This week, which continues building towards the end of module exhibition, explored the way images can be displayed and experienced by the viewer. The interview with Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale of the Caravan Gallery covered their own journey developing and using a non-traditional exhibition space to promote dialogue with communities and inspire photographic activities around the world. Their enthusiasm for what they do and their willingness to simply have a go and not allow themselves to be limited in the pursuit of their artistic objectives is an inspiration. Also, their willingness to collaborate and their flexibility of vision in even deciding that a small caravan could be used for their purposes are big lessons.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might, at this late stage, try and mount an exhibition for this module. The gallery space seems less and less appealing, as well as feeling less appropriate for the work at this stage of its development. I’m unsure whether the gallery space might ultimately be the best place for this work to be shown, but certainly in its current inchoate state it doesn’t seem to merit the elevation that being placed in a gallery space almost inevitably confers.
I think photographs unavoidably respond to the space in which they are displayed. This effect can occur independently of the artist if the space is chosen without consideration to the intentions of the work and whether the space/light/ambience are conducive to, or congruent with, that intention. Where possible then, it is important for the artist to consider where their images are best placed and seek to influence this if possible. One must accept that the message the viewer receives from your work is somewhat out of your control, and may be at variance from that intended, but it remains important to control as many variables as possible to give the work the best chance to communicate clearly and the space where it is displayed and the audience who might be exposed to it are such variables.
Of course, one of the key aspects of my project is the concept of being alone and considering how people are affected by that state. It could be argued then that considering the images in neutrally coloured spaces where a single photograph occupies a single wall might give the images the space required to be considered clearly, but I’m not sure this is quite what the work needs. For sure, my original ideal for this project has gradually shifted to become one that is less clear cut, more accommodating to blurred definitions and uncomfortable contradictions. These feelings don’t seem best suited to the gallery space at the moment. I am sure as the work develops the ideal location for it will become clearer. As I continue working towards the end of this particular module I hope to be able to make a coherent provisional choice.
One of the techniques I’ve wanted to experiment with is repeat photography, to see if there’s a role for this practice in articulating and exploring the themes of my project. In an effort to break out of a creative and motivational lull I figured I’d start at home and give this process a try.
One of the things I’ve considered is how to use an image to change the character of a scene and/or to help tell the story of solitude or absence in a space. I’ve also become interested in how I might use light to enhance or alter how a scene reads. This image is my first attempt at some of the above, using a previously taken image as the basis for this shot, but translocating it elsewhere to see how this changes the meaning of the image. There was also a smidgen of light painting going on in this photo, something I have never tried before but would possibly like to experiment with again in future. Using light creatively is something I’m always concerned with and hope to be using projected images shortly as well.
Overall, I feel that rephotography can be a useful tool to tell the story in my project and will hope to develop this idea further.
This week we were introduced to the task that will take up most of our efforts for the rest of the module, that of preparing for an exhibition, publication and workshop to be presented in August. There is great potential to see the work develop and find new direction in this process. I’m interested that we are being asked to mount a workshop, as this formed a key part of my project proposal in the last module. I feel however that the greatest possibility for development for me lies in the exhibition and publication aspects of the task.
One of the key lessons for me in this module has been that there is so much space for my work to develop into. Up till now I’ve only ever considered the peak output of my images in terms of a single photograph, hopefully as well-constructed as possible, presented in a frame on a wall. The inescapable realisation is that the medium of photography is so much more robust and versatile than this. It can withstand pressure from ambitious and audacious practitioners and be stretched and pulled into various forms that are born from the camera but don’t necessarily end up in a standard or easily recognisable format. The simplest example of this is probably the fact that images are now consumed largely in virtual screen-based formats, so already the traditional medium of the physical photograph has been subverted. Once this constraint has been escaped, the question becomes ‘what next?’… the answers are potentially endless.
The role of the curator has been introduced this week with some of our cohort taking these roles in our own forthcoming exhibition. I remember the words of Lynn Smith, who said to me some time ago that developing relationships with curators was one of the most important things a photographer could do to move their career forward.
Reading interviews with curators from prominent institutions around the world I was struck by their common challenges, their knowledge and their protective love for the medium of photography, while they simultaneously acknowledged the changing landscape in which they are working. As an individual practitioner it’s easy to be so preoccupied with one’s own work and perspective that you’re unable to appreciate the rolling waves engulfing you, the tide of which is changing the context in which your work exists without you even knowing. So curators can be a vital resource to the practitioner, helping to contextualise the work and present it to an audience that the practitioner themselves may not be able to access. I believe the individual practitioner must maintain a clear sense of their own direction and their own motivation for producing the work, but be open to the additional ‘big picture’ perspective that a curator can provide and be prepared to be challenged by, and respond to, their objective expert view.
The more I consider how I envisage my project developing with broader parameters in mind, the more exciting the possibilities seem. I’m not sure if I will have all the time and resources necessary to explore everything but I want to try some things and see where I end up.
"If nothing else, the advent of post-photography is an uncomfortable reminder that the present we all embody, the photographic presence that is the very guarantee of our being, is no more than one ephemeral effect within history's own ongoing and inexorable processes of reproduction and erasure."
Geoffrey Batchen, 2002: 127 (1)
"The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom - and thus its significance - in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the way in which, despite everything, it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in face of the chance necessity of death."
Vilém Flusser, 2004: 82 (2)
This massive topic seems to have arrived at a bad time for me. It’s too big, the implications seem too profound. I’m trying to follow the light, but it only seems to lead to new cul de sacs of blinding confusion, with each turn confounded by a shroud of abstruse theory cast in language that leaves the deepest, blackest shadows on either side.
We are asked to challenge the very practice of photography, to seek to question the physical form of the image, how its representation comments on the medium or opens new horizons for further exploration. But, in a weird way, all I can think about is death and how photography predicts, reports and simultaneously defers this final state.
Maybe the death is that of the idea of human as autonomous photographer with a singular vision. Maybe the death is of the idea of someone seeing something they find interesting, deciding therefore to take a photograph of it, and being satisfied simply with having done so. Or possibly we should just accept that photography as we know it is dead (or soon will be) and so we should all just move along and find something else to do.
And what are we supposed to be free from?
A simple Google search of ‘freedom’ brings up two definitions:
I’ve never felt enslaved by my camera, nor have I ever felt my rights to act as I wish impinged upon by the apparatus of photography. Yet this week, I’m repeatedly reminded how tightly chained I actually am to the apparatus and it’s a thoroughly demoralising idea.
I understand the reason for a general anxiety to reframe the position and pre-eminence of photography and the physical photograph itself in the rising daylight of the digital age. I support this effort, while feeling somewhat removed from it, existing in a parallel place where the conflict feels a lot less pivotal.
For me, right now, the real struggle lies in simply clinging on to the thing that brought me here in the first place…the unaltered, naïve joy derived from taking photographs. I’ve lost it at the moment. I hope it’s buried underneath all this stuff and not gone for good.
This week we’ve been looking at collaboration and participation in photography and the practical and ethical issues arising from these methods of working. This seemed to be timed perfectly to coincide with a developing train of thought about my own project which made the reading and research this week of particular interest.
There are many, like Azoulay (2016) who have moved beyond trying to convince of the need for, or importance of, collaboration in photographic practice, arguing that it’s ‘unavoidable’1 and thus no longer worth anguished discussion. They seek rather to analyse and codify this practice, examining the ethical implications and challenges that arise from creating work with the contribution of others.
Even in my own practice, which I’d previously considered to be a very self-centred and introspective one, I readily concede that I have had a long and very fruitful collaboration with my printer George, at Digitalarte who not only helps me to realise my prints in the way that optimises the visual impact of my work and stays as faithful as possible to my original vision, but who has also had direct and positive influence on my photographic practice and workflow over the years I’ve been working with him. So, I am easily convinced of the inescapable need to collaborate.
What I hadn’t previously considered in much detail, and what is increasingly relevant to my own project, is the dynamic of the relationship between collaborators and how that can influence not only the way that contributions are elicited and made to the work, but also the integrity of the results gained by this collaboration.
Like with anything, there’s always a power play at work and it’s important to acknowledge this as a photographer entering into collaboration, in order to mitigate it if that’s what will serve the project best. To use a topical example, a proposal to highlight the plight of the Grenfell Tower residents by giving them cameras and asking them to document their terrible experiences would be open to a number of very searching questions depending on who was giving them the cameras and what the proposed outcomes were likely to be – a project suggested by the Conservative Party publicity office would be received and interpreted very differently to one sponsored by an independent charity.
So, as the photographer I have a responsibility to consider this relationship with my potential collaborators and how I can create a framework that allows them to contribute in a free and unbiased manner, and that is also sensitive to how their involvement in the project might compromise their own integrity or privacy.
