Exhibition visit – Tim Etchells & Vlatka Horvat: What Can Be Seen – Millennium Gallery, Sheffield

This was a chance visit, as I just happened to be walking past the gallery while shooting street photography.

On walking into the exhibition area, I noted a number of large frames, sans paintings, all wrapped in bubble wrap, with large labels on them, or magic marker written directly onto the bubble wrap.  I concluded that they were still setting things up, and continued to wander around, looking at things and trying to get a feel for what the exhibition was about.

The obvious thing to do at this point would be to read the information posted on the walls, but…. duh.

There were display cases filled with collections of objects. One that I liked was full of old ornate pocket watches. I noticed there were labels with writing that didn’t seem to mean anything to the casual observer. Stock numbers or something. Then there was the occasional empty space, with a note saying something like “item not found”. This struck me as odd.

I continued looking around, finding other collections of things, and other, larger items. All with cards or labels on them.

Then I found a series of photos.

They were of what I can only describe as museum storage facilities. Stacked boxes… and cards from file systems… or cards placed on items. One that I remember vividly read “Set of non-specific bones. Provenance unknown.”

At this point it struck me. The collections of things, while all very interesting and visually pleasing, were perhaps not the main subject matter. It was the nature of organising and recording. The missing items, and the cards detailing the items, or lack of items… I don’t know if they were what the exhibition was actually about, but they were certainly a very important aspect of it.

Then I grinned like a raving loon. The bubble wrapped frames. They weren’t preparations for an exhibit. They were the exhibit!

The gallery website http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/millennium-gallery/exhibitions/current/tim-etchells-and-vlatka-horvat-what-can-be-seen presents the exhibition differently, but this post represents my own personal experience when visiting.

Art Photography Now by Susan Bright

I have mentioned in previous posts my dislike for, to put it politely,  convoluted ‘art speak’.

I recognise the need to go into detail when explaining a complex concept, of which there can be many, when dealing with art. What I dislike, however, is the tendency for some artists, critics, or commentators to use excessively verbose language when describing something that is, in reality,  quite simple. Using six pages to describe something that could be explained in half a page, not only doesn’t impress me, it annoys me to the point that I will put the book down and not pick it up again.

To deliberately make it more difficult to read a book, which is supposed to be sharing ideas and information, to the point that it excludes a large part of the potential readership, is, to my mind, counterproductive. Or to speak my mind more openly, it’s pretentious elitist rubbish, and I reject it utterly.

I must confess to some concern regarding my prospects for passing this degree course. I don’t know to what extent I will be required to partake of or participate in such nonsense, but I fear a refusal to do so may result in a fail. We shall see.

Now, with all of that in mind, I come to the topic at hand… Art Photography Now by Susan Bright, and I must say immediately, it is a breath of fresh air.

Susan’s own words, while far from being dumbed down in any way, manage to convey complex and detailed ideas in a way that is pleasingly intelligible.

‘The grandeur of landscape painting reverberates through this series by Finnish artist Brotheurs, whose title plays on the relationship between photography and painting and on the changed status that photography now enjoys in the art world.’ (Bright, 2005:51)

As person of merely reasonable intelligence, I can read that, and appreciate both the meaning, and eloquence.

To be fair, some of the featured artists do occasionally plunge into explanations of their work that cause me to pause for a moment, but then no-one said art was supposed to be easy.

Counter to this though are the artists who eschew the pretentious or elitist concept altogether, just do what they feel like, and then let others make up whatever explanation they like about it.

‘…I don’t theorize when I work. I would read theoretical stuff about my work and think ,”What? Where did they get that?” The work was so intuitive for me, I didn’t know where it was coming from. So I thought I had better not say anything or I’d blow it.’ (Sherman 2005, cited in Bright 2005:25)

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate such an open and honest explanation.

 

In addition to the quality and intelligibility of the writing, the included images are of both a size and quality that allows the viewer to appreciate them in some detail, rather than just get a vague impression. Obviously, this will never come close to seeing the works in a gallery, but in this form, it is possible to decide whose work is of interest and worthy of further investigation.

In conclusion, I have found this book to be a very good starting point. It covers several artists/photographers working in each of the various different fields of photography, gives an explanation of their ideas and concepts, and shows us examples of their work.

This is not a ‘be all and end all’ of art photography… it’s an index… a stepping off point. Start here… see what interests you, and investigate at your leisure.

 

Reference

Bright, S. (2005) Art Photography Now. London: Thames and Hudson

 

 

 

How To Read a Photograph – Ian Jeffery

I have been fairly hopping from book to book recently, mostly switching from Barthes’ Camera Lucida to Jeffrey’s How to Read a Photograph, and back again.

