Gursky at the Hayward

Charlotte Cotton (2014, 83) regards Andreas Gursky as “the figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography”. This makes his photography an ideal subject for the reopening of the Hayward Gallery, one of London’s more deadpan buildings.

The first thing to be said about Gursky’s work is that there is no substitute for seeing it in the flesh. Most of the exhibits are massive prints (typically 2 metres tall) and no reproduction in a book or on the web is going to do them justice.

Not only are the prints large but so, in most cases, are the subjects as Susan Bright commented (2011, 66)

Scale is vital to Gursky’s work – not only in his choice of subject and the way he depicts the scene but also in the use of giant format prints. These allow the viewer almost to fall into the scene and to experience it as the artist did when he photographed it.

‘Falling into the scene’ was my experience. Standing on the marked line (or inside it if there was no attendant watching), the image fills a large part of ones visual field and the experience is immersive. This seemed to be the experience of most viewers, who would alternate between the close view and retreating a couple of metres.

Gursky is one of the Düsseldorf School, having studied under Berndt and Hille Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1980s. Therefore, it is unsurprising that he has adopted their deadpan approach which is fascinating (for a while) but also rather disturbing to a viewer used to the conventions of HCB’s ‘decisive moment’ and of having a focal point and a way through the image. In most of the prints displayed, Gursky aims to fill the entire image area with equal amounts of interest (or banality in some cases). In this, he has been likened to Bruegel (Hayward gallery wall notes) but I would also cite the ‘Where’s Wally’ books of Martin Handford.

His early work is fairly conventional large-format treatments of his subjects, developing to a long-lens detached view. It was in one of these, Klausen Pass (1984), originally taken as a holiday snap, that he noted the arrangement of people in the image as a ‘perfect constellation’ and started using the distanced view as a way of exploring the relationship between people and their environments. His images of trading floors fall into this category (as well as the ‘Where’s Wally’ category) as does this one, Nha Trang (2004) where the level of detail can be seen in the larger image below. The women are making furniture for IKEA; they are wearing orange uniforms at Gursky’s request to unify the image.

Until visiting this exhibition, I had naively assumed that Gursky’s images were straight representations of what was in front of him, whether produced as a single negative or stitched together. I now know that they are composites, shot from a variety of viewpoints and manipulated in post-processing to emphasise or unify elements and, sometimes, to alter the essential truth of the image. For instance, in ‘F1 Pit Stop I’ (2007), not only has he greatly augmented the number of pit crew around each car, but the two teams are shot in different cities and only brought together in post-production (Hayward exhibition guide book)

And, in ‘Rhine II’ (1999), notoriously the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction ($4.34m in 2011) he has achieved the minimalist look by editing out significant details – such as a power station on the opposite bank. This raises some difficult questions about the nature or reality and it representation. In my opinion, it is fundamentally dishonest and negates the point of the deadpan approach. Gursky’s view is that “Reality can only be shown by constructing it … montage and manipulation paradoxically bring us closer to the truth” (Hayward exhibition guide book)

There are some individual images that I enjoyed. ‘Turner Collection’ (1995) is an image of three paintings on a gallery wall. Gursky has produce a picture of pictures at an exhibition. Does that mean that I have a picture of a picture of pictures at an exhibition at an exhibition? I also rather enjoyed the viewers of the image of flight information boards at Düsseldorf airport, looking as if they are reading the boards ‘live’.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the  exhibition. I was impressed by individual giant prints but, about three-quarters of the way round, I found myself feeling Gursky’d-out and the phrase ‘one-trick pony’ came to mind, possibly unfairly. Maybe the Hayward should issue season tickets to allow the exhibition to be viewed in multiple sessions.

References

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Third edn. London: Thames and Hudson.

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The ‘Goodfellas’ long take

We are invited to watch a YouTube clip from the 1990 film ‘Goodfellas’ and comment without reading-forward. Specifically, we are asked what the scene tells us about the main character (Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta) and how it does so.

This is my first viewing of the clip (having not watched the film before), although I viewed it several times in order to make the comments below.

This is a long single take (3 minutes: 4 seconds), following (literally) the main character and a female companion from parking his car to taking their seats in a nightclub, via the back door, kitchens and service corridors, finishing with a pan to the stage and the start of a performance.

Our man (Henry) is important, well-known , and probably powerful, at least in the world of the nightclub, its staff and patrons. He is confident in that power and accepts it as of right. The normal ‘rules’ do not apply to him if he finds them inconvenient. He is wealthy and confident in using and displaying his wealth. He expects to impress his companion, but does not go out of his way to do so.

The clues to his wealth are in his costume, a well-made dark suit, choice of entertainment venue and the way that he distributes tips (which we are told are $20 each) to staff for quite minor services such as parking his car or holding a door open.

We see him breaking conventional rules by leaving his car outside the nightclub rather than parking it elsewhere and walking, by avoiding the queue at the main door and entering via the back door and kitchens, and by having a table set-up especially for him in front of the stage, queue-jumping other customers waiting to be seated.

That he is well-known to the staff is indicated by his informal greetings to, and getting responses from, everybody that he meets or bumps into. Although his route is convoluted, he follows it correctly without backtracking; he has been here, and by this route many times before.

The clues to his power or importance are everybody’s acceptance of his conduct, the manner in which the maitré-d immediately instructs the setting-up of the new table, and the gift of drinks from “Mr Tony” (presumably similarly important because his party also has a front-row table. His acceptance of power is indicated by the way in which everything happens for him without asking (the word “please” is entirely missing, although there are two conventional “thank-yous” – to the maitre-d and “Mr Tony”).

The woman has not known him long; she is surprised by his leaving the car and his entrance through the back door (I suspect that this is an expositional device, allowing him to make off-hand comments for the benefit of the cinema audience) and she allows him to direct her through the kitchen; she starts to take a wrong direction at one point. She appears to gain more confidence as she sees others’ reaction to him. Toward the end, she asks what he does, and is not convinced by his answer that he is ‘in construction’ (remarking on his soft hands). Rather than explaining this by saying he is in management, he claims to be a union delegate which appears to prompt a drum-roll and rimshot as if it were a comic punchline.

I have now read the subsequent paragraph in the course notes.

It appears that I correctly picked-up on the man’s importance and the clues to it. I did not pick up on the use of red to add a sense of mystery and/or danger. I am not convinced that the choice of music (“Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals) hints at mystery or danger – although I agree about romantic allure. “Leader of the Pack” might have been a better choice in that respect – although maybe too obvious.

 

Research point – two example deconstructions

We are directed to two samples of deconstruction, very different in length and style.

The first, by ‘Sharon’ in the WeAreOCA blog is 500-or-so words on Jeff Wall’s Insomnia. The blog is intended to inspire students in our own reviews or deconstructions and (given the length constraint) cuts short some detailed points, while demonstrating a structure for similar work.

Sharon covers two of Barrett’s (2006) four elements of criticism: description and interpretation, touches on theorising but makes no attempt at evaluation. She starts by describing the image (both denotation and connotation) then applies a personal interpretation, linking the image to personal experiences (insomnia during pregnancy). She then moves into theory by placing the image in context with Wall’s other work and the work of other artists, including Shakespeare who used both insomnia and madness as metaphors. Finally, a return to description and the external context of the way the image is exhibited (very large on a gallery wall) to grab the viewer’s attention.

I found myself with a different view of the image – but I suspect that is Sharon’s intention (to make us think more deeply about images for ourselves) – and I picked-up on different details. For instance, the 1950s-style cupboards and elderly oven, seen with the newer fridge, mixer and microwave oven give me the impression that we are in a rented space, rather than one owned by the subject. The missing clock on the wall signifies that the situation has been taken out of time – that time has no meaning here. The harsh fluorescent lighting (or Wall’s painstaking recreation of harsh fluorescent lighting) and the scratchy carpet tiles all add to a general feeling of discomfort.

This brings me to the question of what is really going on in the photograph. The only reason that reviewers refer to insomnia is that is the title which Wall has given to the image (an example of Barrett’s ‘intentionalist fallacy’). For me, insomnia is what happens when I am trying to sleep, tucked in bed, but sleep eludes me. Why do we think this man is trying to sleep, uncomfortably curled up on a cold, scratchy floor, in bright light and uncovered? I suggest that he is suffering from paranoia or some form of debilitating mental illness. More questions than answers, and a starting-point for further discussion.

In contrast, Liz Jobey’s essay (in Howarth 2005) on a 1966 photograph by Diane Arbus, ‘A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC’ extends to 10 pages and far beyond the basic information denoted by the image. Indeed, the majority of the piece can be read without reference to the image at all.

Jobey’s text must assume that we have the image in front of us; there is very little description, and most of that is connotive rather than denotive.

The first paragraph launches straight into an interpretation, without any of the reasoned argument that Barrett considers necessary. She starts by commenting about ‘… the fictions we make about photographs …‘  then suggests that we, the viewers, must wonder whether they are victims of some tragedy awaiting the family (later identified through external context as Richard and Marylin Dauria, Richard Jr. and baby Dawn) before asking ‘But first, more pertinently, why do we assume they are victims at all?’. This begs the question; maybe we assume nothing of the kind and it is only Jobey who puts the idea into our heads.

The following two pages contain some description but mostly external context including biographical detail about the Daurias and some controversy about the photograph’s first appearance (in the UK Sunday Times) and the misquotation, by the editor, of Arbus’ original caption.

The next six pages are a discussion of Arbus’ photography generally, referring to several other reviewers including John Szarkowski and, especially, Susan Sontag (who is definitely not an Arbus fan). Other than a few isolated sentences, this does not refer back to the Dauria’s photograph but does suggest an ulterior motive for the suggestion of victimhood in the opening paragraph.

In the final two pages, Jobey places the picture into the context of Arbus’ other work, including at least one later photograph of the Daurias (who cannot have been that unwilling to be photographed if they let her do it again).

References

Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Howarth, S. (2005) Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Tate Publishing.

WeAreOCA (2012) Beneath the Surface [online] Available at <https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/beneath-the-surface/&gt; [Accessed 21/1/2018].

The Documentary Impulse

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Stuart Franklin has good credentials as a documentary photographer. He is a member and past-president of Magnum and one of the photographers who recorded the ‘Tank Man’ incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989. That story makes the major part of essay 5 in The Documentary Impulse.

The Documentary Impulse (Franklin 2016) is a set of eight essays (plus introduction and afterword) by Stuart Franklin on various aspects of documentary photography. His definition of the term means

… the passion to record the moments we experience and wish to preserve, the things we witness and might want to reform, or simply the people, places and things we find remarkable (Franklin 2016,5)

The key words are (for me), ‘record’, ‘witness’, ‘preserve’ and ‘reform’. Every documentary photograph must do at least two of those things, or what’s the point? Franklin goes beyond the layman’s idea of documentary as non-fiction and adopts John Grierson’s phrase ‘creative treatment of actuality’, which appears to combine Ruskin’s concepts of ‘material truth’ and ‘moral truth’ (ibid, p6)

The first essay traces the pre-photographic documentary impulse from cave paintings, through Egyptian pyramid decorations to John Singer Sargent and the other war artists, followed by a potted history of photography.

The second essay, Lost Eden, looks at the reporting of so-called primitive tribes and peoples through time, which is partly informative and partly designed to reinforce Western feelings of ethnic superiority. It is interesting to view different reporters/photographers  approaches to the same peoples, some concealing modern influences – giving a romantic pre-lapsarian gloss – and others emphasising the changes that contact with ‘civilisation’ has wrought.

Other essays deal with war reporting, crusading for social change (Lewis Hine etc.) and the documentation of the routine of everyday life. The final essay deals with staging and manipulations and argues for a documentary impulse even in the fully-staged work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall.

Overall, a readable and thought-provoking look at documentary and narrative. It will be useful for the OCA course, but worth reading in its own right.

Reference

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Deconstructing an advertising image

This is a advertisement for Loaf furniture, torn from the Sunday Times Magazine of 7th January 2018, which I have marked-up with a black Sharpie to illustrate parts of this deconstruction.

LoafAd001

For context, the majority of advertisements in the magazine are for high-value aspirational products or services: kitchen fitting, furniture, cruises etc. These are not day-to-day purchases – the majority of readers will not be interested in buying a sofa this week – but the advertiser must expect to do enough business to justify a £90,000 marketing expenditure.

To paraphrase Roland Barthes in ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, nothing in an advert is accidental. Everything is deliberately arranged to put across the advertisers’ message, explicitly or implicitly.

Although there is little text, it dominates the advert. The top half is taken up by apparently informal text.

