Category Archives: Reflection

Linking Body of Work & Contextual Studies

CS essay front

A few weeks ago, I submitted the first draft of my Contextual Studies extended essay – part of the front cover, including the title, appears above.  I’ve had positive feedback; the essay needs a little more editing and my tutor posed a few questions for me to think about but, in essence, the essay is written.  Apart from being a great relief (!), this also presents a good opportunity (and my CS tutor encouraged it) to reflect in this journal on the linking and mutual support of the two modules.  There is no doubt at all in my mind that the research and writing has helped significantly in contextualising the work I have been producing here; and the making of the work has also influenced and informed my understanding of the contemporary art context in the essay.  Summarising the conclusion of the essay, it says that:

· The particular relationship of the photographic image with something perceived as reality survives today – whatever the context of the making and the viewing.

· The origin of that relationship may be cultural, psychological, even scientific; but it resides, even through the torrent of digital images pouring across the internet.

· The existence of this relationship is fundamental to photography’s significance in contemporary art; and through the exploitation, extension, and also subversion, of the medium, the contemporary artist can create meaning in a viewer’s perception, and provoke questions.

· Digital technology does not replace or undermine this significance, but it offers scope for continuing experimentation and exploitation of the photography/reality relationship.

Both of the projects that have progressed to this stage in my Body of Work have relevance within, and/or owe their relevance to, this context. The ‘Portraits’ project makes use of the perceived ‘reality’ of a photograph to create ‘believable’ images of ‘Stan’ identities that have never and will never exist. Yet they appear in Google image searches with apparent credibility alongside ‘real’ images of ‘real’ people – so potentially questioning the role of the photographic image as a representation of identity and, perhaps, the whole manner in which we perceive ‘self’ and identity. The ‘Textbook’ project constructs a seductive series of images that hover between something ‘real’ and something ‘virtual’, inviting the viewer to look for meaning and narrative, perhaps even to see significance for the photographic medium itself. Yet they are constructs, empty tableaux made from detached signifiers, strung together with no ‘meaning’ other than that they were made – in common, perhaps, with so many of the images through which we seek to construct ‘reality’ in the 21st century.

That seems to be quite a brief reflection, but I don’t think there’s anything else to say about it.  The two modules have come together successfully in my own mind.  I feel confident that I can talk about the context of this Body of Work and I hope my contextualising has the credibility to make sense to those who read/hear it and who look at my work.  “Job done”, so far!  Assignment Four of BoW should go to my tutor in the next couple of days; I hope to enrol on Sustaining Your Practice shortly, too; get BoW and CS into an ‘assessable” form over the next 2/3 months (though they won’t be assessed until March); then ‘onwards and upwards’!

Portraits Project–Presentation?

The Stan Photo

I’ve almost certainly made all the images that I’m going to for the Portraits Project (need a title!) and so thoughts begin to turn to presentation.  There was an opportunity to try something out over the weekend, when I attended a ‘gathering’ of 14 current and prospective Level Three students (with two tutors) from OCA. ‘Crit sessions’ were very much part of the agenda and I took along some prints of the portraits plus, more significantly, a print of a mock ‘red-top’ tabloid newspaper called ‘The Stan’.  I’m not going to document the design and print process here (it’s written up in a notebook at the moment), but the photograph above shows the principle and there is a large PDF version of all four pages here – ‘The Stan’.  This was an experimental way of bringing all the images into one place, together with either the full ‘back story’ or an allusion to it.  My questions for the group were, essentially, ‘Does it work?’ and ‘Is the print quality acceptable?’.  The latter question arose because this particular newsprint version is certainly not of high aesthetic quality – but that doesn’t seem to have been an issue for those who saw it. ‘Cheap and nasty’ works as a tabloid aesthetic, I think.

More significant, though, is the question of whether it works as a culmination – perhaps the culmination – for the project.  Views inevitably varied, with there being at least one suggestion that one may need nothing else – just the newspaper as the final outcome presentation.  Another view, though, was that the project critiques a wide range of image styles and contexts, so perhaps the ‘tabloid’ wasn’t appropriate for an overarching presentation.  The project seeks to explore the way photographic images create fictions in the ‘real’ world, so maybe something (or more than one ‘thing’) is needed to bring my own fictions into the ‘real’.  It’s a valid point, but not an easy one to resolve.  It did lead me to reflect, in the ‘crit’ that perhaps one approach would be to drop this project as having gone as far as it can without some major piece of work that would be difficult to do this late in the course.  I haven’t resolved that question yet – rightly and understandably.  In my own mind, this project has been slightly ‘second string’ to the ‘Textbook’ project for a while; so that might be basis enough for making a decision between the two.  But on the other hand, the Portraits always produce a reaction in others; always make people think; certainly have an ‘audience’, which might be important at a later stage; and, as the person who was questioning the tabloid said, ‘have legs’ (literally!).  Although this project makes people laugh (a ‘good thing’; nothing wrong with humour in art, surely), it has a very serious side and enough depth of context and interpretation to stand on its own, if I chose to make it do so.

So I’m faced with further reflection about this, as I head towards submission of Assignment Four.  The project will definitely form part of that submission, whatever the final outcome.  The discussion at the weekend has led me to look back at a couple of other angles into this piece of work.  Firstly, I have been taking another look at the website I put together at the end of last year –  I’m sure there are aspects that could be improved but, coming back to it after several months, I feel that it doesn’t work badly as a presentation of the project – though not as a way of bringing the images into the ‘real’.  Another angle that I’ve referred to a few times is the concept of a Google Search for an old school friend.  This is the first page of a search for ‘Stan Dickinson’, done yesterday afternoon:

Google 01

There are five of my Portraits in there – part of the ‘real’ world then, perhaps?  I tried a search for ‘Dick Stanley’ and, most appropriately, my own ‘Dick’ appears on page three:

Google 05

Maybe, as I say, these images are already out there in the ‘real’?

Much to reflect on further, after the weekend discussions, but the project will stay on its ‘legs’ for the time being.

Textbook–the endgame continues

Solarization 05

Solarization 05

I’ve found that there is potential to be creative as well as destructive with the burning power of the sun.  I experimented with some printed pages from another old book and found that, page in one hand & magnifying glass in the other, I could ‘draw’.  That had potential to be re-photographed and combined with other images to produced another type of interesting image – on the way to the books eventual Armageddon!  These are two examples of the work, so far.  The one below is very ‘controlled’, worked at bit by bit to create the effect, whereas the sun got (appropriately, given the title) quite powerful in the one above and the whole was about to ‘go up’ in my hand – as can be seen on the right of the image.  But that element of risk in the process is quite attractive to me.  And I take ‘control’ again, by photographing and layering with a previous ‘Solarization’ image.  People seem to see an insect in the one below; certainly wasn’t intentional.


Typical Characteristic Curve 02

Typical Characteristic Curve 02

It was a real benefit to share some of these Textbook images, including these two new ones, with some fellow students in an informal ‘hangout’ session earlier in the week.  The feedback was pretty positive, which is pleasing.  Everyone seems to have found the images visually interesting and attractive, which is one of my first objectives – to seduce the eye and attract the viewer to look further.  There was a sense of puzzlement about what was going on in the complex constructs, which again is something I want the viewer to experience.  But there was also a sense that the group wanted some guidance on context.  I had kept that deliberately brief – chiefly because I was interested in their immediate responses at this stage, but also because the background is very complex and explaining in full is both time-consuming (for the viewer to read) and directive (in the sense that I prefer the images to ask puzzling questions and be open to all sorts of potential interpretations – something that did also emerge in the discussion).  What this does tell me is that writing an effective ‘Artist’s Statement’ for this project is not going to be easy – especially one that can work in a variety of contexts.  That’s likely to mean more than one, perhaps.  It was really good to have the chance to discuss my work, though – very grateful to those who were present and gave me such helpful feedback.

Textbook–new chapter; addendum; scrap for the bin?

I thought I was working my way towards the end of this project.  I’ve been doing some research on ‘fire’ – in art, in photography – because I feel that will be the ‘end game’; burning the book!  But, inspired by the exhibitions in London – David Batchelor’s October and the Adventures of the Black Square (see here) – and by reading about Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography) 1967-70 (see here), I’ve produced two new images in the last few days.  They could take the project off on another detour, which might be a waste of time, but I’m quite pleased with them.  I can’t tell whether they ‘work’, in the sense of having the potential to be ‘read’ by a viewer in a manner that the viewer finds to be of any significance, but they do seem to be coming out of somewhere that matters to me – so I’m sharing them here and ‘reflecting’.  I’m not going to give them titles – not yet.

Untitled 1

Untitled 1

Untitled 2

Untitled 2

The aesthetic owes something to David Batchelor – shades of the colouring book and the doodle – with a hint of student’s studies (wonder why?!) and a touch of the ransom note thrown in for good measure! I’m reminded of the surrealist’s automatic writing – though it isn’t purely automatic of course.  There’s a linguistic ambiguity that seems to work alongside the visual ambiguity of the ‘constructs’ that I’ve made – hints of ‘meaning’ that never quite deliver, a search for certainty that was never there.

So I have a feeling that these have potential to add value to the project (and further delay the end game!); but they are new and raw, so not entirely sure, yet!

Duchamp’s Ghost

Self Portrait as Reclining Nude - Nat Essdee - 1982

Marcel Duchamp has put in a number of ghostly appearances in my reading of late; no great surprise, I suppose, since he haunts so many corners of contemporary art.  His ghost is in this image, my latest in the Portraits series; but I’ll come back to that.

One of his manifestations was in a two article series in Hotshoe magazine (Autumn and Winter 2014) by A. D. Coleman, on Photography and Performance Art.  Coleman discusses the photographic documentation of performance art and staged or directorial photography, and he questions whether there is much, if any, distinction any more.  He moves on to include the idea of ‘performance’ in life and/or the ‘amateur’ creation of photographic/film records of ‘performances’ – raising the question of how we distinguish between artists and non-artists.  He makes the comment that performance of the self has become a staple of contemporary art (which, unsurprisingly, struck a chord in the context of my own work), as has the theatricalising of just about everything.  It’s at this point that Marcel makes his appearance.  Coleman says that both these, we could say, “spring from Duchamp” – his refusal to paint representing symbolic action and a heightened awareness of self as actor in the field of ideas in art.  I wondered, briefly, about the theatricality of my self-portraits here, when writing about Thomas Demand, and Coleman makes me wonder again. Are these actually photographic records of my performances in the roles of particular characters?  At one level, the answer to that question must be ‘yes’, because that is, technically and in ‘reality’ what they are.  It’s back to intentionality.  The images, at a base level, record only that I took a photograph of myself playing a particular role.  In a series, though, supported with text, presented in an ‘art’ context, they may have new significance.

Which brings me to a second Duchampian haunting.  Rosalind Krauss’ Notes on the Index were written in 1977 and were reflections on American art of the seventies; but her consideration of indexicality discusses photography, and Duchamp lurks everywhere.  The ‘empty sign, or ‘shifter’ requires a physical relationship to establish meaning.  She uses the example of pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’, which have no meaning unless used in relation to, say, a particular speaker or object of speech.  This is the category of sign termed the index, and it includes cast shadows, for example.  So she discusses the cast shadows of ‘ready-mades’ in Duchamp’s “Tu M’ “.  The ‘ready-mades’ themselves were signs arbitrarily extracted from their Symbolic significance and given new meaning by Duchamp; and in that painting, their shadows are the indexical signs – except that they aren’t, because it’s a painting, so they’re actually representations. Krauss credits Duchamp as being the first to establish a connection between the index and the photograph (including work with Man Ray, for example), and we get the assertion that every photograph has an indexical relation with its object.  But this is more than a technical issue based on the marks left by light on a sensitive surface.  The photograph isn’t the object it shows; it’s an empty sign detached from that object, symbolic only of the photographer’s act until the viewer is ‘pricked’ by something that goes beyond the merely Symbolic and enters the Imaginary, touches the Real.

OK – a lot of theoretical, psychoanalytical stuff there!  Blame goes to Contextual Studies!  Actually, it’s another declaration of how CS informs and supports what I’m doing in this Body of Work.  There are many strands in those last paragraphs which can be applied to both of my projects.  And, as I’ve already said, there is the spirit of Duchamp in so much of it.  Which brings me to the latest ‘self-portrait’.  It’s entitled “Self Portrait as Reclining Nude 1982 Nat Essdee.  The ‘back story’ is this:

The only evidence of this work by the late American artist Nat Essdee is a scanned version of a photograph taken by his partner, British photographer Stan Dickinson.  Essdee died of an AIDs related illness in 1989 and it was never clear whether the work was lost, destroyed or sold to a private collector. Dickinson, who died two years later, had claimed that the piece was his idea and was actually a portrait of him.  The only surviving print of the photo is owned by the Dickinson family, who have allowed Tate Modern to scan and use it in publicity for their forthcoming Essdee retrospective.

So, there is a nod to Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ in the use of sieve, nuts and bolt; reference to the photograph as evidence; a question about authorship; and maybe even a small observation about the workings of the art market.  And that is to say nothing of the mingling of traditional photographic methods with digital images, implied by the scan of the print – presented digitally, here, of course.  A bit ambitious, perhaps, thinking I can get all of that into a single image!!  It’s what comes of so much background reading and study!  The brain becomes soaked in all that theory and creativity; hardly surprising that it seeps into the output.  (It is a scan of a print, by the way! Must have an authentic process.)

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.

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.