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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

Evolution and Experimentation – Current Work

I have not often written much about work I was doing this early in the term.  Partly because I quite often take on other projects or personal work that was unrelated to the MA project I had been pursuing.  However, since I needed to be away from Scotland and the site where my project is based, I have been using this time to explore a different aspect of my landscape work, expand on a project that has been underway for about 12 years, and to push my skills even further.

I have talked in the past about the inspiration Axel Hutte provides, in particular his landscapes which betray no sense of place or time.  Jem Southam is another photographer whose work is similar in the sense that it often belies place and time and yet, like Hutte, conveys a mood and often an intimacy of perspective.

Since I was only going to be back in the US for about six weeks, I also decided to travel lightly and only packed one camera body, Canon 5D MkIV and two lenses, 24-105mm f4 and 135mm f2 along with ND filters and a 1.4 extender.  This choice has the added benefit of limiting the type of photographs I could reasonably take to the more intimate landscapes I intended.

My South Carolina house sits in the middle of a heavily wooded 8.5 acres and over looks a 5 acre pond on the lot adjacent.  I designed the house in 2006 in a style that merged a Japanese and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic with some Western sensibilities, but the essence of the house was open flexible space with views in every direction and a clear intent to blur distinctions between space to space within the walls and between the inside and outside.

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I have always loved and photographed the views from the house and enjoyed watching how they changed from day to day, season to season and year to year.  My photographic skills have improved significantly over the past year and it seemed a good time to see what I could make of this very familiar place.  Here are a few examples.

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While I certainly know where these photos were taken and the place holds special significance to me, to any other viewer these photograph can represent anywhere and therefore contain a universality that allows a viewer to imagine or believe these are places they know or have been.  I am pleased with these photos and believe they offer a line of enquiry for my practice in the future.

I took an opportunity during a short stay in New Jersey just after my return to the US in January to photograph a lovely waterfall  I encountered.  I had seen it the prior day, but the light was poor and so when the weather and light became more conducive I returned to the site.

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I choose lengthy exposures and acute angles to capture the nuances of the light and shadows and the differences in the way the water came over the spillway on to the rocks below.  The middle frame explores the varied textures of the stones of the dam as well as those in the river below the dam.  Once again the intimacy of the framing does nothing to reveal its actual location and as such again make it familiar to any viewer who seen a waterfall somewhere.  These too I feel are successful photographs.

I do believe have room to continue to grow and explore this type of photography and can certainly explore the moods that would result from different lighting conditions.  I enjoy this type of work and it sits well as an element within the direction my practice is taking.

 

 

Photography as Art – Why does it matter?

It seems from the outset photography has been locked into some apparent need to seek legitimacy by being acknowledged as art.  Does earning that moniker somehow change photography?  It reminds me of people who wish to argue whether golf is or isn’t a sport.

Photography is.  Photography is not going away anytime soon.  Photography is a form of visual communication that engulfs our every waking moment. Photography has value, whether as a cherished remembrance of a moment or a loved one, or a Gursky photograph of absolutely nothing for which someone was willing to pay $6 million.  It makes no difference to the reality of photography whether someone deems it art or not.

Why not stop arguing about what it is not and focus on the fact that photography is just photography.  And like everything else, some will be good, some will be bad, some will be both depending on who is doing the looking, some will sell, some won’t, some will be viewed as more important to more people than others which may important to only one person, some will last, and some will fade quickly.

Why some photographers seek to have their work considered art is frankly beyond me.  The definition of art has never been ironclad and the “art world” are a fickle lot anyway.  What was fabulous yesterday is passé tomorrow.  What is art to one person is rubbish to the next, and there are as many opinions as there are people, so why fight the battle?

Is photography art?  Who cares?

Dissecting Feedback and Commentary about Sustainable Prospects

I have taken time to digest the feedback received on the assignments submitted for the Sustainable Prospects module.  I confess to being as disappointed with the quality of the feedback as I was with the course material and its presentation during the module.

I recognise that at some point more definitive information on details of exhibitions and books will need to be developed and it is not as though I have given those topics no thought.  It is early in my view to begin to make definite plans as there is much yet unknown about the eventual outcome of the project I have been pursuing and furthermore the likelihood of this project being the subject of my FMP is diminishing with every passing day due to the delays on the development decision.  The OP was limited to 10 minutes and there were any more topics that also needed to be (and were) covered.  This topic could well have consumed a substantial portion of the 10 minutes if it was to be addressed in the detail suggested in the feedback and I took a decision to address all of the requirements with the balance being directed at other areas.  Perhaps I should have discussed the topic more thoroughly in my CRJ and I will accept that critique, however, it seems odd then that it should have been raised in the OP feedback.  I do not know what to do with a comment like this: We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you.  My approach the project has evolved quite significantly since its beginnings as a purely natural history and repeat photography project in its original inception.  I think I have shown both a willingness to adapt and take new directions and I certainly see that vector continuing.  Cliched comments such as “think out of the box” are neither informative or constructive.  Specifically, what box have I been in?  How is my thinking limited?  Perhaps looking at feedback in the other assignments provides a clue.

I agree the project has potentially greater significance as an example of competing imperatives.  I have had that in mind from the outset and have spoken and written of it.  It is not yet at that point and I am not willing to compromise my independence at this point to make the case for one side or the other.  I have approached the work with an eye toward the ability to tell the story from different perspectives further down the line as the story and its significance develops.  But the comment of potentially broader significance is not lost on me.  The comment: “Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.”  strikes me as a desire to impose the tutor’s version of the story.  I have discussed at length how I do not wish to do a different version of Sophie Gerrard’s, The Dunes in the north of Scotland.  I am passionate about the place, not the people who may be associated with the story and therefor that is not the story I wish to tell.

And that then leads me to the recommendations made of other photographer’s work. First let me address Burtynsky.  I wrote in my CRJ and made direct reference to his work as a key influencer in my OP.  To have included him in the list of recommendations implies my OP and CRJ were not read or considered.  Sternfeld’s work, rather than exploring the Anthropocene as was suggested, reminded me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and I can find no relevance to my work.  Bialbowski’s work explored urban environments and while one might argue that as an exploration of the Anthropocene, they were more travel and social documentary in character.

The other three recommendations were photographers whose work was exploring community.  I found the work of Pannack, Davey and Mitchell all to be fundamentally environmental portraiture and that of Davey and Mitchell to be oriented predominantly toward family and personal subjects.  Pannack’s work explored a few topics, but only the Naturists project even remotely seemed to address community as I understand the term.  I could again find little relevance to my work, nor could I take constructive lessons from reviewing their work.

I honestly feel once again this is an attempt to force my work in a particular direction that is consistent with the tastes of the tutors and which suits their sensibilities with regard to contemporary photography.  I undertook this course to find my own voice and I certainly recognise I may well need guidance to find that voice, but I object to attempts to homogenise me into someone else’s view of what contemporary photography is or should be.

 

Feedback Excerpts

WIP

You also comment on the local nature of your issue and therefore conclude that it will have a rather small audience – we could encourage you to reflect more on the fact that this is a local matter but it reflects a greater one – a global issue of environmental protection, local community, rural landscape and the balance between man and nature, this is far from a local issue when you step back – it’s a fundamental and universal one. We feel with more thought put into contextualising your work and presenting it you may further explore these universal themes and make them prominent in your work. You may enjoy looking at the work of Joel sternfeld, Peter Bialobrezki, Ed Burtynski – who all explore the greater impact of the anthroposcene – and then to look closer to those photographers who explore community – such as Lauara Pannack, Sian Davey, Margaret Mitchell. Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.

 

OP

You identify your audience and address the concept of a book and also an exhibition. You would benefit from exploring further how the book would be made, how it would be designed, who you would be pitching it to and where it might be published. You might work to expand on this – and explore how you can take this from the local audience you describe to a larger one. Also in terms of presentation in an exhibition – more thought and exploration and research would be beneficial to you here. We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. Best of luck with this project!

 

CRJ

It would be interesting and useful to hear more on your reflections of your own work – you do include it but more would be helpful as you move forward. Your CRJ reflects well on your progress through this module, both in terms of process but also in terms of theoretical approach and metaphorical exploration of your subject.

 

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.

Contemporary Photographers – Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer, who has spent 40 + years documenting the impacts of humans on nature.

Burtynsky wrote “[we] come from nature.…There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it… If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”  His work has always looked more specifically at residual landscapes, those impacted by the activity of humans and he seeks to explore how nature is transformed through industry.  He often employs elevated perspectives and people also do not feature in his photographs, but rather the aftermath of their actions.  Mines, quarries, water, air, agriculture, oil fields and refineries have all been subjects for Burtynsky, and each have left their scars on the earth as humans knowingly trade the better lives they seek for the irreparable damage they inflict on the place they live.  These contradictions which rarely seem to find the delicate balance point they require are the underlying theme and source of tension in Burtynsky’s photographs.

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996

He also uses a lot of elevated perspectives and employs a variety of tools from large format cameras to drones and helicopters which allows him to tell the story in a way that can not be done from the ground.  His most recent work “The Anthropocene Project” has been done using a variety of media including stills, video, and virtual and augmented reality.

