of the negative with a hole punch (Bennett 2017) in a overt act of censorship.

This damage, sometimes referred to as a ‘black sun’ (for reasons obvious in the smaller image above) rendered the negative unprintable at the time. Recent advances in software, particularly Photoshop’s content-aware fill facility, mean that some of these images can be rescued if important complex detail has not been lost (Bennett 2017).

strykerpunchfeat

The alternative approach is to collect the censored images into a book, as Bill McDowell has done in ‘Ground’ (Meier 2016). McDowell tells us that the book is “the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization.” (quoted by Meier).

At one level, the images draw attention to the act of censorship and make us wonder what was off-message and had to be suppressed. At another level, the black circles unify the images and create a new archive with, possibly, a new meaning.

The two sets of ‘circle’ images are opposite treatments; ‘dots’ concentrates on the circles, while ‘Ground’ shows us everything else in the image. However, both archives have similarities in that they show us how people have dealt with troubled times.

References

Belfast Exposed Photography (2015) PAST BELFAST EXCHANGE GALLERY EXHIBITION: PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND [online] Available at <http://www.belfastexposed.org/exhibition/People_in_Trouble_Laughing_Pushed_to_the_Ground&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Bennett, MJ (2017) Countering Stryker’s Punch: Filling the Black Hole with Photoshop and GIMP [online] Available at <https://petapixel.com/2017/07/31/countering-strykers-punch-filling-black-hole-photoshop-gimp/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Broomberg & Chanarin (2011) PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND (contacts) [online] Available at <http://www.broombergchanarin.com/hometest/#/contacts/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Broomberg & Chanarin (2011) PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND (dots) [online] Available at <http://www.broombergchanarin.com/hometest/#/kodak-1-1-25-1-1/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

MACK (undated) Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin:  People In Trouble Laughing Pushed To The Ground [online] Available at <http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/4-People-In-Trouble-Laughing-Pushed-To-The-Ground.html&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Meier, A (2016) Scarred Rejects from the Farm Security Administration’s Great Depression Photos [online] Available at <https://hyperallergic.com/287638/scarred-rejects-from-the-farm-security-administrations-great-depression-photos/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Research points – Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson is an American artist working in the medium of photography. I use that form of words because ‘photographer’ is not an adequate description given the kind of large-production operation that he has put on from ‘Twilight‘ (1998-2001) onwards. Indeed he says that he hardly touches the camera, and the credits list for ‘Twilight‘ (Crewdson and Moody 2002) list three ‘camera operators’ and a ‘director of photography’. It is probably best to think of him as similar to a film producer, applying the same type of organisation to a single image as to a movie. It is no surprise that his influences include Hitchcock and Spielberg (and the painter Edward Hopper) (Wikipedia)

In Crewdson’s tableaux series, ‘Twilight‘, ‘Beneath the Roses‘, ‘Sanctuary‘ and ‘Cathedral of the Pines‘,  no part of the mise-en-scène is left to chance. Some tableaux are shot on location (scouted) and some, indoors, on a movie sound stage. Many of the buildings are constructed sets. Props are bought in and listed in the ‘credits’; in Twilight, there is even a credit for a ‘bug wrangler’, presumably dealing with the butterflies and other insects that have been imported (and supplier credited). Scenes are lit with movie lighting and shot on an 8×10 camera.

Crewdson’s images have a unique look, slightly menacing in a Spielberg way, with great detail and a muted colour palette. They all have a sense of concealed narrative; as spectators, we can be sure that there is a story but we are intrigued about how the situation arose.

We are asked to view a YouTube video, then respond to following questions.

Unfortunately, the referenced video is flagged by YouTube as ‘no longer available’. I watched the following instead, but the set questions seem a little non sequitur as a result.

Gregory Crewdson (Photography DOCUMENTARY Film)

Photographers in Focus: Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson – Close Up – Ovation

Do you think there is more to this work than aesthetic beauty?

I am not sure that Crewdson’s work has beauty in the traditional ‘skin-deep’ sense. When I first saw the Cathedral of the Pines images, I was vaguely irritated at the amount of effort that had been expended to produce something rather banal (technically perfect but banal nonetheless). It was over a period of several weeks that I realised that my subconscious was still working on them and I wanted to see more. I bought ‘Twilight‘ and have made a point of looking out Crewdson references on YouTube and elsewhere on the web.

Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?

I assume this is a reference to a comment in the missing video.

Several commentators (eg Searle 2005 and Moody (in Crewdson and Moody 2002)) note that Crewdson’s father was a psychologist with consulting rooms in the basement of the family house. It is variously told that the young Crewdson would press his ear to the floor to listen, or that he would imagine doing so. This is sometimes given as an explanation for an interest in the psychology of the characters in his photographs.

