Week 3 Forum – Is Every Constructed Photograph a Lie?

Are photographs in general and constructed photographs in particular “lies.”  Perhaps it is instructive to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘lie’: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive: an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

As I wrote in a prior article, no photograph can present truth, but that does not make every photograph a lie.  A lie is predicated with intent and it does not follow that every photograph by every photographer was made with the intent to deceive.  In fact, I believe, for most the intent is exactly the opposite; that is, most desire to represent a reality as they see it.  Heavily constructed photographs quite often make it obvious that it is not intended to represent reality and therefore, in keeping with the notion of intent, it is not a lie any more than a painter creating a scene is lying.  There are inherent limitations in the medium that make it impossible to recreate exactly what was in front of the lens, but technology keeps pushing and 360-degree cameras and holography will begin to challenge traditional 2-dimensionality.  Where it gets problematic, is where the intention in capture or publication of the photograph is to deceive.

I think of heavily constructed photographs much in the same way I think of paintings.  They are intended to be artistic in many cases and they are creations from the imaginations of the photographers.  It seems that often, even though there may be a degree of indexicality, something in the photo clues the viewer to the fantasy, joke, mood, or paradox it posits, and we then treat it as an artistic expression rather than a documentary photograph. There seems in these cases to be no intent of deception. The following two photos, the first by Sherman and the second by Rosler are not photos that would fool anyone into thinking they were meant to be realistic and purely documentary.

Sherman1

Cindy Sherman

Rosler2

Martha Rosler – House Beautiful

Publications (traditionally respected and tabloid), social media and individuals and organisations have discovered it is possible to ‘weaponize’ photography to fit their desired narratives to influence their faithful and persecute their perceived enemies.  Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity are both caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons. In the example below, an editor made a conscious choice to use the top photograph which carries a very different and quite inaccurate depiction of ‘reality’ and it seems clear there was a deliberate intent to deceive. The photographs were taken as Prince William was leaving the hospital with the Duchess of Cambridge following the birth of their third child.  He is quite obviously, as shown from the perspective of the second frame, indicating the number 3, while the perspective chosen in the first frame would connote and entirely different message.  Was the first frame real?  Yes, from that photographer’s vantage point it was what was seen, but was its out of context use disingenuous, and deliberately deceptive?  I think that it was.

35-examples-of-media-manipulating-the-truth-1

Source Reuters

The problem here is not one inherent to the photographic medium, but rather the ethics of those who practice photography and users of photographs.  Photographs are just an inanimate thing.  They hold no special powers on their own. They are only useful, destructive, pleasing, horrifying when they are in the hands of humans and when they are presented in some context.  If the ethics of photographer, publisher or social media user are questionable then the photograph can be misused like any other tool. And like any other enterprise where power, money, or fame are in play photography is subject to abuse by those who would use it, or allow it to be used unethically.

Week 3 Reflections – Images as Constructions

I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point.  Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations.  Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image?  It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference.  A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer.  Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey.  She too is more like a painter.  These photographers create tableaus.

Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera.  One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph.  And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.

Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction.  Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me.  Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.

To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument.  By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.

I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way.  Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical.  It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers.  With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.

With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed.  I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction.  As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing.  I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.

The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens.  I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths.  I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety.  This is only one shot in a sequence.  Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.

Raven-5626

Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose

Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother.  This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse.  This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front.  Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view.  Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.

Falcon-6153

Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose

I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists.  It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised.  And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media.  Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography.  It is an unfortunate reality of our time.

 

Week 2 Activity – Is it Really Real?

 

This week’s activity asked us to consider the following: 

  • Post a short response below that outlines your own position regarding the nature of the photograph as ‘really real’.
  • Reflect on whether photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.
  • Identify and respond to key ideas raised by Snyder and Allen (1975) and in the presentations.
  • Refer to writers, theorists, and practitioners to support your views.
  • Provide visual examples to illustrate your points.
  • Reflect on any aspects of the ‘peculiar’ nature of the photograph that are important for your work.

