Category Archives: Exhibitions

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2015–some reflections

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Interior – Parc des Ateliers, Arles

I spent last week in Arles, during the latter stages of the annual photographic festival.  Some of the exhibitions closed at the end of August; others on 6th September; but the majority remain open until the coming weekend.  Outside of the holiday season and in the context of these reductions, one might assume it would be quiet.  Broadly speaking, it was, but since the schools are back, there were occasional tides of young people, one of which beached itself for some time across the floor of the Lisa Barnard exhibition in the Prix Découverte, having a full class conducted by their teacher!  The peace was also disturbed later in the week by the Feria du Riz which, despite the name, has more to do with bull-fighting than rice.  Bulls being driven through the streets by Les Guardians (Camargue cowboys) and stunningly loud music across the town centre until the early hours – but, actually, a wonderful little old city, with some serious (and expanding) cultural activities.  It was a marvellous week.

… and so to some highlights from the exhibitions; and a few critical views as well.  Looking for highlights, it’s hard to get past the two big US photographers on show – Walker Evans and Stephen Shore.  The former was a slightly different take on Evans, partly curated by David Campany, and focusing principally on his magazine work.  Many of the classic Evans images/series were for magazines, of course, and here they were displayed in the original magazines, also in many cases as prints, but most interestingly, also as ‘blown-up’ versions of the magazine pages, unframed, in high-contrast, pasted on the walls.  It worked really well – for me anyway – the full-bleed, high-contrast, pasted presentation made for a poster-like temporariness that linked well to their original purpose; but it also gave them an added presence (aura?) and had the practical benefit that lots of people could look/read at the same time.  One was reminded that Evans did just about everything, photographically, that there is to do.  The accompanying text in the articles, often his own, was ‘of its time’, the great modernist American vision, but I detected occasional signs that his tongue might have been in his cheek, at times.  Not when he was railing against modern design it wasn’t, though.

The Stephen Shore was a major retrospective that is touring the world over the next eighteen months to two years.  A wide-ranging show, it included work from his early teens to a recent series in Winslow Arizona, from 2013, incorporating (I think) all of American Surfaces and Uncommon Places (and some workbooks from the latter).  Just seeing the whole range was interesting in itself, but the show was well-presented, with supporting curatorial notes that were informative but not over-bearing or excessively prescriptive.  The movement from black and white to colour, to black and white, then back to colour (digital) was neatly explained – largely, Shore feeling he’d done that and wanted to do something else, which makes good sense.  Seeing all the work together emphatically brings home his sensitivity to, and experimentation with, the camera’s particular ways of ‘seeing’.  I liked the last two sentences of the note below, which accompanied the most recent Winslow series.  Shore has been working extensively with digital cameras and these notes seem to strongly refute the idea that this has to mean the photographer must automatically be working quickly and not in the thoughtful and contemplative manner some think is only achievable with film!

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Whatever the camera/process, the artist/photographer is the one determining how the image is made. Speaking of which, here is another artist who works slowly and painstakingly with digital processes.

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Facades, Markus Brunetti, Arles 2015

Markus Brunetti has been working exclusively, for ten years, on a series of huge images of the facades of prominent European religious buildings.  Clearly influenced by the Bechers, Gursky etc, he (with his partner) has carefully photographed and re-photographed, piece by piece, compiling monumentally-sized digital images, which have been ‘cleaned’ of all traces of wear and tear, bird droppings, graffiti, and whatever else might get in the way of a hyper-real outcome that presents the buildings with a perspective and a presence that no one has ever actually seen except in these images.  It’s a superb demonstration of the photographic images ability to play on the unconscious eye, so that there is a sense in which this is what the buildings ‘really’ look like – yet they never have and never will!  I really enjoyed them.  They are very seductive, beautifully printed, so that the viewer is drawn into the detail, all of which is there, as if the stones and carvings had just been placed there yesterday.  Yet at another level, they are utterly meaningless!  They only really tell us that Brunetti (and his team) have spent days and days making them; they have no other purpose than the spectacle of their own ‘madeness’!  Now, where have I made those kind of comments before? Here, of course, when I was looking at the work of Thomas Demand.  There is a video about the work here.

Moving on to something that left a less positive impression but could be interpreted as comment on the effectiveness of the photographic image – Heavens, by Paulo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti.

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This is about tax havens and their significance in the global economy.  There is a good video of Woods talking about the show here.  Before I launch into my ‘critique’, let me stress that I am no fan of tax havens, global capitalism, or the blatant exploitation of the ‘have-nots’ by the ‘haves’.  Nor do I have any problem with the extensive piece of investigative journalism that these two have undertaken.  I do have reservations, though, about its effectiveness as a photographic/art exhibition and, to an extent, with its presence in this important international festival – in the form it takes.  Is it a piece of good documentary photography?  I would say ‘possibly not’!  These are – as Woods says in the video – glossy, large-scale images, making use of the aesthetic of the global corporation, often featuring prominent bankers, government officials etc.  And if you just look at the images, that’s what you see (again, as Woods says).  It’s only when you read the detailed captions at the side of the image that you understand what’s going on.  So, one might argue, what is the point of the images?  What do they add to the message?  So one might interpret the show as a critique of the documentary image and it’s effectiveness in the 21st century.  Though I don’t think that was the intention!  I’m tempted to copy their caption style with something along the lines of:

Two contemporary documentary photographers travel the world, visiting remote tax havens where the wealthy and the corporate deposit and structure their finances so as to avoid or minimise the tax they pay.  They create large-scale glossy portraits of some of the key ‘players’ in their playgrounds, print them very big, and present them at an international photography festival in the South of France.  They are on show there for two months, seen by thousands, and in the meantime, nothing changes!

OK, not entirely fair, perhaps, but that was my reaction to the show.  Without the text, it was meaningless; without the images, it might still have worked!

I saw much more – interesting ‘emerging’ artists and the ‘dummy’ books, too.  But this will suffice for a main post on the subject.  I’ll return to the books later, in the context of the Textbook project.

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Offprint London

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Last weekend I spent the day in London, including an excellent couple of hours in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where the first ever ‘Offprint London’ was taking place.  This was a photobook fair with around 150 participant organisations, mainly independent publishers of ‘photobooks’.  I’ve introduced the inverted commas because it was actually a wider range than that word might suggest – books, zines, posters, prints, even vinyls – and wasn’t entirely focused on photo-based work either.  However, coinciding with Photo London at Somerset House, the emphasis was on photobooks, and it was an opportunity for some informal research for the eventual outcome of my Body of Work, particularly the Textbook project. The chief value, for me, was, I think, the casual browsing rather than any specific ideas or information.  This post will just record some general impressions.

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There are clearly a lot of independent publishers out there, many of them artists who have, I guess, published their own work and then taken on collaborations with others.  Perhaps the biggest ‘name’ present would be Aperture, and other well-known names would include MACK, Self-Publish-Be-Happy and Morel Books, but the vast majority were small organisations, chiefly and understandably, European.  I would have to say that I didn’t come away with any strong feeling of innovation in the form of publications.  There were a lot of zines – low cost, low ‘aesthetic’ publications, sometimes produced in limited editions – that didn’t greatly impress me.  I can understand this as a simple and inexpensive form to publish creative work, but it doesn’t appeal to me personally (though I have been doing some work on a ‘red-top’ tabloid for my Portraits).  I was interested to see whether there were examples of people doing something different in the actual ‘form’ of the book, but I didn’t come across many – best of all being a book where the pages were screwed directly into a broken piece of a skateboard, with two wheels still attached.  For some reason – not sure why – it did prompt the thought that I could bind a self-printed, one-off version of my Textbook work into the original board cover; definitely worth thinking about, though I wouldn’t then be able to burn it!

