Reflection – November 2015

So far, so good with Gesture & Meaning. I am really enjoying it so far even though my progress through the coursework feels slow.  My new job has afforded me the time to read on the bus from Liverpool Street to Edgware Road every day so I have been able to work through the whole of the course reader (Photography: A Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells) to give me a good overview right from the beginning. It is helping my broader understanding of the subjects that I will be tackling in the course soon. Not all of it makes sense yet but I am sure things will become clearer in time.

I’ve also been trying to take pictures everyday on my smartphone and sharing them on Instagram. The quality is not brilliant, of course, but it does encourage me to keep looking – even in my well-trodden local area – for good images.

Some things that have caught my eye and my imagination lately….

I was interested to see these images, taken by photographer Augustus Sherman of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island  I’m sure a lot of us somehow imagined that most immigrants would already be dressed in the generic rags they soon were wearing in the slums when they arrived from their homelands. The accompanying text hardly seems accurate. Most of these pictures do not look like they were ‘snapped’ as people passed through customs. But I guess those were very different times. Looks like I will be learning a lot more about this as I move on to the ‘Social Documentary and Race’ project.

On the subject of immigration… this ‘migrant chic’ photoshoot rather shocked me. I am not prudish and always believe that artists should be daring and push the boundaries but this just feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on a currently very hot topic. Spectacularly poor taste.

A new word for my list of ideas and concepts: Fernweh. According to Wiki this means literally “farsickness” or “longing for far-off places” ( the opposite of Heimweh ‎- “homesickness, longing for home”) i.e. wanderlust.  I have been thinking how I can capture this in photographic images. Not got there yet but will be keeping it in mind.

The December edition of BJP is themed around portraiture where the face is obscured. Featured photographers include Jack Davison, Robin Hammond, Christian Rodriguez and Jason Larkin. It reminded me a little of Alec Soth’s Unselfies. “The unselfie documents and annihilates. What we most want to see, what the traditional selfie most wants to show, is absent — and so we are forced to look even harder.”

On this theme, I have continued to be charmed by Simon Schama’s Face of Britain. This has opened my eyes up to all kinds of art that I had no idea existed or did not know the context – for example the Henry Tonks drawings of soldiers with facial disfigurements from the First World War.

I was particularly interested in the segment on the surveillance photos of the Suffragettes and how this transgresses the usual portraiture process, which is based on an understanding between the artist and the sitter. I also found the recent movie starring Carey Mulligan to be profoundly moving and this has inspired me to try to incorporate surveillance style images into my social documentary assignment.

Interesting article in a recent Time Out (Oct 6-12 2015) about Francisco de Goya being the father of the ‘psychological portrait’. The writer Martin Coomer explains that Goya is often considered to be the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. “Certainly he straddles not just centuries but epochs – the Ancien Regime, the birth of the enlightenment, the savage Napoleonic invasion of Spain and eventual restoration of a reactionary monarchy.  These turbulent episodes from history are equalled by seismic events in Goya’s own life, notably the illness that. in 1793, left him deaf.” Coomer claims whoever Goya is painting, he “can’t conceal that he’s looking with love, admiration or contempt.”  I can’t quite see this myself but then maybe I need to look harder.  I did realise today whilst contemplating this artist, that for years I have only ever been aware of his ‘pinturas negras’. And I am wondering if there are some photographic equivalents?

An interesting current example of social documentary with its roots in the FSA project:  The photographer Matt Black, a newly appointed nominee to Magnum, says: “…photography is as much an exercise in morality as it is one in aesthetics and artistry.” I like how he is using technology in his work – in this case geo-data and mapping capabilities of Instagram – to create a narrative in his work. More of his work here.

I think my head and my heart are still in Arles a little bit.  I get a wonderful feeling of being recharged whenever I think of it…  all those posters on the walls peeling off like artists’ hopes and dreams each year. We arrived at the end of the season and so could sense the sadness of missed opportunities and all the photographers desperate to be discovered and appreciated. What a tattered end to the summer for them. I like to mentally transport myself back to sitting in the Place du Forum with a pichet of rosé, watching the Dalmatian from the Cafe Van Gogh roam amongst the tourists. I will never forget seeing the white van driver (a woman!) nudging a very old, scatty lady who had wandered into the middle street and then shouting at her to get out of the way. And we had not even checked into the hotel before Matt had to buy his own hat back from someone who was smiling but definitely had an edge. Unusual town, Arles.

Great image and article about Adele:  “Adele is not public property, and that’s not up for debate.”  This is a very difficult look to achieve in portraiture and I suspect sometimes it is just a lucky capture of a split second when it all comes together.  I shall be working on this in future. The photographer was Theo Twenner.

Finally, I came across this article by Alan Titchmarsh about Jane Bown by accident (the Telegraph is really not my thing) but found it to be quite delightful.  “Before I knew where I was she said: ‘Well, there we are. I think we’ve got it.’ It may have taken 15 minutes, but I suspect it was more like 10.”  And: “… a remark she made having photographed Tony Blair. ‘I just couldn’t get him. I’m not sure there was anything there.’ ”  I hope I am still making portraits my 80s (and that I never have to be in the same room as Tony Bliar).




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One Response to Reflection – November 2015

  1. Catherine says:

    A really interesting round-up there Helen. You certainly seem to be enjoying this Module.


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