Study Hangout 19/11/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Anne, Bryn and Michael. We talked about very in depth subjects surrounding the ethics of photography including authentication of photographs as documents, subjectivity in photography related to the myth of objectivity, the death of the author and manipulation of the message. We related these in depth subjects with photography artists; the most prominent of these artists being Sebastião Salgado, closely followed by Don McCullin and then Martin Parr. Michael introduced us to the work of Simon Norfolk briefly who I aim to look at more closely as his work at first glance looked very interesting. I was not sure why our conversation was so theoretical but it may have been something to do with 75% of us having commenced work on the critical review or having just submitted it!

Balloon Vendor in Kabul - 2001 - From the Series: "Forensic Traces of War" © Simon Norfolk
Balloon Vendor in Kabul – 2001 – From the Series: “Forensic Traces of War” © Simon Norfolk

My opinions on the listed subjects were that it is very difficult to authenticate documents like photographs 100% as the viewer can usually interpret the evidence of photography being an indexical medium differently. This is even if supporting documents like text or (to a lesser degree) geotagging are included. I felt objectivity is a myth yet it is still possible to shoot in an objective style. Ultimately all photography is subjective (as even objective photography has its own aesthetic) but I would suggest some photography is more subjective than others. Relating to the death of the author, my stance was that this is true nowadays much more with the proliferation of images and ways of sharing them. Now it is not about who took the photograph but what the photograph depicts. The message of any photograph can be manipulated by means of supporting documents and other context like the photographer’s oeuvre.

We talked about the contrast in transparency of message between Salgado and McCullin where McCullin was very decisive in why he took photographs of war while Salgado’s reasoning seems more layered and less clear. We touched upon how my own critical review was going and I divulged that maybe the topic I’d chosen was proving to be too broad and therefore lacking direction. Finding relevant quotes and supporting work or photographs to back up my particular argument seemed like a way of tackling this.

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The Gaze and How It is Implemented in My Work

A large part of The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic (1991) talked about frontal portraits where the subject’s eyes make contact with the camera and therefore to a certain degree with the reader of the photograph. This was not relevant to much of my photography work including the documentary course as I tended to veer away from portraits – especially frontal ones. However, in Assignment 1 – Documentary I included a few frontal portraits and my tutor had highlighted the need for consistency where there were other people shots in the set where the person did not make eye contact. I now see why my tutor made this point because The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic (1991) made me realise just how different these two types of gazes by the subjects of the photograph can be for reader interpretation.

Later on in the essay it interested me where it mentioned if the readers gaze is interrupted (by disjointed composition or bad processing) then it is ‘more likely that the photographic gaze will be resisted by the reader.’ – (Collins and Lutz, 1991). This seemed to be related, like my tutor’s comments, to photographic consistency which was so important in ‘pulling the viewer (or ‘reader’) in to the photograph or set of photographs. Therefore I would endeavour to amend the series of photos for Assignment 1 where sometimes the subject made eye contact to instead either always having eye contact or none at all for the sakes of consistency. Also I would try to make sure the processing wasn’t over done which might also detract from the reader’s gaze into the image.

An aspect of the essay which was not particularly relevant for me was the comparisons and observations made about the non-Westerner’s and Westerner’s gazes. My work so far has been exclusively local-based and where I have lived is Western, therefore I could not associate with these gaze differences. However, I could see how this could be relevant to my practice: if I was photographing poorer or richer communities than myself then the subject’s gaze, the photographer’s (my own) gaze and the viewer’s gaze would be affected.

I have so far always edited and shot my own photographs; choosing the cropping, processing as well as where and how it appears in a sequence and with what, if any captions. Therefore I have had the luxury of being able to directly affect the reader’s gaze from the perspective of a magazine editor’s gaze and a photographer’s gaze. However, I learnt that despite affecting the reader’s gaze from both these perspectives, a lot of the photograph’s meaning was still down to the reader’s gaze. The reader’s gaze is about ‘what they imagine the world is about before the magazine arrives, what imagining the picture provokes, and what they remember afterwards of the story they make the picture tell’ – (Collins and Lutz, 1991). I imagined these points as the reader superimposing their own meaning over the intended meaning created by the photographer/editor. I myself have done this plenty of times when looking at artists’ photographs in exhibitions without looking at any captions or linking text first. This made me wonder whether I should look at embracing photography’s often inherent ambiguity rather than striving to make the meaning as legible as possible?