On the ‘The Everyday Press’ stall, I got an opportunity to open up some consideration of the copyright issue that will, inevitably, need to form part of my thinking for any publication of the Textbook project.   There were some examples of what one might term ‘re-publications’ – 1976 Argos Catalogue by Sara MacKillop; The FoxThe Everyday Press is artist Arnaud Desjardin and I took the opportunity to sound him out about copyright.  He thinks (and I will need to research this properly, of course) that the Textbook of Photographic Chemistry will still be in copyright. His approach (with The Fox magazine, for example) has been to ask the question but to go ahead and publish if no specific objections occur.  He encouraged that I could publish the project without much issue, if I choose – more of this in Sustaining Your Practice when I get there.

Other than that, there was the chance to pick up and browse some books that I’ve not been able to get my hands on – notably Lucas Blalock’s Mirrors, Windows, Tabletops.  The book was a 1000-off limited edition that is now ‘sold out’, but they had two copies on the Morel Books stall – one for browsing and one still wrapped.  Useful to have a look through the former, but the latter was only available at three times its original price, so I didn’t purchase!

A very useful piece of research which I thoroughly enjoyed and which has certainly triggered a few thoughts for my own work.

Following the ‘Black Square’ and finding a colourful resonance

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David Batchelor 2012-13 ‘October Colouring-In Book’ – book cover

Last Friday, my wife and I spent a most enjoyable five or so hours at the Whitechapel Gallery, viewing a series of exhibitions that principally link into Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015.  I’ll probably do a separate post on that main theme at some stage, and on Stamp Out Photographie, but the main purpose of this blog is to reflect on and refer to a body of work that was part of the main exhibition but which stands on its own and had particular resonance for me – ‘October Colouring-In Book’ 2012-13, by David Batchelor.  (I can’t link to his website page for this work because the page isn’t currently working; but that’s the cover of the book above; and there is a selection of images from the series, plus a short interview with the artist, here.)

In a wonderful piece of subversion, which appeals to me very directly, Batchelor has taken an actual copy of the first ever issue of October magazine, from 1976, and – to put it very simply – coloured it in!  Well, some of it is blacked out, to be precise, like a massive piece of censorial redaction, but it is the ‘felt-tip’ style circles, squares, triangles, lines – like some splendid doodling exercise – that really strike home.  That’s particularly true because, in its near-40 year history, October has never featured a single colour image!  There are a few words left readable here and there – including some key names such as Editor, Michel Foucault, and writer, Rosalind Krauss – but no page goes unscathed, and they are separated and framed individually for display in the exhibition.

The work appeals to my subversive and destructive nature – see this – and seems to resonate well with the Textbook Project in general.  Batchelor is appropriating something that relates to a different time, not so outmoded and distant as the photographic chemistry textbook, perhaps, but certainly ‘removed’ from now – or so it seems.  He is transforming it into a new signification that both mocks and yet pays a kind of tribute.  He wouldn’t have done it had October not been such a respected art journal; but it takes on a much lighter and jollier face in this new role as a piece of abstract art.  He is making a point about the journal’s emphasis on text over image, of course, and I like his comment in the interview that those original writers and editors would have been delighted that someone had spent three months pouring over every square inch of the publication!  As well as being enjoyable in its own right, the work provides a very useful contextual reference for my project – the appropriation, the destruction, the introduction of colour where there was none before, the subversion, it’s all there.

#selfie–thoughts on study visit at Bank Street

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It isn’t often that you enter the front door of a gallery to be immediately confronted by the artwork, scattered all over the floor in front of you such that you have no option but to walk on it!  But that is exactly what happens when you arrive at Bank Street Arts to view Tom Stayte’s #selfie – immediate engagement and participation.  I was there on Saturday, with a small group of OCA photography students, for a study visit led by tutor Andrew Conroy and including the opportunity to talk with Tom Stayte, the creator.  The work (see here) was Tom’s graduate show at Sheffield Hallam University; is currently on show at Bank Street; and will be at the forthcoming Format Festival – and rightly so!

Where to start? Probably with a description, I think; though the work doesn’t fit neatly into any formal categories.  At the core, but hidden within a white plinth, is a computer.  It is running some bespoke software that constantly looks at uploads to Instagram that are tagged #selfie. The image is ‘examined’ to see whether it contains a single face, and if it does, the image file is downloaded.  A monitor on top of the plinth relentlessly lists the files as they come down.  On the front of the plinth is a thermal printer – the sort of thing that prints receipts at the supermarket, no ink involved and paper supplied from a large roll.  As the image files are downloaded, it prints each one, low quality monochrome, to a standard size, and then cuts each one, leaving it to fall on the floor in front of the plinth.  (There is potential comparison with 24 Hours, the work in which Erik Kessels printed every image that was uploaded to Flickr on a single day; which I saw in Arles 2013.) Tom estimates that it prints an image every five seconds and it chattered and chopped endlessly throughout the two hours plus that I was there.  The prints from the graduate show have been brought forward to this show and the plan is to take these ones on to Format.  The estimate is around 100,000 so far!  It is only running when Bank Street is open, of course.

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So, one might ask ‘what is it?’ – a piece of research, social comment, political provocation – well, my reading is that Tom’s intention is that it is a work of art, and that is how I would view it.  And art is entitled to ask and provoke questions without providing answers – which is exactly what #selfie does, in my view.  It is a provocative piece, from the moment you enter, as I’ve suggested.  Is it appropriation?  The work uses thousands of photographic images, created by thousands of photographers all over the world, without any formal ‘rights’, so ‘appropriation’ would certainly seem like a word that could be applied.  Is it curation? There is an element of selection (even if it is automated) of printing and display.  And as the image above shows, a degree of participative curation is happening, with viewers encouraged to rummage amongst the output and look for patterns, anomalies, whatever, and pin them on the wall.  So the art is evolving as it is viewed.  Is it, maybe, even, a kind of performance?  Once the computer and printer are in action, there is a kind of hypnotic effect as you watch and listen – yes, sound is a part of it, actually; you can hear it in the video on Tom’s website.  Is it, perhaps, something uniquely digital; a new form of art that could only be associated with ‘now’?  It is certainly an example of an artist embracing what digital technology has to offer as a form of expression and representation; a way of creating potential for meaning for the viewer.

The work does, of course, invite thought and reflection on the phenomenon that has become the ‘selfie’.  It has its own inherent definition of what the term means – an image of a single face uploaded to Instagram and tagged #selfie, for the purposes of the project.  That imposes some inevitable boundaries and almost certainly means that we’re looking at the tip of a very big iceberg of what actually exist as potential ‘selfies’ in internet-space.  On SelfieCity, a project led by digital media writer Dr Lev Manovich, Alise Tifentale’s essay The Selfie: Making Sense of “Masturbation of Self-Image” and the “Virtual Mini-Me”, quotes the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with smartphone or webcam and uploaded to social media website’ – but Selfie City’s project, like Tom’s work, uses Instagram as the source of its images.  But perhaps the most obvious question that this work raises, whatever the definition and source of the information, is ‘Why?’. Why do all these (predominantly young – that’s clear from a quick scan of the faces upturned on the floor at Bank Street) people want to make and share public ‘selfies’?

Tifentale’s article reviews academia’s response to the selfie, from which she concludes with these phrases – means of self-expression; construction of a positive image; tool of self-promotion; cry for attention and love; way to express belonging to a certain community.  All of those, individually and collectively, could be concluded as one stands amongst the output from #selfie and watches the mounting mass of images.  At the same time, partly prompted by Tom’s understandable choice of a cheap, low-aesthetic method of printing, the utter pointlessness of it all comes across strongly.  These are instant, throwaway images; and surrounded by tens of thousands of them in a small space, it’s actually hard to see the connection with a ‘positive image’ (especially seeing the expressions on some of the faces).  The sharing and belonging makes some sense – after all, it is the existence of a sharing platform, Instagram in this case, that makes the whole concept of the proliferation of the phenomenon possible in the first place.  And, whilst these are all public images available for the world to see, one might propose that they are primarily directed at friends and contacts, rather than the global audience. (Though, as we speculated on Saturday, few of the uploaders can have anticipated that, within seconds, they would be part of an art installation in Sheffield!!)

For my own part, both at the exhibition and in subsequent reflection, I feel most drawn to a comparison with language – both spoken and written.  These small, individual, seemingly insignificant images are like words – spoken or written to friends.  Maybe most like spoken words, in the way that they are created and dispatched into the ether – then often forgotten and ignored.  Sitting with a friend, having a drink, at a bar in sunny New York, Joe says to Anna, “This is nice; I feel really relaxed.” Then he lifts up his phone and creates a selfie, uploads it to Instagram, and a few moments later, their friends Jack and Lucy in London see the image and Jack says “Joe looks happy.”

Of course, as he’s saying that, #selfie in Sheffield prints Joe’s picture and Stan picks it up from the floor and pins it to the wall, with several others of people wearing reflective sunglasses, that have been uploaded in the last couple of hours!

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There exists a potential for some negative reading in this, naturally.  What does it say about people’s willingness to share many aspects of their lives through a media that is open to all sorts of exploitation and control by all manner of other individuals and organisations – corporate, official, criminal, insane?  My own take, whilst certainly acknowledging such negative readings, is that I am mostly drawn back again to these comparisons with casual conversation and social interaction.  The ubiquitous shared digital image seems to me to have much in common with the shared words of language – pictures painting a thousand words etc.

Many thanks to Andrew for leading such a fascinating and thought-provoking study visit – and, of course, to Tom Stayte, for creating such a stimulating & novel project and for spending time with us on Saturday.

Stranger Than Fiction–Joan Fontcuberta

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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.

Portrait–in the style of …

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Rembrandt van Rijn Self-Portrait 1659 National Gallery of Art, Washington

Last week, I saw the latest National Gallery ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, Rembrandt – the late works.  There were many fine works on display, of course, from collections all over the world; and the exhibition presented another of those ‘unique opportunities’, especially for someone of my age, to experience them together in a way that will certainly not happen again in my lifetime.  That ‘threat’ in the publicity for such events could sometimes prompt us to go to something we’re not actually that bothered about, but I was quite keen, in this case, for the chance to look first hand on some of his famous self-portraits.  Actually, Simon Schama had done quite a persuasive job; and I had also seen Rankin ‘recreating’ some of the portraits on TV, too; so there were a few influences.

In fact, the Rankin programme had given me an idea as to how I might resolve one of my own planned ‘self-portraits’ – the left-wing politician.  It had gone through various iterations in my mind – ex-Cabinet Minister photographed outside the London School of Economics; veteran back-bencher photographed in his study – but the programme prompted me towards a retiring local politician being photographed for a Town Hall portrait, in the style of a Rembrandt.  I noted that Rankin didn’t go the whole hog and try to create something that looked just like the paintings; more a case of ‘in the spirit of’ Rembrandt.  I researched some of the self-portraits online; and it soon becomes clear – not surprisingly –  that viewing online, or even in print, only gives a clue as to what the painting might look like, in terms of tones and colours; and then there is the question of surface, of course.  I had a go, anyway, with warm, subdued lighting, warm colours of clothing; a chair and pipe as props; a neutral but not plain background; dignified but human stance and gaze.  When I shared the portrait on Flickr – here – the response was good, with many people suggesting it was the ‘best’ of the portraits so far.  One comment, from Clive, suggested that it might look under-exposed, which it certainly does, out of context; but further clarification led to a feeling that it was its flatness that might be the issue.  To be fair, I hadn’t paid too much attention to the detail at that stage – because I was going to the exhibition and wanted to get a feel for what the paintings themselves looked like.  Recreating the exact feel of a painting is impossible, but I wanted to see the actual tones and colours and lighting.

The 1659 Self-portrait above – the very first painting in the exhibition – was the one that really attracted me and kept me looking.  It normally hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and there are notes about it here.  Rembrandt was 53 at the time and, seemingly, emerging from some tough times – financially, personally and professionally.  It is a deeply engaging image and I spent some time in that first room (which it shared with a group of other self-portraits).  This reproduction, from the NGA website, is a good one; and the portrait was nicely lit in the National Gallery, reproducing the quite warm front light from above, as in the painting itself.  The notes tell us that it went through restoration in 1992, and the light really glinted off the surface on the forehead and nose – little highlights and brushstrokes on the surface that ‘brought it to life’.  A photograph – whether presented on-screen or in the form of a high quality print – is never going to match that, as I have already said!  However, informed by the painting and by Clive’s comment, here is Councillor Stan’s portrait, adjusted slightly from the original ‘out-of-camera’ shot, ready to hang in the Town Hall.

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My colours area little warmer than the version of the Rembrandt at the top – but I recall it looking a bit warmer than that when I saw it.  And I have the light at a slightly different angle – but it’s ‘in the style’’ of’, and it may get a bit more tinkering as time goes by.  How, though, could I dream of getting even remotely close to anything like the real thing?

Double Androgyny

Firstly, a ‘thanks’ to Peter, CS tutor, who pointed me in the direction of the work of Roni Horn.  It wasn’t a name familiar to me but she is a fascinating artist who works in a variety of media, including sculpture, drawing and photography.  There isn’t a convenient link that shows off her work – hardly surprising, given its variety – but, on Peter’s recommendation, I got hold of a copy of the catalogue of “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” her Tate Modern retrospective of 2009 – link to exhibition site – from the library.  It’s some catalogue!  Two sizeable hardback books, one with images of the works and the second, called ‘Subject Index’, with a series of alphabetically indexed writings that include short quotes from her, short essays on her work by a variety of people, interesting references that she has chosen to share, the occasional poem, more illustrations, and a whiff of tongue-in-cheek humour along the way.  Her work has taken a bit of fathoming, but I understand why Peter suggested I look at it because there is a lot about identity, which links well with my ‘self-portrait’ work.  I’ll come back to that later.

I’m actually going to start with some photographs that appear in both books and were used at the introduction to the exhibition.  They’re not taken by her, however; they are photographs of her, taken at various stages in her life, and presented in pairs in this context.  That idea of pairs, and the consequent questions of comparison/difference, is a theme throughout her work – including the drawing and sculpture.  I can’t find all the portrait pairs on the internet, so I’ve been a little cheeky and photographed the book.  here is one example.

Roni Horn aka-1

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The mono portrait of the little blonde girl in her frilly dress and cardigan alongside the blurry image of (probably) a teenager, peering from behind a rock and almost obscured by a mass of red hair; we know it’s the same person but, interestingly, the child holds us with a kind of winning, knowing combination of gaze and wry smile whilst the teenager recedes and hides, shyly, behind her protective rock.  Turn over the page, and we get this pair.

Roni Horn aka-2

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The order switches round – older then younger.  On the left is a ‘cool’, ‘sharp’, androgynous individual in shades, with close-cropped hair, smooth skin, and turned-up collar, glancing at us, slightly open-mouthed but expressionless, as she/he is photographed in a city street.  Whilst on the right, a younger version of the ‘teenager’ smiles willingly but a little falsely, eyes narrowed and barely visible under a tangle of hair – all soft, uncertain edges and with no clearly discernable profile.  (And, are those dark, troubled patches under the eyes?)  Then, at the back of the book (these images are used as untitled end-marks), is this wistful pairing.

Roni Horn aka-3

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

A slightly older version of the little girl sits, arm tucked over the back of a chair, giving us the quietly confident, knowing stare again, besides an older version of the androgynous she/he.  Without the shades now, the portrait on the right fixes us with that same knowing look, but with a hint of weariness, the head lolling against a wall.  Knowing, as we do, that all these photographs are of the same person, we go searching for signs of similarity, difference, development, change.  Interesting, then, to see what Roni Horn has to say about ‘identity’.  The word gets more than one entry in ‘Subject Index’, and in one of them she says “The mutable version of identity is not an aberration … the fixed version is the aberration”.  Later, she speaks of “… the impossibility of pure identity … you will always be a form of me”.  In an interview (here), she talks about life as a ‘labyrinth’, which may have a way in and a way out but also has lots of routes that don’t lead to either.  She says “… that is your life: you don’t arrive anywhere”.

I suspect that, potentially, much of her work, of whatever form, involves questions about identity – even the sculptures and drawings – and the pairings appear everywhere e.g. ‘Things that happen again’; but another photographic project that is of particular interest to me is ‘Portrait of an Image (with Isabelle Huppert)’.  Horn invited actress Isabelle Huppert (as far as I can tell, they didn’t particularly know each other before) to be photographed  ‘impersonating’ herself in film roles that she had performed over the 30 years of her career.  In the same interview linked above, Horn says there was “something about the absurdity of impersonating yourself, which I think is actually real because self is not a singular thing – it never is” and “… the idea that you could impersonate yourself isn’t an absurdity, but a real active way of being present in the world”.  So, Huppert was being asked to reflect back, in performances for Horn’s camera, to find expressions, attitudes, feelings, gazes that belonged to those roles.

There is an article about Horn’s work on the Tate website, by art critic Elizabeth Lebovici – ‘Faces that speak volumes’ – in which she makes a comparison with another artist who ‘performed’ for the photographic apparatus – and one who defined herself in a ‘third gender’ – Claude Cahun.  By one of those quirky coincidences, two weeks ago and before I had been introduced to Horn’s work, I saw an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s images at Leeds Art Gallery (and had first encountered her in the ‘Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago).

Cahun - Leeds

As Leborici points out, Cahun’s photographs, particularly those of herself in a variety of roles/identities, are actually the outcome of collaborations with her life-long partner, Marcel Moore. She was usually, it seems, the person behind the camera.  These works provoke some questions that are also running through my own mind in relation to my ‘self-portraits’.  (The now frequent use of inverted commas is no coincidence!)  Is her art performance art?  Given that she is in roles other than her own, can they be self-portraits?  (And that question can be extended, particularly, if we acknowledge that she didn’t look through the camera and press the shutter.)  But, given that Cahun was born Lucy Schwabb yet spent most of her life being Claude Cahun, does that alter the notions of performance and self?  What was her own identity?  Which leads us back to Roni Horn’s view that identity is impossible to pin down in any pure sense.

At present, in so far as it matters, I am inclined to think that my own work involves the use of photographic processes, together with my own body and some ‘props’, to create portraits which evoke the sense of ‘real’, recognisable (through all sorts of signification) identities.  These are not portraits of any version of ‘Stan’ that has ever existed, or ever will exist.  They are fictitious ‘real’ identities.  That could lead me to the view that I should refer to them as ‘portraits’.  Of course, it would be possible to take the view that these are portraits of me performing in the roles (back to the Horn/Huppert collaboration) and, since I have organised the whole set-up and, in all cases so far, pressed the shutter, they might be ‘self-portraits’.  However, I tend to feel that the question of ‘intent’ comes into play here.  And I do not intend them to be representations of any identity that is directly connected to a ‘Stan’ that I ‘perform’ or ‘have performed’ or ‘intend to perform’ – other than in this creative process.  Once my ‘authorship’ is complete, some viewers will no doubt read some element of ‘truth’ into the images; that is the nature of photography (and art).  But that is outside my control.  (And – if they don’t read at least some degree of ‘truth’, my process will not have succeeded in its objective!)