Remember the Killing Fields

This is a self-directed small project, used in a camera club ‘panel of prints’ competition, presented here because it fits with parts one and two of the C&N course.

The images were taken at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, just outside Phnom Penh. Visiting at least one ‘Killing Fields’ memorial is an essential part of visiting Cambodia – remember to take tissues. The place has a beautiful setting with an ‘untended park’ vibe, dotted with features and reminders such as the sites of mass graves and a central stupa, four storeys tall and filled with skulls and some other bones. This was my take in six  images.

Hanging plan killingfields

The prints were displayed in black window mounts, 50x40cm, tight butted together to show a black background. The two central images and the skulls are from the main stupa (the top row centre image is taken from just inside that door in the lower centre image). The top left image is a detail of personal memorials on the fencing around one of the mass graves. The flowers at the bottom right were outside the stupa. I spent some time in Lightroom balancing colour and contrast between images. The colour ‘look’ comes from boosting vibrance while reducing saturation.

Overall, I hope I did justice to the place. The set was well-received by club colleagues and the judge.

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Elliott Erwitt at Beetles+Huxley

I always enjoy a visit to the Beetles+Huxley gallery. The intimate space is ideal for a display of 30-50 domestic-size photographs and the catalogue is always good value at £10. The current exhibition shows prints by Elliott Erwitt to celebrate his 90th birthday, portrait and journalistic work and his private ‘snaps’.

Erwitt1

The least satisfactory are the studio portraits. OK, they are workmanlike but not up to a Karsh standard – and that look with the head tilted back to catch the light might work with Marilyn Monroe but looks really odd on Che Guevara. Erwitt is better in ambient light as his portraits of JFK and Arthur Miller demonstrate.

With his wider journalistic work and particularly with ‘snaps’ we see the element of humour that Erwitt is famous for. Here, Nixon seems to be getting his point across to Kruzchev.

Elsewhere, we see a group staring at an empty picture frame, a woman apparently startled by a shop-window mannequin looking back at her, and boys dangling off an anchor rope in Tahiti.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be an Erwitt show without the doggy pictures.

Erwitt2

Felix, Gladys and Rover are there, as is the dog excavating the beach at East Hampton and a sequence of an old Parisian man greeting a small dog.

Nothing gritty or challenging here (but who wants to be challenged all the time), just a delightful way of spending half an hour.

Reference

Gregory, T., and Huxley-Parlour, G. (2018) Elliott Erwitt. London: Beetles+Huxley.

Assignment 4 – Mind map

I have occasionally attempted mind-mapping for essay planning, although always hand-drawn so far. I have used this exercise as an opportunity to test-drive  a piece of commercial mind-map software. This diagram is my mind-map for a critical essay on Don McCullin’s 1958 ‘Guv’nors’ image.

McCullin Guv'nors mindmap

The software is fairly easy to use – this was my first attempt and there were not many false starts – but not as flexible as I would like. It forces a hierarchical tree, with no obvious way of exploring links between ‘twigs’ attached to different ‘branches’ (my terminology). Where the software scores over paper thought-collection is that it is possible to build-up the diagram over a period of days, slotting-in semi-random thoughts as they occur and modifying the diagram to make everything fit.

Now that the free trial period is over, I will be purchasing the full version and hope to make better use of it over the remainder of my OCA studies.

Assignment 4 – a bit of structure

Having selected an image (McCullin’s street gang) that should easily sustain a 1000-word essay, it is time to think about the essay structure. Available guidance is not actually contradictory – there is common ground and a broad consensus – but every prospective mentor has a different approach and (apparently) a different set of priorities.

Barrett (2006) gives the most complete overview, with his note that all criticism does one or more of the following:

  • Description: This includes statements about the photograph’s subject matter and formal construction, and also its external context and ‘causal environment’ (although I would suggest that this latter category shades into interpretation). In the absence of the image itself, accurate description is an essential basis for any kind of meaningful criticism.
  • Interpretation: To interpret something is to give it meaning, or (taking my more cynical view) to explain and advocate the reviewer’s understanding of its meaning. There are numerous approaches to interpretation: Barrett himself (1986 and 2006, 65-105) suggests categorising the photograph as a starting point. Salkeld (2014) and the OCA course notes promote a semiotic approach. Others consider the historical context in which the photograph was made, or the photographer’s intent (although Barrett warns against what he calls ‘the intentionalist fallacy’)
  • Evaluation: To evaluate a photograph is to make statements about its worth or value. In order to do so, one needs first to establish the criteria for evaluation and, second, to offer objective reasons why (in the reviewer’s opinion) the image succeeds or fails against those criteria.
  • Theorising: Theorising looks beyond the image notionally under discussion and uses it as a starting point to consider what Barrett calls the ‘big questions’

There is a useful guide to understanding photographs, produced by my tutor, Garry Clarkson (unreferenced), which divides into four categories, mainly covered by Barrett’s functions of description and interpretation.

  • Visual: deals with the formal elements and composition
  • Technical: the techniques used by the photographer, camera format, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, lighting etc. whether stated by the photographer (e.g. in a caption  in a photobook) or assessed/guesstimated by the reviewer.
  • Contextual: historical context, biographical background, psychological effect
  • Conceptual: relationship with other images, connections with reviewer’s own knowledge, ideas communicated.

Salkeld (2014, 45-67) and others introduce the study of semiotics as a guide to interpretation. (I choose Salkeld as my example because he manages to explain the concepts in accessible language, unlike the originators, Derrida and Barthes).

A photographic image contains a set of ‘signs’ which can be ‘decoded’ or interpreted. A ‘sign’ is a link between a ‘signifier’ (what we see in the image) and the ‘signified’ (what we interpret it to mean). Semiotic signs can be arbitrary (e.g. the colour red in road-signs indicates danger or prohibition; text is a set of symbols with meaning in a given language), iconic (the signifier is similar in appearance to the signified) and/or indexical (the signifier is caused by the signified, e.g. smoke caused by fire).

Meaning may be denoted (a literal view of what the signified is) or connoted (ideas suggested by the image but not explicitly denoted. My simplistic interpretation is that ‘denotation tells us what it is, connotation tells us what it means’)

My view at this stage, before mind-mapping in preparation for the essay, is that it will major on description and interpretation. Evaluation would be presumptuous, but might be attempted. I doubt that I will attempt any theorising.

References

Barrett, T. (1986) ‘A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs’. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

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

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

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]