Photographing the Unseen – Exercise (three OCA alumni)

All references are to the OCA course notes, Context and Narrative, pp 62-68, unless otherwise noted.

Peter Mansell

Pete Mansell is paraplegic from a spinal cord injury sustained at the age of 20. His projects discussed in the course notes deal with the unseen effects of his injury.

The ‘seen’ effects would be comparatively easy to document, with photographs (selfies or taken by others) of Mansell in his wheelchair or coping with daily life. However, the unseen effects are known only to Mansell himself and given shape by his photography. We are given three examples:

Drug Packaging, seen alone, is a simple macro pattern shot of part of a package of drug capsules, with one apparently popped out. A pleasing image with a strong diagonal composition but one likely to be passed by. However, seen as part of Paralysis, a series showing the medication, equipment, scars and infections that are a part of his life at Maslow’s base ‘physiological needs’ level (Mansell is confused with Herzberg’s hygiene factors) gives the viewer some insight into the sheer ‘guttiness’ of living with his kind of injury.

Examining shows us a corner of a room, apparently in a medical institution, with the end of a hospital bed. On the bed is a transfer blanket with carrying handles; it is a reminder that patients, including Mansell, are unable to get onto the bed by themselves but have to be manhandled onto it. This is part of the series, Check Up, which shows us details of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Mansell is very positive about this place and claims an emotional connection; the staff already know the issues so there is no ned to explain. Again, the individual image is only a part of a much greater sum. Each of the nine images in the set has a one-word, ‘…ing’ title; ‘Inspiring’ shows us a portrait on the wall of a wheelchair athlete.

My Space is a stand-alone (if that is not a tasteless word in the circumstances) image, rather than part of a series. It shows the detail of a room, presumably the lounge at home, with part of a door opening, a standard lamp, coffee table/cabinet and one edge of a sofa or armchair. Their is a chair-width length of blank wall and the coffee table is pulled away from the wall, creating a space into which a wheelchair could fit. This is not a wasted space – it is there to accommodate Pete Mansell’s wheelchair, not there at the moment, because Mansell is sitting in it to take the photograph. We are reminded of the adjustments to daily life that are required to accommodate disability; we assume that other rooms have similar dedicated spaces.

Dewald Botha

Dewald Botha is, with Mansell, a member of [6], a group of OCA alumni who started collaborating as undergraduates. Ring Road is a set that, at one level, is of a subject very much ‘seen’. It shows the concrete structures of a raised roadway around the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, China. However, Botha tells us (in a brief website caption) that he is using the road as a metaphor for boundaries and limitations. Boundaries are usually visible, limitations often are not. One distinction is that a boundary is a physical constraint, whereas a limitation is a mental one.

I have more difficulty extracting meaning from this set than from Mansell’s work. For instance, if he is ‘searching for pockets of calm and quiet’, why do several of the images show the road surface itself, near junctions (one with oncoming traffic stopped at a signal on the top-left third-point of the image). Other images show greenery (apparently tended) around and below the road structures, indicating that these are spaces that somebody cares for. I can also get the sense of ‘boundary’ or ‘limitation’, from the view that any ring-road (even the M25) necessarily separates inside from outside of itself and imposes a restriction on growth of the urban centre. I suppose, in the context of the present exercise, I am having trouble seeing the unseen.

Jodie Taylor

Jodie Taylor’s series Memories of Childhood was also referenced in Expressing Your Vision, Assignment 1 (Square Mile). Unfortunately, her learning blog no longer exists and a Google search reveals that there are several Jodie Taylors with a web presence as photographers (plus an Arsenal footballer), so it has not been possible to find the full set and I must rely on the description and three images presented in the weareoca blog posting.

The premise can be simply stated. Photography represents the past as soon as the shutter is clicked (Barthes, Berger, Sontag and others have made similar points) and we become nostalgic about it. Taylor’s series is about that nostalgia, provoked by moving back into a house that she grew up into. The surviving images are of rather scruffy, intimate areas (two paths/alleys and a row of domestic galleries). These are the sort of places that evoke memories of school summer holidays and teenagers simply ‘hanging out’. I have memories of attempting to ride a friend’s motorcycle outside just such a set of garages and, doubtless, other viewers will recall a first cigarette or a first kiss (I’m keeping it clean here). Reading the weareoca posting, I see that it has evoked similar memories in Sharon, the reviewer.

Taylor tells us that this is to be a ‘fine art-based project’ but presented it as a set of machine-prints from 35mm in a cheap plastic album with ‘warts and all’ scratches an blemishes. I am unable to reconcile ‘fine art’ (or at least my vision of it) with the scruffy approach, but I have to admit that it will work on a conceptual level as further context to evoke nostalgia – which was the point of the exercise. This comes back to the question of the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that my tutor has referred to, and which will have to be the subject of a future posting. However, I wonder about the artificiality or contrivance of the approach. If a set old old prints were found in a shoebox in the attic it would invoke genuine nostalgia; is that a different thing from deliberately trying to manufacture it?

Coursework questions

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

It is easy to pick out the ‘third place’. I had difficulty engaging with Botha’s Ring Road, for reasons noted above.

Jodie Taylor’s and Pete Mansell’s work resonated in different ways and for different reasons. Taylor evoked direct memories; Mansell gives me a vision of an alternative past and present. We have probably all had traffic accident near-misses; is this how life would be if something had been only a few inches or a few seconds different? If deciding between them, I would go for Mansell because I have been able to find more of his work online and, therefore, to engage better.

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you have created?

Some years before starting the degree course, I read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs and was annoyed at his statement that the photographer’s interpretation of an image was no more nor less valid than the viewer’s [reference to be added when I find it on re-reading]. I assume that this is what the questioner means by loss of authorial control. While studying over the past 16 months, I have come to revise that opinion. The viewer is an integral part of the subject/photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image. However, the viewer can only react to what is in front of him/her; it is the photographer who places it there.

My nearest experience of this loss of authorial control must be competition nights at my camera club when the judge comments on my entered images. Sometimes, the judge will interpret the image very differently from me and I might seethe ‘he’s missed the bloody point’. In many cases, mature reflection shows me an alternative or deeper meaning that I did not fully appreciate at the time of taking. I don’t have to like it, but it is often instructive.

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Exercise – responding to a poem

Choose a poem that resonates with you then interpret it through photographs. Don’t attempt to describe the poem but instead give a sense of the feeling of the poem and the essence it exudes.  (C&N course notes p60)

Time for another admission of philistinism; poetry does not feature particularly large in my life or upbringing. I tend to prefer comic verse and doggerel to more ‘serious’ poetry. One exception, and the only poem ever to make me cry on reading it is Spike Milligan’s The Children of Aberfan, from the 1972 collection, Small Dreams of a Scorpion. I was a primary school child in 1966, the same age of many of those that died, and the news reports gave me nightmares which may explain my reaction when I first came across the poem.

And now they will go wandering
Away from coal black earth,
The clean white children,
holy as the Easter rose,
Away from the empty sludge-filled desks,
Away from the imprisoned spring
that opened its mouth
To breathe air
and moved a black mountain to find it.

 

So,
Away they shall go – the children,
wandering – wondering
more loved
more wanted
than ever.

 

I don’t burn coal any more.

A literal interpretation would not be possible without a logistical exercise on a Gregory Crewdson scale (which would be tasteless) but it occurs to me that, in a more general sense, this is a poem about loss of children and the loss of childhood.

My wife has kept the first pair of ‘proper shoes’ that each of our children (now aged 27 to 33) wore; I feel that the empty shoes make a good metaphor for lost or nostalgically-remembered childhood. I tried a series of still-life set-ups in the house and the garden, with varying degrees of success. Here are the contact sheets.

 

Most of the images in sheets 8 and 9 were intended for a planned composite image involving a fireplace, footprints and shoes but I didn’t follow it up because the footprint images were unsatisfactory and I was very pleased with the still-lifes.

I applied the same post-processing treatment to all the images in an attempt to give a faded, nostalgic feel (white vignette, vaguely high-key processing, warmed-up colour balance and slight desaturation) with a degree of success. This exercise is also a basis for a possible response to Assignment Two (Photographing the Unseen)

 

 

My favourite image from the set is below, one of a series with shoes placed in a bed of forget-me-nots (themselves a metaphor for nostalgia and remembrance) and one which I believe captures the essence of Milligan’s second stanza.

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Reference 

Milligan, S. (1972). Small Dreams of a Scorpion. 1st ed. Penguin.

Combining text and image

The course notes introduce three more photographers whose projects intertwine text and image. In these cases, image and text are not inseparable but there is a clear symbiotic relationship – the text effects the reading of the image, and the image gives meaning to the text.

Kaylynn Deveney

The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings is a collaboration between Deveney and her octogenarian neighbour, Bert Hastings. Bert, living alone, had developed a routine and rhythm in life.

In the best Ronseal tradition, this series ‘does what it says on the tin’ and pictures the routine and banality of Bert’s everyday life, but Deveney would then give prints to Bert and he would write a note or a sentence to accompany it: sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes whimsical.  It could be said that many of the texts are anchorage (“My inevitable cuppa char”) but taken across the entire series, the effect is mainly relay.

Text and image form the context for each other and overall I feel that I know Bert.

Karen Knorr

Gentlemen, in common with Knorr’s other 1980s series Belgravia (encountered early in EYV) and Country Life, is presented as a series of high-quality monochrome prints with accompanying text. Knorr’s text style is unusual, with unconventional capitalisation and a deliberate splitting of the text into short lines giving the appearance of blank verse.

newspapers-are

source: karenknorr.com

Gentlemen presents a caricature of life in the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’ in central London. The text gives a first impression of anchorage but on closer reading is almost pure relay. The series reminded me of the cartoons  of Glen Baxter; although the subject matter is different, the sense of humour and dislocation is very similar.

Duane Michals

Many of Duane Michals’ individual images and short series have the artist’s handwritten text on the face of the image. Mostly, these are rather quirky relay comments (I particularly enjoyed the 1998 series Madam Schrödinger’s Cat, but perhaps that is the Physics A-level speaking) but the two reproduced below show an element of anchorage. Both are rather long texts, in the context of Michals’ other work and both are self-referential – in both cases, they are comments about the nature of the photograph itself and only indirectly about its subject.

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source: http://www.lensculture.com

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source: dcmooresgallery.com

References

DCMooregallery.com. (n.d.). Duane Michals – Artists – DC Moore Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals/series/photographs-with-text?view=slider#7 [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Deveney, K. (n.d.). The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings. [online] KayLynn Deveney Photographer. Available at: https://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings/ [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Knorr, K. (2014). Gentlemen | Karen Knorr. [online] Karenknorr.com. Available at: http://karenknorr.com/photography/gentlemen/ [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Strecker, A. (n.d.). Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals – Photographs by Duane Michals | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/duane-michals-storyteller-the-photographs-of-duane-michals-2 [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Soph-istry (research point)

This posting considers works by two Sophies, or one Sophie (Calle) and one Sophy (Rickett). Although the context of the research point is the relationship between image and text, both works are multimedia installations including other material and other forms of expression.

The moral of ‘Take Care of Yourself’ by Sophie Calle (Chrisafis 2007, Fisher 2009) is that, if you are in a relationship with a conceptual artist, don’t end it with dumping her by email. The title comes from he final sentence of X’s email and the exhibition as a whole represents the infernal ire of the proverbial woman scorned.

Calle showed the letter to 107 women (or 106 women and a parrot), asked each to respond to it according to her own profession and recorded, filmed or displayed the results. The parrot ate it, a sharpshooter shot out the word ‘love’ in the three places it appeared, an actor and a clown gave their own readings, a graphic artist turned it into origami, a copy editor deconstructed the grammar and spelling , and so forth… The exhibition is a mix of photos and text, together with video screens and physical objects (such as the sharpshooters target, with the holes illuminated by LEDs).

One reviewer (Fisher 2009) tells us: ‘Wittgenstein once proposed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If that is the case, then Calle’s work translates the broader feminine experience into a formalized world of possibilities. The “answers” are less important than the forms of engagement and investigation, the invitation to construct meaning.’

Sophy Rickett’s ‘Objects in the Field’, by contrast, tackles a seemingly more objective subject – her time as Artist Associate to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. In particular, there is interaction between Rickett and Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer and designer of one of the telescopes in use at the Institute.

The exhibition was a mix of photographs and text, displayed in an environment including historic and ancient astronomical equipment which provides a context. The text, reproduced in full by Johnston (2014) drifts in and out of relevance to the images. The early part deals with Rickett’s childhood experience with optical equipment having her eyes tested and being fitted with glasses; the central part tells of her encounters with Dr Willstrop; the final section is distinctly tangential, describing something seen from a train window.

The images include a set called ‘Observations’, which are prints from a set of negatives produced in Dr Willstrop’s telescope. From an interview with Sharon Boothroyd (2013) Rickett I get the impression that there was a mutual regard and also a mutual im=ncomprehension between the two, “So the work came to be about a kind of symbiosis on the one hand, but on the other there is a real tension, a sense of us resisting one another.  The material in the middle stays the same, but it’s kind of contested, fought over.”  Willstrop saw the photographs as scientific research (albeit out of date) and Rickett saw them as art objects (although checking with Willstrop to ensure that she did not misrepresent them)

The reviews that I found are surprisingly similar, even to sharing the same imprecision about the title. To quote Franchi (2014), although others use almost identical wording, ‘The name of “Objects in the Field” comes from the lexicon used by astronomers and astrophysicists that refers to stars as ‘objects’ and to the sky as ‘the field’.’ Rather than plagiarising each other, I suspect they were all quoting from a press release. In an astronomical context ‘objects’ are not only stars, but also planets, nebulae and comets (all of which feature in the ‘Observations’ series) and ‘the field’ is the field of view of the telescope.

We are asked to comment on how these two bodies of work reflect post modern approaches to narrative. This, of course, means first attempting to understand what is meant by a ‘postmodern approach’. I am assisted by Andy Grundberg’s essay ‘The Crisis of the Real’ as summarised by Ashley la Grange (la Grange 2005). Grundberg notes that ‘post-modernism’ means different things in different artistic media, having originated in architecture.

‘Post-modern’ is an odd term to understand because ‘Modern’ describing a particular period in various arts including photography (roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century) means something different from ‘modern’ in everyday speech (meaning ‘up to date’ or ‘state-of-the-art’). when modern modes fell out of vogue, it was necessary to invent a term meaning ‘more modern than modern’, hence ‘post-modern’.

Post-modernism, according to Grundberg is a reaction against the certainties implied by Modernism in the various arts (my analogy is the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as presented by Judith Hahn, compared with the Raymond Baxter era – but perhaps I am showing my age). Critics argued that post-modernism must debunk or ‘deconstruct’ the myths of the autonomous individual and the individual subject, but they disagree on how to do it. Approaches include mixed media or a feeling that the media do not matter so long as the work is defined in cultural terms (Grundberg, in la Grange 2005, 151).

My impression is that, while post-modernism has manifold forms, the common approach appears to be to look for underlying assumptions or certainties, then to challenge or subvert them. This seems to be what both Calle and Rickett are doing in their own way. Both exhibitions used text (and other media) in a relay relationship with the images, rather than the anchorage that was the norm in earlier times. Both are self-indulgent to some extent (Calle more than Rickett). Both appear to demand that the viewer does some work to extract [his/her own version of] the full meaning.

References

Boothroyd, S. (2013). Sophy Rickett. [online] photoparley. Available at: https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/sophy-rickett/ [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Chrisafis, A. (2007). Interview: Sophie Calle. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/16/artnews.art [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Fisher, C. (2009). Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself. [online] Brooklynrail.org. Available at: http://brooklynrail.org/2009/06/artseen/take-care-of-yourself [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Franchi, D. (2014). Exhibition Object in the Field by Sophy Rickett at the Grimaldi Gallery, London.. [online] Londonartreviews.com. Available at: https://londonartreviews.com/index.php/private-galleries/136-exhibition-object-in-the-field-by-sophy-rickett-at-the-grimaldi-gallery-london [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Johnston, S. (2014). Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field. [online] Inside MHS Oxford. Available at: https://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/insidemhs/sophy-rickett-objects-field/ [Accessed 3 May 2017].

la Grange, A. (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Focal Press.

The Photographers’ Gallery. (2014). Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field. [online] Available at: https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/ [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Exercise – alternative captions

All of these images appeared in the Times of 17 April 2017. I have retained the original captions as part of the scans.

The exercise is to write my own captions and comment on how they recontextualise the image. I have attempted to find both anchorage and relay meanings.

Times 20170417003

Surprise winner of Walt Disney lookalike competition.

This caption gives an alternative anchorage, explaining the delight of the crowds but relying on the appearance rather than the identity of the person being celebrated.

“Tomorrow belongs to me”

This caption gives an alternative anchorage for the image, through a relay comment, giving a connoted meaning. It relies on an assumed cultural experience between the writer and the viewer (the crowd scene in the 1972 film ‘Cabaret’) to draw a parallel with Germany in the 1930s and Hitler’s progressive subversion of the democratic process.

There was a young fellow from Ankara …

Another relay comment, relying on some shared cultural experience. In this case, it is a reference to Boris Johnson’s winning entry in the Spectator magazine’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition, and is intended to hold Erdogan up to ridicule.

Times 20170417002

Ghost riders in the sky

A relay caption, echoing the 1948 song of the same title. The horses are in the sky and have no riders.

Firefighter hallucinates after blaze at cannabis farm

This caption gives an alternative anchorage to the image, although the viewer would have to share the subject’s hallucination for it to work. This is an image which is not explicable without some sort of caption, whether the original or one of my alternatives.

Times 20170417001

WW1 veteran promotes the anti-ageing qualities of mud-packs

Notionally an anchorage caption, but with elements of the surreal.

“Mud, mud, glorious mud”

Another quotation from a song (Flanders and Swann, 1956). This caption could be taken as anchorage, explaining the subject’s expression, or as relay – linking to the song and the hippopotamus, which leads to:

I keep thinking it’s Tuesday

This is a sort of ‘second generation relay’ caption, referring back to Paul Crum’s 1937 cartoon but first requiring the viewer to pick up a hippopotamus reference via the mud, the subject’s expression and Flanders and Swann.

Exercise – Pictures and headlines

The exercise is to find a newspaper photograph and write our own captions. This is the sort of thing that is done every week on ‘Have I Got News For You’, the ‘Graham Norton Show’ and others, mainly for comic effect. In most cases, these alternative captions form an alternative anchorage for the image. Relay captions appear rare, which fits with Barthes’ own comments in Rhetoric of the Image.

My own attempts will form a separate posting. In this posting I give examples of a surprisingly common phenomenon in the Times. Like most newspapers, the Times likes to put an eye-catching colour photograph on the front page. Often, it is unrelated to the main headline story of the day and, sometimes, the juxtaposition of headline and story give an alternative reading to both – having an element of relay because it is unintentional.

I have gleaned the following examples since mid-February.

Rhetoric of the Image – Barthes (a first reading)

The text of Roland Barthes’ ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ can be found in numerous places online. My version is a book extract posted as a PDF by Georgetown University (Barthes 1964).

Barthes’ writings, to borrow a phrase from Paul Seawright, ‘give up their meaning slowly’. I have been able to extract sufficient meaning for use in this project ‘Image and text’; the deep theory of the latter parts of the essay will have to wait for another day.

The essay centres on the deconstruction of an advertising image into its various messages (significations). Barthes chose an advertising image on the basis that all signification in the image is intentional; we read into the image what its creator intends us to read.

panzani-preview

There are multiple instances of this image online. My source is https://tracesofthereal.com/2009/12/21/the-rhetoric-of-the-image-roland-barthes-1977/

Barthes analyses the signifiers into three parts: the linguistic message and two forms of visual message, the literal (denoted) and symbolic (connoted). Later he notes that linguistic messages can be further subdivided into ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. I see an imperfect analogy between the two splits – anchorage can be related to a literal visual message, and relay to a symbolic message.

The literal image denotes what we see at what Barthes calls the ‘first level of intelligibility’. Against a red background is a string bag filled with, and spilling out, the ingredients of a pasta meal. Some are natural produce (tomato, onion, peppers) and some are the manufactured product of the firm (Panzani) being advertised. The products are oriented so that we can read the manufacturer’s name on the labels – which becomes part of the linguistic message.

The connoted message(s) are those things that the viewer ‘reads into’ the literal image. The string bag and the unwrapped vegetables imply a return from market with fresh ingredients. At a second level, this suggests personal choice or selection rather than a ‘Saturday big shop’ stocking-up at the local Tesco. Placing the manufactured goods in the same bag implies that they are as fresh or ‘natural’ as the vegetables, and selected as carefully.

The connoted image, to some extent, depends on the viewer’s cultural background and experiences. Barthes claims to see ‘Italianicity’ in the vegetables and the colour scheme – I only see fresh vegetables, but take ‘Italianicity’ from the labels and the nature of the product (pasta)

There are two sources of linguistic message, the caption at bottom right and the labels on the products. In this case, both fall into the category of ‘anchorage’; they ‘fix’ the meaning of the image, effectively selecting between alternative possible connoted meanings and directing the viewer toward those that the advertiser wants to promote.

Barthes says that every image is associated with some linguistic message, either (as in this example) in the image itself or in the context in which it is seen – for instance, the text in a book, the caption in a newspaper or the wall-notes of a gallery. In the case of still images this is most likely to be anchorage – either the image illustrates the text or the text attempts to fix the meaning of the image; one is subservient to the other.

The other form of linguistic message, ‘relay’ is more common with moving images (for instance a ‘talking-head’ TV broadcast) than with still images; Barthes mentions cartoons and comic strips as likely examples of relay in still images. For me, one of the best examples is Paul Crum’s brilliantly surreal 1937 cartoon in Punch.

The image and the text have equal status and bounce off each other to give an overall meaning that is not complete in either.

Going back to the example picture essays in project 1 (Telling a story), I see Smith’s text and captions as being pure anchorage. Briony Campbell’s picture captions are a mix of anchorage and relay.

Reference

Barthes, R. (1964). Rhetoric of the Image. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].