Category Archives: Reflection

Portraits–Contextual Research & Reflection

As part of my Contextual Studies (though ‘Struggles’ might be a better title!) I have been in e-mail exchange with my tutors for both modules over the last few weeks.  I don’t propose to get into the detail here, but the essence of it is a continuing difficulty that I seem to have in clearly articulating the link between the Body of Work that I’m producing and the relevant and appropriate ‘Context’.  I don’t have a problem with the work I’m producing; I don’t have a problem with the background ‘theory’ that I’m studying; I don’t have a problem with finding photographic, and other, artistic comparisons; but wrapping all of that together into a structured form for all aspects of my Body of Work is proving tough (for me, anyway!).  One agreed action is that, as part of my next BoW Assignment, I will produce a ‘draft’ Artist Statement/Proposal that might, for the time being, focus on the Portraits. (I have pretty much concluded in my own mind that these are Portraits that happen to feature me, rather than portraits of me.)

Looking for a way to get into that statement, I was reflecting on the Portraits’ relevance to, or relationship with, the billions of photographic images that are being used to represent ‘identity’ across the internet.  The line I was taking was … ‘Google my name and some of these versions of my identity come up … so why do we attach any credence to the images that come up against any other name Googled …?’  Needs expanding, but it is a possible line, at least.  To back that up with a bit of further research, I ‘created’ eight ‘random’ names (by writing various first names and surnames down on pieces of paper and combining them at random).  It certainly wasn’t scientific, but I thought I would then enter each of those names into Google Images and see what came up.  I simply copied the photos of each of the first three or four under each name, into a document, as follows:

Images - others-1

Images - others-2

Images - others-3

These names were, I stress, created randomly.  I had guessed, and this confirms, that one can quickly generate a range of posed portraits, publicity shots, selfies created on the phone, scanned images from the archive, snapshots, news photos etc (as in my own Portraits).  I haven’t included any supporting text here, but the range of backgrounds is enormous, for such a small sample – business, academic, sport, broadcasting, ‘celebrity’, glamour model (try picking that one out!) and (amazingly) serial killer!  And, naturally, many are simple social media images with little or no supporting information.  Strangely, I also sense some degree of ‘pattern’, if that’s the right word, under each name!  If you want to be famous, don’t use the name Fiona Kerry, for example – though Chris Lewis might be a promising choice!

Does it help me to contextualise my own Portraits?  It is certainly part of my purpose to explore the manner in which the photographic portrait image is used to present identity in the 21st century.  Studying the psychoanalytical angle on identity – Lacan, particularly – tells us that the whole formation of our ego/identity is based on the image, and a misread image, at that.  This little piece of work demonstrates something of the way in which we present ourselves, visually, to the ‘rest of the world’ (as loosely defined by the internet!).  And, superficially at least, the perceived indexical photograph is at the heart of matters.  Yet Photography is going through an uncertain, self-conscious process of navel-gazing – certainly in some quarters – and is perhaps even less ‘reliable’ than it ever was as a basis for representation (of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ etc).  My own Portraits hope to demonstrate how easy it is to represent ‘identity’ through digital photographic processes, yet how unreliable they are at representing something to which we can lend any credence at all.

At another level, many, if not all, of these images, circling the hyper-real world of the internet, are never meant to be anything more than superficial representations anyway.  The selfies on social media get changed regularly; the publicity shots of any celebrity are myriad, so take your choice of identity.  At which point, these images and the billions of others in the ‘soup’ from whence they came, might become representative of the fruitless search for the lost ‘something’ to which we are all, again according to psychoanalytics, condemned.  I have already documented that one original drive for these self-portraits (deliberately dropped that word back in) came from a personal observation that nothing had ever happened to me, none of the (supposed) trauma that artists often point to as the source of their inspiration for a particular piece of work, or indeed their whole body of work.  And another was the ‘disconnect’ between the stories in my old Newsbook and the person I seem to be now.