References:

Collins, J. and Lutz, C. (1991). The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. In. Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 354-374.

Thomas Ruff at the Whitechapel Gallery (Photographs 1979-2017)

The main impression I came away with from visiting the Whitechapel Gallery on the 2nd November 2017 to see the Thomas Ruff exhibition was that Ruff took a very playful approach to his exploration of the processes, genres and aesthetics of photography. This playful approach was tinged with a more serious undertone as he addressed issues like photographic technique and how this changes with technological advances.

Thomas Ruff's 'Portraits' - 1986-1991 'Dwarfing' an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery
Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ – 1986-1991 ‘Dwarfing’ an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery

There were many aspects I didn’t ‘get’ regarding Ruff’s photographs but some things I had an inkling about and I have written down some of these observations here. I would start with the size of the prints: lots were enormous in scale; dwarfing people and his other, smaller prints in the exhibition. However, I didn’t feel these prints were gigantic only for effect in making the viewer say wow (although this may have been part of the reason!) The other reason (at least with Portraits 1986-1991) was to displace presumptions that a passport photo should appear small and make the viewer contemplate why this might be. For me it was because although the appearance was the same (in terms of lighting and composition) to a passport photo, the scale was the opposite of what we might expect from a passport picture. This brought up implications of seeing these people depicted as unique – because they are printed so large the viewer tries to find expression from an expressionless face.

Thomas Ruff's 'jpeg' - 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of 'Good' Quality
Thomas Ruff’s ‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of ‘Good’ Quality
'jpeg' - 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated
‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated

A similar study of scale could be seen with his series jpeg 2004-2008. Here from afar the enormous prints appear sound to the eye, showing the destruction of New York’s twin towers. However, as you get closer the image begins to break up and become pixellated as it becomes clear they are of very low quality, taken on mobile phones using jpeg. I inferred meaning from this in that although the event is of such high importance the quality used to record it can often be of low integrity and yet it is usable; the images are still circulated and viewed on such large scale.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'Nights' - 1992 - 1996
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘Nights’ – 1992 – 1996

Another, constant theme throughout Ruff’s work is experimentation; constantly pushing the boundaries by exploring the limits of photography. From documentary style night shots using a special surveillance camera making the ordinary seem otherworldly, to the digital photogram, Ruff changes his approach and techniques according to technology, often with hauntingly beautiful results in my opinion. His experimentation did inspire me to try out different techniques myself and his postmodern appropriation of existing imagery was intriguing.

An Example of Thomas Ruff's 'photograms' - 2012 - 2015
An Example of Thomas Ruff’s ‘photograms’ – 2012 – 2015

One such series of works in particular really caught my eye. press++ 2016- were (again) giant prints, appropriated from the archives of news agencies. I did wonder how the writing and stamps had appeared on the images themselves as it appeared quite natural. I found out that Ruff ingeniously overlaid the backs of the photographs containing all the context and information about the photograph onto the front of the photograph. This was quite unique because the context appeared in the same place as the content. I discovered the result to be an interesting combination of text and image that worked well.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'press++' - 2016-
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘press++’ – 2016-

Overall I was glad I went to this exhibition as it made me think a lot about image size when presenting work, experimenting process and techniques with my own work and brought up some novel ideas concerning the photograph as an object.

References:

Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 [Exhibition] 27th Sep – 21 Jan 2018. Whitechapel Gallery, London.

How to Photograph an Abstract Concept

As I have been studying documentary I have become increasingly aware of the need for a clear brief. This enables more incisive photography in my experience. The reverse I’ve found can also be true – in my recent Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford I was struggling for a clear brief and started using post-conceptualisation as a strategy so that I could just start taking pictures and see what developed from there. However, for my upcoming Assignment 5 – A Personal Project, one of the requirements for the assignment is ‘a methodical approach’. Therefore I could either use post-conceptualisation as a method or do the opposite and produce a clear brief but not somewhere in between.

