Liz Wells – Photography: A Critical Introduction

I enjoyed reading Liz Wells’ (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction, particularly the first section: Thinking About Photography. This was because it introduced many complex ideas and elaborated on them, without becoming too convoluted. On the other hand, understandably the book became hard to read as it began to delve into many specific debates concerning photography. While I got the reason for this, it would have been nice if the book had remained at a consistent level of readability. Therefore I decided to comment only on the first section as this was the area of the book I gained the most from.

The Photograph as Document

The first area that captured my interest was the part The Photograph as Document where Wells talks in depth and quite thought-provokingly about photographs’ relation to reality. Because of their indexical properties photographs retain a sense of authenticity. Umberto Eco In. Burgin, V. (1982) ‘has commented that the photograph reproduces the conditions of optical perception, but only some of them.’ Eco indicates that although photographs are iconic to their source, they only share some of the characteristics of optical perception associated with seeing.

Some photographers break down this notion of realism associated with photography in their work. For example Peter Funch produces a composite of a scene (with the same framing and therefore remaining a realistic representation) but overlays the scene with different people who appeared in that scene over a period of days or even weeks. This interrupts the indexical properties of the photograph because things are changing in the image world that didn’t change in the real world. All the while Funch plays with our notion of authenticity as the photograph at first glance often seems realistic. Looking closer it becomes obvious that the people overlaid in the scene are too similar to one another in terms of clothing/activity and that the scene is not a realistic rendition after all. Yet because of the established aesthetic conventions employed (landscape compositions), the viewer has to question the authenticity of each photograph. This I believe is where ethics become important.

© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane
© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane

Clearly the photographs produced by Funch do not represent reality as we know it; rather a kind of satire of it. However, they do document the people who passed through particular scene albeit at different times. The difference then between it being an alternate reality and realistic is the juxtaposition of the various people in the scene with each other. Traditional photojournalists would probably argue on the ethics side that such photographs tamper with the real and are not a ‘true’ representation of a time that has passed as the juxtapositions of the people have changed. They would have a strong case although, as noted earlier, Eco states that only some of the conditions of optical perception are reproduced. Funch has just reduced another of these conditions, perhaps to highlight this disparity of realism in photography. On the other side of the ethical fence artists might appreciate this reduction of the conditions of optical perception as it allows not only the interesting juxtapositions of people but brings into question some of the authority traditional photojournalism has in photography.

Wells acknowledges this kind of debate by attributing it to the realm of digital manipulation (I would assume Funch shot the images contributing towards the composites on a digital camera). ‘in recent years, developments in computer-based image production and the possibilities of digitisation and reworking of the photographic image have increasingly called into question the idea of documentary realism.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19). What was taken for granted in the past as truth – a photographic representation of reality – is according to Wells increasingly questioned because of ‘digitisation and reworking of the photographic image’. However, she does also allude that: ‘in everyday parlance, photographs are still viewed as realistic.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19).

The Postmodern

I have struggled with the concept of postmodernism in general but reading the section The Postmodern by Wells (2009) – pp. 21-24, I felt I understood much better the crux of its debate. Instead of there being grand, singular works of art, constructed by ‘seers’ of photography with a unique vision for their own work, photography has increasingly become saturated and so originality has been consumed. This has been brought about not only by the ubiquity nowadays of photographs but because the way we see the world (through communications) has become made up by simulacra – copies without originals. I did some research into Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard (1981) where I heard about the term simulacra and used the concept in my second assignment – Ephemerality of the Image.

Because of this it would seem there are a few negative aspects to postmodernism as Wells notes: ‘in the world of the simulacrum what is called into question is the originality of authorship, the uniqueness of the art object and the nature of self-expression.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 23). However, this does not have to be the case as photographers have found ways round this loss of originality. For some like Cindy Sherman with Film Stills (1977-79), it is an opportunity to use traditional, accepted forms of media like 1950/60s Hollywood movies as a base and play upon the viewer’s gaze. As the viewer looks at seemingly authentic documents, interesting narratives are produced when the type of media (is it a photograph or a frame from a movie?) is juxtaposed with its content.

© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48
© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48

For other artists, they can use the transient nature of mutable forms like photography to experiment with new methods of vision, brought out by technological advancements like digitisation of the image. One example of this would be Joan Fontcuberta with his Orogenesis (2002-2005) series. Here he uses completely computer-generated images. These were created by inputting ‘visual data for contained in famous paintings or pictures of different parts of his anatomy’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010), instead of the cartographical information the 3d renderers usually receive. This produced images that look a lot like photographs but ‘The results are these “landscapes without memory.”’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010). This plays upon our notions of reality and truthfulness by utilising new technologies.

© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock
© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock

References:

Eco, U. In. Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking About Photography. London: MacMillan.

Fontcuberta, J. and Feustel, M. (2010). Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory. [online] Marc Feustel. Available at: http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.11-64.

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Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island – Study Visit – 10/3/2018

I took it upon myself to make a study visit on 10th March 2018 to see Simon Roberts’ Merrie Albion exhibition on the last day it was open! I am glad I did because it made me realise a few things about Roberts’ approach (by seeing his massive prints in person) that I hadn’t completely grasped when I wrote a post about We English a while ago.

Merrie Albion - Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition
Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition

The main thing I came away with was that Roberts doesn’t just choose any random subject and photograph it from above. Invariably he chooses events to document people interacting with the British landscape and obviously feels it is more effective to adopt an elevated position in the majority of his viewpoints of such events. I would have to agree that his approach in choosing a high vantage point works for his subject. Viewing his beautiful and consistently huge prints in person was a rewarding experience. This was because it was appreciable the amount of skill that went into taking the photographs in the first place (on a large format 5×4 camera) but also the print quality rendered lots of detail and pleasing colours. More importantly however I could take in the scene from a perspective which allowed me to see relationships between the different people but also juxtaposed with the setting they inhabit.

An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place
An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place

If Robert’s work didn’t concentrate on events in the landscape would it be as effective? I wouldn’t say so for the reason it would still look nice but it would become more incidental and the tableaus wouldn’t have as much meaning. While this might seem pretty obvious what I am trying to get at is that this is a niche that Roberts’ has found and used to his advantage very well.  If I were to imitate Roberts’ work in my own it would have plenty of meaning and pleasing aesthetics but the style is quite rigid and I couldn’t foresee much different I could do to make it my own. However, by looking at his work on the study visit I started to wonder about how the people in the scenes looked almost like they were part of a performance. It might be possible to play upon the performance aspect of his work in certain ways.

One way I could envisage this working would be to choreograph some kind of (random, not yet an event) performance in front of the camera and have the camera be set up at eye level (unlike Roberts’ approach). The reasoning for the camera being set up at eye level rather than from a higher viewpoint would be in order to subvert the fact that the performance isn’t happening naturally anymore; it’s being choreographed. One example of a choreographed-based performance I could imagine occurring in front of the camera would be myself moving around in front of the camera (while it is set on a tripod and an interval timer) and perhaps interacting with people in the vicinity. This kind of performance intersects the usual gaze of the photographer being behind the camera which is documenting the scene in front of it.

© Simon Roberts (2008) - Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008
© Simon Roberts (2008) – Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008

Therefore by visiting Simon Roberts’ exhibition on the very last day it was open I have been able to find a new idea that differs in many ways from his style of photography but yet shares one key feature; that of performance in the landscape. Admittedly I am yet to try out this idea but I will endeavour to do so and see how it pans out.

References:

Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island [Exhibition] 19 Jan – 10 Mar 2018. Flowers Gallery, London Kingsland Road.

Study Hangout 10/12/2017

On 10/12 2017 Bryn, Anne and myself attended a study hangout.

We talked in detail about our respective critical reviews. Anne was quite pleased with her feedback for hers as it was quite positive with some changes necessary, thankfully not as many as she’d feared.

I admitted I was partly stuck with my essay but was awaiting a response from my tutor regarding some questions I’d come to realise were bugging me about my writing and investigation into aesthetics in photography.

Amendment (22/12/2017):

I have since received an email from my tutor regarding my questions about my critical review which I found very helpful and have commenced writing the critical review, while taking into account suggestions based upon my questions my tutor had made.

Bryn communicated that he had read up quite a bit some of the primary resources from the course which was helping to inform his critical review and was starting to look at secondary sources to further back up these readings. Also he discussed how he might include in his essay something about how it was desirable to have a larger project to work on and have continuation with instead of having to constantly reinvent the wheel for each project. Hiroshi Sugimoto has this large project continuation in his Seascapes project which he works on in combination with shorter projects which Bryn admired.

Bryn asked Anne whether she might go back to the Gloucester Docks again for Assignment 5 so that her projects had a continued theme and she said may consider it. Also Anne described her interactive exhibition for the Somerset exhibition of OCA students which sounded very interesting. Here she asked exhibition-goers to reorder a set of photographs into the ‘right’ order that she had in mind and take a photograph of their perceived ‘right’ order and put that photograph in a guest book to document their participation.

Bryn asked Anne if she might consider doing something interactive in the Gloucester Docks similar to this and she said it was a possibility.

Lastly I talked about my ideas for Assignment 5 with Bryn which concern tourism in the city I live in of London. Here I would basically be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking.