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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A Philistine’s progress – on re-reading Terry Barrett

I am currently reading Terry Barrett’s ‘Criticizing Photographs‘ as a prelude to making a serious start on Part Four (Reading Photographs). I will blog a review when I finish it, but I am already finding scope for a bit of personal reflection.

Actually, I am re-reading the book and this is the second copy that I have owned. I originally bought it in 2010 when I had just joined a camera club and was hoping to get some insight into how judges evaluate images on competition nights. I found it useless for that purpose, full of irrelevant and off-topic material and promoting a view of ‘art’ that  I did not recognise, so I disposed of it.

Now, seven years on and two years into the OCA degree course, I have a second copy which I am re-reading with different eyes and finding it quite fascinating. It is dealing with topics that I recognise, and I am now familiar with (or at least have heard of) many of the photographers, critics and photographs that he references.

The point of this post is a realisation that my horizons have broadened since starting this course. I am not knocking camera club judges (and I have seen some snobbish comments about camera clubs on the OCA Facebook and forum pages) but I recognise that there are different ways of looking at photographs. The club approach looks at images in a formal, technical and aesthetic way but does not look behind them at the meaning. Judges will often say that they are only interested in the image as presented, not in the process by which it was made. On the other hand, the technical quality and composition of club competition images is superior to many of the examples that the OCA course promotes. I hope that, by immersing myself into both cultures, I can become a photographer encapsulating the best of both worlds.

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.

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].

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].

Masquerades – Nikki S Lee

Nikki S Lee is an American performance artist of Korean origin. She uses a camera to record her art, but does not consider herself a photographer (Bright 2011,41). Her typical images are a form of self-portraiture, ‘snapshots’ of herself taken by others with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Of her two major bodies of work, ‘Projects’ is very much a masquerade exercise and ‘Parts’, although apparently more self-referential , is still a performance of sorts. More recently, she has branched into film; ‘AKA Nikki S Lee’ is part documentary and part performance, in which she plays both the documentary-maker and the subject. (reviewed in Kino, 2006 and Davis, s.d.)

‘Parts’ (2002-2005) is the less controversial and easier to describe body of photography. Lee has herself photographed in ‘social snapshot’ situations with different men, prints the image then cuts the man out, leaving just a vestige such as an arm or a hand visible. (slideshow of examples here) Seen individually, these images appear as caricature ‘break-up’ pictures, including the three-sided border which makes it obvious that this is a cut image rather than poor framing. In the AKA film, she gets angry at one exhibition where the borders have been removed before framing in a mistaken attempt to tidy-up the photograph.

When several of the images are viewed together, we see something different. The same face (Lee’s) is matched with differing costumes, make-up and locations and we realise that there is some role-playing (masquerade) going on. Lee tells us (reported by Bright 2011, 41) that these are not break-up pictures but “… show how personal identity is is affected by other people and different kinds of relationships. … You can see that it is one person throughout and that her identity shifts and changes depending on whom she is with”. The use of ‘her’ rather than ‘my’ is significant and suggests that even when interviewed, Lee is role-playing.

‘Projects’ (1997-2001) is a set of interconnected (if only by technique) projects in which Lee adopts a particular group or subculture for a period of weeks or months, attempts to assimilate or blend in, then has herself photographed in persona with group members, by members of the group or passers-by, in the same snapshot aesthetic noted earlier. As before, individual images are unremarkable but viewing multiple images makes the role-play and deeper questions more obvious.

At the surface level, we are tempted to play a version of ‘Where’s Wally’, to identify Lee in each image. Her distinctively oriental features make this easier in groups where there is a racial stereotype (the WASPs of ‘The Yuppie Project’ or the African-Americans of ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ for example) and part of the controversy around her work comes from reviewers dealing with perceived racism (eg. Berger 2001 and Kim 2016)

There are challenges in attempting to fit the group visually. In ‘The Schoolgirl Project’,  going back to Korea helps with facial features but Lee is noticeably older than the group. At the other end of the scale, she had to wear a mask and/or heavy make-up for ‘The Seniors Project‘ (it is reported that the group members ‘thought she was an elderly crackpot and gently humoured her’ (Cotter 1999)). It is her use of blackface in ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ that particularly attracts Kim’s venom.

Any masquerade project (apart from obvious drama in a formal theatrical setting, when we know what to expect) is going to be controversial, with accusations of voyeurism or exploitation. The language used by reviewers is interesting. The more neutral reviewers say little about the process by which Lee joins her groups; however Dalton (2000) who appears generally approving, refers to Lee ‘befriending’ the group, whereas Seamon (2011, reviewing Smith) in a book review says that Lee “… ingratiated herself with various subcultures …”.

The images appear primarily as a comment on the nature and identity of the group she is working with. Group members appear as subjects in the photographs, and Lee has either done her research or spent time assimilating in order to blend in as well as she does. Whether they comment Lee’s own identity is problematic. Clearly she is there, but my own reading is that she is playing a part. Ultimately, these are film stills with Lee as one of the actors.

References

Berger, M. (2001) ‘Picturing whiteness: Nikki S. Lee’s Yuppie Project’. Art Journal 60 (3), pp.54-57.

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

Cotter, H. (1999) ART IN REVIEW; Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/10/arts/art-in-review-nikki-s-lee.html&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Dalton, J. (2000) ‘Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography after Cindy Sherman’. Performing Arts Journal 22 (3), pp.47-56.

Davis, B. (s.d.) Cultural Karaoke [online] Available at <http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis10-24-06.asp&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects”—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in “Art” [online] Available at <http://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art/&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kino, C (2006) Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html?ex=1317355200&en=ba68cca87c7383c1&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Smith, C. (2011) Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper and Anna Deavere Smith, Durham NC: Duke University Press [reviewed by Seamon, M. in unidentified journal]

Masquerades – Hannah Starkey?

I have put a question mark in the title because it is unclear how Hannah Starkey’s work fits the theme of this part of the course. On p79 of the course notes we are shown an image titled ‘Self-Portait, February 2013’. It appears to be a page-filler and, frankly, it is an odd selection when we are not shown works by the artists (Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Tracey Moffat) whose relevant works are described in the notes.

Neither is the presented image an obvious self-portrait. We see a pane of glass, probably an art shop window, behind which is an assemblage of curtains, assorted woodwork (easels?) and, in the centre, a painting on a classical theme. We also see reflections of parts of the outdoor scene – tree branches, an indistinct outline of a building and (centrally) a very indistinct outline of the lower body of the photographer. Any reflection of the photographer’s face is lost in the central bright area of the painting.

I have found two other ‘self-portraits’ by Starkey online. They are, similarly, window reflections with an indistinct image of the photographer. This differs from the reflection-selfies of Vivian Maier, for instance, who would generally catch herself sharply and distinctly. Either these images are saying something deep about self-effacement or they are jokes at the expense of the art world (is the emperor clothed or not?)

However, this is a distraction and Starkey’s other work is certainly worth considering in the overall context of a ‘Context and Narrative’ course. Her photographs, all titled “Untitled” plus a date, are carefully posed and constructed images showing women (either paid actresses or members of the public ‘picked up’ locally) in mainly urban settings or intimate spaces, usually in some sort of apparently natural, contemplative pose. I see parallels with Gregory Crewdson (constructed and directed images) and Martin Parr (apparently unguarded moments) but without Parr’s whimsical style. These images are too serious for that. The Tate suggest a parallel with Jeff Wall’s constructed banal scenes (‘banal’ is not necessarily a pejorative term, see my previous posting)

Starkey’s images are haunting and just a little unsettling. Perhaps it is the cinematic style (and I feel the same thing with some of Crewdson’s work) suggesting that this is the last moment of calm in the movie, just before the horror strikes.