Assignment Six: the critical review

Finding the right distance: Mathieu Pernot’s Les Gorgan, 1995-2015

Towards the end of August 2017, I visited the Maison des Peintres, part of Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. The exhibition was ‘Les Gorgan, 1995-2015’ by Mathieu Pernot. My initial response on arrival at the gallery was guarded. When I saw that the subject matter was a ‘local’ Roma family, my filtering began to dismiss it as perhaps being weaker than some of the globally-recognised work we had seen at the festival. And it wasn’t neatly packaged for me. Was I looking at documentary or portraiture?  There was a jarring mixture of B&W and colour, with vernacular snapshots interspersed amongst more formal captures, like an oversized family album. Within minutes though I was captivated. The tenderness and mutual respect between photographer and subject was evident throughout and the vitality of the individuals irrepressible. And this was clearly not a one-way narrative with passive ‘prey’. Pernot’s storytelling has many voices, layers and points of view.

As I wandered around, I was approached by a small child asking for ‘une petite pièce’. It immediately seemed odd as the security for Les Rencontres is very strict.  Momentarily pretending I didn’t understand what I was being asked, I turned my handheld fan toward her, which elicited a broad and beautiful grin. In that instant, I realised the little girl was a Gorgan. For me, this family had already assumed celebrity status, indicated – not least – by the large photographs of them on the walls in front of me. Thanks to the advanced portraiture skills of the photographer, I already felt I was beginning to know them intimately. And so it was a surreal experience to be interacting with one of the stars of the show, and it created an aura which may have surprised Walter Benjamin. (1) I must confess I panicked. Would it be patronising to give money? Should we be encouraging begging? Haven’t I already paid enough for this?  It was an awkward encounter which soon passed as the frustrated young Gorgan moved on to a new mark. But it was a moment that has stayed with me. I contacted Pernot to ask about this project and told him of the incident, intrigued to know how it would make him feel. His response was wonderfully positive: “The fact that the Gorgans were physically present in this exhibition is a process of reappropriation that touched me a lot.” (2)

Reappropriation is a strong theme for Pernot and one that epitomises his ethical approach to his work. Images taken from several projects have been collated and repurposed and photos taken by the family themselves have been integrated. There are no hierarchies and the ‘art image’ is demystified, enhancing the narrative. Pernot makes the most of photography’s peculiar properties – its democratic nature and its malleability, in particular.

Mathieu Pernot first encountered this Roma family while studying photography in Arles in 1995 and found it to be a transformative experience when a strong connection between photographer and subject was formed. He’s made portraits of Les Gorgan individually and as a unit for over 20 years, becoming part of the extended family and godparent to one of the daughters. He has also founded and funded Yaka, an association to support literacy and the integration of Roma children in the local community, and provide mediation for families struggling with state institutions.

His images are superbly executed, capturing the personalities, familial dynamics, their home environment and the fierce heat of Arles, as well as some of the more familiar tropes of ‘la vie gitane’. The attraction, however, is not nostalgic or romanticized, and certainly not driven by the aesthetics of folklore. Pernot does not hide the poverty but nor does he dwell on it. He reveals to us unique personalities. The overarching impression is of the energy and strong family bonds, and of the Gorgans prevailing, even in such difficult circumstances.

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Jonathan and his father Johny © Mathieu Pernot

With a strongly humanist mindset, Pernot talks of a desire to create ‘monuments’. Many photographers have sought to ‘monumentalize’ their subjects – Hine, Sander, Smith, Arbus, perhaps even Gilden. This often involves the heroic elevation of a social status or profession or decontextualizing the sitters, as with Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990) and Native Americans (1995-96). Serrano admires Edward S Curtis, someone often accused of misrepresenting the indigenous people of the Americas by romanticising their folkways and fabricating a false reality. Serrano dismisses this idea: “That’s the nature of photography—it’s all manipulation…Curtis made his sitters look good, and what’s wrong with that?”. (3)

Curtis wanted to document traditional Native American life before it disappeared and was committed to portraying his models as dignified and noble. Paul Ardenne, however, claims that Curtis contributed to “an insidious segregation that turned people who were different into outcasts, transforming the ‘other’ immersed in his separate culture into a savage who could never be acculturated.” (4) Single posed portraits, made to monumentalize the subjects, tend to focus on external appearance – often just heads and shoulders – “as if those parts of our bodies were our truth” as Tagg observes. (5)  This can convey a polysemous idea of the subject’s identity rather than indicating their connection to the wider society.

The attempts to monumentalize are entirely different here. There is no hubris, no patronising objectification. Pernot says the Gorgans exist in “a hyper incarnate world… they are like magnets with infinite power of attraction”. (6) He has tried to capture this energy, especially the children, ‘en guenilles, débordante de vie’ (in rags overflowing with life), for over 20 years. His focus is on the human, not ignoring the differences but not fetishizing them either. It is this nuanced strategy that allows him to cross the divide. Common metonyms of the Roma existence are deconstructed and blended with new perspectives and intimate, tender portrayals. History is recomposed. Les Gorgan are ‘Other’ but when we look at these images we hear them speak. These are three-dimensional individuals, not caricatures.  Here we feel we can start to know and understand these ethnographic strangers, bursting with life from within the images. We can meet them in the middle and it is exhilarating.

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Johny and Vanessa © Mathieu Pernot

Whilst researching for an exhibition in the late 90s, Pernot accessed hundreds of police identification files relating to the Saliers gypsy internment camps during the Vichy regime. (7) He also discovered that Bietschika Gorgan was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, a stark reminder of the genocide and relentlessly hostile racist environment endured by the Romani for centuries. In these current times of heightened global tensions and mass migration, demonisation of the Other as a scapegoat for all political ills continues to gain traction.  Pernot takes a stand against that, subverting the panopticon gaze by humanising his subjects and giving a clear voice to this marginalised group.

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Political deportee card of Bietschika Gorgan, 1945. Reproduction Mathieu Pernot

The fragile, nomadic and transitory existence we glimpse with this family is echoed in how the work depicts the passage of time. We see the changes, growth, ageing, death and decay, the birthdays, weddings and funerals. It is always fluid and Pernot responds with equal fluidity, his process evolving constantly, as genre boundaries are blurred. He talks of being “more theoretical, even cold” (8) at the start. Inspired by Josef Koudelka who lived with gypsy clans in the 70s and 80s, Pernot decided to keep more of a distance and take a conceptual approach closer to that of Walker Evans. (9)  The early images were in black and white and very much in a documentary tradition but this changed with time. “The distance I have adopted with the Gorgan family has varied over the years. I was standing far enough away at first and I was taking pictures of people, often asking them to look at me. There was the idea of ​​a face-to-face meeting between two people who were strangers to each other. In my last colour photographs, I am closer to them and I make images that show greater proximity. In the end, the ‘good distance’ has probably consisted in the variation of these distances, as it exists in every human relation.” (10)

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Vanessa © Mathieu Pernot

As well as Pernot’s agile response to finding the right distance with Les Gorgan – “face to face, then side by side” – he also demonstrates flexibility in the multi-media strategies he uses to further the narrative. “A diversity of forms and points of view were necessary to take account of the density of life that came into my view”. (11) The combination of text, audio, archival materials, drawings, video, Polaroids, ‘found’ photographs, smartphone images, photobooth mugshots, as well as his own large-format images, makes for a rich and engaging journey for the viewer, reflecting Pernot’s deep and multi-faceted connection with the family.