I can safely say that I’m finding Jeffrey’s book by far the more interesting, but perhaps not in the way intended.

In terms of looking at the history of photography, of learning about the methods and seeing the works of early photographers, it is a very good read. However, so far, it does not actually do what it says on the cover. ‘How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers’.

What I’m finding is that it gives a very detailed interpretation of certain images, but absolutely no explanation of how it came to that conclusion. It seems to me that ‘Interpretations of Photographs’ would be a more accurate title.

As an example, of Julia Margaret Cameron’s image ‘The Angel At The Tomb’ (can be seen at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O129312/the-angel-at-the-tomb-photograph-cameron-julia-margaret/ ) …

Jeffrey (2008:22) says…

‘The tomb was Christ’s, and the angel came down from heaven like an earthquake to roll away the stone which sealed the entrance. Christ, however, had already gone, to the added amazement of Mary Magdalene. According to Matthew the angel was male. What Cameron seems to have done is to present the angel as Mary Magdalene, out of whom Christ has expelled ‘seven devils’. The event took place at first light.’

Fascinating. But how did Jeffrey conclude this? How can a viewer of the photograph in question see the image, and in any way produce such an interpretation? I see a woman with somewhat unruly long hair, with a dark background, and bright light falling across parts of her face and hair.

To produce the interpretation offered by Jeffrey requires extra knowledge which is in no way present within the photograph itself. As suggested by the page on the Victoria and Albert Museum (2016), it would appear that Cameron based her work on Renaissance paintings. Jefferey does not tell us this, and as such, I feel this weakens his ‘interpretation’.  It’s like he’s saying “Here’s a very clever interpretation of this work, but I’m not telling you how I achieved it”… which completely invalidates the title and objective of the book.

To be honest, while I’m finding the book interesting, so far, and based on the title, I’m feeling somewhat cheated.

And while I’m in the mood for grumbling, this does seem to be a recurring theme in my studies. Lots of big conclusions and interpretations are shared, but the method of how to arrive at those interpretations seems to be jealously guarded. I find this is, at best, counterproductive. It’s like my maths teacher used to say to me, all those years ago… “Show your working! How do I know you didn’t cheat?”

 

Reference

Jeffrey, I (2008) How to Read a Photograph London: Thames & Hudson

Victoria & Albert Museum (2016) The Angel at the Tomb AT http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O129312/the-angel-at-the-tomb-photograph-cameron-julia-margaret/  (Accessed on 29/12/2016)

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Introduction

Additional to the ‘Essential Reading’ list (from which I have read ‘Photography – The New Basics’ from cover to cover), this book, among others, was recommended to me by my tutor.

My very first impression, after reading a few pages was “Oh my god! What a pretentious blowhard! Why on Earth would my tutor suggest I read this?!”

It has to be said that the text is verbose, to the extent that Barthes’ use of words appears willfully to obscure his own meaning. I don’t know to what extent this is down to the translation, as the book was not originally written in English. Nevertheless… I sometimes feel that the excessive use of an extensive vocabulary is not always clever. You are trying to convey a message. To deliberately obscure that message with many, many fancy words is not clever… it’s stupid.

I (thankfully) persevered.

My reading style is typically one of ‘read it slowly, and read it all’. I start at the start, and work my way through, pausing and re-reading sections if I think I’ve not grasped something… and continue in this manner until I reach the end.

That doesn’t work for me with this book. The text is so dense, and the (sometimes fairly easy to grasp concepts) spread across several… or even many… pages… it’s easy to lose the message in the “look at me I’m so clever” swathes of blah blah blah.

So I’m writing my own translation as I go, just to make sense of it.

I shall share that here, and maybe my thoughts on it, too.

I should note here that I haven’t done what I maybe should have done. It would have been better if I’d kept my notes grouped by chapter, so that I/you could refer back from my interpretation here, to what is written in the book.  For the sake maintaining my flow while reading the book, though, I merely scribbled down my interpretation as I read, without noting chapter or page numbers. Now being the kind of person that I am… I have started, so I shall go on.

Here we go then….

 

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes… an imperfect (and currently incomplete) precis, plus opinions.

Barthes realised it was difficult to categorise photography outside of:

Empirical – Professional/Amateur.

Rhetorical – Landscapes/Objects/Portraits etc.

Aesthetic – Realism/Pictorialism.

 

He concluded that this was down to the direct link between the subject/object and its representation in the photo. With no object, there was no photo. (This was unlike painting, where the artist could paint objects from their memory or imagination).

This being the case, when you look at a photo, you see a direct physical reproduction of the object.

There being no process of interpretation, such as a style of painting, you just see the object… not the photo.