One area I’ve realised could be improved in my work would be the inclusion of an abstract concept rather than literal concepts in producing a clear brief. With the exception of Assignment 2 – Ephemerality of the Image where I developed the idea of an abstract concept, I have not explored abstract concepts. One essay that really inspired me with regards to abstract concepts particularly for Assignment 2 was Maartje van den Heuvel’s Mirror of Visual Culture. Here I eventually discovered a way of photographing an abstract concept – ephemerality of the image but the process of developing the ideas was quite drawn out.

I decided on a whim to make a search on the internet: “How to photograph an abstract concept” without much hope for inspiring results but was pleasantly surprised a few search results down to find something other than a list of ’20 ways to instantly improve my abstract photography’, which was what the rest of the results seemed to consist of! The search result in question linked to an essay by John Suler called Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche relating to conceptual photography. I found Suler’s essay to be accessible and practical and here were some of the observations I came away with after reading the essay:

I had been thinking about photography in the ‘wrong’ order in my mind at least; writing loose briefs and hoping for something creative to come out of my observations on research conducted. Instead I learned it was preferable to think of a concept in conceptual photography first and think about how this might best be represented as a photograph or set of photographs afterwards. In particular, ‘Photographs also offer a seemingly more real, tangible depiction of concepts that otherwise seem abstract or elusive.’ – (Suler, 2013). Many of my previous projects had been literal concepts so learning that one of photography’s strengths lay in depicting abstract concepts was interesting for me.

One part of Suler’s essay that I had an opinion on was: ‘[conceptual artists] are free to use an idea as the guide in creating a work, rather than being restrained by aesthetic standards about how things are supposed to done. – (Suler, 2013). Although I agreed with this statement on the most part (as opposed to creating just aesthetically-pleasing photographs like in non-conceptual photography), I felt there was an additional side to conceptual photography often being minimalistic and perfunctory in style. As the idea behind the photograph or set of photographs becomes more complex (the conceptual art I’ve come across often is quite complicated in concept), the execution of the photograph almost needs to be simple. This is in order to get across the message as lucidly as possible for a complicated idea. Suler (2013) touches upon this when he remarks ‘The process might be very challenging and creative, especially when dealing with complex or elusive concepts.’ when talking about creating artistic photographs for conceptual art. My response would be the perfunctory approach for the resultant photographs is kind of like a style for complicated concepts, not only to get across the message of the art but also also a deliberate attempt by the artist to signify the art is more important than the photograph.

A photograph’s concept can be translated into an image either specifically or ambiguously. When it is translated ambiguously, viewers tend to project their own meaning or understanding of the concept onto the photo which is what some photographers want according to Suler (2013): ‘The photo presents the container of a general concept or idea, but then people fill that container with their own personal meanings.’ When creating abstract concepts in photographs I would prefer for the viewer to infer meaning but for it to be not too ambiguous so somewhere in the middle. Suler (2013) is of the opinion that for the more specific of these approaches a clear understanding of the concept is desirable before visual communication commences.

As I was more interested in creating images for abstract concepts, it was useful to note from Suler’s essay that he recommended the use of a dictionary, thesaurus and online image search engine to aid the sender of the concept (the photographer) in acquiring a better understanding of the ins and outs of their abstract concept. He also states that ‘Symbols, metaphors, and similes are very useful when designing conceptual photographs.’ – (Suler, 2013) whereby the receiver of the concept (the viewer) could associate signs a photograph may possess in order to gain the sender’s meaning. Therefore if I wanted to create a photograph symbolising entropy of meaning in social media imagery, I could look up the definitions and synonyms for entropy and social media. Then I could see how other people represent entropy or social media in their photographs/images and also think about symbols, metaphors and similes that would be appropriate once I had a more lucid idea of what the concepts entailed.

Lastly, Suler touched upon post-conceptualisation (which I used for Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford) although he used the term ‘reverse engineering’ of the conceptual photograph. Here he basically describes the process I went through with Assignment 3 where I took photographs first and then ‘apply an idea to it’ – (Suler, 2013). While both approaches can be effective I felt the more appropriate strategy of conceptualisation of an idea beforehand would perhaps be better for Assignment 5 where ‘a methodical approach’ was desirable.

