Informing Contexts

Informing Contexts: Final Thoughts & Future Moves

So this is it, the end of Informing Contexts and the beginning of the final stage of this Masters degree. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve arrived here. I’ve learnt loads, with many of the lessons still being absorbed as I try to understand how to relate the learning to my own practice. I approach the Final Major Project (FMP) with some nervousness, mainly just because I’m not sure what the format of the next few months will be, but I’m also excited by the prospect of hopefully being able to put everything together into a cohesive vision of this project.

A frustration of mine has been that the 12-week module rhythm, with the need to prepare for summative assessments at the end of each one, hasn’t always correlated with the speed at which I’m able to absorb and respond to the lessons I’ve been learning along the way. Often I’ve found myself having the biggest revelations and making the largest steps between the modules, as the absence of course demands gives me the time to reflect, let things sink in and embed into my thought process about what I want to do. Due to the demands of my job, I often feel like I’m just hanging on for dear life during the modules trying to keep up, rather than having space and time to truly assimilate the information and allow my practice to develop. This has been a particular problem during this module as I approach the end of my medical training and so have had the most important exams of my career to prepare for, alongside working and doing this MA. Those demands, as well as my struggle to see a way to move forward with the photography (‘the narrative conundrum’ I think I’m now going to call it!) has meant this has been the module I’ve found most difficult so far. 

As previously, I’m confident that the period immediately after assignment submission (which again coincides with another big work thing) will be a productive one, both in terms of the images I’ll be making as well as in terms of putting a clear plan in place to attack the FMP. It arrives too late to be absolutely reflected in the WIP for this module but, as I’ve written elsewhere, I have a much better sense of the images I want to make and how to hopefully create interesting photographs. I will also be bringing people (and possibly also myself) into the work in some way and have only just been able to start experimenting with this. 

Something else that I’m looking forward to exploring further is the internal environment and how this relates to our experiences of solitude. My work has almost exclusively focused on outdoor urban spaces to this point, but reflecting on how people experience solitude and isolation in many hidden or public indoor places (bedrooms, cars, pubs etc.) and inspired by the work of practitioners such as Lynne Cohen and Andrew Emond I am really keen to explore interior spaces and make this an important part of the work moving forward. This actually now feels like a big omission from the project to date, an oversight on my part, and I envisage interiors becoming increasingly integral to telling the story of urban solitude in my FMP.

The work of Andrew Emond, from his    Objects of Consequence    series 

The work of Andrew Emond, from his Objects of Consequence series 

Despite the misgivings I stated above I do feel I’ve made progress during this module. I’ve continued to write, with more book reviews published and in progress.

My most recent book review on   Shutter Hub

My most recent book review on Shutter Hub

I’m aiming to continue developing this area of my practice. I’m still trying to find a short writing course that I think will help me to develop my writing style and that is feasible for me to do over the next few months alongside all my other commitments. The ones I’ve been interested in so far are either too involved (essentially a writing MA) or too inconsequential to be worthwhile. I’m increasingly of the view that text will be a substantial part of the final work, and though this is not likely to be all my own writing, I do feel I’d benefit from having more competence and confidence in this area. Using practitioners such as David Campany and Lewis Bush as inspiration, I hope to make this a solid strand of my practice moving forward. 

I was happy to be selected as a ‘shortlisted artist’ for the Revolv Collective One Year Open Call which will involve some much welcome social media promotion via their channels and may open further opportunities in the future. I have also entered work into the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161, with the outcome of shortlisting currently awaited.

I’m looking forward to what I anticipate will be the most intensely rewarding period of the MA to come in the Final Major Project. I feel that my work is on the verge of blossoming into something different and hopefully more compelling. I’m excited about the possibilities ahead and have already begun to consider the future beyond the MA, where I know the work will continue (PhD?). I’m relishing the opportunity to spend more focused time researching, exploring and developing new ideas and creating new connections with the work I have planned (workshops, joint projects with key agencies already involved with issues surrounding loneliness and urban isolation etc.). 

I look forward to discovering where the work will evolve to and how it will broaden out to hopefully include people (of all ages), interiors, exteriors and maybe even some daylight! I am less daunted by the FMP simply because I understand now that my work on this issue will not stop there, and I have a sense of where I will be able to take this work forward in the post-MA world that will soon be a reality.

Let’s get it!

Informing Contexts: Week 10 Reflection

This week’s work was inevitably overshadowed by looming deadlines and other work stresses. The topic however was an interesting one, trying to answer the question of ‘what is art’ and ‘who decides what is good art’? Clearly, they’d decided to leave the easy topics to the end of the module!! 