(1) is the name/ logo ‘loaf’, displayed in lower-case joined-up script reminiscent of a primary school handwriting exercise. The effect is youthful and casual. There is also a visual pun – the logo can notionally be drawn in a single line, which echoes the single thread (8) at the base of the image.

(2a) is the immediate message. The advertisers have a sale (or at least claim they do). This text is bright red, an ‘advancing’ colour used to draw attention. The typeface is informal, reminiscent of a rapidly drawn, spur-of-the-moment sign. It is also intermediate in style between the logo above and the smaller text in the rest of the page.

(2b) is a text tagline, linked to 2b but in a more formal sans serif face. However, there is nothing formal about the message, “it’s loafing time…” which links the concept of leisure time with the advertisers’ name.

The text at the bottom of the page (3) is in the same sans serif typeface and contains more directed information. It tells us that the advertisers sell beds, sofas and other furniture – the hook ‘for loafers’ once again links the concept of leisure with a pun on the advertisers’ name. It also gives very limited contact information, describing the approximate location of three showrooms and the advertisers’ internet domain name. There is neither telephone number nor full address – it is assumed that customers will be sufficiently tech-savvy to find what they need online given this clue. This is a high-risk strategy (technophobes will shop elsewhere) but gives the target audience a sense of conspiracy, “We are young, modern and fun-loving – we want a Loaf sofa, and we know where to find it”

(4) The main image is a sofa with two people sitting on it, a child knitting and (probably) a young adult (parent or older sibling) reading a newspaper. The sofa appears large, but we must consider the possibility that this is an illusion created by employing petite models. The sofa is seen in a plain white environment, with no wall/floor line or other indications that it is in a room. We have a sense of ‘open space’ rather than the slightly claustrophobic impression of a large piece of furniture in a small room.

(5) The newspaper, with the masthead ‘Loaf Times’ (both referencing the advertiser and suggesting the social class of the reader) carries two notional headlines: “Secret knitter strikes” sets a context for the knitting child, causing us to wonder if he/she is the ‘secret knitter’ of the headline. “Britain casts off winter blues” suggests hope for better weather, the concept of spring cleaning (and by extension, redecoration or refurnishing) and also contains a knitting pun, linking to the ‘secret knitter’ theme. These are examples of relay text, rather than the anchorage of items 1-3.

(6) The scarf being knitted is red and white (definitely not ‘winter blue’), matching the sale text (2a) and also the adult’s socks (7), suggesting that they were a previous project. At this stage, having marked-up and scanned the image, I noticed the cable-knit trousers – a nice bit of Barthesian punctum. The connection between the two figures, and the various knitted items, is made by the loosely draped red thread (8), which also links to the lettering style of the logo (1)

Deconstruction – with or without Derrida

The Wikipedia (2018) article on ‘Deconstruction’ tells us that “While common knowledge in continental Europe (and wherever Continental Philosophy is in the mainstream), Deconstruction is not adopted or accepted by most philosophy departments in universities where Analytic Philosophy has the upper hand”. Britannica (2018) is more forthright, “Some philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American tradition, dismissed it as obscurantist wordplay whose major claims, when intelligible, were either trivial or false.” , a comment which I read with considerable relief as it chimed with my own views when attempting to read ‘The Principle of Reason’ (Derrida, 1983) to place the quotation on page 100 of the course notes into context.

The quotation appears seven pages into an 18-page essay (apparently notes for a lecture at Cornell University) full (at least, for the seven pages which I read) of repetition, circularity and wordplay. To be fair, Derrida’s topic was essentially circular, a discussion of whether the principles underlying reason could be subject to reason itself. This sort of discussion is akin to DIY brain surgery and also crops up in mathematical number theory and discussions of deconstruction in the linguistic sense. In each case the philosopher (for lack of a better term) is attempting to define the basis of a system of description, while using that same system to do it.

The good news is that (in my opinion) it is not necessary to understand deconstruction at that level in order to make use of it at the level envisaged by the course notes. To continue the number theory analogy, most people can get by with mathematics at the ‘two plus two equals four’ level although it is vaguely reassuring to know that the basic structure of mathematics is underpinned by scholars considering questions like “Does two plus two always equal four?”, “Why?” and “What do we mean by ‘two’ anyway?”. Similarly, in physics, relativity and quantum theory are useful at the limits but most human engineering endeavour gets along very nicely, thank you, with a classical or Newtonian understanding.

The course notes appear to be working at a sensible level, also expressed by James May several times in the TV series “The Reassembler” that it is only when one reduces something to its component parts and carefully rebuilds it  that one fully understands it. It is possible to take metaphor too far on occasions. While James May working on the parts of a lawnmower is certain to reassemble a lawnmower, somebody deconstructing a Lego or Meccano model could rebuild something entirely different from the original.

On the whole, I am happier working with deconstruction at a May level than a Derrida level.

References

Britannica, . (2018) ‘Deconstruction’. in Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol . [online] : . Available at <https://www.britannica.com/topic/deconstruction&gt; [Accessed 3 January 2018].

Derrida, J. (1983) ‘The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils’. Diacritics Vol 13, No.3 (Autumn 1983), pp.2-20.

Wikipedia, . (2018) ‘Deconstruction’. in Wikipedia. Vol . [online] : . Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction&gt; [Accessed 7 January 2018]. [NB: This article seems to be subject to frequent change. It had been edited on 22 December 2017 and 6 January 2018; in both cases this was a matter of days before my access]

David Bate on portraits

My tutor’s list of recommended reading following assignment 3, the self-portrait, included a chapter by David Bate, ‘Looking at portraits‘ from his 2009 book ‘Photography: the key concepts’ (Bate 2009, 66-86). The chapter covers some key concepts in a readable way, demonstrating that being theoretical and accessible are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The 2009 edition is available as a free download, and there is a 2016 second edition (which I have just ordered) with new chapters on snapshots and ‘the act of looking’. The snapshots chapter will feed into another suggested line of enquiry and a probable future posting.

If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity. (Bate 2009, 67)

A portrait ‘fixes’ the identity of the subject/sitter in some way, dependent on why it has been taken and for what purpose it is used (gallery, social media, police mugshot, etc.). The photographic portrait is ubiquitous as a result of, and arguably was a driver for, the massive impact of photography itself.

Over the next six pages (68-73) Bate looks at the history of photographic portraiture, linking it both to painterly conventions and to the development of photographic technology. When cameras were constrained by tripods and long exposures, the artist’s studio was a convenient location and had lights, props, backgrounds etc. There was a two-way flow of influence – Bate tells us that the chin-on-hand pose was a photographers’ device to keep the head steady, which then appeared in painted portraits as well. Improving and cheapening technology led both to the carte-de-visite and the passport/bureaucratic identity image (‘mugshot’). There is a brief discussion of eugenics, the images of Francis Galton and the effect of facial expression on apparent character.

Unsurprisingly, the face and its expression takes up the major part of the next section, the elements of a portrait. Bate lists these as the face, pose, clothing and location – which can be thought of as a hierarchy, each as the ‘external context’ of the previous element. Facial expressions (and, as viewers, we are attuned to even very minor changes) and poses can hide or reveal elements of character – or simulate or falsify our reading of the subject’s character: a consideration in advertising or propaganda.

Clothes (or lack of them) and setting give clues to social status, occupation, etc. and are also capable of manipulation. Bate describes the combination of the four elements: setting, clothes, pose and face as the ‘rhetorical argument’ of a portrait, a phrase which I would normally regard as relevant to language rather than images, and segues neatly into the final section on ‘reading’ portraits.

In reading a portrait (photographic or not) we are literally expected to take the image at its ‘face value’; Bate’s discussion starts from Plato’s distrust of surface appearance. This section deals with the interlinked concepts of recognition (even if only that we are looking at a human face) and identification (‘of’ and ‘with’), digressing into narcissism, projection, soft-focus and deadpan blank expressions.

In the concluding paragraphs, Bate argues for the role of the viewer (‘the processes of spectatorship) in fixing the meaning and value of a portrait.

If various forms of portraiture are concerned with establishing social identities, then we surely need to consider the pleasure in viewing these images and begin to interrogate our own investment in them, if only to begin to understand how and why pleasure in looking, and psychological and social identity, are all intertwined within the external question that portraits seem to address: who are we? (Bate 2009, 84)

Reference

Bate, D. (2009) Photography : the key concepts. Oxford UK: Berg.