My project, aiming to examine urban solitude, originally planned to interview selected people about their own experiences and use their responses to feed into the work. The more I think about this initial plan the less comfortable I am with it, as it feels too much like simply using other voices to tell my own story, rather than allowing these voices to speak sincerely for themselves, telling their own story in their own words, however divergent they might be from my own concept of the original idea. I will write more about this in a separate post, but there will have to be changes to my project methodology as a result of closer consideration of the implications, and benefits, of a more collaborative approach to the work.
Reflecting on the work this week, I realise that I must work harder to ensure that my collaborators have their own agency and that they are given the right platform on which to add their own unique voice to the project as it develops.
Lapenta, F. (2011) ‘Some Theoretical and Methodological Views on Photo-Elicitation’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
Chalfen, R. (2011) ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
This week’s topic, Remediation, has been possibly the one I’ve most struggled to get my head around since we started this course. Remediation is the refashioning or incorporation of one medium into another medium. The concept introduces and formalises the idea that all art is based, in some way, on a repurposing of something else, something that has gone before.
Other concepts introduced this week, appropriation and remixing, are closely related to the practice of remediation and I would argue exist under its overarching umbrella.
Accepting this idea has a number of interesting and possibly unintended consequences. For example, if what one creates is merely a refashioned view of some preceding thing, then who ‘owns’ that thing? And how can one claim to be solely creatively responsible or the author of something ‘original’?
Jan Verwoert in 2007 argued thus:
‘Who owns a recurring style, a collective symbol or a haunted house? Even if you appropriate them, they can never be entirely your private property. Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent – that is with an attitude that differs significantly from the blunt revisionism of neo-(or ‘turbo’-)folkloristic exploitations of the past - must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it.’ 1
If one completely accepts this premise, then it’s very difficult to argue for strict ownership/authorship of any piece of art by any single person, as we would all be obliged to credit our predecessors whose work has either directly or indirectly contributed to our own. But how far should the obligation to reference, credit and acknowledge our influences extend?
In reflecting on this week’s presentations and the accompanying reading, I’m uncomfortable with the strict differentiation between terms used. The three key terms that were introduced - remediation, appropriation and remixing - to my mind describe a single practice, that of taking something from someone else and using it for your own purposes in your own work.
This could be for a range of reasons, from homage, to pastiche, to mutation into something entirely (on the face of it) unrelated to the original piece. In this way, it’s possible to consider appropriation and remixing as existing on a spectrum, with one end being where the act (remixing) results in something very different from the original piece, while at the other end the output may be more easily ‘traceable’ back to its source (appropriation).
The challenge then comes from acknowledging where one is placed on this spectrum and what obligations this position imposes upon one’s practice. For example, it could be argued that cropping a small corner out of someone else’s photograph to be used in my new work doesn’t require permission or attribution, because of the unidentifiable and relatively small contribution that this segment makes to my work or detracts from the original. On the other hand, printing large screenshots of someone else's work which I subsequently hang and pass off as my own, entirely new work may be sailing a little too close to the remediation wind (see the work of Richard Prince for examples of the latter).
To some degree, where one feels comfortable on the spectrum is a decision for each individual practitioner. I don’t feel that my references are always explicit in my own practice (where indeed I am aware of there being any references!), yet neither am I actively trying to obscure the fact that certain artists or works have been influential in my vision and the way I work.
This week we were all asked the most cutting of questions… ‘what is your original contribution to the conversation in which your images participate?’
Maybe the ultimate answer to all of this lies in accepting that, in this world of ever-proliferating imagery, it’s a nonsense to proclaim any form of originality. If we're all merely ‘reshuffling a basic set of cultural terms’2, then we are liberated from the futility of grasping for the mirage of originality and are free to create and appropriate at will, and the implications be damned!
1. Verwoert, J. (2007) 'Apropos Appropriation: Why stealing images today feels different', Art & Research [Electronic],vol. 1, no. 2, Available at: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/verwoert.html, [Accessed 12 June 2017].
2. ‘Instead they advanced the paradigm of appropriation as a materialist model that describes art production as the gradual re-shuffling of a basic set of cultural terms through their strategical re-use and eventual transformation.’ From Verwoert, 2007.
The opening of module two introduced the practice of repeat photography – ‘rephotography’. This practice of carefully reproducing previously captured images opens up new avenues of investigation that are not available to a single, isolated image. Repeat photography places both images in a different context and invites the viewer to consider what might exist in the space between them, an uncharted region of time and cultural shift to which the pair of images can possibly provide some clues, but often little more. The potential applications for rephotography are numerous, ranging from quantitative scientific examination to sociological commentary, while others simply find it an enjoyable thing to compare images from past and present for its own sake.