I have, though, resisted – and continue to resist – the idea that these Portraits are about ‘me’ (beyond the simple notion that there is something of all of us in all of our creative work).  They could also, though, be read – rather like the collection above – as a random cross-section of characters from ‘today’.  Whilst they are masquerade/fiction, they could, because they retain a loose link to ‘reality’, be interpreted as a commentary on where the ‘baby-boomers’ are today.  Coming almost full-circle, I have always intended that the images themselves would be just ‘seductive’ enough to tempt the viewer to see some element of ‘reality’ in there, be it about ‘me’, themselves, their generation, or friends and family.  And we return to the seductive yet unreliable photographic image.

I don’t know whether this is getting me closer to resolving matters. It’s proving to be a tough journey – perhaps no tougher than I expected but certainly tougher in a different way.

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One for Harry

I have nine (self) portraits now and, with the exception of ‘Old Stan’, the drunk, (maybe even that one, too, to an extent) there has been an element of fun about most of them.  They have certainly provided some amusement to most people who have seen them.  It has never been my intention to avoid that, but it has always been my intention that there would be a serious element, too.  I could envisage that, in whatever form they are eventually presented, there would be some images that would puncture the fun, reflecting life, I guess.  ‘Old Stan’ would be one of those; and my next planned portrait could be even more powerful, if I get it right.

I am, though, aware that I can begin to step into sensitive areas.  I have already shelved one planned image because it was going to cause concern to some family members – that of the retired teacher accused of indecent assault.  Even the fiction was potentially uncomfortable to some family members; and I understand & respect that.  I am planning that my next image will be of a stroke victim – ‘Granddad Stan’, a birthday snap, photographed by his young grandson.  More than 150,000 strokes happen every year in the UK – mostly to over 65s (my next birthday).  When I was 60 I was (like many) identified as having high cholesterol and have been taking ‘statins’ since then.  That significantly reduces my stroke risk – but it might have happened and does happen to those of my age.  It happened (admittedly at a slightly older age) to my Uncle Harry.

Harry & Ed 1985

This is Harry, with our son, photographed in the summer of 1985.  In the photograph, he is about 71 and a more cheerful, gregarious, talkative, active septuagenarian would have been hard to find.  Interested in pretty much anything, always teasing, he loved to stay up-to-date, liked to get out and about, and was very involved with, and supportive to me when I was a child.  Not long after this photograph, whilst on his way to or from (I can’t recall which) Blackpool, by bus, on his own and surrounded by strangers, he had a huge stroke.  He lived until around 1994, when he died, aged 80 – but he never went home again, to the cottage where he’d lived all his life (apart from serving in the Merchant Navy); he only ever walked, with assistance, around the care home; and, most devastating, he never spoke or smiled again.

I have told Harry’s story to emphasise that I will be producing this next image with serious intent.  ‘Granddad Stan’ will have suffered a stroke within the last twelve months.  It will have damaged the left side of his brain, meaning that his right side has been paralysed, his speech has gone, and there is a lack of expression in his face.  There is every prospect, with therapy, that he may eventually recover some or all of his faculties, but in the short term, he often feels hopeless and depressed – even on his birthday, with his grandson visiting.  It requires a ‘performance’ from me, as have all the others; I have done my research, but I don’t yet know when I’m going to shoot it.  This is by way of a statement of (serious) intent, lest anyone get the impression that I am being light-hearted about it.

Nice one, Joan!

Surface Charge Theory 4

Surface Charge Theory 4

As the tumbleweed rolls across the screen of this blog and I peer through the cobwebs …!

It is almost two months since I last posted on here.  It has not been an unproductive period; there is progress on some further portraits and more studio-based work has emerged, including the image above.  But it has also been a period of mental struggle; primarily with Contextual Studies and how to articulate some meaningful connection between what I have read/studied and the work I am producing.  It isn’t that I haven’t been able to deal with what I’ve read/studied (though it can certainly be demanding at times); and it isn’t that I can’t feel a connection with my Body of Work (I certainly can feel it, and quite powerfully at times).  It is the structuring and articulation that has been a problem – and remains so, to an extent.  I can identify any number of reasons – the differences between the two broad strands of my BoW, which might fit differently into a theoretical/critical context; an excessive concern with the clarity of articulation when, in a creative context, such issues are inevitably far from clear; a tussle with moving from the general to the specific in a complex situation; plain old muddled thinking, maybe (or maybe not …)!  Whatever the reason (or reasons), it has been heavy going at times, but I am making some progress.

Which brings me to Joan Fontcuberta.  A few weeks ago, I bought the new translation of his book of essays Pandora’s Camera, and I’ve just finished an initial read through.  I had sensed that it might help with my contextual struggles, partly because of Fontcuberta’s oeuvre, which frequently operates within the spaces in and around photography and fiction, but especially because these essays deal with the digital technological shift and, as the title suggests, explore the extent to which it spells calamity for some and liberation for others.  (I have not, as yet, been able to see ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ at the Science Museum, but it is coming up to Bradford eventually.)

This post is prompted, primarily, by the last essay in the book, entitled ‘Why do we call it love when we mean sex?’.  It has nothing to do with either love or sex, of course, but (having got our attention!) it does focus on the challenges/opportunities for photography today – and it seems to link effectively with some of my other reading/studies, so helping to confirm and clarify where I am going.  For, as he puts it, “… artists and other toilers in the vineyard of the image …”, photography, at its birth, could be seen as a pure translation of visual reality onto a surface, in an instant, extraneous to the human will (beyond a ‘superintendent’ role performed by the photographer).  The history since that point has not, Fontcuberta asserts, been well-written – notably in its apparent failure to successfully integrate pictorialism into a coherent narrative.  Photography has retained its documentary association.  The hybridisation of image-making in the postmodern context in the 70’s/80’s provided a new challenge to that old association but it is the introduction of digital technology and image processing software that has “… transformed the original paradigm …”.

The essay compares the pixels to a painter’s brush-strokes and suggests a return to “… the iconic structure of painting and writing …”.  Indeed, he goes a step further and asserts that “… analogue photography is inscribed and digital photography is written …” – inscription and writing being two stages of epistemological competence, from description to story.  Hence, he says, the crisis of the documentary in photography.  The essay has opened with a provocative quote from artist Christian Boltanski, addressing a meeting at an Arles Photo Festival – “Photography is photojournalism; everything else is painting”.  So, at his conclusion, Fontcuberta accepts that we may be ‘post photography’ and that (for once) finding the right nomenclature for what follows could be important.  But, until an angel appears to give us the answer, he wonders why we insist on calling it love when we mean sex!

The notion that digital image manipulation has much in common with painting compares directly with another article – Lucas Blalock, writing in Foam Magazine, in the Spring of this year, where he compares his work to drawing.  It’s why I put Surface Charge Theory 4 at the top of this article.  This image pushes my appropriation and manipulation of material from A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry to another level, so that it begins to look more like a Bridget Riley painting than a photograph.  It may yet go through further stages of development that bring it back into the still-life/photographic/realism space – but these creative processes, like those of Blalock and others, are concerned with the very edges of what is ‘photography’.

It seems possible that, as I had hoped, Joan Fontcuberta has helped bridge the gap.  I have Hal Foster in The Return of the Real explaining the recurring role of the avant-garde in shifting art into new directions;  I have Vilem Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography extolling the role of the ‘experimental photographer’ who is “… playing against the camera …”;  I have Fontcuberta confirming that the original paradigm has been transformed; I have Charlotte Cotton (in that same Spring edition of Foam magazine) writing that the works of Lucas Blalock and others “… are active contemplations of the role of the artist and the meaning of the photographic within the evolution of our visual and cultural climate …” (and also referring to signs of human mark-making and painterly gestures when describing the work).  I am, perhaps, beginning to find relevant contexts through which to articulate what I am doing and where I am going with my Body of Work.

I can still, however, express a word or two of caution – such as whether this is still all too general to work effectively in Contextual Studies (though that should be for consideration elsewhere, of course) and whether my portrait work does really sit comfortably in the context described.  But the very fact that I am articulating something in the ‘public domain’ is progress.