References:

Suler, J. (2013). Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. [online] Truecenterpublishing.com. Available at: http://truecenterpublishing.com/photopsy/conceptual.htm [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Study Hangout 22/10/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Miriam and Leonie.

The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s - © Sebastiaou Salgado
The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s – © Sebastiaou Salgado

It was good to hear their progress and we were at similar stages in the course although Leonie had almost finished Assignment 5. Miriam and I were starting the critical review for Assignment 4. I discussed my ideas for Assignment 4 with the group – the idea of beauty in documentary and whether a really aesthetically-pleasing photograph takes away from the meaning a photograph may be trying to convey. The responses from Leonie and Miriam were very interesting for me, with Leonie comparing the work of Tim Hetherington and Don McCullin’s American soldiers photographs saying that one was rendered completely differently from the other in regards to beauty. Looking at the two photographs side by side I could definitely relate to this observation.

Korengal Valley, Afghanistan - © Tim Hetherington - 2007
Korengal Valley, Afghanistan – © Tim Hetherington – 2007
'The Thousand Yard Stare' - © Don McCullin - 1968
‘The Thousand Yard Stare’ – © Don McCullin – 1968

I used the work of Sebastiaou Salgado as an example of aesthetic beauty with the potential for displacing meaning because his photographs have been typically so beautiful. Miriam countered this point by saying one of Sebastiaou Salgado’s photographs – that of a gold mine (The hell of Serra Pelada mines, 1980s, was the photograph I think she was referring to) means she no longer buys gold but only fair-trade; the photo by Sebastiaou Salgado had made such an impression on her. This could make the case that beauty captures the viewer’s attention with the possibility for meaning to be discovered afterwards in the same image, which should be something to consider when writing my critical review.

Lastly we discussed juggling things like work with the course and how it affects the flow of our studying. Also what our plans were after competing the documentary module and how often it would be helpful to liaise with our tutors in order to improve assignments.

Overall I found the study hangout to be very helpful as always but in particular it did give me some more points of consideration for my critical review.

On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography

As I read the first few lines about the Panopticon model conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786, my imagination was immediately captured. The Panopticon was an architectural construction: a central tower is enclosed by a circular building whose cellular spaces are open on the inside and their occupants exposed to the unremitting gaze the tower affords.’ – (Green, 2005). It reminded me not only of Big Brother and to some degree modern surveillance but upon reflection and to a lesser degree photography. Just as modern surveillance like CCTV is for the most part invisible so are photographs. The Panopticon model/CCTV/photograph allows the viewer to see whatever is displayed (inside the Panopticon/relayed from the CCTV/through the photograph) but not the other way round. At least I wouldn’t think people in photographs could see out of them!

The Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham - 1786
The Panopticon – Jeremy Bentham – 1786

As I understood from reading Green’s text on Foucault’s essay Discipline and Punish (1975), this one-way visibility gives the viewer a certain degree of power. This would be for the reason that the ‘prisoner’ – the person inside not looking out – can’t see the watchman but the watchman can see the prisoner. Whether this new form of disciplinary power is good or bad is questionable. Green (2005) states that Foucault was aware of this when he wrote Discipline and Punish (1975): ‘power cannot be regarded only, as it often has been, as a negative force which makes itself known through the operations of repression, exclusion, limitation or censorship. Power must also be recognised in its positive forms when it enables the production of knowledge’ – (Green, 2005). I could see this was somewhat true with disciplinary power in the form of CCTV when the power afforded from these technologies is used to inform.

Relating this back to photography, especially pertinent with the prevalence of photographs nowadays, the viewer has instant access (via the internet and social media) to a multitude of images which is only increasing. The viewers of the photographs can see the people or objects inside the photographs but the reverse isn’t true. Therefore it seems plausible the viewer of the images has power over the images and how they view them whereas the people and object’s depicted in the images have little power once uploaded. However, if you were to follow this train of thought a little further, there is more power attributed indirectly from people depicted in images uploaded to the viewer than there at first might seem. The reason for this would be the people depicted in the images uploaded are often the people who took the picture (selfies!) or at least people close to them and they can have the option of controlling who sees them as well as interacting after the fact with viewers of the images. Green touches on this briefly at the end of On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) as a possible solution for the invasive properties of power: ‘But just as the forms of power are localised and specific so should be the forms of resistance. We must engage power at the points of its application and operation; that is, within the particular domains of knowledge and the particular institutions through which it is operative.’ – (Green, 2005). This correlates back to the power of social media photography, where the social media platform through which the photography is operative contains at least some resistance to its power through control of exposure of images and interactivity.

