Monthly Archives: January 2015

Putting it out there–tentatively!

A fellow OCA student, Tanya Ahmed, based in New York, sent me some information, a few weeks ago, about a call for exhibition entries by the Colorado Photographic Arts Centre.  In their 2015 Month of Photography, they have a theme of ‘Role Play’, emphasising self-portraits by artists who “embrace themes related to transformation of self; the exploration of social traits; race and gender identity issues; or simply for play.”  Firstly, many thanks to Tanya for passing it on and for spotting the connection with my own series of portraits.  Secondly, close as the fit might be, this was always going to be a very, very long shot!!  However, I did decide that it was an opportunity to put my work out there; to go through the process of entering something; to make myself think about presenting the work in some coherent way.  Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t successful.  They had 100+ submissions and have chosen eight artists, about half of whom were pre-selected anyway; and no great surprise that the majority are USA based.  There is information about the exhibition here – CPAC Role Play – I wish them well.  Wouldn’t that have been something – ‘Blackpool Stan’ and ‘Dick Stanley’ in Denver Colorado?

One outcome has been that the process made me think about an online way of presenting the work – so I have produced a website, using Weebly.  It was put together very rapidly over the Christmas period but could potentially form part of the final submission of the project, perhaps with a little refinement.  It is here:

where nothing is real

Thanks, again, to Tanya for thinking of me.

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“Variation of development time with temperature”–a new construct

Variation of development time with temperature 6

This is the latest ‘construct’ in my ‘Textbook’ series, which I have been developing over the last week or so.  This image is its latest, and probably final form.  The post, with the aid of some illustrations from my notebook, chronicles the process of its development – from a line drawn diagrammatical illustration in “A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry” to this colourful image, of which more later.  My (badly!) handwritten notes, together with the notebook illustrations, set out the way it has emerged and so I am only going to support them with brief words in this log.

Variation of development time with temperature -1

The original diagram illustrating development time variation with temperature is top left above.  Like everything else in the Textbook, I have started out by photographing it; then stripped it down (in Photoshop) to some basic lines and worked it into a simple ‘module’ for my pattern.  The first version, bottom left above, was too complex and so I cleaned it further, to the one bottom right, above.  That simple module is then overlapped on itself and repeated (as in the complicated grid, top right above) and coloured (in Photoshop) to produce the pattern shown top left in the image below.

Variation of development time with temperature -2

As I was producing the pattern, and particularly when I started with the blue coloured shapes, I was reminded of some patterns and colours that I’d seen six years ago, in the Moorish architecture/interiors of Andalucia.  Some of my photographs of tile patterns and stained glass are shown above, bottom left.  I didn’t try and copy the colours but did take a cue from the combination of hues.  As with all these constructs, I printed the basic pattern onto fabric and the image below repeats the one top right above, combining paper print, fabric print and original diagram into a ‘still-life’ that matches the style used for previous constructs.  (I also experimented with a different method for getting an image of the fabric print back into the PC.  Bottom right, above, is a scan of the piece of fabric – though I didn’t end up using that version.)

Variation of development time with temperature

When producing previous fabric prints and constructs, I have wanted to try ‘hanging’ the fabrics and photographing them hanging.  I haven’t worked out an effective way to hang them together (imagine a series of rugs hanging in a market …), though I may get there at some stage.  However, I did come up with a ‘sort of’ version of hanging, which is on the left in the illustration below.

Variation of development time with temperature -3

The fabric isn’t very visible here, but it is hanging in the back of this light tent – and it is being back-lit with a studio light low down behind the table.  The paper print from the ‘still life’ is standing, vertical, on a makeshift cardboard frame inside the light tent, and has had some of its blue and yellow ‘diamonds’ cut out of it with a craft knife, so that the camera (placed in front of the tent, but not shown here) can ‘look’ through onto the fabric hanging behind.  Overall light is supplied from another studio light directed from above onto the top of the tent.  Actually, I experimented with different combinations and positions for the lighting, some of the results being shown on the right, above.

With some basic images to work from, I moved on in the same way as with other constructs, experimenting with layers and combinations in Photoshop, deleting and blending different images and parts of images.  My first version is illustrated on the left, below.  I got carried away and created something so complex that it just looked a mess.  The large printed version looks like something from a Comic Book!

Variation of development time with temperature -4

That led me to go back to my light tent set-up and produce a new, tighter framed version, working with the back-lighting and a shallower depth of field (focus on the fabric at the back) to produce something that would form the basis for my final image.  That photograph has had just two further process performed on it in Photoshop.  Firstly, I have ‘digitally cut’ a sharp-focus version of the ‘central motif’ from another image and placed it ‘in front of’ the out-of-focus centre of the photograph – bringing it right forward in the image and giving the feel of stained glass (or that’s the intention, at least!).  Then I have used a broad but not very dense brush to make a crude brush stroke mark around the outside of the image – producing something vaguely resembling a shadow.  It has (I think!) given a slight impression that the foreground might be a translucent screen.

There is, of course, no meaning, no content; the image is another empty signifier constructed from ‘dead’ symbols whose significance – to me – is lost and of no consequence.  It is (I think) visually interesting and has the potential to intrigue a viewer, maybe even to tempt some reading of its significance.  Visually, it gives (especially in a large printed version, but also in the screen version at the top of this post) a sense of depth, that we are looking through layers at something lit up at the back of the frame.  It is, though, a flat surface and its meaning is just as flat – there is no depth!  It says, only, that I have constructed it and presented it here.  The process of making these images still intrigues me and I like the outcomes – but after that they are outside my control …!

Thomas Demand–Constructedness, Madeness, Intentionality

Thomas Demand Gate Artslant

Gate, 2004, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

I can recall when I first encountered the work of Thomas Demand; it was this image, featured at the beginning of the book Image Makers, Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger.  Like, I’m sure, many others who see it for the first time, I thought it was a photograph of an airport security gate.  Then one looks closely and it doesn’t feel right.  We begin to realise that it is something very different – a photograph of a model of an airport security gate, a model constructed life-size, by Thomas Demand, from a still from a CCTV camera.  The image was made not too long after 9/11 and the model was constructed from cardboard and paper – ‘realistic’ and yet not so, missing the little details that would finally convince the eye that it was ‘real’.  That’s what unsettles the viewer; what makes us start to ‘question’.  Demand photographs the model, carefully lighting it to mimic the original photograph; and then he destroys the model.  It is the photographic image that is the work of art, not the model.  (Worth mentioning, though, that Demand started out as a sculptor; and that when he chose to learn Photography, he did so with Bernd and Hilla Becher.  He resists the description ‘photographer’ and, so far as it matters, I suppose one should call him an artist who uses photography, rather than a photographer.)

I have been drawn back to Demand, partly, at the recommendation of Peter H, my Contextual Studies tutor – not that I’d forgotten him but I hadn’t made as strong a connection with my own BoW as I might have done.  The words ‘construction’ or ‘constructedness’ have cropped up more than once in my Level Three studies – the title of the Foam Magazine edition #38 from Spring this year – Under Construction – in which many of the contemporary photographic artists from whom I’ve drawn inspiration and context were featured.  My own reference to some of the Textbook series images as ‘constructs’.  It would, I think, be fair to describe Demand’s images as ‘constructed’.  But what are they?  How do we understand what he’s doing and why?

The process generally seems to start (as well as end) with a photographic image.  Other examples include Saddam Hussein’s kitchen, an office in Hitler’s HQ after the failed attempt on his life in 1944, Engelbert Humperdinck’s display of his best-selling records, the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, the barn where Jackson Pollock was photographed making one of his paintings, and so on – a decidedly eclectic collection of starting points.  In this interview, Demand explains that if he knew what it was about certain images that strike him, he would stop!  He doesn’t know what it is.  Clearly, there could be a political angle in our interpretation of some of the subject matter above.  In the same interview, he more or less denies it – or at least he says that any such connection is indirect and he would be careful about making too much of it.  I think he is acknowledging that others might understandably read the work that way, but he doesn’t see it as art’s role to give an answer.

And so, back to the question of what he is actually doing and what its significance might be.  Here I head back to another book that I originally read some time ago – Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried.  Here, Fried devotes most of one chapter to Demand, and a comparison with two others from the ‘Becher school’ – Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.  He relates Demand’s images to the concepts of ‘theatricality’ and ‘antitheatricality’ – originally associated with Diderot but used by Fried, earlier, in his essay Art and Objecthood, published back in 1967, in which he defined Minimalist art as ‘theatrical’.  I certainly don’t have the time and space here to get into the detail but, as I understand it, Diderot argued that Painters should seek to create work in which the ‘beholder’ does not get any sense that what he/she sees has been staged for them.  Otherwise the work is merely ‘theatrical’.  Fried’s 1967 essay laid this description on Minimalist Art.  However, what interests me here is that he also uses the concept – and its opposite ‘antitheatricality’ to analyse Demand.

Fried argues that Demand’s images demonstrate “sheer artistic intention”, leaving the viewer no space other than to register their “madeness” (not a typo, by the way; though there could be some who would say madness!).  The ‘photograph’, having frequently been defined as ‘weak on intention’ is exploited by Demand to ‘represent’ or ‘allegorise’ intendedness.  This is complex; the reference to photography’s weakness on intention can be linked with Barthes’ ‘punctum’.  Barthes seems to identify the punctum as something that is outside the photographer’s intention – Fried (in another essay, 2005 – Barthes’s Punctum) uses the example of the dusty road in a Kertész photo of a violinist that is featured in Camera Lucida.  The photographer cannot avoid including it (possibly debateable today, but that’s of no consequence here) yet it is the feature that evokes Barthes’ travels in Hungary and Rumania – the punctum.  Fried also mentions Lee Friedlander’s declaration that photography is a “generous medium”, for all the things that it includes in an image that he did not choose to put there.  So, returning to Demand, Fried is arguing that he exploits this weakness in the sense that he is making photographic images that are “sheer artistic intention” – and it is this intendedness/intentionality that makes them matter as art.  He uses two more Demand images to further develop the argument.

Thomas Demand Poll MCA Chicago

Poll, 2001, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

In Poll, Demand is working from a photograph of the process of determining voter intentions in the US Presidential Election – the famous ‘hanging chads’.  But, in Demand’s version, the ballot papers are pristine, devoid of detail like everything else; so being “the bearers of no intention other than the artist’s own”.

Thomas Demand Sink liveauctioneers

Sink, 1997, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

Fried looks at the circumstances surrounding the making of Sink.  Demand thought of making a model of his own sink but realised that he could not avoid arranging items in it knowingly.  So he telephoned a friend and asked if they would take a photograph of their sink. Circumventing his own sink, Fried says, put the emphasis squarely on conscious process.

So now I am prompted to consider if/how this is relevant to my own Body of Work.  The ‘constructs’ from the Textbook project seem like the obvious place to start.  I have referred to them as being devoid of meaning but seductive (a word Demand uses about models in another interview), tempting a viewer to look for meaning.  I suppose the same could be said of Thomas Demand – the only reading, in the end, might be that someone has made a model and photographed it.  We search for signs of ‘reality’ but all traces have been removed, leaving an image about itself.  Interestingly, Demand also, apparently, leaves small traces of his construction work, which can be found in the detail of the image.  So, the only ‘reward’ for looking in detail is confirmation of his intent.  Perhaps the tentative links back to the old textbook are my equivalent of Demand’s ‘link’ to an original image.  But the link is broken – my appropriation of the ‘outmoded’ signifiers – so what is left signifies nothing other than that I made it.

I suppose that, if the Portraits look like a performance for the viewer, then they will be ‘theatrical’.  And, when viewed by people who know me, they could be entertaining.  And, when I combine them with text that tells the back story in a light-hearted manner, the result could be entertainment, too.  But I have been striving to make them capable of ‘working’ as ‘straight’ photographs – that would be read as signifying a ‘real’ identity if seen in isolation.  However, viewed ‘straight’, as a series, by someone who doesn’t know me or anything about me, their individual (indexical?) links with reality are devalued.  At that stage, I guess, they demonstrate nothing other than that they have been made.

And then I reflect that it is not up to me to find answers to such questions!  Context – be it theoretical or in the works of other artists – may inform and even inspire the work I produce.  It is useful, essential perhaps, to be able to talk about one’s work in a context and to see what kind of questions it might raise.  But it is not up to the Body of Work to supply answers.  My Portraits (Self-portraits?  Or whatever they are?) express something about my response to some aspects of life, my life, the world I encounter.  If they are any good, others will look at them and see something that is of interest to them, relevant to them in some way.  If they were really good, someone might choose to analyse them and write about them.  In a fantasy world where they came into the consciousness of Michael Fried (!), he might choose to consider whether they are ‘theatrical’ or ‘antitheatrical’!  And no doubt that question might hover around in the back of my own mind … maybe even influence, to a slight extent, the way my mind is working when I set up the next one and stand in front of the camera.  But, in the end, the work will be the work … no answers, but hopefully a few interesting questions.

Stranger Than Fiction–Joan Fontcuberta

JoanFontcubertaStrangerThanFictionLogo240

I finally managed to get to this exhibition – and I wasn’t disappointed!  Fontcuberta’s work has already featured in here and in my Contextual Studies, as has his writing.  His highly creative and imaginative use of photography to create fiction; his intelligent and thoughtful essays; and his subversive sense of humour, too; they have all proved informative and inspirational for this Body of Work.  But this was, apart from the occasional image seen in multiple-person exhibitions, my first opportunity to look at his work ‘first hand’.  The show, which moved up from Media Space at the Science Museum in London to the National Media Museum in Bradford, during the autumn, includes work from six different projects.  It seems sensible to look at them under those six headings.

Fauna

Based on the ‘discovery’ by Fontcuberta and a colleague, of the archive of mysterious and controversial ‘zoologist’ ‘Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen’, Fauna presents ‘documentary evidence’ in the form of diaries, photographs and ‘taxidermy’ of the strange creatures that he came across through his research and network of ‘informants’.  It is, of course, all fiction, but superbly presented – and all the more subversive and provocative for that.  There are samples of handwritten notebooks, smudged, stained and blotted;  there are bone samples, sound recordings, even ‘stuffed’ animals; there are typed up versions of the handwritten notes, printed on yellowish, punched paper and pasted to the ‘museum-green’ walls; and of course there is the indisputable photographic evidence – black and white, grainy, sometimes blurred by the ‘animal’s’ movement!  All of which creates a slightly dated, museumish feel  that at one and the same time precisely reproduces the evidence-based approach of many 19th and early 20th century scientific explorers, and totally subverts it.

A number of points worth noting to inform my own work are:

  • the combination of text with photographic images to create fictions;
  • the appropriation of photographic (and language) styles;
  • the deadpan delivery, but with humour;
  • and the way in which, besides the direct questions about photography and truth/evidence, the work touches on some wider ethical issues e.g. the recurring and apparently innocent explanations of the deaths of the captured species, the references to their behaviour in the contexts of birth, death, reproductions, responses to humans;
  • the completeness and thoroughness of what was presented.

Herbarium

Again, strong references to traditional photography of botanical specimen, e.g. Bosshardt, applied to constructed ‘plant’ samples that are completely artificial and made from all sorts of household objects, as well as real plant parts.  The selection of beautifully lit and printed black and white images was displayed on a single wall, perfectly evenly spaced, in three rows, with an equivalent numbered printed key at each end that listed their scientific names. An entirely ‘convincing’ and deadpan presentation which again both reproduced and subverted the original genre of image.  A strong reminder here of how aesthetics can add credence to a photographic presentation – even a fictitious one.