Whoof … there go a few more cobwebs!

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!)

Assignment Two–Feedback

I have received my feedback for Assignment Two and the message seems to be broadly along the lines of ‘Young Mr Grace’ from “Are Your Being Served?”, who used to visit the Grace Bros store with his voluptuous (not sure if that word is acceptable these days!!) nurse and announce “You’re all doing very well!”.  Not that I would compare Clive with ‘Young Mr Grace’, of course!

A little more seriously, the feedback is that I seem to be heading in the right direction so keep on with it.  I’m happy with that and also agree with the more significant point from the feedback, which is that I will, eventually, need to be able to present and explain a more direct and coherent link with the theoretical context in Contextual Studies.  I am beginning to see some broad direction in that but it needs more focus and some drilling down into how it specifically links with my projects.  Those reflections are, however, for elsewhere.

One point worth recording here is that I am beginning to sense that the two broad project areas – loosely defined as the Self-Portraits and the Studio Work – are actually not so different from each other, and might turn out to be closely related aspects of the same overall project.  Photography seems to work in creative spaces that are ideal for subversion and avant-gard questioning of the ‘norms’ associated with visual art and culture.  Digital developments make the ground beneath those norms seem even less secure.  All the images that I have been producing seem to work in this (good grief, I am about to borrow a phrase from the world of cricket! Geoffrey Boycott no less!) ‘corridor of uncertainty’.  Images that may evoke the ‘real’, that may quote from the familiar forms of cultural representation, which may tempt the viewer to look and reflect, but which, fundamentally, have no meaning.  At this stage, I don’t want to go any further than those general observations.  I have some notions of where this is taking me but it is through more reading and reflection in my Contextual Studies that I may hope to progress.

At which point, quietly congratulating myself on managing to quote from “Are You Being Served?” and “Test Match Special” in one short blog post, I will get my nose into some books!

Two sculptors–compare and contrast!

I have seen solo exhibitions of the work of two women sculptors in the last two weeks – and it is hard to imagine two more contrasting bodies of work!  Both inspirational; both fascinating to explore; both highly talented and renowned artists in their own right; and not without their points of similarity; but what different outcomes!

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, born in 1942 Germany, with a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, was mostly in refugee camps until the family emigrated to the USA, where Ursula has subsequently spent most of her life.  She has her first major European exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – see here.  Joana Vasconcelos is a generation younger, born in 1971 in Portugal.  Her work is on show at the Manchester Art Gallery – see here.  The exhibition publicity describes Vasconcelos’ work as “… exquisitely crafted, monumental sculptures and installations …”; you could use the same words for Von Rydingsvard’s work, too.  Hers is also described as “… ranging from the intimate to the immense in scale …”, which could also be said of Vasconcelos’.  Other similarities can be found, with Vasconcelos “… inspired by the products and materials of Portuguese daily life …” and Von Rydingsvard producing “… sculptural forms, which at times reference … simple, rustic items such as shovels, spoons and bowls …” … “… her Polish heritage is vitally important …”.

However, whether it is the generational difference, the contrast between Northern and Southern European genes, or just two very different personalities, their creative outcomes are in sharp contrast.  Here, with apologies for the quality of the image, is a typical piece from Von Rydingsvard.

IMG_0227

She mostly works with cedar, constructing her forms from 2×4 or 4×4 beams, which are carefully, marked, cut, and assembled together – hundreds of individual pieces forming this type of abstract shape.  Using graphite to subsequently darken parts of the surface, she works with a very limited colour palate, and even said, in a short film, that she does not feel comfortable with colour, sensing that it overwhelms everything else.  (Where have I heard that type of comment before?!)  The surfaces are hard-edged and rough-cut, despite the apparently smooth form, and are marked with thick pencil lines, where she has matched edges and drawn lines where her ‘cutters’ (skilled guys using circular saws to her precise instructions) are to work.  The process is intense and serious – words that could also be used to describe the personality she portrays in interviews.  She refers to growing up in an environment where you were expected to work and work, where you smiled only occasionally and laughed only when appropriate.