Another significant point in On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) was that photography is a very good medium for recording subtle variations in the people it photographs as a form of power: ‘But clearly involved here was not the discovery of pre-existing truths which the camera so meticulously revealed but the construction of new kinds of knowledge about the individual in terms of visible physiological features by which it is possible to measure and compare each individual to another.’ – (Green, 2005). The indexical properties the photograph possesses surely went a long way to establishing the photographs as ‘a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real’ – (Green, 2005) but it was through comparison of the details of the photographs that allowed the viewer to gain a form of power. Combined with ‘physiological measurement and written documentation’ – (Green, 2005), these photographs informed the viewer much more powerfully than they would have singularly or without written documentation.

The major thing I took away from reading about Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) through Green’s On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) essay was that the viewer in most cases gains much more power from photographs than the ones who are photographed and in this manner photographs could stand as the perfect modern-day Panopticon. However, as mentioned, there exist certain ways of at least reducing the overwhelming power afforded the viewer through looking at photographs. That is because the social media platforms photographs are often viewed on nowadays allow the people in the photographs a certain degree of control back themselves.

References:

Foucault, M. and Sheridan, A. (1991). Discipline and Punish. 2nd ed. London: Penguin.

Green, D. (2005). On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography. In. The Camera Work Essays, pp. 119-131.

Self-reflection for Assignment 3 Documentary

I was asked for Assignment 3 to produce 10 images of varying viewpoints and compositions while still maintaining a consistent visual style. I feel I managed to maintain a consistent visual style of landscape documentary while employing different focal lengths and compositions. I tried to keep an open mind as to the intent of each photograph while taking them; instead editing the photos accordingly to tell my story later. At the same time, I remained aware while walking around Deptford for any mini-stories to play out which might help with conveying the general theme. However, I was more concerned with photographing and looking for signs of gentrification in the area, whether obvious or not than these ‘mini-stories’. Focusing on post-conceptualisation differed from what I have tended towards in the past, which made the shooting and editing process more liberating. I did find I had to put more thought into how to edit and sequence the photographs afterwards. This was because of the increased number of photos to edit down from compared to previous assignments and also because I had then to decide which photographs best fit the story and where.

I found the project came together to tell a convincing story of gentrification ongoing in the Deptford area. The requested PDF book form allowed me to lay out the photographs and select the order of the selected images until I was relatively happy with the layout. The content reflected my observations of Deptford although it was somewhat fictional for the reason that Deptford appeared a lot less bleak in half the photos. This was intentional however, as the story juxtaposed gentrified areas with the high street. The introduction to the PDF book contained clear and concise information regarding the project which in my opinion worked as an anchor to the book.

Creativity was one aspect I was worried about before the project started but by using post-conceptualisation I eventually started taking photographs. Then I could observe elements of Deptford where my creativity could be applied. I identified the billboards by roads as a possible source of interest. Using Inception (2010) and my own Assignment 2 Documentary as inspiration, I managed to create an image which I felt reflected gentrification in Deptford from a subjective point of view. Inception (2010) inspired me with the concept of ‘a dream within a dream’ or even ‘a dream within a dream within a dream’! I experimented with creating ‘a dream within a dream’ which could possibly reflect parts of society nowadays, though mostly unsuccessfully. Eventually I was inspired by ‘The Photograph Manipulated’ chapter in Graham Clarke’s: The Photograph (1997) to use image manipulation as well as picture-in picture techniques to produce Image 10 for Assignment 3.

In my opinion my learning log could improve by quantity of reading around documentary but in terms of the assignment I thought critically about my assignment with my Study Hangout group and in the post Imaginary Documents and I researched gentrification in Deptford.

References:

Clarke, G. (1997). The Photograph. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.187-205.

Inception. (2010). [DVD] Directed by C. Nolan. UK, USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.