Many of these characters appear pensive or thoughtful; where there are multiple figures in an image, I feel that they are close to each other but do not communicate. Each has his or her own thoughts that would only be expressed on the psychologist’s couch -and maybe not even there.

I regard the images as surreal, in the sense of stimulating the subconscious using the tropes of dreams. The nudity or the underclothes worn by some characters are a classic dream trope, as is the sense of being in a situation without a clear idea of how one got there. The detachment of characters from each other may indicate that each one is part of the other’s dream, rather than being fully ‘real’. The analysis of dreams is, of course, a classic technique in psychiatry.

What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not? 

Broadly, I make pictures because I like to make pictures (circular, I know but as good a reason as any) and I prefer to make the sort of pictures that I want to look at. That may be a roundabout way of saying that I am looking for beauty or amusement in my surroundings and trying to express it.

Some of my images are entered in camera club competitions, although none are made specifically for that purpose. (I like them; if the judge agrees, that is a bonus)

I see nothing wrong with making beauty a goal in my photography, despite some elitist comments that I have seen on OCA social media about images without deeper meaning or significance. All images have their place, whether it be the gallery wall, the front page of the newspaper, or the living room wall. There are photographs that I can appreciate in  a gallery but I would not want in my home.

The beautiful photographs, the ones we hang above the fireplace or on the bedroom wall, have a special quality of their own. These are the images that we are prepared to invite into our homes, love and live with for years at a time, rather than for ten minutes as part of a gallery exhibition. That makes them significant in their own way, a way that we would be wrong to ignore.

References

Crewdson, G., and Moody, R. (2002) Twilight . New York: Abrams.

Guggenheim Foundation (undated) Collection Online: Gregory Crewdson [online] Available at <https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/gregory-crewdson&gt; [Accessed 5 March 2018].

Photographers’ Gallery (2017) Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines [online] Available at <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/content/gregory-crewdson-cathedral-pines&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Searle, A. (2005) Too much information [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/apr/19/photography&gt; [Accessed 6 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2017) Gregory Crewdson [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Crewdson&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Mise-en-scène – Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is an American artist, using photography as a medium as a reaction to the perceived limitations of painting and because “I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead” (Wikipedia). The majority of her work uses herself as subject and explores the nature of portraits as representation and the commonplace depictions of women in popular culture.

It is her late-1970s series ‘Untitled Film Stills‘ that brought her to fame and show the most realistic mise-en-scène. These images show single female characters in costume and settings reminiscent of Italian neorealism or American film noir (Wikipedia). Costumes and props were bought second-hand and most of the indoor shots were taken in her apartment. Indoor shots are self-portraits with a long shutter release. Outdoor shots used another photographer with Sherman directing (Tate). It may be that their success as representing film publicity stills is a result of imperfect scenery-building.

The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told. (Sherman, quoted by Rosenberg)

Sherman’s later work is less realistic, placed somewhere between parody and caricature, and rather darker in character. Her make-up is more obvious and often grotesque, and the settings are either very plain sets or back-projections. The MoMA website shows some of her parodies of centrefolds, society portraits and classical paintings.

References

MoMA (2012) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/#/0/&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Rosenberg, B. (2018) Cindy Sherman Artist Overview and Analysis [online] Available at <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-sherman-cindy.htm&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Tate (undated) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/cindy-sherman-1938&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Sherman&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Mise-en-scène – Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers

Philip-Lorca diCorcia is an American photographer known for flashlight ‘street’ images and constructed tableaux. ‘Hustlers‘ was his first cohesive series project, conceived partly as a reaction to the funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts which were influenced by late 1980s right-wing attitudes to AIDS and homosexuality. (Bicker 2013)

The premise of the series is simple; diCorcia would set up a carefully stages and lit tableau, then locate a male prostitute as subject – paying his going rate for ‘services’ as a model fee. This is another example of work (cf. Taryn Simon or Paul Seawright) in which accompanying text – in this case the titles of the images – is vital to understanding the series. The title of each image is in the same format, the subject’s name, age, place of birth and typical ‘fee’

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source: time.com

This, for instance, is ‘Eddie Anderson, 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20

The work is non-sexual, paying lip-service to the NEA stipulation that funded work should not be obscene, but subversive in that the subjects’ fees were paid from NEA funds.

The tension in the images comes from the juxtaposition of contrived locations (carefully arranged and lit in advance) and real-world subjects who were reportedly rather unsure about the transaction (Davis 2014).

References

Bicker, P. (2013) Trade: Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hollywood Hustlers [online] Available at <http://time.com/3803327/trade-philip-lorca-dicorcias-hollywood-hustlers-drug-addicts-and-drifters/&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Davies, L. (2014) How the camera saved the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online] Available at <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10602637/How-the-camera-saved-the-photographer-Philip-Lorca-diCorcia.html&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip-Lorca_diCorcia&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].