This is one of the central pieces of the Vasconcelos exhibition.

IMG_0208

It is a (real) Bell 47 helicopter that has been covered with pink ostrich feathers, gold leaf, and Szarovski crystals; and has had an interior makeover involving intricate woodwork, embroidered upholstery, gilding and Arraiolos rugs.  It is the artist’s vision of what Marie Antoinette would be travelling in if she were alive today!  There was a 1950s Morris Oxford, full of cuddly toys and covered with toy guns, called ‘War Games’, and a piece called ‘Full Steam Ahead (Red, Green and Yellow)’, made from dozens of domestic steam irons.  Humorous, subversive, and with a light-hearted touch, her work is a “… critique of contemporary society, destabilising traditional views of female sexuality, the status of women and consumer culture …” (the exhibition brochure says).  As well as this type of appropriation of ready-mades, she also creates huge works, intricately constructed from textiles, embroidery, crochet work, etc, decorated with tassels and crystals, in vibrant colours – such as this partial view of an enormous special installation in the Manchester Art Gallery Atrium.

IMG_0219

These contrasting works are, of course, characteristic of the modernist/postmodernist comparison; with Von Rydingsvard firmly in the modernist ‘camp’ and Vasconcelos in the postmodernist.  The former creates intensely personal work, exploring process, form and material, that is deliberately ambiguous, “… with a feeling of intense humanity and sincerity …”.  The latter has fun, and playfully responds to the global society in which she has grown-up – provoking questions and subverting, certainly, but wilfully attracting our attention and seducing our eyes as well.

I should say that I thoroughly enjoyed looking at both women’s work.  I am endlessly fascinated to watch the creative processes of artists – and the films of Von Rydingsvard studio were particularly interesting in that respect.  She speaks very honestly and openly about her approach.  As a student of Photography, I do find sculpture particularly interesting.  I’m not saying I always understand it, fully, but the physicality and three-dimensionality have something extra to offer, and I think my own interest in collage and assemblage is informed and inspired by sculptural work.  I looked at the way Von Rydingsvard layers and builds up her forms and wondered whether there is something else there to try out with my ‘cut-outs’ – layering them to give extra sense of dimension and physicality.  Not sure whether I can recall seeing anyone else do that – but I’m certain someone must have!

Semiotics and the ‘Textbook’ Project

 

Stability-of-the-latent-image.jpg

I attended an OCA Lecture day in Leeds at the weekend – delivered by OCA Art History & Visual Studies Tutor, Gerald Deslandes. Reflections on the day, which was devoted to the origins and development of Modernism & Postmodernism, are better suited to Contextual Studies but, as I said to Gerald as I was leaving, much of what he covered helped me to feel more confident about some of the work I’m doing in Body of Work.  I’m not sure that it was the lectures, specifically, that made me think afresh about my ‘Textbook’ project this morning, only partially I suspect, but something has led me to what feels like a better understanding of what this project is about.

In my previous post about it – here – I put it in the context of Analogue and Digital photographic processes, and that is certainly valid, but I realised this morning that it is also – more so, maybe – about Language and Signs.  The words, diagrams and images from this 1963 publication have lost, for me, their original meaning.  They do not signify what the writers intended.  For me, they signify an unintelligible, dead, language.  But, rather than approaching them like an archaeologist, seeking to decipher their original meaning, I appropriate them as unattached signifiers.  I construct something new, something whose ‘meaning’, for me, is the investigation and expression of my own creative use of digital methods, and which is an expression of the ‘ambiguity’ I discussed here.