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Johny and Rocky © Mathieu Pernot

Another key factor in maintaining the right distance, Pernot deploys appropriation as a critique of representation. When he was unable to spend time with the family, they filled some of the gaps by providing their own snapshots. These were included in the exhibition in Arles, sacred gallery space that is normally reserved for established artists only. When one of the Gorgan sons, Rocky, died in 2012, a portrait by Pernot was framed as a medallion on his tomb. As Clément Chéroux points out “Mathieu Pernot also now exhibits in the cemetery in Arles.” (12) This loop of appropriation emanates from the trusted connection that has been established, and feeds back into it, but may also lead us to ask questions about authorship and art. Pernot does not seem to care about this: “The question is not whether my work is art, document, participatory ethnography or other things. I like that things are moving, that they are not fixed and locked in a single use. Photography is like life, it is both very complex and something very simple. Some of the pictures I made recently may look like the ones the Gorgans have made. The idea that we do not know very well who is the author of certain images I like a lot.” (13)

Pernot builds on his photography practice with sociology, anthropology, history, ethnography and political science. Through close collaborations, his sincere humanist standpoint, consistently respectful and selfless interactions, plus the long-lasting relationship with his subjects, Pernot’s dynamic approach is an exemplar of ethical representation in portrait photography. He shows the individuality of those he photographs, whilst capturing the commonalities that connect us as humans. Pernot’s images are close-up and brave. They are intimate and revealing and, above all, they succeed because of his overriding concern throughout to find the ‘la bonne distance’. He says, “There are two kinds of photographs: those related to a photographer’s request, when he asks the subjects to play a role; and those related to immersing the photographer in a place, letting the image unfold itself.” (14)

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Ninaï, Ana and Rocky © Mathieu Pernot

Pernot’s formula resonates strongly with me. He does not shy away from trying to portray ‘the Other’ but tackles this with such sensitivity, and through respectful alliances (“faire avec”), that his authenticity shines through in every shot.  As Jim Mortram says about his project Small Town Inertia: “…the real key is to check one’s ego in at the door, to not think of the camera as a free pass or a shield.” (15) Pernot’s skill in combining stunning aesthetics with an ethical position and a strong political message is impressive and inspiring.

In my own practice, I aim to be reflexive, maintaining what Gerry Badger describes as “the artist’s crucial detachment, that of consciousness and intent”. (16) Portraiture is, of course, exploitative by default but I must remain aware of my privilege and power as a photographer, and always be truthful. But I also wish to live by Pernot’s philosophy: “There are things that are more important than the photos you take and you have to let go and be carried away.” (17)

The ‘right distance’ changes all the time but it can be found by maintaining a close, long-term and collaborative connection with our subjects. Above all, we must be humanistic and authentic. Creating a false impression of proximity will undermine relationships and ultimately detract from the success of the images. Pernot sets a high benchmark in the ethical representation of his subjects and it is reflected in the quality of his work.

He plays it down, of course, “I simply met incredible characters who actually changed my way of seeing things.” (18)  Les Gorgan is not just an extended portrait; it builds a monument to their family bonds and the strength of the Roma community. More than that, it is a love letter to the human race.

 