 

Is a photograph real?  This is of course a loaded question, perfect fodder for purely academic debate (and forgive the cynic in me that thinks it in the end so moot as to be of dubious import), and which must, as with most complex questions, be answered with the response, “it depends.”  It depends on what is actually being asked.  It depends whether beneath the veil of “real” are really questions of tangibility, accuracy (factual), reality (vs. fantasy), or truth. These terms are easily and often conflated.  It is obvious even before beginning this discussion that there can be no one universal answer that covers the breadth of photographic genres and indeed the range of photographs with any genre.

A photograph whether as a print in hand or on the screen is indeed real on a physical level in the case of a print, and a virtual level in the case of on-screen.  It exists, but it is not in fact the thing depicted, merely a 2-dimensional representation.

If the question is instead,” Is what is depicted in the photograph real?” Again, by virtue of the definition of a photograph, the image authenticates the presence of something that was in front of the lens from which light reflected and was subsequently captured on the film or sensor. But, further parsing of the question is required.  Are we asking about the reality of the subject?  The photographer’s intent and distribution channel will need to be considered. If it was an image of a news event published by a generally respected news outlet, there would be both an expectation and assumption that the image was a depiction of a real event.  If it is a highly constructed set with elements we know to be unlikely to have been in the same place at the same time and seen in an art publication or on a gallery wall, we are likely to correctly conclude that while the objects did stand in front of the lens, the scene is not ‘real’, that is not naturally occurring.  This question gets somewhat more complex when one asks, “Even if the scene is substantially ‘real’ (naturally occurring), has it been manipulated or altered?”

With analogue photography, this is somewhat less problematic because, while it is possible and certainly has been done, it is much more difficult to manipulate the image to add or subtract something from that which was present in the photographed scene.  Digital photography makes it far easier and more likely that something might be different than was actually in the scene photographed and then the question arises; “Was the alteration substantive?”  It makes a difference if someone cloned out a gravy stain on the tablecloth or replaced the Christmas turkey with a hippopotamus.  The latter would lead most people to conclude the photo was altered and represented some form of fantasy.

Then arises the question of accuracy.  To extend the example of Christmas dinner, if Grandma was in hospital and I put her in this year’s photo by using an image of her from the prior year at the table it is real, in that she sat at that table with the others albeit at a different time, but it is not accurate.  Another example arises with scene compression from a telephoto lens.  Consider the following photograph of the town of Dornoch taken with a long lens from a vantage point that suggests the statue of the Duke of Sutherland which sits atop Ben Bhraggie looms directly above the town when in fact it is at least 10 miles away.  Metaphorically, it was (and perhaps is) accurate.  This Duke was largely responsible for the Highland Clearances which reshaped the population of the Scottish Highlands and whose effect is still felt today.

 

IMG_0576

Dornoch Cathedral with Ben Bhraggie – Ashley Rose

Lastly comes the question of truth.  No photograph can ever represent truth.  Firstly, the camera with all the limitations of its lens, film/sensor, program and looking at a smaller segment of a scene than that available to the eye is trying to capture a 4-dimensional event which it then translates into a 2- dimensional entity.  I believe it is clear the photograph cannot be truth.  Furthermore, aside from a very few absolute truths, e.g. we are all going to die, all other truths are conditional.  They are subject to the limits of knowledge, personal and cultural perspectives none of which can be represented in a photograph.  Even “scientific truths” are conditional as we only know what we know.  For example, humans once believed truth was that the Sun revolved around the Earth and now, we accept as truth the opposite.  Each major religion holds its own version of truth.  So, truth in a photograph even in relative terms is always going to be a matter of perspective and therefore not really truth.

I have noticed some others referring to digitally created images as photographs.  While they may appear to be photographs and may even be printed as a photograph might be, they are not photographs. They are Computer Generated Images.  They were not created by the interaction of light with a photosensitive medium and they are therefore not by definition, photographs.

