Memory

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my situation...how did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 

References:

YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpesyyXWMvg[accessed 12 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 7 Reflection

“To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.”

Ingrid Sischy, 1991

Week 7 asked us to consider how we respond to images and whether photographs can evoke change. Reviewing the work we covered this week, I realise how closely these ideas are linked with my ongoing struggle to understand visual narrative and find a more coherent way to articulate my own themes.

The concept of a ‘visual soundbite’ was proposed, an idea that’s immediately attractive, capturing as it does the challenge of trying to produce a readily digestible, emblematic image that perfectly encapsulates an idea, resonates with an audience and remains memorable. Although in political terms the soundbite is viewed somewhat pejoratively, as a superficial and often essentially meaningless tidbit to feed the news cycle, when applied to photographs this seems to me to be a good way to imagine a photograph that communicates effectively. As Sontag (2002) wrote:

In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.”

In many ways, photographs become part of a collective memory, a way to enter into a shared experience of a time or event. In my own experience I think of two images that seem to epitomise this idea. The first is from the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana.

This image instantly comes to mind when I think about that wedding, which took place in 1981. I was 3 years old at the time. I have no personal connection to, or experience of, this event and yet it’s branded into my consciousness. I’ve seen this photograph so many times over the years, in various settings (celebratory plate anyone!), that the memory of this event feels almost real to me…I almost have an ‘I remember where I was when’ story for this moment!

The second image that comes to mind is that of Pippa Middleton entering Westminster Abbey during the wedding of her sister Kate to Prince William. 

This is another image that’s notable for being strongly attached to my memory of an event that I never actually witnessed. I was at work on the day of this wedding and then had to catch a plane straight after work, so hadn’t seen any of the wedding. On my arrival in Australia I was surprised to see the buzz that had arisen surrounding this image – talk of Pippa’s bum was international at this point! Pippa’s profile rose dramatically almost as a direct result of this photograph, or so it seemed, and launched her into a career in public life.

I’m confident that both of these images would be easily recognisable to most people anywhere in the developed world, an exemplar of the power and universality that a single photograph can achieve.

This leads smoothly on to the question of whether photographs can be used to inspire change, if as argued, they are able to communicate so powerfully? A sub-question here might be how photographs manage to capture your attention long enough to challenge you to consider the issues presented and whether this requires ‘shock tactics’ of sorts?

Personally, I struggle to see how a photograph can provoke change, certainly by itself. I can however conceive of images being used in conjunction with text, moving images etc. to stimulate debate and potentially inspire change. I suppose there’s a spectrum of communication, on which you could place all of these modes, with the acceptance that certain modes of communication will be more appropriate at different times depending on the objective and the audience.

The work of Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado was examined in detail this week, both from the point of view that one of his stated objectives was to bring the unfortunate plight of certain disadvantaged communities to the attention of his audience, as well as from the opposing viewpoint that his work is actually too aesthetically beautiful to be truly representative of the lives of the people he is supposedly advocating for, thus losing its power to speak on their behalf.

The quote at the top of this piece is from an article by Ingrid Sischy where she ruthlessly eviscerates Salgado and his work, arguing that it’s always more about him than about his subjects. While her lengthy deconstruction sometimes edges into what feels like a vindictive personal attack, I'm inclined to agree with her main points, namely that aesthetics seem to supersede subject and context and that this ultimately serves to take the focus away from the issues Salgado claims to be concerned with and instead places it on himself, his technique and his ‘artistry’.  

Considering my own work, I have to ask if the way I’m trying to depict and discuss loneliness is commensurate with the subject, or whether in fact I too might fall into the trap of favouring aesthetics over an honest presentation of the issue. If my genuine concern about the importance of the solitude/loneliness/isolation question is buried under a self-aggrandising insensitivity, concerned only with a personal pursuit of beauty at the expense of all else then I will have failed in my objective and the project will not have the power to communicate that I truly hope for. This is something for me to reflect on as I continue searching for a suitable narrative strategy.

References:

SISCHY, Ingrid. 1991. Good Intentions. [pdf] Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf [Accessed 20 Mar. 2018].

SONTAG, Susan. 2002. ‘Looking at War: Photography’s view of devastation and death’. The New Yorker December 9 [online]. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war [accessed 20 March 2018].

Sustainable Prospects: Work In Context

One of the things we’re asked to do on this course is contextualise our practice, to understand who our ‘competitors’ and potential market might be, where our work sits amongst the work of current and former practitioners and how this all might inform decisions about our own practice.

In this vein, I wanted to briefly discuss four artists whose work resonates with me either in terms of similarities to my own work, or for containing strands that I’m hoping to develop or bring forward in my current project and in my ongoing practice.

Franck Bohbot

As described on his own website Bohbot is ‘a documentarian with an eye for the theatrical who frequently takes a formal, typological approach to crafting visual narratives, highlighting the surreal symmetries of our constructed worlds and capturing the poetry of everyday places with a unique attentiveness to the interplay of light and color. He employs the latter two elements as tools of nostalgia, exploring loss and obsolescence by crafting images that are as much about what is invisible or lacking as what is there within the frame.’

The concepts of loss, nostalgia and memory are certainly integral to my own practice and I was delighted to come across his 2016 book Light On New York City, which is comprised of nocturnal street scenes shot around New York taken over the course of approximately three years to 2016. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Light On New York City Franck Bohbot_88kb.jpg

He focuses mainly on archetypal street corner diners, theatres and various stores illuminated at night, some in visual contrast to the commonly-held perception of the city that never sleeps.

I originally came to this book having seen Bohbot’s work on social media and being excited to see that someone had managed to release a monograph of urban night images. The work itself is technically superb (with Bohbot displaying a clear mastery over the very often tricky city night light), and presented in a book of large high quality prints. 

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

You can see more of the work here:

Considering my own work and how it might relate to Light On New York City, I felt that aside from the common factor of our subjects both being city scenes at night, there are few other similarities. Bohbot’s work for me in this book is almost journalistic, documenting the streets of the city in a way that as time passes and the buildings and businesses change, will likely render the work of increasing value as a historical record. The work is shot with a kindly eye to the city, Bohbot clearly loves the streets that he’s shooting, but I did not otherwise sense an agenda or standpoint in the work.

In terms of the market however, it’s really encouraging to see that images like these can be picked up by a publisher to create a book project. Published by teNeues, there was clearly deemed to be a market for a premium (it’s a beautiful hardback book of glossy prints) book of urban night photography and this gives me hope that my work might find a similar place in the future.

Peter van Agtmael

I came to this work during this module after listening to his interview with Ben Smith on the ‘A Small Voice’ podcastIn the interview he discussed the effect that spending time in conflict zones had had on him and how he had worked through these issues. The work ‘Buzzing At The Sill’ was in some way a product of his journey through this period of his life, while also being about America in the shadow of 9/11. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Buzzing At The Sill_86kb.jpg

The work is honest, vulnerable and unflinching in many ways and spoke to me on various levels through images that are challenging and thought-provoking at various times. Turning from page to page I could not help but notice how narrative can be constructed by the selective use of text alongside the images (the use of which is likely to play a key role in the presentation of my project also), and also how sequencing plays a vital role in how the work is received and interpreted. Van Agtmael creates a powerful mood and an increasing sense of immersion in the work as you turn through the pages, something I can certainly learn from in the event of a future book project. 

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

You can see more of the work here:

In line with my recent thinking, there is also a key lesson here in how invested the photographer can be in the work and how this ultimately strengthens the output. This work feels close to the bone for van Agtmael, with a level of disclosure that seems to pull the reader in closer and again is instructive for me in terms of my recent struggle to be more honest in my own work, finding a way to give more of myself to the output, making it more personal and hopefully powerful as a result. As a Magnum photographer, van Agtmael could possibly be forgiven for resting on his laurels and simply milking his status in his field, but this work feels like he truly invested and that’s an example I must follow.

Gillian Wearing

Wearing’s work extends beyond the confines of strict photographic practice but has relevance for me in a couple of ways. Her project ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say is strongly influential for me, particularly in terms of trying to disclose the innermost thoughts of people in a way that is not too traumatic for the subject or the viewer, something of course that I have been trying to do in inviting people to contribute their own experiences of solitude to my project. 

 

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

These apparently simple images exhibit a genius for revelation wrapped up in the supposedly quotidian, but of course it takes great skill to produce work that seems to be almost nonchalant and random in nature.

Wearing has also challenged the idea of representation, often using masks in her work to question the role of identity and the contested gaze. In many ways she manages to hide in plain sight, protected from true self-revelation by a closely-fitting mask that seems to allow her to be anyone else she pleases while remaining steadfastly her most private self. This idea of a conflicted identity is certainly one I recognise and one I feel plays a role in my own work. Seeing how Wearing has repeatedly explored this theme throughout her career is instructive.

You can see more of her work here:

Another aspect of her practice that is relevant to me is her willingness to work in various media. She has often created video projects, something I’m also hoping to move into in the near future, and this reflects a versatility that only enhances her relevance in the contemporary art marketplace. This multi-skilled approach is important to improve your chances of being able to carve out a niche for oneself in this harsh economic climate.

Todd Hido