Helen Rosemier, OCA 416376, June 2018


References

  1. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm (Accessed on 24.6.18)
  2. “Le fait que les Gorgan aient été physiquement présents dans cette exposition relève d’un processus de réappropriation qui m’a beaucoup touché.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
  3. http://www.hcponline.org/publications/spot-issues/spring-1996/andres-serrano (Accessed on 29.6.18)
  4. Ardenne, P. & Nora, E. (2004). Face to face : the art of portrait photography. Paris Great Britain: Flammarion.
  5. Tagg, J. (1988). The burden of representation : essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.
  6. “Le monde des Gorgan est un monde hyper incarné. (…) Ils sont comme des aimants avec une puissance d’attraction infinie, je suis bien obligé d’en faire le constat.” https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/par-les-temps-qui-courent/mathieu-pernot (Accessed on 28.4.18)
  7. http://maneo31.fr/IMG/pdf/panneaux_expo_saliers.pdf (Accessed on 13.5.18)
  8. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/mathieu-pernots-les-gorgan/ (Accessed on 28.4.18)
  9. Chéroux, Clément (2017) ‘Trouer l’éternité’ In: Pernot, Mathieu Les Gorgan 1995-2015. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral
  10. “La distance que j’ai adoptée avec la famille Gorgan a varié au fil des années. Je me tenais assez loin au début et je faisais des photographies face aux gens en leur demandant souvent de me regarder. Il y avait l’idée d’un face à face entre 2 personnes étrangères l’une à l’autre. Dans mes dernières photographies en couleur, je suis plus près d’eux et je fais des images qui témoignent d’une plus grande proximité. Au final la bonne distance a sans doute consisté en la variation de ces distances, comme cela existe dans chaque relation humaine.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
  11. https://www.en.jimeiarles.com/mathieu-pernot-the-gorgans/ (Accessed on 13.5.18)
  12. “Mathieu Pernot expose donc désormais aussi au cimetière d’Arles.” Chéroux, Clément (2017) ‘Trouer l’éternité’ In: Pernot, Mathieu Les Gorgan 1995-2015. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral
  13. “La question n’est pas de savoir si mon travail relève de l’art, du document, de l’ethnographie participative ou d’autre choses. J’aime que les choses soient en mouvement, qu’elles ne soient pas figées et enfermées dans un usage unique. La photographie ressemble à la vie, elle relève à la fois d’une grande complexité et de quelque chose de très simple. Certaines des images que j’ai faites récemment peuvent ressembler à celles que les Gorgan ont réalisées. L’idée que l’on ne sache plus très bien qui est l’auteur de certaines images me plait beaucoup.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)
  14. “ll y a deux sortes de photographies: celles qui sont liées à une demande du photographe, quand il demande aux sujets de jouer un rôle; et celles qui sont liées à l’immersion du photographe dans un lieu, laissant l’image se déployer d’elle-même.” https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-grande-table-1ere-partie/avec-mathieu-pernot-et-ilsen-about (Accessed on 13.5.18)
  15. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/05/qa-j-a-mortram-on-his-ten-year-project-small-town-inertia/ (Accesed on 13.1.18)
  16. http://www.gerrybadger.com/notes-from-the-margin-of-spoiled-identity-the-art-of-diane-arbus/ (Accessed on 25.2.18)
  17. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/mathieu-pernots-les-gorgan/ (Accessed on 28.4.18)
  18. “J’ai tout simplement rencontré des personnages incroyables qui ont effectivement changé ma façon de voir les choses.” Pernot, Mathieu (2018) [Interview by email, 9th May 2018] (in French, translated via Google Translate)

 

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Mark Dion, Whitechapel Gallery – OCA Study Visit 15.4.18

This show begins with an arresting tableau: an aviary containing an apple tree, bolted together, and adorned with books and bric-a-brac, and 22 live, tweeting, zebra finches. There is a lot of bird poo. We can go inside and share the space with the creatures. The key message seems to be how indifferent the birds are to the ‘library’ (books gathered locally by the gallery staff) as a metaphor for our inability to understand the natural world.

The room also contains four large structures simulating ‘hides’ used by hunters and observers in the wild. On the walls, there are medieval style standards featuring fictitious crests which celebrate the violence of hunting. The hides are characterised by types of hunter (Dandy-Rococo and The Glutton) and represent traditions becoming out-moded (The Ruin) – a lost way of life. One of these hides (or ‘blinds’) literally holds up a mirror to us. Another is too high to see properly and is vertigo-inducing, perhaps symbolising the precarity of man’s perceived dominance over nature.

Upstairs, the artist has recreated a study which may belong to a Victorian naturalist, featuring drawings (all in blue and red crayon – see the explanation below), specimens and wonders of the world or of our imaginations. A series of simple drawings of Dead Trees, made in tar, is opposite a row of black and white photographs of taxidermied polar bears, presaging their imminent extinction.  The wallpaper repeats a pattern of extinct animals. The room is warm and welcoming at first but soon starts to feel small and claustrophobic.  Dion says, “Artists must resist nostalgia… When we reference the past it is not to evoke ‘the good old days’. Our relation to the past is historical, not mythical.”  We are encouraged to browse through the books which have prominent Mark Dion branding but do help to provide a wider context for his work.

Next, we experience the frustration of not being able to enter the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, 2005. This has a 1920s feel and is stuffed with curiosities and, I expect, ideas that I wouldn’t be able to fathom.  The wallpaper has a Rorschach motif and monograms, from famous Surrealists apparently.

The next room houses a large museum-style storage cabinet with drawers displaying items found around Bankside before the construction of the Tate Modern complex. There are also photos of the team involved in the work (in black and white – why?)

The final room is a modern simulation of the Wunderkammer depicted in 17th C engravings, full of crude sculptures coated with luminescent paint and displayed in darkness to give a ghostly but modern effect. Dion describes these creations as “testament to the abstraction, destruction and metamorphosis that human beings enact on the natural world.”

This show is a mish-mash of Dion’s work over the two decades and as such has had to weave together some disparate elements. It is very evocative – we have a strong sense of the muddy banks of the Thames and the camaraderie of the volunteers, as well as life inside the hunting hides. I was left with a feeling, though, that there are almost too many ideas to take in and the connections are not always obvious, making the journey a bit bumpy. The installations don’t quite fit right within the space and where there is emptiness, it seems wasted.

Dion’s obsession is clear and the sheer depth of research is remarkable so all the work feels very authentic. He says he wants to slow us down and that there are rewards for those who are careful and attentive. It certainly is thought-provoking, causing unease for the viewer, even where the art is playful or absurd.  Dion says we should not get hung up on what is or isn’t art: be critical, bring yourself to this theatre.  The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. He encourages us to be detectives at a crime scene.

Themes/ideas

  • Trees. The tree of life; of knowledge; of evolution – phylogenetic; of societal, philosophical and spiritual hierarchies.  Visual metaphors.
  • Use of the word ‘theatre‘ in the title – a stage for various actors. Could also be alluding to a medical theatre?  Is Dion a conjurer? We become part of the performance eg only four people being allowed into the aviary, entering the Dandy-Rococo hide to observe the rest of the gallery room.
  • The overlap – or at least connections – and exclusions between science and art. Lots of grey areas between objectivity and subjectivity.  Dion explores the nature of science and art institutions as well as natural history and the history of ideas. He revels in the complexity and glory of the natural world but also emphasises how our fascinations and interactions are destructive and irreversible.  Sometimes, he seems to be saying, it is hard to identify where observation and conservation become exploitation.
  • It is human nature to hunt, collect, observe, taxonomise, create classifications and order, finding meanings and connections and also ultimately to dominate, subjugate and objectify. The link between knowledge and violence (Victorian colonialism).
  • Collaboration. Dion works closely in consultation with local authorities, historians, ecologists and volunteers to mobilise excavations and scavenger hunts resulting in a huge treasure haul of found objects, historical artefacts, curiosities and bits of plastic crap. Equity of presentation. He is relinquishing some control and allowing for human error and for quirks to be introduced. He acknowledges the team and gives them wall space.
  • Orphaned collections. How museums and galleries (and all of us) decide what is worth preserving and what can fall into obsolescence and obscurity.  ‘Relegated to oblivion’. How to accord ‘value and significance’.
  • The Uncanny. We are never quite sure what is real and what is not. What is right and what is not. How far we can interact with the natural world without destroying it?
  • The red and blue pencil drawings. I found this to be intriguing and have luckily now discovered the ‘meaning’ here:

    These drawings are created using an “accountant’s pencil,” which are blue on one side (for additions) and red on the other (for losses). The pencil has become a staple of Dion’s work, at first just for sketching out sculptures and installations, but over time the drawings have evolved into artworks themselves. The accountant’s pencil allows Dion “to differentiate aspects of the drawing, be that foreground and background, details and generalities, even different responsibilities for myself and my assistants.”

For further research and consideration

  • The meaning and implications of nostalgia. How does it impact what we do, or don’t do, today? How is it weaponised and politicised?
  • The use of tar as a medium for the dead tree drawings. Tar is caused by ‘destructive distillation’ – the breakdown of organic matter and has some associations with pollution (hence the pigeon skeleton in tar next to these drawings, although why a pigeon and not a seabird – a more traditional association?). Tar is also used to preserve wood and make things waterproof and as a traditional topical medicine.
  • What makes it ‘bathetic‘ (per the review in The Standard)
  • Robert Smithson – why does Dion reference his weight?
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  • Hiroshi Sugimoto (referenced in the Guardian review as doing some of this much better).
  • Comparisons with Joan Fontcuberta.
  • Comparisons with Robert Zhao Renhui.
  • Comparisons with Batia Suter.
  • Speculative Realism. Never heard of it. What the hell is it

Key takeaways for my practice

  • The sheer eclecticism of show; mixed-media adds a richness and diversity and is very appealing and inspirational.  ‘Fragments and miscellany’. The World in a Box. “The Incomplete Writings of …”
  • Fascinating emphasis on connections and intersections. The surrealist approach of putting things together that would not normally exist side by side.
  • The creation of immersive habitats to explore multiple, complex ideas.
  • Including more drawings to show context and evolution of work and ideas.
  • Playing with scale (worked really well in the Wunderkammer room).
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Assignment Five – the oral presentation

Please do leave your comments when you have had a chance to watch the presentation.

There is a bit more info on the planning and prep here and here.

https://vimeo.com/262835135

The password is ChaCha.

PS Many thanks to my study buddy Rob Townsend for helping me out of a techno nightmare in getting this converted to video format…

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Assignment Five – planning and preparation

Having decided on the topic of ‘The Ethics of Representation in Portrait Photography’, the next step was to create a list of the key issues underpinning this area, such as power relations, indexicality, mass production, reflexivity, authorship, semiotics, context etc

This meant that I could pin insights and examples from my research around these themes to help surface my ideas, articulate the basis of my exploration and present some provocative questions.

It helped to distil all this down into five or six bullet points per theme and then start to group the themes to find the right narrative flow for the presentation. Using Post-it notes gave me flexibility but also gave me licence to be rather indecisive.

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To keep some control over the tentacles of this beast, I started to map out a structure. At this point, I referred back to the brief again to ensure I had covered the key areas.

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From this, I was able to create a more detailed storyboard.

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Key challenges:

  • Making the research material manageable. This is a vast subject and almost every photography book I have touches on it in some way. The research potential is pretty much infinite so it was a struggle to keep the volume of information under control and not become overwhelmed.  Storyboarding really helped to combat this.
  • Choosing images which were provocative without me editorialising too much. The audio part of the presentation inevitably changes the context of an image but not necessarily in the way the artist would have intended.
  • Cutting the presentation down without losing key elements of the narrative. My first run-through was over 23 minutes long so I had to axe a lot of ideas and images. Once I had cut out multiple examples, things I might find difficult to pronounce (eg Erno Nussenzweig) or other non-essentials, I realised that the journey had become choppy and I needed to reintroduce some linking ideas to smooth it out.
  • The technical aspect of publishing the final presentation. This has actually been the biggest challenge. Having an ancient computer and lack of suitable software means I cannot export the presentation in a format that can be uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube. Playback on the PPT itself can be jumpy meaning that sometimes there is a transition to another slide before the audio has fully played, completely ruining the whole effect. Fixing this issue is a work in progress. I am on Plan E at the moment.