I find a lot of common ground with Burtynsky from a basic interest in how humans and nature interact, to the use of elevated perspectives to tell the story.  Until his most recent work he has generally shown what humans have done without showing humans.  There is no ambiguity in how the scars on our planet were created.  His work is powerful because the viewer finds herself somewhat torn between the ugliness that is shown in an often beautifully created photograph, and we too are left with a sort of scar of collective guilt about what mankind has done.  In “The Anthropocene Project” Burtynsky is much more direct in the way he shows people as essential elements in the scenes that mankind has created.

ANTH_TFOS_DAN_02_16_SRC_iPF_KdkGlossy_alt1_WEB Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, Dandora Landfill #34, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016

 

My work has a long way to go to reach the significance or quality Burtynsky has achieved and he sets a worthy bar to which to aspire.  There is much to learned from looking at his work as I move forward with my project.

 

Edward Burtynsky. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2018, from https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/

 

Contemporary Photographers – Axel Hütte

 

Axel Hütte, a German photographer born in 1951, and a student of the Becher’s at the Dusseldorf School of Art, is recognised for his land and cityscape work.  He works in large format film.

Hütte’s landscape work is based in emptiness.  All evidence of humans is absent.  His work isn’t intended to convey any story and in fact seeks to blur time and space in order to revel in the sheer beauty of the scene.  Hütte also seems to eschew detail preferring his landscapes to be viewed and considered as a whole without any particular emphasis in the frame. Though he has photographed around the world, it is quite often impossible to discern from the photo itself where it was taken.  Even after reading a caption one doesn’t truly have a sense of place in most instances.

Hutte from Terra IncognitaTerra Incognita, Axel Hütte

This approach is quite the opposite of the direction I have generally taken in trying to achieve detail and clearly depict time and space in context.  And yet I am drawn to Hütte’s work.  I have done quite a lot of past work that is more like Hütte’s, though even in my recent work there are examples.  It seems in those cases, I find myself less concerned with showing a particular place in a way that it can be recognized than I am with depicting a mood or a texture that observe in that place.  Where it is and even when becomes unimportant.

untitled-11Lichen and Gorse, Ashley Rose 2018

Over the past 9 months, I have been so focused on the project work in which time and place are essential elements that I have not done as much of this sort of work.  However, these photos would have broader commercial appeal precisely because of their universality and a succumbing to the idea of simple beauty for its own sake.  There is total ambiguity about the place in the above photo.  While it happens to have been taken in Scotland and the yellow flowers are gorse, it could have just as easily been taken in a wetland in South Carolina in the USA and the flowers forsythia or wild honeysuckle.  This scene might be found in many places around the temperate zones of the world and that is why it acquires a universality to which viewers can relate.

Therein lies the appeal and success of Hütte’s landscape work.

 

Axel Hütte | artnet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from http://www.artnet.com/artists/axel-hütte/
Biography of Axel Hutte | Widewalls. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from https://www.widewalls.ch/artist/axel-hutte/

Week 7 Reflections – A Week in Paris

Paris Photo is an expansive show almost to the point of being overwhelming for a one-day visit.  Should I attend in future I shall be sure to schedule at least two if not three days to take it in properly.  It was thankfully far more diverse in its offering than Unseen Amsterdam, and there was a pleasant mix of old and contemporary work.  Even at that, there was very little representation in the genres in which I work, either in the photos displayed or in the books offered at Paris Photo or Polycopies.  I found the contemporary work to be strongly weighted to the “fine art” end of the spectrum which is clearly where money is as that is what the galleries chose to represent.  There is probably a lesson in that.

That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of inspiration to be had.  The quality of printing was something to behold and it was interesting to see the different choices in mounting,framing and display.  There was a lot of very good work displaying excellent technique and creativity.  A fair bit of the contemporary work wasn’t to my taste or was beyond my ability to comprehend without further explanation.  I really enjoyed seeing work of the some of the arguably most significant and influential photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Andres Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz and women who defied the stereotypes and limitations of their time such as Dorothea Lange and Martine Franck.  They all had great influence on photography, yet it is interesting to contrast their work in terms of composition and technical quality with current standards of excellence.  Clearly each has brilliant work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, but many also had work that would likely today be considered poor work.  I reckon though that resulted in large measure from the limitations of the equipment they were using. 

A minor digression is required to lay the basis for what follows.  While in Paris and in addition to visiting photography galleries and the Paris Photo exhibition, I visited several art museums; Musee D’Orsay, Musee de L’Orangerie, the Louvre, and the “OnAir” installation at Palais de Tokyo.  It prompted me to think more about the similarities between traditional art and photography and the evolution of each.  While greatly accelerated in the case of photography, there are similarities in the trajectories of their respective histories and parallels to the trajectories in music history as well.  Recognising this has caused me to look upon contemporary photographic trends with a little less aversion than I have tended to in the past.

HCB and the others mentioned above along with many of their contemporaries not mentioned endure because they, to use an Art History analogy, were members of the school of Realism. Their subjects while being specific carry a universality to which viewers can readily relate.  Contemporary practitioners like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario and LauraHenno carry on those traditions and I believe their work will endure as well. 

Just as art evolved from Romanticism and Realism to Impressionism,Dada and Surrealism, photography has followed similar trajectories, but on a less unified path: i.e. many genres are still being produced simultaneously even though they may have been under-represented at Paris Photo. As I walked around the Paris show, and it was even more pronounced at Unseen Amsterdam, that a lot of contemporary “fine art” photographers have moved into (again using Art History terms) the realm of Magic Realism and in some cases Surrealism.  I do wonder how many or which of them will be recognised as Picasso or Dali in the world of photography, or whether the work will just be a footnote somewhere in the archives of Photographic History.  Only time will tell.

There was so much to see at Paris Photo and it is impossible to sort out and write about everything I experienced there.  It has helped to have waited a week and reflected on what I saw and how I reacted to it. There were a few photographers, none of whom of which I was previously aware, whose work stopped me in my tracks; Lynn Davis, Jean-Baptiste Huyhn and Axel Hutte.  Lynn’s extraordinary cultural landscapes, Huynh’s stunning portraits, and Hutte’s utterly unique prints on glass were for me “best in show.” In further investigating Axel Hutte I discovered his landscape work and how some of his philosophies are very similar to approaches I have been taking. But more about that in another post.

Lynn Davis
Jean-Baptiste Huynh
Axel Hutte

Edward Burtynsky’s aerial environmental work resonated strongly with me and the aesthetic captured in some of Todd Hido’s work, particularly Rivers at Night, made me think about how some of that technique might be applied to my practice.

Visits to other galleries and museums also proved helpful.  I was struck by how differently I looked at art and photos.  I was particularly intrigued at the Musee D’Orsay by how many of the landscapes included indistinct images of people going about their days in harmony with the landscape.  This also resonated with me as it is what I have been trying to do during this module.

Claude Monet
Pierre-Auguste Renoir

In the end it was a week well spent seeing things that are not readily available to me in NE Scotland or in South Carolina when I am in the US, interacting with cohort mates, exchanging ideas, deepening friendships and being thankful for the opportunities that life has brought me.

Week 6 Reflections – Truth: Photographic and Otherwise

In his book, On Being a Photographer, Bill Jay recalled being told by philosopher-poet-artist Michel Butor, one of his teachers, that “truth was like a photograph in which thousands of shades from black to white, and including both extremes, were necessary for full revelation. But of course, most people in this day and age insist the truth is black, or white, and deny the beauty of the whole.”

I began to think about the realities of that statement, and its applicability to my photographic practice and more broadly to the current every day world.  I find the assertion that many people want only to think in terms of truth being black or white to be quite true in the United States and particularly in the part of South Carolina where I spend some of the year.  When considered in photographic terms the absurdities of that notion are quite evident.

What follows is a series of four images; all the identical image as the starting point.  The first is overexposed to render the result pure white.

Nov18-0098-4

The second image is underexposed so that it renders in pure black.

Nov18-0098-3

The third image properly exposed in monochrome begins to reveal some of the “truth’ that was absent in the prior two photos. In this photo we begin to see the complexities and intricacies of the scene in the subtle shades of grey and the small bits of pure black and white.

Nov18-0098-2

 

And finally, as originally captured in full colour we find “truth” that was not apparent in any of the prior rendering of this image. The full complexities of the scene are revealed when considered in colour.

Nov18-0098

Here it is possible to see the scene of people lining the Champs Elysees in Paris in the rain for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Armistice ending World War I on 11 November 2018.

Is it the total “truth”?  No, because the image cannot reveal the sound of the guns falling silent and the bells beginning to chime and depth of emotion felt in that crowd as that happened, but it is far more truthful than any of the white, black or even shades of gray photographs.

My photographic practice is fundamentally documentary in character so the reality of the “thing itself” or the “truth” of the image is very important to me.  Can an image ever reveal the total truth?  I am not convinced a single image alone can ever do that.  Perhaps a series or images with associated text can come as close as possible, but truth is an elusive animal.  Very few truths are absolute.  One though is that wee live in a world filled with colour.  To ignore that and attempt to see it only in black or white is to deny truth entirely.  Truth is intricate, complex and inseparable from its whole.  It can only exist in the context of the full range of colour of which it is comprised.

We all, and especially our leaders, be they political, religious, or otherwise would do well to remember this.

Hurn, D., & Jay, B. (2009). On Being a Photographer (Third). Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.