I am not convinced that in general photographs are so different that they require some completely unique form of criticism.  Of course, photographs bear traits which make them inherently different than paintings or CGI, principally that they carry a degree of indexicality that is a physical manifestation of the prerequisite of a photograph; captured reflected light.  Aside from that, they are of something, they contain some intent at meaning, they have a frame that includes and excludes, they include or represent a point in time, and they have a vantage point, so it seems Szarkowski’s five elements could be applied to virtually any form of visual representation.

“Even in the realm of serious and inventive photography there is no clear-cut break with older traditions of representation.” (Snyder and Allen, 1975: 165)

The seemingly endless quest for the silver-bullet of photographic uniqueness or critique is perhaps interesting to debate (for a while), but as it is ultimately moot, does it really do anything to advance photography?  As I wrote in a prior CRJ post, does it really matter whether Photography as an entirety is considered an art or not?  Are these distinctions important? To find anything close to a unifying theory would require a common language and commonality of culture and experience.  At the denotive level photography in many cases can overcome the language and cultural barriers to arrive at a somewhat common (but not universal) visual language.  However, at the connotative level, the meaning of any photograph is intractably bound to the language and cultural perspectives of the viewer and is therefore unresolvable in the universal.  As I sit writing this, I see out my window (in my language) a snow flurry.  If an Inuit were to see this (or a photograph of it) I have no doubt one of their 50 words for snow would be used to provide a far more nuanced description and meaning to the event I am witnessing.  I would likely have no idea what their version meant, and they would think my version to be crude and uninformed, yet we are looking at the same denoted scene.  A photograph of Daesh beheading someone is to me a horrifying and unspeakable act of human cruelty, while to them it is a triumph over an infidel enemy and worthy of celebration.

ISIS Beheading

ISIS Propaganda photo

These connotations will never be resolved no matter how many critical theory books are written or read except by saying the photographer does not have much control over how a photograph is viewed or judged.  What is trash to one person is treasure to the next.  So we as photographers are left to do the best we can to satisfy ourselves that we have achieved the intent we set out to achieve and then we can hope that someone appreciates it for what it was meant to be while at the same time hoping that it is not at the same time taken so out of context that it is used in a harmful or nefarious way.

Snyder and Allen’s writing seems to support these ideas.

“Thus, to formulate a set of critical principles for photography based on what is purely or uniquely or essentially photographic is as absurd and unprofitable as would be the adoption in its place of standards taken from a mummified canon of nineteenth-century painting.” (p 165)

 “The poverty of photographic criticism is well known. It stands out against the richness of photographic production and invention, the widespread use and enjoyment of photographs, and even the popularity of photography as a hobby. To end this poverty we do not need more philosophizing about photographs and reality, or yet another (this time definitive) definition of “photographic seeing,” or yet another distillation of photography’s essence or nature. The tools for making sense of photographs lie at hand, and we can invent more if and when we really need them.” (p 169)

Photography has the ability to be uniquely indexical even if it is not always used as such.  My practice, and I suppose my worldview are largely rooted in this approach.  I honestly believe there is enough wonder, horror, and interest in what exists around me that I feel no need in my practice to invent or construct something that does not exist.  I don’t use my photography to illustrate or overcome personal issues and while I know it is impossible to completely mask insights into me as a person, I want my camera to be far more of a window than a mirror.  I also generally don’t want to “look into the souls” of other humans because frankly, I am not very interested and often find myself at loss to read people the way an accomplished portrait photographer often can.  If my work is viewed, I want people to be focusing on the work and not on me.

References

SNYDER, Joel and Neil Walsh ALLEN. n.d. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 141–169.

BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

 

Week 2- Forum: Representation or Authentication

Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida wrote “From a phenomenological standpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  (Barthes 1981: 89)

The questions posed for this week’s forum were:

  • What Roland Barthes means and whether or not you agree.
  • The difference between ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’.
  • How the context in which we view photographs potentially impacts upon notions of authentication and representation.
  • How this impacts your own practice.