Key learnings:

  • I need to be able to identify, with confidence, the tipping point when I have researched – and understood – enough on a topic to be able to have clarity of thought, and laser-focus, in my critical position. This distillation process needs to start a lot earlier.
  • Ethics is a very big subject and it would have been better to narrow my focus of study. I had to skip over a number of areas (for instance, I didn’t make time to explore the visual language used by contemporary practitioners in any detail – this needs to be investigated further, later on in my studies).
  • It is difficult to determine a fixed ethical position as every scenario is as unique and complex as we are as human beings. This is why reflexivity is so important. It could be useful to discuss specific examples with other students in future, not least as some form of therapy.
  • ‘Specificity’ is really hard to say out loud.
  • I really dislike Bruce Gilden’s work.
  • I probably should have include a NSFW warning on slide 7 (and maybe 23 although I don’t think that is Cha Cha’s penis, is it?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Assignment Five – unpacking the brief

Like most G&M students, I suspect, I was rather apprehensive about the oral presentation assignment, not least because of the Powerpoint requirement. It is also a slightly different medium for the communication of our ideas; lots in common with a blog post or illustrated essay but the audio recording element adds complexity.

The brief is very broad “you’re free to choose from any of the study areas on this course”. At first, I thought this meant we should just focus on either social doc, fine art photography, portraits or advertising, choosing our favourite area. I feared this may quickly become dull, however, ending up as a whistle-stop summary of the coursework.

The key instruction seemed to be to demonstrate an understanding of the underpinning issues of the topic and show how I’ll adapt them to my future practice.

I decided to explore an area which has been vexing me lately which was ethics, particularly in portraiture. I’d become uneasy that I may not have exercised full disclosure with some of my models for my ‘Anomaly’ surveillance project (ironically) for assignment one of G&M and I have been wrestling with my feelings over a photo shoot last year with a bi-polar friend.

The brief suggests looking at: historical background; contemporary practitioners, visual language, influences and contexts; relevance to practice; future plans and direction and possible projects relating to this area of study.

Another key element is that the final presentation can and should be shared in a way that allows for student reviewers to ask questions and for me to be able to reply.

I worked on the assumption that this assignment is trying to simulate a talk or presentation at a conference or seminar.  With this in mind, I took the rash decision to anchor the opening section on one of my images. I intended to set the scene that this would be a bit quirky and quite a personal exploration, not one obsessed with historical timelines or how I can make photographs more like those of the practitioners who influence my thinking and my work.

As well as meeting the key requirements of the brief, my objective was to share some interesting images, ask thought-provoking questions and establish my critical position on the topic.

Final subject title: “The ethics of representation in portrait photography”. Way too to tackle in 15 hours, let alone 15 minutes (+ 2 minutes)…

 

 

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Reflection – January 2018

I am busy decluttering and regrouping for the new year. My ‘intentions’ have been mind-mapped.

‘Make more art’ has made it into the top three key elements. As well as committing to the 365 project again, I have included:

  • Experiment bravely
  • Fill more sketchbooks
  • Embrace failure (mistakes are spellbooks)
  • Enter competitions
  • More intentional image-making
  • Visit more galleries, more regularly

Recent random thoughts…

Will the recent change to the character limit on Twitter and how we refine our propositions. It is often said that distillation is a creative superpower. Trying to portray an idea in a single image sometimes feels as hard as trying to articulate a challenge or a problem in one word in the business environment. We watched the movie Arrival last week which led me to read up on the (now discredited) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic relativity. Does the use of say, emojis, change the way we think?

Useful insights from Jeremy Bullmore, non-exec director of ad agency WPP:  “By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis. To generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknown. But you cannot paint the future in the colours of the past.  Other people’s imaginations need to be engaged, excited, signed on as accomplices. And the choice of the language you use is not arbitrary and inconsequential; for an insight to have real potency, the language in which it is couched is at least as important as the inner truth itself. For an insight to have real potency, literal accuracy is less important than its power to evoke.

Bullmore also famously wrote: “People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon.” and then declared it to be demonstrably untrue here.  He makes the point that birds intentionally seek materials for nest-building. We must always put in the work.

Talking about market research he says, “Giving high potency to an insight is an intensely creative act: it requires a massive injection of imagination. As with any other creative act, it also demands an understanding of what is already in the receiver’s mind; and just as importantly, what is not already in the receiver’s mind. Metaphors, similes and analogies work only when the reference points are already familiar to their audience.”

I seem to recall Mark Twain saying, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

This is a wonderful perspective: http://www.thebookoflife.org/art-is-advertising-for-what-we-really-need/

“If advertising images are to blame for instilling a sickness in our souls, the images of artists are what can reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of particular bits of our lives.”  We know that art is appropriated by advertising and vice versa and in our spectacle society wheels turn within astonishing wheels.  There are some good examples here of where the two overlap.

I regularly see ads in street art format on the walls of buildings in Shoreditch. If I must be bombarded with sales messages, I personally would rather see this aesthetic than traditional outdoor poster sites. But it infuriates some of the street artists who will spray over the messaging and admonish against the commercialisation.

Is the constant digital feedback loop for consumers – and the behavioural analysis that is now technologically possible – different from the classic advertising persuasion piece? This seems to be much more in favour of the individualism of the target, albeit rather creepy when machines ‘know’ so much from our browsing history.

Having rarely worked with a tripod except when shooting video, I am surprised by how detached I feel from the experience, compared with holding the camera up to my face. The slower process is enjoyable and I can understand why Alec Soth favours this with his portraits of strangers. There is time for a connection to form with the subject matter but it feels more like the camera is doing the job, rather than the photographer.  Odd.

 

 

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Assignment Four – images and submission notes

As per my statement of intent, this work aims to “reflect, support and extend the Foul Play brand, positioning it at the high end of the market, appealing to the true crime aficionados as well as those aspiring to become part of this growing and powerful community.” As this is a new launch, it must use some of the existing visual language representing this genre to attract readers to the brand, as it establishes its personality and credentials.

Target demographic

  • Millennials
  • Primarily females
  • Cosmopolitan/metropolitan
  • Digital natives
  • Comfortable financially, living in small urban spaces
  • Multi-media-savvy
  • Active on social media
  • Consumers of true crime podcasts/TV series/books

Brand identity

  • Eerie, mildly threatening feel
  • Non-sensationalist
  • Eschewing grisly crime scenes
  • Absolutely no sexualisation of passive victims
  • Stylish, high-end
  • Unashamed

The images have been constructed to create some frightening scenarios, encouraging the viewer to gaze and confront their fears within a safe environment. I have referenced some familiar visual tropes of the genre (black and white with red accents, use of creepy masks, amateur weapons, shadows) but have tried to elevate the imagery avoiding the wholesale deployment of clichés (crime scene tape, bloodied knives, abandoned barns in the woods/top of an improbable hill, silhouettes coming out of the fog).

Final product

The magazine is being crafted by an independent publisher so I believe the calendar can have a handmade feel. This will also appeal to the millennial audience which favours artisan products. It will be bound by simple bulldog clips, in keeping with an investigation/case-file approach. This must be a functional product or it will be disregarded. The paper will be lustre so notes can be written in the date boxes.

Research

As far as we are aware, there is currently no direct magazine competitor to Foul Play at the high end of the market. As well as desk research on multi-media images associated with the genre, I have considered some of the major brands which are targeting this eclectic audience:

Key considerations in the creation and selection of the final images

  • Anonymity – adds to the mystery of the scenes and rejects the idea of personality cults around criminals
  • Women are the powerful observers – and effectively authors – of the image; no sexualisation or passivity – even the victims must have agency
  • Non-sensational – no blood, no aftermath crime scenes
  • On brand and appropriate/appealing to the target audience

 

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