The work this week challenged me to consider how rephotography might be relevant to me and my own practice, and looking forward, whether there might be an application for it in the project I’m working towards in this MA. It’s a difficult question to answer comprehensively at this point, particularly as I have no personal experience of repeat photography. There are however aspects of the practice that may be of relevance to the work I hope to produce or the way in which I hope to examine the experience of urban solitude.
The act of repeating a photograph seems to me to take the image beyond its original boundaries and opens up possibilities for communicating context and information and provoking inquiry that is simply not possible with a single image. One of the challenges I have been continuously concerned with when plotting the course of my project, is how to articulate the vast and varied differences in the way people experience being alone in the urban environment. Instinctively it felt that straight photographs were not going to be adequate to do this subject real justice and my concession to this in my proposal was the addition of creative writing to allow myself and other people involved in the project (e.g. interviewees) to find different ways to articulate aspects of their experience which would later inform the process of image-making.
Repeat photography potentially offers another tool to explore this subject, offering as it does a manageable way to comment on large periods of time and on big issues that might be too much of a mouthful for one photograph to declare. It would, for example, certainly lend itself to telling a story of absence in the urban environment (if that were the story I was trying to tell). There is also the potential to use the single frame of reference to tell the story in a different way. If I shoot one place repeatedly, rather than lots of different places only once (as currently), how does that change the angle from which the story of urban solitude might be told?
This week’s work has once again challenged me to consider more carefully how the work might eventually be presented to an audience. In The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods (2011: 130) one of the most prominent advocates and exponents of rephotography, Mark Klett, wrote:
‘Interactive approaches using digital technologies enable seemingly incompatible types and formats of data to be collected and used together. Organizing this material presents a new challenge that accentuates content over media type, and emphasizes the experience of the work as a way to discover the work’s content. If done well the results can add layers of meaning and accessibility to photographs, extending their audience and reaching across disciplines. Then the old problem that photographs alone cannot explain their histories has found a new solution.‘
Klett raises the tantalising possibility of offering an ‘experience’ to the viewer that adds meaning and potentially appeals to a wider audience. There’s obviously much to unpack there, but the desire for the work to be experienced rather than just seen certainly resonates with me and rephotography may offer a way to engage in a wider dialogue with others about how they experience solitude in the urban environment, in a way that I’d originally proposed to do using workshops and questionnaires. I hope to test this on a small scale with a mini-project, to see if there might be a wider application moving forward and will report back with my progress in due course.
Klett, M. (2011) 'Repeat Photography in Landscape Research', in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
The end of module 1 sees us facing a blank abyss of teaching-free time, time that I’d secretly hoped to fill with back to back Mad Men episodes.
Don Draper thinking about lying down on his sofa in Mad Men
Now this was possibly just because I’d forgotten how appealing it was to imagine a world where I could spend the majority of my working day lying down on a sofa, but it was mainly because I’d found the process of preparing the end of module assignments really gruelling. So I was looking forward to the mental break.
The week 13 work was mercifully light, with a teaser for module 2 and an introduction to the photographic work of Ed Ruscha, an artist I’ve been inspired by since visiting his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery back in 2009.
But I remember seeing some big prints of his aerial car park images at the Constructing Worlds exhibition a few years back and being really astonished by the beauty and visual interest he’d managed to extract from such an apparently mundane subject. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m totally buying his total nonchalance about photography, but whatever the case I was looking forward to getting into this activity.
I debated a few different ideas, initially planning to shoot car parks (I’ve always been interested in them), then thought about shooting old cars.
I’d already decided I was going to be shooting exclusively during the day as a departure from my usual practice. In response to Ruscha’s work I wanted to shoot in a nimble, ‘artless’ manner. This also seemed appropriate for the subject matter. So all images would be made using my phone.
I’d been wanting to experiment with making a book and had in fact included this in my project proposal. I’d only recently realised I could make books via Lightroom, so decided this would be a good chance to get my head around that as well. So the brief was set, I was going to shoot rubbish on the streets with my phone and create a book using Lightroom.
This process was really interesting and enjoyable. I enjoyed just walking round my local area, something I never usually do, and my wandering took me to places I’ve not seen before. I enjoyed the process of just being observant during the daytime, really taking in my environment. Maybe everything interesting doesn’t happen at night after all!