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija was introduced, in particular his work ‘Untitled (Free)’, which was originally created in 1992. This work essentially consisted of Tiravanija turning a gallery into a kitchen from which he served free food to visitors. Watching this, my first reactions were ‘Can this be considered art? Why is it art? What’s the idea?’. As I pondered these questions, the video went on to show clips of interviews with patrons who had visited this exhibition and partaken of the food on offer. To my surprise, the reactions from visitors were universally positive, with smiles on faces and people feeling happy and challenged by the new experience they had just had. They had clearly found it memorable. My takeaway from that was that it’s not right to dismiss artistic activity just because one doesn’t understand it, or think it has particular merit. The stance of Marcel Duchamp then, that things were art simply because he declared them to be so, suddenly felt less like a pretentious indulgence and more like the statement of an artist’s manifesto that deserved respect. 

Sam Abell was introduced as the photographer who took the original cowboy photographs that were subsequently ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He discussed his reaction to seeing what amounted to a direct copy of his work being put forward by another practitioner, who attracted both commercial and critical success with an image that Abell had originally created. Most gallingly of all, Prince achieved a level of success that had not been available to Abell in the first place. 

He was amazingly sanguine about it all (much more so than I would have been!), but he raised some really interesting questions about the nature of the art world and how they assign value to certain works over others. He made the point that his original photograph, which had been shot for an advertisement, would never have been welcome in an art context, nor been eligible to be sold at high value, as it was considered ‘only’ an ad image and thus of no real creative or artistic merit. On the other hand, Prince’s facsimile was hailed as a great work of art and sold for millions. Abell calmly questioned the rationale for this. 

To me this example highlights the ridiculous opacity of the ‘art world’ and hints at the idea of a closed and somewhat irrational cabal that holds a disproportionate degree of power over the fortunes of practitioners everywhere. Because the answer to the question ‘who decides what is art, or what is good art’ seems to be a small number of curators/museums/critics whose opinions are not open to challenge or scrutiny and who literally hold the power to bestow success upon someone, or prevent a practitioner from ever rising out of obscurity. This state of affairs is elitist, conspiratorial and self-serving, particularly when you consider the demographics of this group and consider too those who remain perpetually under-represented when these decisions are being made and the prizes handed out. For example, female practitioners and issues relevant to women, people of colour, working class people or their concerns, perspectives from developing nations or cultures with traditions or ideas that do not conform to Western norms, have long been grossly under-represented by the art world.

Lewis Bush recently wrote passionately about the lack of transparency in the circles where these decisions are made, arguing that the opacity surrounding decisions about whose work has merit, who gets to win the prizes and whose careers shall be catapulted forward can hide alarming conflicts of interest that not only threaten the integrity of such awards but also call into question the idea of prize-giving at all in art. 

Lewis Bush's   recent blog   about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

Lewis Bush's recent blog about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

The art establishment is a conservative place stuck in its way of doing things, it is unresponsive to change and operated by people who are predominantly from a very narrow section of society, and yet who somehow retain the responsibility for all of culture and for all aesthetic concerns in our societies. They decide what we should look at and experience and tell us what’s good and what’s not. They get to bestow the title of art on an item and decide if it has value as a commodity, if it can be worth a lot of money or nothing at all. 

Like with most things, the people with power get to decide.

If you’re not in the club, or lack influence, you don’t get a say. You don’t get to decide if something is art or not, you don’t get to decide if something is museum-worthy or not. Your opinion is unimportant, your aesthetic preferences are irrelevant. It’s easy then to see how closely the ‘art world’ mirrors wider society, with inequality of influence, under-representation of minority groups and preservation of power within a small minority of society, to their benefit and the disadvantage of all others.

Art cannot be separated from society. Its influence and importance has long been understood by powerful people, hence the desire to retain control of decisions around what can be valued or acknowledged as art and the prevention, or at least regulation, of true freedom of artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that the degree of regulation of free creative expression rises directly in proportion to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. It’s no coincidence that Hitler sought to control the way his subjects viewed art for example, and the Nazi regime systematically stole and destroyed culturally important works. The more recent persecution of Ai Weiwei in China could also be considered in a similar light. We are of course lucky in the UK that things aren’t quite as extreme but that shouldn’t lull us into believing that there isn’t a subconscious agenda at play that might not be working to our advantage as practitioners. Reluctantly, I can’t escape the impression that the British art establishment is a white middle class preserve, and work that originates from a different perspective begins at a disadvantage, though that is not to state that there’s no room for alternative viewpoints.