Last week I wrote a fairly lengthy post on Barthes’ Camera Lucida  which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/02/01/key-writers-roland-barthes-camera-lucida/

I agree with Barthes on this point.  First, Barthes explains;

“I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77)

 

I believe Barthes notion of ‘intractability’ refers to the authentication of the existence of what was once in front of the lens.  Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer and that is the element of representation.

Flusser speaks of distribution channels and how they affect interpretation (representation).

“The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance…  The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception.” (Flusser, 1983: 54)

Sontag likewise points out that photographs are mere fragments, and the context in which they are viewed changes them. Each context “…suggests a different use for the photograph but none can secure their meaning- the meaning is the use…”  (Sontag: 1979: 106)

Szarkowski discusses the idea that photography is not successful at narrative and then goes on to refer to Matthew Brady’s work during the Civil War by saying: “The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.” (Szarkowski, 1966: 9)  I think this relates to the discussion arguing that these photographs authenticated the horrors of the war; they were in front of the lens and the photographs brought that validation to those who viewed them.  However, how those photos were interpreted, that is what did they represent, would likely be quite different depending on whether one was from the North or the South, whether one fought in the war, or whether someone close was killed in the conflict.

Each of these suggest that representation is conditional upon who is looking and where they are looking.  However, authentication, existence at one time of what was photographed does not change even though interpretations on the significance and meaning of what was photographed will vary with every viewer.

Again Barthes; “…it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.” (Barthes, 1981: 5) and “…the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents. … No writing can give me this certainty.  It is the misfortune…of language not to be able to authenticate itself. …but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself;…” (Barthes 1981: 85-87)

I have come to terms with the reality that I cannot control how my photographs are ultimately interpreted or judged, especially any single photograph.  I can influence a reading of a body of work to a small degree by how I choose to edit and curate a collection of work and where it is shown, but again the ultimate power to determine what that work represents lies in the hands of each and every consumer.

I am in control of what I photograph and when I photograph.  I am in control over the choices I make during that process and I can only hope that what I think and feel when taking that photograph is somehow revealed in the product in a way that it elicits a similar reaction in a viewer, but those reactions are beyond my control and therefore beyond the bounds of that which I can or should worry over.

References:

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Week One Activity – Informing Contexts

Practice and Intent

At the outset of this course of study, I was not sure how to categorise myself as a photographer or where my practice fit.  I entered the course on the basis of my wildlife work, which while important to me, didn’t fully represent either who I was nor who I wanted to be as a photographer.  After three terms, I can say with confidence that I am a documentary photographer whose practice is based out of doors.  My subject matter generally ranges between wildlife and natural history, landscape (natural and cultural), and human activities relating to animals or the outdoors and sport.  These all derive from my fundamental intent as a photographer to use my camera as a tool to capture things I see and find of interest, and to be able to share them with others who may not have had the opportunity to see those things, or for whom those things were otherwise unseen or unnoticed.

While I always endeavour to make visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, I do not consider myself a ‘fine art’ photographer and instead hope to render what I see as realistically as I can because I believe there is more than enough inherent interest and beauty in the world around us and that additional manipulations and contrivances are not necessary. It is very much for me, first and foremost, about ‘the thing itself’.

Critical Contextualisation

I recently posted a rather extensive article on Szarkowski and The Photographer’s Eye which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/01/17/john-szarkowski-the-photographers-eye/ , that goes into some detail about how it fits my view of the current state of my practice and my evolution as a photographer.  However, to summarise, Szarkowski’s five interdependent elements that serve as the basis for how we as photographer’s take photographs, and how consumers of the work can view and judge that work serve to inform my way of making work.  In each of the sub-genres under the broad umbrella of Documentary photography in which I work The Thing Itself, Detail, Frame, Time and Vantage Point factor into every photograph I take.