Contrary to my usual practice, I walked around listening to music, casually snapping away whenever I came across something that was interesting. I was much less concerned with line, light or composition and just made photos in each case and moved on. I found this quite liberating too, with less ‘riding’ on each shot.
In keeping with the subject matter, final image selection was not especially discerning and the edits in Lightroom were minimal (again, in contrast to my usual practice) and then I moved on to putting the book together. One of the unavoidable conclusions from walking around shooting was that we’ve got too much stuff. There’s so much stuff just discarded, unceremoniously chucked out, its fate unknown – nobody seems to care that we’re polluting our own neighbourhoods just to get rid of the things we don’t want any more. It’s nuts!
This conclusion influenced the way I approached the book. I’d taken these simple iPhone photographs of rubbish. It seemed nonsensical to produce a glossy archival hardback book of these photos. Equally, I can’t ignore the fact that whatever I produce is likely to end up contributing to the pile of crap on the pavement at some point in the future, so I felt that a small simple book with images on basic paper, with soft cover, would be the way forward.
This week saw the submission of the two final assignments for this module, a project proposal and accompanying work in progress (WIP) portfolio. The production of this work has been quite a traumatic, but ultimately very enlightening process that will be formative for everything else that I produce moving forward on this course.
The difficulties approaching this work were largely due to a lack of structure in my thinking and in the approach to my own work. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve not really had any kind of ‘practice’ to speak of before starting this course, which should have probably been a clue that struggling through the ‘Positions and Practice’ module was a possibility!
Forgive me for introducing these in bullet-point format, it just seems kind of appropriate (nothing like a good bullet-point to make it seem like you’ve got something sensible to say!).
A draft image that didn't make the final WIP portfolio
Meeting the challenge of adapting to this course and the mindset required has been difficult but also great fun. I’m so glad that I decided to do this, and I’m keen to reflect on this module and put the lessons into practice.
The work during week 11 sharpened the focus on the forthcoming project proposal. The webinar was an opportunity for a group therapy session where we all expressed our growing anxiety and uncertainty about the assignment. Gary, our tutor, challenged us to consider who the audience is for the work we’re proposing to create in the weeks and months ahead.
Now, I haven’t previously given much thought to the identity and needs of the audience (I know that’s not the first time you’ve heard me say that during this module!) and there were certainly some heated discussions amongst the group, with some arguing that they’d rather create work to satisfy themselves rather than aiming to serve an audience at all. I was of the same view to begin with, but having considered things further I have to concede the importance of considering who my audience might be, and how best to reach them with my work. To ignore the audience entirely seems disingenuous, engaged as we are in this effort to create photographic work of a high standard, which none of us are intending to keep solely to ourselves. So, we must therefore concede something to the audience. After putting great effort into creating the work it seems logical to try and expose this it to as many people as possible in the way that it can be received in its best possible light. Only once you’ve accepted the need to acknowledge the audience can you identify it and position your work accordingly.
A draft image for the 'work in progress' portfolio
Gary reassured us that not being able to identify the audience at this early stage is ok, as long as we keep this in mind as a target for the medium to long term, and certainly by the time we come to plan our final projects at the end of this MA. For me, thinking about audience is all part of the necessary change in mindset that I’ve been challenged to make since starting this course. Till now I’ve just taken photographs, with no real intention to speak of. For sure there have been themes that I’ve tended to return to, and I have found fragments of audience here and there, but this has happened without any forethought or strategy. I am starting to look at the process of putting this proposal together as a really important exercise in structuring and sharpening up my thoughts on my work and it’s really forcing me to take a critical approach to my own practice. This can only be beneficial, and once you view the proposal in this light it suddenly seems like a great opportunity rather than an incredibly daunting task that I’m not equipped to complete.
As I start to set down draft thoughts for the proposal, I’m finding that the best way to approach things is to try to answer specific questions rather than trying to shape these vast themes into a coherent argument. How on earth do you neatly summarise ‘urban solitude’? It’s basically impossible! Questions like ‘what am I trying to say?’, ‘what do I want the outcomes to be?’ help me to drill down to the crux of the topic and make things more manageable. I now feel more certain that I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts, at least in a preliminary way, in time to submit the proposal and can then build on it moving forward. I’m sure shooting more will also help to refine my ideas, and that’s something I must place more emphasis on as this module fades into the next.
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal