At OCA we believe that your position or viewpoint is absolutely as valuable as the position of any author that you read; the only difference is that you probably won’t have fully discovered, or at least articulated, it yet. Your viewpoint is the source of your imagination and ideas but it can be quite a long journey to bring it into the light.
[3Apr21] Part 5 opens with an interesting quote from Dan Holdsworth that appears in Shore's Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera (2014) Pg 98. As luck would have it, a s/h copy of the book has just arrived in the post after a month on a slow boat from Canada.
When you place a figure in the landscape, you are playing with
narrative – the viewer will then become interested in the story behind
that figure. I am more interested in asking: Why are you here in front of
this photograph and what does it mean to you?”
Dan Holdsworth, quoted in Shore (2014) Pg 98.
This reinforces my view of the variability of viewers' reactions and interpretations. The more that is in the picture, the more there is to tickle the viewer’s punctum. And live objects, especially human are more likely to trigger a response than the inanimate.
The cmat goes on to say that while some of the most memorable and significant photographs include people, citing Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, there is also a role for the unpopulated image which 'can provide insightful poignancy when they are given an audience and presented in a fitting way' (I&P p.109). And that is what Part 5 is about.
I have always been mesmerised by this image, fig A1. It elevates a battered child's trike to an exalted status and the subdued background with a low horizon and the edges of cars gives it the necessary suburban context. It is, to my subjective eye, perfectly arranged and composed. And it hints at the son riding his trike along hotel corridors in Kubrick's The Shining (1980).
Cotton (2014) states,
Eggleston [and Stephen Shore's] greatest contribution has been in opening up a space within art photography to allow a more liberated approach to image-making.
Cotton (2014) p.15
The cmat quotes Szarkowski's introduction to Eggleston's 1976 MoMA show,
If a stranger sought out in good season the people and places
described here they would probably seem clearly similar to their
pictures, and the stranger would assume that the pictures mirrored
real life. It would be marvellous if this were the case, if the place itself, and not merely the pictures, were the work of art.
I&P p. 111 from Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide (2002) MoMA. Pg 5
I'm not sure the Sz. quote means a great deal, other than photographs do not depict a full reality (if any) and "It would be marvellous … if the place itself … were the work of art" doesn't mean anything to me.
The cmat interprets it as, "the pictures aren’t the things themselves. The things become something else
when they are filtered through the camera" (I&P p.111) — the first phrase is self-evident, though I am developing a mystical theory in the Blog;. The second phrase seems to be alluding to the Heisenberg Principle, but see Brumfiel (2012).
And so we may conclude that Eggleston is not showing us reality, but it is unlikely that many viewers expect him to and the same can be said of all photographs — if it's reality you're after they can only offer, at best, a momentary fragment of one fleeting version of someone's reality and that has to be processed through the viewer's own baggage.
The cmat mentions two abstract projects Walls, 2012 (fig. D1), images of climbing walls, and Courts n.d. skidmarks in squash courts and the like.
They are pleasant enough, I suppose, but the explicit affirmation of Serious Photographer ("the saturated colour and fine detail are achieved
through the use of a 5x4 camera", I&P p.113, my emphasis), usually makes me wary of pretension.
The cmat adds that the
two bodies of work that use
traces to enable reflection upon leisure and physical exertion without any need
for a person present. In fact, by removing the figure, these traces can be studied
more effectively and without distraction.
Back on familiar ground, we first met Pickering in C&N Part 1 and I stated at the time, "I am drawn to Pickering's series, [and] I appreciate them as vital, active illustrations of the perpetual artifice of photography" (C&N).
Soutter (2013, p.48) sees in Pickering's work, and also that of Bettine von Zwehl's, as "examples [that] underline the lack of necessary correlation between an objective visual style and the order, rationality and understanding that it might imply".
The cmat mentions her project Public Order, 2004, where she used Metropolitan Police training sets to deceive the viewer and, at greater length, Incident (2008) where Pickering photographs the (so-called) aftermath of training fires,
The haunting nature of
these images, arguably more chilling due to their lack of human figures,
stimulates the imagination. We begin to create our own narratives for these
belongings: objects belonging to a loving family or an escape route that we can
only hope led outside. We are not told the end of the story – until we discover it
is another simulation and feel relief, before realising that this activity is part and
parcel of someone’s everyday job.
Well … not really, once you know it's Pickering, there must always be an element of doubt — I think the cmat is exaggerating rather excessively. If you want to be chilled, if you want to be horrified, look at some images from the Holocaust.
But Pickering does have good ideas and does photograph them very effectively.
Box F The Hippopotamus… c. 1855
Count de Montizon
Summary — Metaphors in photographs are prone to misinterpretation. They might work best with photomontage or pairing that seeks to direct the viewers' interpretations.
[12Apr p.117] The cmat notes the history of the still life in the graphic arts where the subjects were often
flowers, fruit, religious artefacts, small hunting corpses, travel memorabilia or allegories including objects such as an hourglass or skull. Tracey Emin's bed is mentioned as a modern example of subjects being "less allegorical and more metaphorical or ambiguous" (I&P p.117).
No mention is made in the cmat of the photographic equivalents from mid C19th onwards. The well-illustrated Still life in photography (Martineau, 2010) remedies that deficit and confirms the subject matters of photographic still lifes as conforming to those in painting. Sixteen of the images following are from Martineau, I have added five examples of my own favourites.
† No longer extant. From Alphonse Davanne and
Maurice Bucquet, Le musee retrospectif de la photographie à l'Exposition Universelle de 1900 (Paris, 1903), p. 10.
In addition to the metaphorical, it would be worth considering other allusions such as the ironic, the satirical and the [think of some more]. The ironic comes to mind because I photographed two beagles being walked today for Asg.3, named Benson and Hedges.
Cotton says of it, "Wall's careful construction of a grouping of peripheral things prompts questions about our own relationship with photographs: Why are we looking at this? At what point in history and our own lives did a corner of a floor represented in a photograph become iconic, worthy of our attention? To what degree does it need to be abstracted by the seemingly innocent frame in order for us to recognize this grouping of non-subjects to be a still life?" (pp.131-2).
The cmat says "Wall’s composition pieces draw upon the still-life tradition by taking something ordinary and treating it as art – large-scale versions of seemingly unspectacular material, such as a mop and bucket in the corner of a room, or an electric light bulb and wire on a red ceiling. Often the colour combinations and aesthetically pleasing perspective and lines make the images fit our expectations of an art piece, even if the subject matter doesn’t. In this way Wall questions our understanding of what we deem ‘art’" (I&P p. 118).
I'll go out on a limb here and say if it appears in galleries with a serious price tag then it is, de facto, art. Cotton and Boothroyd would appear to be at one in implying that it lacks intrinsic artistic merit in some way, even if it is art in commercial terms. Its utility in the World of Art seems to be that it "prompts questions" (Cotton) or "questions our understanding" (Boothroyd). This calls for a definition of artistic merit, for which we shall try some unused technology, an html sidebar.
One's a priori reaction is that this is an entirely subjective matter: either 'I know what I like' or a more thoughtful 'I know what I appreciate and have some ideas why'. But there must have been some attempts to, if not define, then at least to create some criteria for the concept. The Arts Council, for example, is likely to have had some such deliberations to set its funding criteria, although presumably artistic merit (or AM as I shall refer to it) is only one of several that is applied.
Arts Taunton refer to "the Charity Commission’s RR10 guidance on artistic merit in museums and art galleries will be taken as the platform upon which to make any decisions" and these seek to state the "Commission's views on the need for a museum or art gallery to satisfy a criterion of merit in order to be recognised as charitable". This links to a 20-page document, but I find Arts Taunton's offering more approachable.
Letinsky also appears both in Cotton (p.132) and I&P (p.119) with different though similar images. Rather than sinks, Letinsky seems to have cornered the market in uncleared tables after sparse meals. She is quoted in the cmat from a 2013 Aperture interview,
I realized that still lifes were a vehicle to explore
the tension between the small and minute and larger social structures.
For the last fifteen years I’ve explored this realm, increasingly weaving
in questions about perception, about how we see and understand the
world around us, and about how photography conflicts with and
constrains our sense of our environment by reinforcing certain ideas
we have about perception.
I&P p.119 from a 2013 Aperture interview
The cmat, discussing the piece shown in I&P (fig. I1), states that "Melons on a table mid-way through preparation
hint at the tradition of still life but also give a sense of ordinary modern life".
The image used in Cotton (2014) is here. I include Cotton's description of Letinsky in my overreach category,
Letinsky uses the shifting multiple
perspectives and picture planes of still-life painting, where objects
are propped at angles and strategically placed so that we intuit
that there is narrative potential in the formal relationships
between them. Letinsky's unusual use of a Baroque sensibility from
Northern European painting creates photographs of great beauty, but they have a precariousness of viewing position(s). This quality,
within the narratives of domestic still life, suggests fraught
emotional states, ending and falling apart.
Cotton, 2014, pp.132-3
The subject here is the same, Shafran's kitchen sink from the Washing Up series. C&N stated, "The more you look at the images, the more
distinctions you can make and the more insights you get. His use of everyday domestic
environments gives the viewer a point of resonance and a sense of shared experience in
the commonplace activity of 'doing the washing up'" (C&N p.86).
Boothroyd again, in I&P states,
"His still life images are subtle, and in many
ways his work could be described as still and quiet overall. In the series Washing
Up (2000), Shafran photographed the washing up in places he and his wife ate
over the course of a year. He took a large-format shot and a Polaroid, writing the
date and location along with the food they had as a means of distinguishing the
photo and remembering the details.
The text and image come together to provide an intimate and universally shared
experience" (I&P p.120).
creates visually simple still life by building elaborate and delicate sculptures from material found around her house … Lynch’s work questions the transient nature of our existence and the fragile
structures we build for ourselves.
There is no illustration in the cmat, fig. J1 is from the interview page and from Lynch's Suspended Realities series, probably the most interesting of her projects. Lynch is quoted in the interview as saying,
my goal of making people stop and pause for a while is a relatively new one, I used to say I wanted to save the world. If I go by my old benchmark I haven’t succeeded yet!
Sarah Lynch, interview with
And finally, Klepuszewska who photographed artefacts from the homes of elderly people.
The cmat describes,
an intimate insight into what can often be an isolating space. This
work was highly esteemed in the international photography scene, winning
awards and therefore bringing attention to an often undervalued and overlooked time of life.
As an old person myself, I find the project and the description quite patronising, even at a time of Covid isolation.
John RJ Taylor
b: 1958 Buckie, Scotland Site - Wikipedia
John RJ Taylor
It is worth remarking that the cmat has ignored the work of John RJ Taylor, whose project Ideal Home, 1989 precedes and exceeds many of the above, both factors by a considerable margin.
Scottish by birth, Taylor came to London for his MA in Fine Art and Photography and photographed details from his sister's North London home. These were published as Ideal Home: a detached look at modern living in 1989: the V&A bought a set of the 36 prints on publication. The images are available on the artist's website, along with many other projects, including Flattened Can Suite (fig. M6) — (I wish I'd thought of that, but see EyV Exc. 4.5) and Bottle Green (fig. M7).
An article by Alex Schneiderman (2021) reveals that he used 35mm cameras but achieved 'medium format image quality' by using Kodak Technical Pan film developed in Technidol. (Unfortunately, that quality is not reflected in the scans below.)
There is a bathroom sink but, regrettably, no kitchen sink (see Shafran, above). STOP PRESS … There is a kitchen sink, #5.
I did wonder whether Taylor was an April Fool in B+W, but the number of links seems to check out.
This might be shown on a separate page.
As you’ve seen, there are many examples of photography that avoid the use of the human figure in order to communicate truths and stories about humanity. Do your own research into areas you’ve been inspired by in this project; delve deeper into the areas that interest you. Continue to think about how this might inform your own practice.
[15Apr] My opening thought here is that my work has often echoed some of the projects shown in Part 5.1: details from hotel rooms, urban clutter, small plastic toys. Perhaps the subject I have photographed longest is graveyards - that goes back at least 50 years. One of the difficulties, as noted throughout the whole of this course, is creating a coherent series rather than a rambling assemblage. Perhaps my keenest inclination is for series with an ecological basis: as I have mentioned recently (see the reading task), I have a prolonged series on the abuse of trees that manifested itself in EyV Asg.5. I think it likely that a high proportion of any future projects (outwith those directed by the course) are likely to demonstrate negative aspects of humankind's effect on its environment and the plundering of its resources, although, for now, the subject is blighted by endless series on discarded facemasks and city streets emptied by Covid.
Another area I will explore in the context of ecology, though outside the scope of this course, is architecture and here a key influence is Simon Phipps whose depiction of Brutal London (2016) is exemplary (fig. N3).
More recent examples I admire are Taran Wilkhu's work for London Architecture (Burman and Bertoli, 2019) (fig. N4) and Peter Halliday's How Grey Was My Valley / Mor Llwyd Oedd Fy Nghwn (2021) (fig. N5). Although the two books differ greatly in style, both demonstrate how to engage with large objects sympathetically and effectively.
Again I am clearly parking my tank on the photography of lawn but I had an insight this morning: while an individual photograph of a piece of litter, a grave ornament, a building or a sculpture may be (and usually is) a snap of that particular item, a series of photographs of littering events, or buildings of a specific genre becomes a project about a subject.
We have two birds with one rock here - the of/about dilemma and a piece of the subject/object conundrum — the individual images depict objects, the project concerns a subject.
[15Apr] I suggested at the outset of the course, photographing used ash-trays outside restaurant and pubs and see no reason to change that, especially as they reopened for (external-only) business today after months of Covid lockdown. Although it could be seen as deriving from some of the above, the plan was laid months before I read Part 5.
They fit the criteria of still life, evidence human behaviour and are on the detritus and pollution spectrum. There is also a nod to Penn’s cigarette but series.
[17Apr] People in a photograph distract attention from almost everything else. We look at examples of unpopulated urban locations, interiors and still lifes.
I learn some of the truth about Of/About and Subject/Object.