While it is undeniably true that Szarkowski was very much an adherent to and proponent for Modernism, I believe these five principles largely stand up to the test of varied genres and “schools” of photographic practice.  They are both specific and general enough, and due to their avowed interdependence, to be applied with subtly shifting balances between the elements so as to be broadly applicable across the universe of photography.

That have been said, Stephen Shore in his book, The Nature of Photographs, to a degree builds from Szarkowski, but adds a couple of new and interesting elements worthy of further consideration.  Shore begins with an intention similar to that of Szarkowski.

“The aim of this book then is…to describe physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content.” (Shore 2007: 12)

“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way.  It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.” (Szarkowski 1966: 6)

Shore posits that “A photograph can be viewed on several levels. To begin with, it is a physical object, a print.  On this print is an image, an illusion of a window on the world.  It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content:… Embedded in this level is another that contains signals to our mind’s perceptual apparatus.  It gives ‘spin’ to what the image depicts and how it is organized.” (Shore 2007: 10) He calls these levels the Physical, Depictive and Mental levels respectively.

At the Physical Level Shore points out, “The physical qualities of the print determine some of the visual qualities of the image.” (2007: 16)  It occurred to me that on the one hand of course this is obvious, but then again as much of our distribution and sharing of images these days is electronic (virtual prints) it isn’t really at the forefront of my mind until it comes time to prepare an exhibition or mount a print for sale.  It matters a great deal to the final product on which paper, not only type but manufacturer, it is printed and by what process it is printed and by whom it is printed and whether the post processing platform was colour calibrated and matched to the print platform.  This has to date not been a particularly significant issue, but it stands to become one moving on to FMP and whatever form the final product takes.

In the Depictive Level Shore again borrows from Szarkowski by suggesting the photographer “imposes order on a scene” by “choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus.” (Shore 2007: 37)  (Szarkowski’s Vantage Point, Frame, Time and Detail.)  When Szarkowski referred to detail he was speaking more about the narrative capacity of photography, but when he said, “The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by doing so claim for it some special significance.” (Szarkowski 1966: 8)  I do not believe it is a stretch to interpret isolating a fragment and granting it significance as an allusion to focal plane.  That is precisely what we do as photographers when we decide how to capture a scene.  We choose what is most important and that is where we focus.

Shore, like many writers before him including Szarkowski make the mistake of considering the photographic world three-dimensional when in fact it is four-dimensional.  True enough the photographic image is essentially two-dimensional, but it is representation of a four-dimensional scene and as such it is always an illusion and never the truth.

“The world is three-dimensional; a photographic image is two-dimensional.” “The picture plane is a field upon which the lens’s image is projected. A photographic image can rest on this picture plane and, at the same time, contain an illusion of deep space.”  (Shore 2007: 40)

Shore’s Mental Level seems to be the subjective counterpart to the objectivity of the Depictive.  The Depictive was more about the mechanics of depiction and the detail of what was depicted.  The Mental Level is about reading the photograph, assessing its meaning and significance.  It depends on both the Physical and Depictive, for without them there is nothing use as the basis for the mental image.  I think again in this way Shore is essentially reiterating Szarkowski’s view that his five elements are interdependent, and it is necessary to consider all in judging/ understanding a photograph.

There are strong similarities and parallels between Szarkowski and Shore, and while they may use slightly different wording, they are illuminating fundamentally the same concepts.  Shore’s use of photographs and a little more parsing of the elements provides a complementary perspective to Szarkowski.  As I stated in the linked article and briefly above I consider most of my work to be aligned with Szarkowski’s Modernist approach and as Shore is in my view quite generally consistent with that line of thinking I can see myself spending more time looking a re-looking at Shore’s examples as a means to continue to improve my ability to see and read photographs.

 

References

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2018th edn. London and New York: Phaidon Press.

 

 

Cindy Sherman Case Study

As part of the assessment period preparatory work for Informing Contexts we were asked to look at a case study on Cindy Sherman and respond to the questions.

Questions for reflection.

  1. How do you feel about this more inclusive and anti-intentionalist approach to producing work?
    Sherman’s self-portraits call attention to female stereotypes. Berger Ways of Seeing addresses this topic. I question whether Sherman’s work is anti-intentionalist.  Is that even possible as a photographer?  Sherman goes to great lengths to create costumes, do make up and create sets or find locations.  Are these not all done with intention?  Whether she admits it or not she is trying to depict a particular thing with each photo and with that is an intention however conscious or subconscious that might be to communicate something to a viewer. To be truly anti-intentional one would have to close one’s eyes and take random snaps, do no editing and publish whatever came from the camera.  Otherwise there is always some level of intention in a photographer’s work.
  2. Do you give your viewers this openness of interpretation and do you think Sherman is successful in this regard?
    My work is predominantly documentary in character and focused on landscapes and nature. When humans are included it is usually to show how they interact with a place and what is around them.  Because I am not generally trying to impose an interpretation, and more importantly, because interpretation is almost solely in the realm of the viewer regardless of the photographer’s intention, I would argue my work is open.  Sherman, I suppose does succeed to a degree as there are those who argue her work is feminist and challenges the stereotypes by which women have been viewed, while others argue that her work reinforces those stereotypes. I think though because she is the model it is difficult to argue her work is exploitative of women.  I do find it difficult though to understand how she can claim no intention as I discussed above as her work is among the most intentional I can think of, and seems that it must have some purpose beyond a decades long documentation of her ‘performance art’.
  3. With respect to the Brisbane exhibit: How do you feel the curators theoretically position her work, and how do you respond to this work being shown in a gallery context?
    The curators state Sherman is a conceptual photographer not concerned with technical aspects of photography but rather with using photography as a tool to tell a story. The also state her work is an exploration of how identity and imagery are constructed. It seems to me entirely appropriate that this work is presented in a gallery, because it is only there, or perhaps to a lesser degree in a large format book, that one can see and experience the body of work and appreciate the photographs in relation to each other. The tie in to films and their relation to Sherman’s work was another important curatorial move that brings more context to the show.  It is also interesting as Sherman’s work is essentially performance art and she as the central character in this decades-long effort are captured like single frames from a film and subsequently displayed on the wall as a series of frames from that movie of her life as a photographer.

    How is the intent of the work achieved in the way the photos are presented?
    If one of the intentions is to show the effects of ageing, then the sequential display of work is able to accomplish that effectively.
    Are there paradoxes for you?
    As discussed above the whole intent bit seems to me paradoxical.  Also I cannot resolve whether the work chips away at or reinforces stereotypes and I suspect that it will continue to be interpreted both ways depending on the biases, filters, and the personal and cultural experiences each viewer brings to their viewing of her work.

  4. Do you read Sherman’s work as feminist?
    I do not. There is no questioning she is clever woman who has parlayed a theme into a career. Her allusions and tributes to a bygone era of cinema are brilliantly done for the most part, but they do not strike me at all as standing for women’s rights or in any way attempting to break stereotypes.  One might argue by making contemporary photos in a style and with sets and costumes reminiscent of the past and with the grandeur of the early work of Cecil Beaton makes a statement about how different things are now, but I don’t think it is a very substantive argument.  It is for me egocentric performance art and it does that very well.
  5. Do you invite any critical or theoretical lenses by which to consume your work and are multiple readings possible?
    I guess in a way I hope not on the question of critical or theoretical lenses.  I think of my work as being simple expressions of places at a particular time, and frequently including the beings that inhabit those places.  The intent is mostly to present a view that may not be readily accessible to most of the viewers of my work, whether that comes from seeing the dynamics of a bird on wing or breaking free from the from or returning to the bounds of earth, or the details of a plant or insect not visible to the naked eye, or a landscape with visual interest.  Will that stop someone from trying to apply a critical lens; probably not.  It is just that all too often doing so causes far more to be read into work than was ever intended by the photographer.

    Can these photos be read in multiple ways?  Of course, as I stated earlier, the reading of every photograph is subject to the limitations of the cultural and personal experiences of the viewer and while in some cases the standard deviation in interpretation may be smaller than others, each person will have their own take on any work put in front of them.

Work in Progress

My Work in Progress (WIP) portfolio is a result of my work on the Coul Links project. The project has evolved over the last two modules and will continue to be refined as I move toward Final Major Project (FMP). A short explanation of what the project entails and where it stands now is a necessary preface to the discussion on the WIP.

Coul Links is a place in NE Scotland which the forces of nature have created over thousands of years.  Like many of the links lands in the UK these forces have also described the essential elements of a golf course.  Developers wish, like sculptors, to reveal the golf course that lies within Coul Links.  Environmentalists have moved to block the development because of Coul Links protected status and concerns over the impacts of development on the ecology of the site.  The majority of locals support the development, believing they will be able to continue to use the land as they have in the past and present and that the economic benefit the golf course will bring is essential to the surrounding area.  People and wildlife have co-existed in this place for thousands of years.  There is a rhythm to the place and all its inhabitants that ebbs and flows with the seasons.  This project explores these relationships between place, people and wildlife as they exist now and how they might exist in the future.

For my WIP portfolio I have chosen to pursue this theme of interactions between place, people and wildlife and have selected photos accordingly.  My past work was largely absent people.  In this module, I experimented some this term with tighter environmental portrait work (as shown in my Oral Presentation), but in the end decided that photographing people as I would photograph wildlife, from a distance, to give context to the activity and the place was where I wanted to take the project.

The portfolio is organised into essentially three chapters with the first depicting the place and the traces of human interactions.  Some are obvious, like the bench overlooking Loch Fleet and the steading at Coul Farm, while others are more subtle, like the remnants of the felled tree plantation and grazing sheep, or the power pylons in the distance.  The second chapter is more explicit showing people in various activities around Coul Links that range from dog walking and bird watching, to fishing and surfing along the beach that fronts Coul Links.  The third chapter shows some of the birds that are beginning to gather for the winter along the the northern perimeter of Coul Links and in Loch Fleet.

I considered initially trying to overlay thumbnails of the photos on a map or an all-encompassing panorama of Coul Links to show how, despite the expansiveness of the overall site, the bulk of the human interactions and a good deal of the wildlife encounters are at the perimeters of the site whereas the interior sees much less activity.  I decided this approach might be useful in an exhibition but wasn’t as well suited to a portfolio.

The portfolio can be found in an Adobe Spark format at Ashley Rose SP_Work in Progress.  Selecting any photo in each section will start a slide show with larger versions of the photos.

A PDF version of the document is also attached here, but it will only depict the groups of photos.  SP WIP

What makes a practice sustainable?

What are the measures of sustainability?  Is it income, recognition, Instagram likes, self-satisfaction, specialisation, a signature style?

What is it about the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hurn, Robert Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Cas Oorthuys, Cecil Beaton, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon that makes them relevant today?

I believe these, and others sustained their practices because they were almost all versatile and adaptable photographers.  They each had an eye for the moment, both in terms of composition and story. In the end their practices were sustainable because they made good work and their subjects were relatable.  Not every photo any of the above made was perfectly in focus or even of great significance.  Most would not win a modern competition, and many might not even be published today, but they each produced huge bodies of work throughout their careers and we are still looking at that work today.

That said, despite the substantial increase in technical quality in contemporary photography, I am not convinced that people will be looking at the work of Juno Calypso, David LaChapelle, or Edouard Taufenbach 50 years from now.  The subject matter for a marked amount of contemporary photography in my opinion is not relatable to most people and in fact is, often for me, undecipherable.  Much of the work carries no weight and seems to strive for the bizarre and absurd, the frivolous, superficial and fashionable instead of showing the realities of the world and the people in it.  There are of course as many exceptions.  Laura Henno’s work in Africa took years of research and effort.  David Chancellor’s work on the relationship between wildlife and communities likewise will endure because of its subject matter and the quality of the work.

Among the first pronouncements of this module was a statement to the effect that one’s worth as a photographer is measured by how much money one earns and how prestigious the client base; that journeymen photographers are somehow less talented, less motivated, less successful and less worthy.  By these measures Richard Prince would be considered extraordinarily successful, even though his work is largely crap.  No one will be looking at his work in 50 years other than as case studies in misappropriation.

So how can we measure sustainability?  Is there only one measure?  I think sustainability comes in different flavours.  The avantgarde contemporary photographers who are fortunate enough to garner attention and sell some high-priced work may meet a financial measure of sustainability during their lifetime, but their work may not endure.  Instagram and other social media followings and likes are not in my opinion indicators of sustainability.  How many flashes in the pan have gotten their 15 minutes of fame and promptly disappeared into oblivion?  A working commercial photographer who can stay busy with commissions and make a solid living certainly has achieved a degree of sustainability, even though their work may be relatively ordinary and have not lasting significance. Another measure, and perhaps the worthiest in my opinion, of sustainability is work of lasting relevance or interest during and beyond the photographer’s lifetime, regardless of whether that photographer was financially successful during their career.  These are the photographers that make a difference in the world and in photography it would be the category to which I would aspire were I 40 years younger and beginning a career.

Week 5 – Networking

Networking is second nature to me after over 40 years of work experience working in and leading large organisations, developing business domestically and internationally, consulting, and then owning two businesses.  My photographic practice didn’t start with the intention of becoming another business, but I find myself, almost exclusively through networking, getting commissions, selling work and being as busy as I wish to be.  I was invited to talk to another group next week as word had gotten around from the last group I spoke to had been very enthusiastically received.  It was networking that allowed me to get the space for my physical exhibition last August and that led to my work being permanently on display for sale there.

I belong to the local camera club which meets every other week and holds monthly competitions as well as conducting educational programs and hosting guest speakers.  I have learned a lot through this group and the people in it and have had quite a (sometimes humbling) education into the world of photo competitions and “what sells” with judges.  I the most recent competition my entry in the colour category won and was featured in the local newspaper, which again generates interest in my work and prompts conversations and enquiries.

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Social media is just another form of networking. Until recently I hadn’t used Instagram very much and I restricted posting of photos to my Facebook account, again largely because I wasn’t intending to promote a business.  However, beginning to use Instagram and posting simultaneously to FB has increased awareness of my work.  A recent commission arose from a viewing of the video I did last term on my project, Coul Links, that was shown at my exhibition opening and submitted as part of my Surfaces and Strategies WIP.  I was asked to produce a video using my drone to promote the business where I held my exhibition.  The owner posted the final product on Facebook and in one day had nearly 2000 views.  I expect that as a result, more offers of work will be coming my way.

I have worked within my network in the past two weeks to secure commitments from two new outlets for distribution of my books; the one already in print and forthcoming projects.  I have joined the RPS but have not yet been able to take advantage of the opportunities that presents to network yet.  I do hope to submit a panel for distinction early next year and that may offer some additional networking opportunities.

I realise I am in a different place in life than some of the others on this course and while I find in person networking really to be just an extension of my day to day existence, others may find it more difficult.  I think it is easy to conflate the term networking with “selling your work” and that is more difficult for most of us.  Instead I think of “networking” as a way to get to know people, and for others to get to know you, and more importantly remember you.  Your work will come up at some point, but that isn’t the prime focus going into the encounter.  Learn something about the person you are meeting and what they do.  It may be that in the end the secondary and tertiary connections that come from that initial encounter are the ones that will make a difference for you or for them.  Maybe you know someone who can do something for that person and they might know someone who knows someone you should meet.  Networking usually requires time and patience.  You don’t have a jumper just after casting the yarn onto your needle; you must knit awhile to see what comes of your efforts.