The image above is a good example – and includes a ‘text’ based element, too.  Reading the image, as it is presented here, one might start with a formal analysis.  It is, clearly and obviously, a construction.  There is a ‘cut-out’ image in the foreground and some other ‘cut-outs’ in the background, with a slight background difference between the top third of the frame and the lower two-thirds, which together seem to suggest that this is a representation of a ‘landscape’.  the colour of the background (and the image of a polar bear in the foreground) appear to be specifically representing a ‘polar’ landscape, further confirmed by the suggestion of what appears to be snow around the boots of the two men in that foreground ‘cut-out’ image.  This foreground image seems to have been cut from an old photograph, its surface suggests the graininess of such an origin, and the dress of the two men also seems to signify the early part of the 20th century.  Each man is holding a rifle at his side, resting the butt on the floor and grasping the barrel.  They stand, slightly apart from each other, looking down at what must be a dead polar bear – and we almost certainly reach the conclusion that they shot it.  Two men, in the early part of the 20th century, shot a polar bear in a polar landscape!  They were photographed with the carcass, and I have now chosen, in the early part of the 21st century, to cut out their images from an old print of some nature!

Then we come to the other cut-outs, in the background.  There are four triangular shapes, each with a kind of bulge on the side. Three, positioned right at the back of the ‘landscape’ and to the left, are coloured light blue, with their ‘bulges’ in purple; the fourth, a little closer and larger, is coloured purple, with a black bulge.  They look as though they have been cut out from a printed source; each has a thin black outline and there are black spots printed inside each triangle.  Some also have other printed symbols – plusses and minuses, and arrows, in one case.  They have a diagrammatic look about them, though there is nothing to suggest what they might represent.  One of the blue triangles also has symbols outside its cut out shape – arrows pointing down to its left hand side and minus signs around its purple bulge.  All four of the triangles are slightly out of focus – though the arrows and minuses just identified are quite sharply defined.  Although the colours and diagrammatic qualities of these four triangles does not support such a conclusion, one might suppose that they have been placed to loosely suggest mountains in the polar landscape.  The ‘trained’ eye might read these diagrams as having some scientific significance, but there is little or nothing to explain what that might be.

Finally, within the frame of the image, there is a printed ‘caption’, which reads ‘Fig. 24. Stability of the latent image’.  The ‘content’ and the style of presentation of this text would seem to suggest that the image is either from, or we’re asked to consider that it might be from, a book, maybe an academically oriented book, given the use of ‘Fig. 24.’ and the specific nature of the language of the text.  All these symbolic elements – the foreground cut-out; the four triangle cut-outs; the ‘landscape’ background; and the caption – have been deliberately brought together for some purpose.  The ‘formal’ analysis of the image doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear conclusion and probably raises as many questions as it answers.  Contextually, presented as ‘art’, the image would probably be identified as having characteristics of the postmodern, and so the questions are about the artist and his purpose.  In any other context, the image is likely to be seen as curious and/or meaningless.  Printed large on a gallery wall, it would invite a close examination of its aesthetic qualities, which would (hopefully) lend it some ‘art-context’ credibility – the signification associated with a large, high-quality print and curatorial support.  As one of a series of images in a gallery (with supporting ‘artist statement’ and curatorial text) or, similarly, in a book of images, all based around some linking theme (perhaps all images made from the ‘Textbook’ for example) and with supporting text, it may begin to have some ‘significance’ in the analogue/digital context.

Fundamentally, though, it is a somewhat ambiguous collection of signifiers that are unlikely, without further information or context, to communicate much beyond the fact that I, the artist, chose to put them together and create this image.  Those who look at it – tutor and fellow students, for example – may be sufficiently drawn to begin speculating about my purpose/process and the origins of the individual parts of the image – but they will probably have to construct their own conclusions because there is little in the image itself to help.  Hence my own conclusion that I am appropriating these unattached signifiers and presenting them in a construction that has no significance beyond its own construct!  Interestingly, though, because I do know exactly where these individual elements of the image came from, I also know that they are not quite so unconnected as they may seem.  The triangular diagrams (which were not coloured in their original form) represent crystals of silver bromide, each with a speck of silver sulphide attached, and the sequence represents the process of formation of a ‘latent image’.  The foreground image was taken on a fatal polar expedition in 1897 but the exposed film lay in the icy environment for 33 years before being discovered and developed; that’s why it was included in a section of the book entitled ‘The Stability of the Latent Image’.  There, I’ve spoiled it now!