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].

Part one – Reflections

Now that you’ve reached the end of Part One, reflect on what you’ve learned in your learning log or blog.

This is a personal reflection piece and, therefore, presented without formal references.

What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?

My working definition of ‘documentary’, assuming I had one at all, was influenced by seeing those films and TV programmes that are described as being documentaries. It would be glib to say, ‘Documentary is what David Attenborough does’ but it gives the general sense. A documentary is a piece of work which it presented as being factual, whether narrative or not, rather than fictitious. I had not seriously considered whether a documentary could be a work of art or not, but agree with a general consensus that some of the Attenborough/BBC wildlife projects, such as ‘Blue Planet’  are beautiful and wide-ranging enough to be considered as art.

The working definition creaks a bit when considered in the context of a still image; moving images have a strong tradition of fictional narrative and therefore need to see documentary as a separate category, while still photography is automatically seen as evidential, unless there is good reason not to – such as obviously-constructed digital images.

Family holiday snaps are non-fiction but I would not normally classify them as documentary. I think the distinction here is that there is no general public interest in what Uncle John did on the beach at Margate. A documentary image or series needs to have some sort of public interest or message, whether the public initially knows about it or not. Lewis Hine’s child labour images, or the later 20th-century famine images from Biafra or Ethiopia are examples of documentary work that has brought its subject to the public attention.

Pure record photography, such as may be found in catalogues, encyclopaedias etc. is non-fictional and in the public interest but is, for the most part not documentary. The distinction is not clear but I suspect it is related to ‘newsworthiness’

While a documentary project must be ‘true’ (or at least non-fictional), my Part One research has demonstrated that it need not be objective. Anybody trying to put across a message is going to let some subjectivity creep in, whether in-camera or elsewhere on the journey to publication. In responsible documentary work, the degree of objectivity or subjectivity should be stated or made obvious. Ultimately, it is for the viewer to judge the degree of objectivity and, therefore, the amount of credence to be placed in the work and the amount of influence it can be allowed to have.

What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

The first three terms, documentary, reportage and photojournalism seem to be used interchangeably. For me, ‘documentary’ is an overall term for news- or current-affairs- related non-fiction. ‘Reportage’ and ‘photojournalism’ sit within documentary. If there is a difference, then  suggest that it relates to the difference between ‘reporters’ and ‘journalists’ in the news media. Reporters give an ungarnished (subject to previous comments about objectivity) account of recent or unfolding events. Journalists gather material and present it as a ‘story’, whether analytical, campaigning or background.

‘Art photography’ is a slippery concept which I have still not fully grasped. Partly, it is a function of external context – something on a gallery wall is more easily accepted as ‘art’ than the same image on an inside page of a newspaper. I do not see ‘art’ as necessarily distinct from ‘documentary’, but could construct a Venn diagram showing the two terms as overlapping circles. Some images are ‘art’, some are ‘documentary’, a few are both and (probably) most are neither.

 

 

 

Study Visit -Deutsche Börse and Roger Mayne at the Photographers Gallery

This was my first OCA study visit and an opportunity to meet coursemates and a tutor face-to-face. Robert Enoch and 15 students from all levels visited the Photographers Gallery to view the Roger Mayne retrospective and the shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse  Photography Foundation Prize.

However, first we had a peer-review and criticism session. Most of us had brought some work to show, most of it assignment work or ‘serious’ documentary. I was a bit embarrassed to be the only one with a personal project (EYV work is with assessors, and I haven’t started serious photography for C&N yet) of a more pictorial type. However, they were kind enough to say nice things about my ‘back garden macro’ project and offer some names of photographers worth researching.

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Deutsche Börse shortlist

Sophie Calle

Calle is a conceptual artist and photographer, nominated for a piece of work involving a postcard set – which is not best suited to a gallery environment. The work on display is another project ‘My mother, my cat, my father, in that order’ reacting to the deaths of her parents and her cat over a short period. It is presented as a set of photographs or objects, each juxtaposed against a piece of writing. This was the display that appealed least to my coursemates, but I found some resonance as the loss of my own parents is recent enough to have empathy.

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Awoiska van der Molen

Van der Molen makes large monochrome abstracted landscapes. Displayed without titles or indication of location, interpretation is left very much to the viewer. For instance, the darker image below is solid black and dark grey, with two white ‘scratches’. My first impression was of a volcano with narrow lava channels; on a second viewing I think I see light-trails on distant mountain roads.

With the dark and rather contrasty printing, my overall impression was of sombre, or even sinister thoughts.

It must be said that the lighting in the particular gallery (a mix of window light and spot lighting) is not ideal for viewing large semi-gloss images as it was impossible to get away from reflected highlights, as seen in the first image above.

Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg’s project ‘Imperial Courts 1993-2015’ follows from a 1992 assignment to Los Angeles to document the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. She revisited one housing project in 1993 and made numerous further visits between 2008 and 2015, building a relationship with the community and following the lives of its residents over an extended period.

There is some ‘urban landscape’ but the majority of the images are large-format informal environmental portraits. It is interesting to view the different attitudes and body language between the male and female subjects, and to speculate on how much that was influenced by having a female photographer. The student discussion was inconclusive but this is a topic that I may revisit in a future posting.

If our group were the Deutsche Börse judges, this would be the winning project.

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Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

This is the story of a 50,000km ‘road trip’ from Switzerland to Mongolia via Russia and various ‘Stans. Onorato and Krebs recorded the journey on a variety of analogue media including 16mm movie and 5×4 large-format film. The result is shown in a darkened room with movie and slide projectors running simultaneously.

Of the things that I saw on this visit, this is the display that spoke least to me and I dismissed it as a exercise in presentation style rather than content.

Roger Mayne retrospective

The other major exhibition at the Gallery is a retrospective of Roger Mayne’s images of street life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The majority were taken in and around South Street, North Kensington but there are also some from the Raleigh factory in Nottingham (1964) and the (then) new Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961-65). The high-contrast monochrome style and the post-war background are similar to what the trio of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy would be doing in fashion photography a few years later. I also found some images evoking the spirit of the cartoonist Giles.

Many of the street photographs show children in unstructured play, in environments that would make a health-and-safety officer blench. This led to at least one discussion between coursemates on the topic of how children’s play is depicted then and now. Will a future historian look at the current photographic record and ask ‘Where are all the children?’. The answer is twofold, many of them are indoors in front of a computer screen but, also, photographers are afraid to take candids of children for fear of modern attitudes to ‘child protection’ (see conversation in Howarth and McLaren 2011, 236-237)

Martin Parr

As an unexpected bonus, the print sales space in the basement had a small exhibition of some of Martin Parr’s early monochrome work (he moved exclusively to colour in 1986). The quirky observation and humour were, clearly, with him from the start.

Reference

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.

A Profusion of Pictures

No, not an obscure George RR Martin title, but a description of the mass of photography being made and shared every day. According to Michel Franck (2017) a single sharing site, Flickr, had an average of 1.7 million images uploaded per day in 2016, down slightly from a peak of 2 million per day in 2015.

This image, by Jesse Alexander and blogged by Gareth Dent (2013) shows an installation by Erik Kessels, ’24 hours of photographs’, being printouts of one day of Flickr uploads. Dent uses his blog post to ask why we take photographs, given the extent of the flood, and there is a fascinating comments thread, 44 posts over a week in 2013, that seeks to provide answers.

A slightly different question, asked by Joachim Schmid (Boothroyd, 2013) is ‘why do we all take the same photographs?’

Schmid collects (he prefers ‘gathers’) ‘found photographs’ – tens of thousands of them –  from jumble sales, flea markets and online sources and arranges them into typologies. For example, the set above, Archiv 321, is of small girls posing with their toy prams. Other archives show other common image types (bride-and-groom shots, camels at the Pyramids, cars and their owners, etc. (Schmid, 2007)) linked by similar subject matter, groupings, props and poses.

One answer to the question is that, with so many photographs taken per day, simple probability theory implies that many will be similar or near-identical.

Schmid himself does not give an answer; he seems more interested in observing than explaining, but there is a good comments thread to Boothroyd’s blog which refers to ‘appropriate photographic moments’ (rites of passage, preservation of happy memories etc.) and maybe it is simply a matter of many people in modern society living very similar lives.

References

Boothroyd, S. (2013) An interview with Joachim Schmid. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017

Dent, G. (2013) Dealing with the flood.. [online at] https://weareoca.com/photography/people-are-hungry-for-stories/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Franck, M. (2017) How many public photos are uploaded to Flickr every day, month, year? [online at] https://www.flickr.com/photos/franckmichel/6855169886 (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Schmid, J. (2007) Archiv (1986–1999). Available at: https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1986-1999-archiv/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017)

Decoding adverts with Judith Williamson

We are directed towards Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles in the Source photographic review journal, and one example is available for download on the oca-student website. On the basis of that example, I have subscribed to Source

The example is her deconstruction of an advertisement for an Apple iPad, showing a small girl reading from her iPad in a darkened room. Overall, the effect is almost reverential or religious – an impression that reinforces to concept of ‘Apple evangelists’ in the days when Apple was a niche manufacturer. Williamson comments on the lighting (lit to appear that the iPad is the sole source), composition (with the iPad held high, the girl is lit from above and the impression is one of ‘annunciation’) and the other signs giving Apple’s message about Design as a concept elevating their products out of the ordinary.

Williamson then looks at the text and draws contrasts about the privileged position of the users of Apple products with the Chinese child labour that produces them. This is an aspect that will quite escape the layman reader of the advert.

I was inspired to research Williamson further and found an online extract (some 15 pages) from her 1978 work, Decoding Advertisements, Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. In this extract, she looks at 16 adverts and dissects them in the language of semiotics. (I have to confess that semiotics is currently, at this end of the module, a foreign language to me – a position to be corrected over the next few months) I found the explanations down-to-earth and easy to follow, although I am sure that the book (I have ordered a copy) will repay further study later in this course.

References

Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements, Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars [extract online at] http://www.charlesacramer.com/sf1110/ewExternalFiles/Williamson,%20Decoding%20Advertisements%20smaller.pdf (accessed 9/2/2017)

Williamson, J. (s.d.) Advertising, Apple [referenced online at] http://www.oca-student.com/content/her (accessed 9/2/2017)