Reflecting on how this relates to me and my practice, I am ambivalent. I don’t think anything I’ve stated above is outlandish or particularly controversial. I also don’t believe that the prevailing conditions prevent work that doesn’t fit the mould from necessarily being seen or championed by the establishment. In all things, I’m inclined to return to an old maxim, which is that ultimately the primary objective of all practitioners is to make good work and stay as true to oneself as one can while doing so. Any further good that may come as a result is gravy. 

References:

FRIEDMAN, Martin. 2014. ‘“It’s Art If I Say So”: Martin Friedman on Marcel Duchamp’s 1965 Visit to Minneapolis’.Walker Art Center[online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/magazine/martin-friedman-duchamp-minneapolis[accessed 22 April 2018].

ROTH, Michael S. 2017. ‘How Nazis destroyed books in a quest to destroy European culture’. The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-nazis-destroyed-books-in-a-quest-to-destroy-european-culture/2017/02/24/244aee94-cdf3-11e6-a87f-b917067331bb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.664bdadf95f2[accessed 23 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: What's the Narrative 2

I have continued to ruminate about the theme of narrative and how this is created photographically throughout this module, as well as trying to find answers in the work of other practitioners. Aside, from the challenges that have presented themselves over the last three months away from the course, this subject has been the most difficult for me to grasp and then relate to my own work. 

I have found myself increasingly uninterested in the work I’ve been making, at least in the way that I’ve previously produced it. I realised that I’d become frustrated with a sense of repetition and of being in a visual rut. Towards the end of the previous module I started to realise that it would not be possible to elevate my work without a closer focus on the intention behind the work and the way this was then translated into the image itself.

I think I have a clearer idea of what visual narrative is now, particularly having reflected on how other practitioners manage to capture your attention and challenge your imagination with their work. 

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of Gregory Crewdson recently, the Twilight and Cathedral of the Pines projects in particular. 

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from    Twilight

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from Twilight

Aside from the beauty and elaborate complexity of his images, the thing that strikes me most about his work is the fact that each image provokes a question (often many). What happened here? Where are her clothes? How could that have gotten there? There is always a sense of transience, being invited into the space between events that have just occurred and those that are about to take place.

These questions oblige you to stay with the image, searching for the answer. When, as is almost always the case, the answer isn’t immediately apparent in the photograph you are transported to your imagination or to speculation to look for it. Either way the image has captivated you and taken you beyond the immediate fact of looking at a two-dimensional representation on a screen or in a book. These unanswered questions are everywhere in Crewdson’s work, often provoked by the simplest of small details. When I saw his work at The Photographer’s Gallery last year I was intrigued by how almost all his interior shots included a half empty glass of water somewhere in the frame. It’s a motif that is too consistent to be a coincidence, and it fascinates me even now…

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from    Cathedral of the Pines

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from Cathedral of the Pines

Why are they there? What do they mean? 

The ability to provoke these questions in the viewer is key to creating narrative I think.

The ability to provoke questions is also seen in the work of Lynne Cohen, who achieves this despite almost exclusively shooting empty interior spaces. Her work asks you to consider the actions of people on their environment and surroundings, to consider their activities and behaviours and how they connect to our own, in spaces that we all inhabit. 

The work of   Lynne Cohen

The work of Lynne Cohen

Similarly, the work of Lynn Saville in the US (primarily New York City) and Rut Blees Luxemburg (most notably in London) asks us to consider how we respond to our urban spaces and how these environments reflect our behaviours and our concerns. The fact that they both use the night as a key part of their visual toolbox is of course particularly interesting to me. Again, without including people in much of their work, they invite questions about the world we inhabit and thus require the viewer to engage with their work and with themselves.

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

A further lesson about narrative has occurred to me following a recent visit to the Gursky exhibition currently showing at the Hayward Gallery. I was not very familiar with Andreas Gursky’s work prior to visiting this show, but seeing his work you can’t help but be confronted by his vision and the consistency of that vision throughout his career. His work, to me at least, seems to repeatedly explore the behaviour of humans, their interaction with space, and the way we see. It struck me that he has adhered to a set of technical and conceptual ideas throughout his career, and in doing so the underlying motivation of the work becomes clearer. 

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

By this I mean that one who devotes their career to exploring a particular subject compiles a body of work that in total communicates much more clearly than someone who makes a small project on the same topic. This consistency of thought is one way that narrative is created I think, by the repetitive consideration of an idea from various angles and perspectives, showing it in different forms and contexts…this ultimately builds into an eloquent story. 

Again, relating this back to my own work, I feel that my interest in solitude and urban life is not exhausted by any means. There are so many facets of this issue that remain to be explored and this allows me to envisage how my work will develop beyond the MA. The consistency of vision is not something to be underestimated or devalued, but will hopefully become a key pillar in my work that ultimately results in a more articulate whole, regardless of what other work I also go on to produce. Along with the idea of trying to create questions with my work and leaving enough space for imagination to expand the scope of the image, I think I have enough to be moving forward with.

References:

THIS IS LOCAL LONDON. 2015. ‘London Dust exhibition featuring Rut Blees Luxemburg photos opens at Museum of London’. This is Local London [online]. Available at: http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/12927124.7_arresting_images_showing_London_s_changing_financial_district/[accessed 19 April 2018].

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: Narrative Thinking & Tutorial Takeaways

I’ve obviously been pretty down on the development of my project work during this module, feeling very much like I’d reached a creative dead end. I’ve been working in the background trying to find a key that unlocks things and today, due to a tutorial with Dr Steph Cosgrove, feel like I’ve been able to make some real progress.

I’ve been trying to attack the problem from different angles – reading around the subject trying to understand the issue of solitude more, as well as looking at the work of other practitioners who have a strong grasp of narrative and creating suggestive images.

I recently finished reading the book How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland.

 

Maitland deconstructs the state of solitude, giving it a historical context and arguing that the perception of solitude has changed over time as the winds of prevailing culture have changed. She argues for the numerous beneficial aspects of solitude and draws from her personal experience, having gradually migrated towards an increasingly solitary existence over a number of years and now lives in a very remote part of Scotland.

She asks:

“How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves? Think about it for a moment. It is truly very odd.”

Her basic premise is that solitude is a state from which many benefits can be derived and as such everyone should try it. She gives suggestions for ways that people can gradually expose themselves to increasing periods of separateness and offers pointers for ways to optimise this time.

Maitland’s book is uplifting for being determinedly, but not unreasonably, positive about the benefits available from seclusion (e.g. increased creativity, increased self-knowledge and self-confidence). She describes her life of great isolation, from which she has derived numerous benefits which seem to have made her a happier, more centred and more productive person. A generally more functional person in fact.

Reflecting on this in terms of my project, I’m even more certain of the importance of reflecting the positive aspects of solitude in the work (as well as the more readily-perceived negatives). I personally find a lot of refreshment in solitude, and suffer if I’m unable to have periods of isolation with relative frequency. It would be dishonest then to fail to reflect this in the work, particularly as I am committed to a more revelatory approach to creating these images. Also, having a broader historical understanding of the way being alone is perceived and how that has changed over time, is useful in reflecting on ways to further explore and represent this state visually.

Taking advantage of a random day off today I finally managed to catch up with Dr Cosgrove for a tutorial. It was an incredibly productive meeting as she was able to very quickly and perceptively open up new avenues of investigation that will no doubt help me to rethink how I present my ideas for this project. Amongst a number of suggestions, the one that immediately struck a chord was the idea of shooting interiors – something I’ve never really done before (at least not since I very first took up photography). Dr Cosgrove referenced the work of practitioners I had been previously aware of such as Rut Blees Luxemburg,

 

Narrow Stage - Rut Blees Luxemburg

Narrow Stage - Rut Blees Luxemburg

as well as pointing me towards the work of photographers I had not come across before, such as Fred Cray and Lynne Cohen

 

The work of Lynne Cohen

The work of Lynne Cohen

These little breadcrumbs have sparked off further ideas that I aim to pursue over the coming weeks. I can also say that my sense of how I can create narrative is starting to settle and solidify in my mind. As is often the case, it took an objective outsider’s perspective to steer me back on course and point the way forward, for which I’m super grateful. Now to make it all count!

 

References:

MAITLAND, Sara. 2014. How to Be Alone. London: Macmillan.

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2018. ‘London: A visual love song’. British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2018/02/rut-blees-luxemburg-modern-project-liebeslied/ [Accessed 23 March 2018].

MIZGALA, Johanna. 2002. ‘Lynne Cohen, No Man’s Land: The Photographs of Lynne Cohen’. CIEL VARIABLE [online]. Available at: http://cielvariable.ca/en/issues/ciel-variable-58-nudes-and-portraits/lynne-cohen-no-mans-land-the-photographs-of-lynne-cohen-johanna-mizgala/ [Accessed 23 March 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].

Informing Contexts: Week 6 Reflection

“The illiterate of the future, it has been said, will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph. But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot read his own pictures?”

Walter Benjamin, 1931

This week saw me emerging from the fog of recent exam stress and trying to regain a foothold in this course, while also still grappling with the idea of narrative (an issue that is probably going to scupper my MA chances unless I get it sorted ASAP!).

The work this week focused on the ubiquity of images today and the idea that this might lead to the establishment of cultural ‘myths’ or result in all-powerful ideologies.

The importance of being able to interrogate one’s own images was proposed, an idea that got me thinking. I’m not sure that I’ve been particularly interrogative of my own work to this point. This is almost certainly why the way forward from here seems so hard to discern, as I seem to lack the means of analysing my own work and putting the key elements together into a useful blueprint for further progress. This is becoming super frustrating to be honest. As well as my apparent inability to interrogate my own work, I have been considering this week whether or not my images ‘stand up to scrutiny’ in any way. Do they bear anything more than superficial analysis with respect to the themes I am claiming to be trying to explore? Maybe I am just illiterate after all.

While that might sound like a bleak conclusion, I am still confident I can figure it out given time and more contemplation (and shooting of course). I know what I want my images to say, at least in headline terms. Possibly, I need to be more specific with the work, which may then make it easier to see the best way to articulate these ideas.

Another idea worth considering this week was that of ubiquitous images setting up a pervasive narrative that eventually becomes accepted as the ‘truth’ of a particular situation. The photographs of the National Geographic magazine, which over the years has tended to put forth a rather idealised vision of the unexplored world as primitive, subordinate and meekly accepting of Western dominance and superiority, were used as the example of this idea of narrative that becomes subliminally dominant.

I don’t think this idea of a dominant narrative is at all new. Having grown up in a society where the commonly-held perception of black males is of them as a physically intimidating, intellectually unrefined homogenous whole, I have been personal victim of this establishment of a cultural myth on numerous occasions. It only requires that the party holding the power of influence decide on a narrative, for that story to take hold and be accepted by the majority, and this is a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout history.

I’m not sure how much it’s ever possible to challenge these myths, without the apparatus of widespread dissemination of an opposing viewpoint. It’s difficult to be heard as a sole voice whispering against a torrent of noise from a powerful opponent. I do think there’s value in acknowledging where one’s work might be making use of established ‘myths’ though, and that there might be an alternative view, although I don’t believe that an individual practitioner necessarily has a responsibility to represent more than one side of an argument.

Of course, seminal artists manage to present a new perspective, stretching our understanding of an established truth and showing us a new way to see something that was previously stable and familiar. Even then, I believe it takes repeated re-statement and reproduction for the new view to become the new truth, in due course.

In my own work to date, there has definitely been some reliance on some of the commonly-held assumptions about the night and its associations – danger, crime, menace, fear, mystery etc. This has been largely intentional. It’s important to concede that there will be future stories for which this milieu would be jarring and inappropriate. It’s also possible that my current story will benefit from being told in other ways too, rather than simply relying on the night for ready-made context.

And there we are…back to the narrative (aargh)!

Reference:

LE MASTERKLASS. 2017. ‘Étiquette : personal photographic expression’. Available at: http://lemasterklass.com/tag/personal-photographic-expression/ [accessed 11 March 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 5 Reflection

This week coincided with the culmination of my revision for the final exam of my medical career, to become a consultant in geriatric medicine. I sat the exam this Wednesday 28th. I’ve been so stressed trying to balance my work commitments, revising for the exam and trying to stay some way up to speed with the MA (I’ve not quite managed the latter task to be honest) that now the exam’s been completed I’m left just feeling quite numb.

The MA work this week focused on the concept of the gaze and how this influences the way an image is read and the power the photographer or image viewer potentially holds over the subject. This is an idea we’ve come across in a previous module but I must admit that I’ve not been able to really consider this subject in any detail on this occasion due to my other commitments, and just my overall work and exam-related stress levels. This is probably the second major pinch point I’ve encountered since the start of this course, in terms of my ability to focus on study being significantly compromised by my commitments elsewhere. Before I started the MA last year, I anticipated there might be more tricky patches so in one sense I’m grateful that there haven’t been more white-knuckle moments, considering everything else I’ve got going on.

I’m hoping to be able to pull things back together now the exam is out of the way…I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do!

Informing Contexts: Week 4 Reflection

This week we’ve been looking at how viewers interpret images and whether the intent of the photographer can ever result in a ‘dominant’ reading. We were presented with a range of images, many from advertising campaigns, and challenged to consider how a shared understanding of visual and cultural references might influence their interpretation.