 

Barthes acknowledged that his experience of a photograph, as a viewer, seeing an object through the deferred projection of light, is different from the experience of the photographer. The photographer has an idea or emotion in mind when setting the scene, choosing the image to capture. An aspect of photography Barthes had no experience of.

 

Barthes found himself uncomfortable when knowingly being the subject of a photograph. He couldn’t help but ‘pose’, to try and project his ‘real’ self, but recognised that in doing so, he achieved the exact opposite.

Also, he realised, his character, like everyone’s, is constantly changing and developing, so the photo only captured a fleeting momentary version of ‘him’.

 

While mental conditions that cause people to ‘see themselves’… out of body experiences, if you like… were often discussed in the past, Barthes notes that the act of seeing oneself in a photograph can be uncomfortable, and so the subject is rarely spoken of.

Historically, he notes, the ability to see yourself as an exact representation is a very recent thing. It brings about questions such as who owns the image?

Barthes refers to ‘four forces’ in portraits.

1: The ‘I’ that I am.

2: The ‘I’ that I want the viewer to see.

3: The ‘I’ that the photographer thinks that I am.

4: The person that the photographer seeks to portray for his own purposes.

This, Barthes suggested, can create a feeling of inauthenticity in portrait photography.

 

Personal notes

Having only read this far, so far, my impressions are slightly different from my first thoughts.

While the verbose style still annoys me, and makes for very difficult reading, I find the book, and Barthes’ thoughts and ideas interesting.

To be honest, much of what I have read so far, when put into plain English (assuming that I have understood what he is saying) is actually fairly self evident, if not entirely obvious, when you come to think about it. Having said that… I must confess that on much of it, I had never previously thought about it.

Further, this is an important work, for however self evident some of these points may seem now, Barthes was the first (so he claims, and as far as I know) to actually state them publicly.

There are some passages that I have not covered here… some because I have found them entirely incomprehensible, and some, because I found them to be pretentious nonsense. I may be wrong in editing (or rather failing to take notes on such sections) my interpretation in this way, but time is precious, and if I find a section is not useful to me, I’m not going to commit time to making notes on it.

A quick example… (yes, I’m now making a note regarding something I said I wouldn’t make notes on, but humour me)… while talking about posing for portraits, Barthes spoke of his mental processes, and those of the photographer, and likened the moment the shutter release is pressed to some kind of death of the self.

Mmhmm. Okay. It sounds very deep and philosophical, but I’m just not buying it. It reminds me of tales of primitive tribes who refuse to allow their photos to be taken, because it will steal their souls.

I am open to deep thinking. I am very open to art, and artistic interpretation. Heck… I’d be doing the wrong course if I wasn’t. What I’m not open to is … and please excuse my use of language here… ‘deep sounding art bullshit’. That, in my opinion, Barthes is prone to indulging in this, will make reading and interpreting this book challenging. While there is much that is important and useful written here…. it seems interspersed with some well disguised effluent.

It’s possible, maybe even probable, that my view will change, with time and learning. At some point in the future I may look back at what I’ve written here and cringe, but for now, this is where I’m at.

 

British Journal of Photography

Issue 7853 November 2016

I found the ‘We Are The People’ section of this issue of the British Journal of Photography’ to be …to coin a phrase… relevant to my interests.

There are articles on the ‘slow photography’ of Peter Michel, who has been taking photographs of his local area in the north of England for the past 40 years, and Chris Dorley-Brown, who has been doing something similar in Hackney for the past 30 years.

These are of interest to me, with my own liking for architecture, history and nostalgia, as they demonstrate how honest, down to earth, no frills photography, taken in a specific locality, increase in interest and importance over an extended period of time.

Areas, and the buildings within them change, over time. Houses, shops, factories and the like are altered, extended, knocked down, built over, to the point that after many years, an area can become unrecognisable. This creates an interest in photographs of places that were taken years earlier. Partly this is through nostalgia among those who remember those places as they once were, and also through historical interest among those who are newer to the area.

What may, to some, appear as dull and uninteresting… ‘People were looking at me like “Well that’s bloody miserable!”‘ (Dorely-Brown 2016 cited in Smyth 2016:49) can, many years later, be seen as important pieces of work. Dorely Brown (2016) says of his current work ‘I don’t think they’re going to come into their own for maybe another 30 or 40 years.’ (Smyth 2016:49)

I suppose it saddens me somewhat that I am coming to this kind of photography at such a time in my own life that, by the time my own work might be of interest to others, I will probably be long gone.

I also found it noteworthy that these photographers had, over this extended period of time, largely not earned any significant money from these works, but had created them as side projects while doing other work.

This is something I need to keep in mind when considering my own career plans and ambitions.

 

Reference

Smyth, D. (2016) East End Archive’ In British Journal of Photography 7853 p.49