Felix, Gladys and Rover

We are asked to comment on the formal structure of Elliott Erwitt’s image ‘Felix, Gladys and Rover. New York, USA. 1974’, and whether the structure contributes to the meaning of the image.

I recall that, when I first saw this image, my attention was first drawn to the woman’s (Gladys?) booted legs and the chihuahua, which are the darkest and highest-contrast parts of the image. I saw the second pair of larger legs en passant but concentrated first on the chihuahua which appeared to be the main subject and the focus of humour. It has an odd expression (wall-eyed) and is clothed in a knitted wooden hat and jacket – suggesting a cold day, as reinforced by the woman’s overcoat and boots.

I noticed the legs at the left of the frame but, on my first viewing, assumed they were human and uninteresting. It is only on a longer examination that we realise that the second pair of legs belong to a very tall dog, probably a Great Dane. This is the element of Barthesian punctum, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. This double-take realisation forces us to re-evaluate the picture and the relationships between its three subjects, particularly the size difference between the dogs which we assume are both owned by Gladys. We might speculate about details of their day-to-day life; are there two different sized dog-baskets (or kennels, or food dishes) for instance? Certainly, there must be practical differences in the exercise regime.

This is not a conventional rule-of-thirds picture. Gladys is centrally located and the chihuahua (is he Felix or Rover, by the way?) is entirely within the right-hand third. OK, the left-hand vertical third line coincides with Dane’s left leg and it is possible to draw a weak lower horizontal third through the ankles of the four longer legs and the belly of the chihuahua, but I do not see those as major elements. To me, the main organising elements are the expressed vertical lines (four long legs, the lead and the secondary elements of the tree to the left and gazebo to the right) and the implied horizontals (hemline of the coat, bottoms of the feet, and a weak central horizon line), giving an overall grid to the image. The even spacing of the main elements contributes to the impression of an ordered grid.

This is not an HCB ‘decisive moment’ grab shot, but something more considered. I do not know whether we are looking at models or a group that Erwitt has met by chance  and persuaded to pose, but he has taken time and trouble to arrange the elements properly. By getting himself (or at least his camera lens) down to chihuahua eye level, we are able to get an idea of its viewpoint and to emphasise with it; nearly everything in its world must be taller. If this were a grab shot as the subjects were walking toward the photographer, all four Great Dane legs would be in frame and the element of punctum would be lost. Instead, the Dane has been posed side-on so that its rear legs are out of frame to the left. (Well, nearly so. The Magnum image above shows part of a thigh in the top left corner, which has been cropped out from the version presented in the course notes).

Erwitt clearly loves dogs. At least four of his books (Son of Bitch, To the Dogs, Dog Dogs and Woof) are devoted to them, and his doggy images have elements of anthropomorphism and humour. Felix, Gladys and Rover is no exception. Although the chihuahua is part of the image, we feel that we see the world from its viewpoint, emphasised by the low camera angle and the decision to crop the other two subjects at knee level. Its expression and clothing inject the sense of humour, but we also know that it is cared for to the extent of keeping it warm on a cold day. I also get a feeling of closeness, love and/or friendship between the three subjects, emphasised by the grid structure and their physical closeness.

[according to WordPress, that was 683 words – which is a good indication of the level of detail that will be required to produce 1000 words on a single image in assignment 4]

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Null photographs

This is a brief posting in response to a question posed in the introduction to part four (C&N, p92). The thesis is that photography is much like a language, although expressed in imagery rather than words. In most photography, the goal is to communicate or express something. We are challenged to think of photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication.

This is equivalent to voicing a semantically null sentence. While individual words in sentences can be semantically null (‘do’ or ‘that’ can be used to improve the flow of a sentence without adding to its meaning, as can the caricature teenager’s ‘like’) it is difficult to frame an entire sentence entirely without meaning. Similarly with photographs; almost all have some message, even if only as simple as “This is what [subject] looks like” or “This happened in front of my camera at the moment I pressed the shutter button”

It may be a matter of intent. The simple message may not be the goal of the photograph, just a byproduct. However, meaning exists.

A photograph may not have a goal at all, simply a random pressing of the shutter (accidental or otherwise). Those photographers who rebel against HCB’s concept of the ‘decisive moment’ can fall into this category, which may explain why I find it difficult to enjoy (or even take seriously) their work.

At the other end of the scale, an image might have been taken deliberately but the subject has been deliberately distorted or obscured to the extent that the image becomes completely abstract and potentially meaningless.

Self-absented portraiture (examples)

The course notes give four examples of photographers who are said to be using self-absented portraiture to ‘tell the viewer something of who they are’ (p83). I find myself disagreeing with this assessment in all but one case. I also suggest that these are not the best examples that could have been chosen.

Maria Kapajeva’s series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman can be seen on her website. It is a set of environmental portraits of young women (probably Kapajeva’s contemporaries) who, with one exception (the woman in the garden appears nervous), appear strong, self-confident and challenging the camera. This is borne out by the artist’s notes (course notes p84, a drop-down box on her website, and in several other places) which make it clear that she is interested in portraying the women as themselves. However, I do not see them as saying anything about Kapajeva herself (or at least no more than any photograph says about its photographer).

Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diary appears to fit better into Part 2 Project 2 (Image and Text) rather than this section. It is an example of narrative and describes a situation Fox has lived through, but I did not get any sense of a ‘portrait’ of her.

Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’ has been discussed in a previous posting, also under the Image and Text heading, where it is a better fit.

Another photographer, and body of work, discussed earlier (Part 2 Project 3, Photographing the Unseen) is Peter Mansell. His series ‘Paralysis’ and ‘Check Up’, and the image ‘My Space’ deserve to be placed in this Self-Absented Portraiture section because of how much they tell about Mansell, his injuries and the detail of his daily life, coping with them.

Nigel Shafran (website here) is a British photographer, engaged on fashion and architecture work in the 1990s when he started on personal projects, collecting and sequencing photographs of daily life and his partner, Ruth. These became home-made books, then a calendar, and are the starting point for his current fine-art work (Jobey, 2008). ‘Washing Up, 2000‘, featured in the C&N course notes, stands alongside series on bookshelves, shopping on supermarket checkouts, and random people on the escalators at Paddington, among others.

Unfortunately, Shafran’s website does not caption or title any of the individual images, which is a pity. The Washing Up example image in the course notes is titled ‘Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants‘, presumably a description of the meals recently eaten which generated the washing up. This gives a glimpse of the mundane details of his daily life (most of the images feature  the same sink), and I am intrigued about the titles of the others. This is particularly so when there is a quirky extra detail, like tinsel around an electric flex, or a paintbrush.

Course-note questions

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

• Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

I believe that there is a difference between men’s and women’s photography but I would be hard-pushed to define it in any way. I am intrigued as to why the author of the course-notes found it necessary to mention it or raise the question. Is there some gender-agenda about who does the washing up who or notices it more? (In our home, the rule is that the washing-up is done by the one who didn’t cook the meal)

We get a clue by considering Washing Up alongside some of Shafran’s other series, such as Bookshelves or Packages. These are typologies of the mundane – which put me in mind of the works of Ed Ruscha or Eric Tabuchi, which I looked at during EYV. (Unfortunately, Tabuchi’s website has lapsed in the interim). Typologies do appear to be a male preserve (notable exception, Hille Becher), probably driven by a male need to systematise.

I regard Washing Up as a typology series which tells me something about the Shafran household.

• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

As noted above, I believe there is a difference. This is something I first consciously noticed after a magazine ‘reader workshop’ that I took part in, in 2012 (Roberts and Clinch, 2012) at Dungeness. This is a rugged place that oozes testosterone (fishing, large power tools and stuff discarded and left lying around when it becomes redundant). The two male participants went ‘gritty’ and emphasised those features, while the woman found softer and more beautiful images. I see some of the same differences between male and female members of my camera club on competition nights.

• What does this series achieve by not including people?

To have included people, whether actively washing up or as ‘innocent bystanders’ would tell an entirely different story. The person would automatically become the point of interest. Presented as they are, we concentrate on what is around the sink, and what might have happened (cooking, decorating) to cause it to be there.

• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

At one level, yes. However, as Jobey points out, Shafran does not consciously arrange his subject matter, but finds the image in what is in front of him. The phrase ‘still life composition’ suggests deliberate arrangement.

References

Jobey, L. (2008) Photographer Nigel Shafran: domestic harmony [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/23/nigel-shafran&gt; [Accessed 1/12/2017].

Roberts, E., and Clinch, T. (2012) ‘A day at Dungeness’. Black+White Photography  (134), pp.40-43.

Exercise – childhood memory

For this exercise, I am working with ‘found material’ from a family archive (literally). Some years ago I digitised my father’s collection of Kodachrome slides dating between Christmas 1958 and the mid-1970s. My starting point is an image from 1961, taken on my first day at school (despite the passage of 56 years, I can remember the day but not the photograph). It shows my father and his Ford Consul, with me sitting on the bonnet in my new school uniform.

I decided to use this exercise to explore the idea of memory when crystallised into physical form through photography. In particular, I was interested in the various forms it can take. A secondary influence is the ‘Drosté effect‘ where an image is recursively repeated within itself.

I made a print from the scan and photographed my hand holding it. This represents the photograph in its traditional physical form, a ‘hard copy memory’ as it were, such as we can see in countless family albums of the 20th century.

I then re-photographed the resulting image on my laptop computer screen. This represents the 21st century manifestation, where our memories are held in an insubstantial electronic form and viewed on a screen (computer, tablet or smartphone). Effectively, this is a memory of the way memories used to be kept.

childhoodmemory2a

Finally, I uploaded the resulting image to this blog. We now have a memory of a memory, distributed via (and discussed on) social media, which pretty much describes the prevailing current use of photography.

Masquerades – Tracey Moffatt

Tracey Moffatt is an Australian artist, working in photography and video. Her images are more manipulated (‘Photoshopped’) that the other artists considered in this section and ‘Under the Sign of Scorpio‘ (2005) probably takes this to extremes. In the images, the model (Moffatt herself) is cut out from her original setting and composited, floating onto abstract bright colours and the result modified almost beyond reality. In some cases, Joni Mitchell for example, the same image could have been created by an abstract painter. Even the bright yellow dress she wore for the shoot becomes light blue in the final image.

I am not sure that the series qualifies as any form of portraiture, self- or masquerade, due to the level of abstraction. In the majority of images we do not see the subjects face; it is concealed by hair, turned away from the camera, or the head is out of frame. For Vivien Leigh all we see is a dress and a wide-brimmed hat, and Nadia Comaneci is a pair of disembodied arms.

What is interesting about the 2005 exhibition is its second part, ‘Being Under the Sign of Scorpio‘ which showed the contact sheets (9-16 images per sheet) for each shoot. We see Moffatt exploring poses in one (or, at most, two) concepts for her character in what is obviously an amateur bedroom studio environment. Of course, the background did not matter as it was stripped out as part of post-processing. This is a rare example of an artist actually taking us through her creative process.

The final images are not highly realistic renderings, in the style of Cindy Sherman for instance but, in Moffat’s own words (Moffatt, 2005) “In my portraits I have tried to capture their spirit and likeness, but only “at a moment’s glance”. It is almost like the moment when you see a famous person in a restaurant. Everyone is craning their necks to get a glimpse, only to end up with a fleeting view of the back of the celebrity as they exit into the VIP room.”

References

Moffatt, T. (2005) Tracey Moffatt – Under the Sign of Scorpio, 2005 [online] Available at <http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/news/releases/2005/07/10/94/&gt; [Accessed 30/10/2017].

Selinger-Morris, S. (2005) The secret lives of Tracey Moffatt [online] Available at <http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/the-secret-lives-of-tracey-moffatt/2005/07/29/1122144006147.html&gt; [Accessed 30/10/2017].

An idea at last – the diary abandoned

Assignment three is about self-portraits; it says so in the opening sentence, “Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.” The diary, which I have been agonising over and is probably my main reason for procrastinating over getting back to blogging, is just a tool to identify a way in.

My 11 day’s worth of diary was pretty much a chronicle of events, mostly pretty routine, and with no ‘deep innermost thoughts’. However, on re-reading it, I find that although much of life is routine (banal, to pick up on Garry, my tutor’s, comments) I do play several different roles, depending on where I am and who I am with. Of course, I should have been thinking about this all the time – after all, I introduce myself in the right-hand column of this blog (also on Facebook and elsewhere) as

I am a building surveyor, sailor and photographer, but not necessarily in that order.

To that list, I can add, father, husband, occasional saxophone player, Friday night curry chef …

My way forward into this assignment, with approval from my tutor, is to produce a series of self-portraits showing some of the different roles I play. I see this as a deadpan, if not totally banal (I still find that a pejorative word) series. My face will be the constant, with my roles signified by clothing and props. This might look derivative of Keith Greenhough’s ‘Iron Man‘ images on p73 of the course notes, but I plan to strip it back further. My first thought is to take inspiration from Richard Avedon’s approach to his ‘The Family‘ and ‘In the American West‘ series, contrasty monochrome against a plain white background, with frontal lighting, leaving his subjects nowhere to hide. It will be a digital effort, not large-format (I have the LF camera but focusing and actuation become a problem with selfies).

I had considered making this a self-absented series, still-lifes of the clothing and props but I think that would be a gimmick too far. Similarly with mirror selfies, which are already clichéd and the gimmick would detract from the meaning of the image.

Potential roles, identified from the diary (in order of appearance, not importance) are:

  • Building surveyor (‘the day job’)
  • Photographer
  • Photography student (assuming I can differentiate it from ‘photographer’)
  • Video/DVD watcher (is that a role?)
  • Rotarian (really unsure how to show that)
  • Reader of books (again, is it a role?)
  • Saxophone player (well, I make noises that I like)
  • Cryptic crossword solver
  • Occasional cook (top of cooker only, not oven)
  • Sailor and basic dinghy instructor
  • Wrapping wife’s birthday presents (on the day!)

No guidance or prescription on how many images are wanted in the set. I think 5-6 would be plenty. I will try some test shots during next week.

Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Trish Morrissey is an Irish-born artist now based in London, who works in photography, video and audio. In the photography projects seen on her website www.trishmorrissey.com she appears as her own model, in work which I would place in the ‘masquerade’ category as she takes the part of other (often named) people.

In a previous posting, I noted her 2005-2007 series ‘Front’ in which Morrissey switches places with a woman in a beach group. It is interesting that media commentary on the series (e.g. O’Hagan 2013 and Phillips 2013) and online magazines (examples here and here) tend to pick on the same image ‘Hayley Coles, June 17th 2006‘, although perhaps unsurprising as it is the only image embedding Morrissey among a non-caucasian family, thereby making the theme of the series obvious in a single image.

In ‘Front‘, Morrissey selects family groups that have made some sort of encampment, or marked space, on a public beach (she tells us in the series statement (Morrissey s.d.) that the work is about borders and boundaries), approaches them and has herself photographed in the place of one of the female members of the group. She exchanges clothes with her subject and takes her place in a ‘family snap’ photograph, with her subject opening the shutter  of a 5×4 view camera. As noted in the series statement, and as quoted by Phillips (2013) the whole process is a 30-minute piece of performance art.

Once they said yes, I set up, which took half an hour. I had to entertain them to keep their attention, and the mood became quite hyper. But it was fun: it had to be fun or why would I do it? (Morrissey quoted by Phillips 2013)

With the possible exception of ‘Hayley Coles‘, viewing a single image in the set is quite unremarkable but in viewing the entire series we realise that Morissey’s face appears as a common factor (the “Where’s Wally” effect again), which causes us to think deeper. Incidentally, we have no information about Hayley Coles’ ethnicity, so maybe the viewer makes an unwarranted assumption (mea culpa as well).

The course notes raise the interesting question, would I agree to taking part in a ‘Front‘ image and if not, why not? I do not know (and it would have to be a family decision); certainly, I would feel very uneasy and that reflects Morrisseys comment that the series is about borders and boundaries. She breaches the implied physical boundary that beach -users place around ‘our spot’ and also the psychological boundary of the family group (Morrissey uses the word ‘cuckoo’ herself). A lot would depend on how entertaining she can be in the half-hour of contact and, as a photographer using 5×4 occasionally myself, I would be interested in her use of the camera.

Another interesting question is whether such a series could be made by a man, and I suspect the answer is no. The approach would go beyond ‘cuckoo’, into ‘lion’ or ‘elephant seal’ territory and might be perceived as an attempt to supplant an alpha male.

Of the other photographic series, ‘The Failed Realist‘ is the only set that I would describe as self-portraiture. Said, in the artist’s statement to be made ‘in collaboration with’ her daughter (then aged 4-5), this is a series of head-shots after the daughter had attempted face-painting with various degrees of success. The series title comes from the psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet’s (1927/2001) description of the developmental phase where the child’s artistic vision exceeds its ability.

In ‘Rose, Irma and the Sandman‘ and ‘Ten People in a Suitcase‘ Morrissey takes the part of real, named people and recreates scenes from (or inspired by) archive photographs. In ‘Seven Years‘, she and her sister (seven years older, hence the series title) recreate the style of family snapshots from the 1970s and 80s. All of these series fall squarely into the ‘masquerades’ category.

Morrissey’s work invites comparison with Nikki S Lee. Both are playing a role for the camera, with the images being shot by an assistant, a collaborator or an innocent bystander. However, there are differences: Lee dons masks and make-up to bolster the illusion, whereas Morrissey (apart from occasional use of wigs) shows us her own face, and Morrissey uses a large-format camera rather than the snapshot cameras preferred by Lee. On a personal level, I prefer the Morrissey images – they give an air of letting the viewer in on the joke.

References

Morrissey, T. (s.d.) Front: statement [online] Available at <http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/statement.html&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].

O’Hagan, S (2013) The 10 best … photographic self-portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/23/10-best-photographic-self-portraits&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].