Orogenesis

In this work, Foncuberta moves into the genre of Landscape – in traditional painting, in fine art photography, and even in geography.  These images, printed large scale and often in full colour, mimic the sublime modernist landscape photographs; yet, once again, they are fictions, and not even photographs in this case.  In many cases, they combine, strangely, map-reading software and paintings.  The software, used by geographers, reads scanned map images and converts them into 3-D terrains.  But Fontcuberta has (as he put it in one of the exhibitions films) also ‘fooled’ the computer.  Instead of maps, he has fed in scans of paintings (and of body parts in some cases), from which the software creates 3-D fictions, to which he then adds details, such as animals and water and sky.  The outcome is interesting and effective – though it does have a computer-generated feel about it, to be truthful.  And this reaction was probably not helped by having watched one of Disney’s most recent animations, Frozen, a few days before.  Created in 2002, Orogenesis cannot match up-to-date Hollywood CG landscapes – though I’m not quite sure just what I’m saying there, since both are entirely in the hyper-real bracket! So what is the benchmark?

Constellations

This is an earlier body of work that, again, does not involve the use of a camera.  Claiming to be a keen amateur astronomer, Fontcuberta has ‘depicted the night sky’.  The key word here is ‘depicted’.  It isn’t the night sky at all but, according to a passing comment in another exhibition film, mosquitos and other insects splattered on the screen of a car.  He doesn’t explain exactly how the images are produced, but presumably it is some form of photogram.  The most interesting aspect for me, again, was the presentation.  Quite large scale images, principally black, with spots and splashes of white, were hung either side of a dimly lit space, and I was immediately reminded of Sugimoto’s monumental ‘sideways’ landscapes in Arles 2013, where the scale, muted black and white tones, and dimmed lighting produced something akin to a religious experience.  Fontcuberta hadn’t quite achieved that, but he was, I think, appropriating and subverting the style.

Sirens

This section is based on the history of another mysterious ‘historical’ character – Father Jean Fontana – who discovered, whilst living and teaching in the Southern French Alps in 1947, the fossilised remains of an extinct (mythical?) creature called Hydropithecus alpinus, half monkey, half fish.  Fontcuberta, has been hired by National Geologic (sic) magazine to do a photographic study of what is now a ‘World Heritage Site’.  There is a life-size plaster cast of one of the perfectly preserved skeletons, in a glass case, surrounded by large-scale, full colour prints of the site and the fossils.  Camera angles, compositions, use of focus etc, all copy the ‘fine art’ style of such ‘real’ magazine photography – albeit somewhat self-consciously.  There are other artefacts associated with Father Fontana, in glass cases, a ‘mock-up’ of the feature as it appeared in ‘National Geologic’, and a documentary film that would site perfectly comfortably on one of the dozens of documentary TV channels – apart from the occasional surreally gauche moment that just keeps everything on the ‘wrong’ side of ‘truth’.  This was, perhaps, the most complete of the fictions, with less text than, say, Fauna, and was probably the best section of all, for me.  It brings home, again, the importance of ‘completeness’ in presenting fictions, including a ‘back story’.  I have been debating how to use the ‘back stories’ with my own Portraits series and this exhibition has convinced me that I should give serious consideration to their inclusion in quite an overt way.

Karelia, Miracles & Co

Gallery fatigue was, I admit, beginning to set in by this stage.  This is a series that I had probably given most pre-attention to – given the use of the ‘self-portrait’ – but I found it the least satisfying in the exhibition.  Great fun, of course, and delightfully ‘delivered’, but erring a little towards the ‘daft’.  Of course, this could well have been deliberate, since there is a kind of double-bluff going on here.  The monastery in Karelia that supposedly trains monks to perform miracles is being visited by an investigative journalist and photographer, Joan Fontcuberta, posing as a novice monk.  So, the outcome, given that this journalist has set out to expose the monastery as a fraud, has a deliberate agenda to make things look ‘daft’.  So Fontcuberta is certainly not sending up the monastery and its miracles but he is questioning the approach of the investigative press, with their preconceived ideas and their tendency to look more for spectacle and entertainment than for ‘truth’.

So, a well-presented and thought-provoking exhibition that has helped me understand the quality, thoroughness and sheer creativity of Fontcuberta’s work.  It was inspiring and informative for my Body of Work, giving me confidence, particularly, with the Portraits series.