Time to regroup and reflect a little after what has been a fairly manic few months…
Generally, I feel really positive about the start I have made on Gesture & Meaning. Commuting to my new job has afforded me a lot more time to read so I have worked my way through quite a few of the recommended reading texts for the course. This has given me a broader understanding of the key discourses and concepts around photography and I am already feeling much more confident about critiquing my work and that of others. I think it was often a lack of confidence which affected my creativity in the past by leaving me with very one-track ideas and no contexts or references. I will have to still re-read a lot of the books, probably several times, to make sense of everything but things are definitely moving in the right direction.
I am also honing my research strategies. Mendeley has proved to be a really good tool for capturing web links and .pdfs that I’ll need to reference in future and it is helping me to organise source materials and, therefore, clarifying my thinking. Handwriting my notes, combined with mind-maps and spider diagrams, is allowing me to take a more analytical and holistic approach, rather than purely being led by the structure of the course notes or a linear, process-driven desire to dispense with each of the exercises.
Exposure to the work of many (often new-to-me) photographers is helping me to contextualise my image-making which I hope will lead to further development of my ‘voice’.
My challenge, as always, is lack of time. Whilst I can read and annotate books on the bus, I still need quality time at a desk or on a computer to write up my notes and give shape to my research findings and ideas. This means I must discipline myself and restrict the amount of research I do on each theme or photographer. This creates a constant internal conflict but it is reassuring to think that what really interests me can be revisited in much more depth at Level Three. When I feel panicky, I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is a journey of discovery: there will be many wonderful things to look at on the way but I must not go down too many rabbit holes or I’ll never reach the end.
Planning for Assignment One has been interesting. I’m sure there is a good reason for it but I think it is a shame that the OCA dictate that the social documentary work we produce must benefit a cause in some way. Derrick Price observes about Franks’ The Americans: “hereafter the subject matter of documentary is both dispersed and expanded to include whatever engages or fascinates the photographer.” Surely that would be more authentic and therefore more powerful? I thought about pulling an ‘FSA’ and using the freedom of the road to send back images which were not quite as expected but it feels a little early to be going against the grain. I will just have to be creative in fitting the brief to my work rather than the other way round.
We had been due to travel to Havana this week for what would have been the eighth time. Given that I have already taken many thousands of photographs there and that Cuba is on the verge of a(nother) massive change with the impending arrival of millions of Americans, I’d hatched a brilliant plan to create a series of images inspired by Constructivism and particularly Alexander Rodchenko.
My attention was caught when Derrick Price refers with interest to: “those groups who maintained that questions of representation were a central part of political struggle, and developed an alternative photographic practice to exemplify those ideas. Their intention was not to reveal how things looked in the ‘real world’, but to disrupt the surface appearance of the image in order to construct new meanings out of the old pictorial elements.” And specifically about how Rodchenko elaborated this practice: “Working against the central tenets of documentary, these artists argued that, in order to arrive at the meaning that lies below the surface of a photograph, it was necessary to contrive and manipulate the image.” 
One of my major drivers was how to avoid the ‘colonial gaze’. I have definitely been aware of this in some of my previous images from Cuba, even though the Habaneros are a powerful and dignified bunch.
My understanding of some of the key themes of Constructivism, as part of the modernist movement, seemed like a good fit: new angles of vision, “truth to materials”, formalism, celebration of a machine culture, the move from the artist’s studio to the factory of mass production as a reality as well as a metaphor for Cuba becoming integrated with the rest of the world and, of course, the relationship to communism and massive upheaval.
I promise it was going to be mind-blowingly good. Unfortunately, our trip was cancelled due to my husband’s ill health so this is a theme to which I must return next time we are lucky enough to go to Havana.
On the plus side, this has meant that I should have time to pursue my original idea for this assignment, which involves surveillance-style images. I have three weeks to pull it off. And counting..
I recently found some notes from a social documentary assignment for my first OCA level two course many years ago and comments from my then tutor the fabulous Jose Navarro included this excellent quotation by John Mraz about Sebastião Salgado: “Perhaps the best photojournalism fuses information and expression, document and symbol, in such a way as to create a metaphor: an image that retains the particularity of its referent but, at the same time, stands for a broader truth which transcends that immediate context.” 
Something to keep in mind.
Some things that have caught my eye recently:
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
― Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices
A recent article  in a Sunday supplement introduced me to the French artist JR (b 1983). He produces giant portraits for walls and pavements, pasted illegally in various cities and sees the streets as the largest gallery in the world. He believes that impromptu art projects can empower communities in poor areas. Sometimes known as an ‘artiviste’ a portmanteau from artist and activist – a label he dislikes – he was awarded a TED prize in 2011 which led him to develop Inside Out with the intention of sparking global change. This has since involved 250,000 people in 140 countries. JR remains anonymous and only allows himself to be photographed wearing sunglasses. And like Banksy, his work commands large sums which pays for his team and so he can travel. Caught up in a graffiti culture from an early age, in 2000 he found an abandoned film camera in a Paris Metro station and began documenting his friends before pasting repros of his pictures on urban walls.
[The idea of the found camera intrigues me but also makes me sad. The camera was probably lost rather than abandoned. What was on the film when he found it? Did he try to find the owner? Has the owner since read this story and made the connection? How did the original owner’s life change when they lost their camera or did they really abandon it and why?]
“I am always at the border of failure, because that’s where you take the real risk. When there’s a big chance of failure, there’s also a big chance of success.” JR is an optimist and has a winning personality by several accounts. And he has a love of humanity which shines through in his work and his interactions. Here are some of the images.
In the scope of researching around surveillance and voyeurism, I came across this delightful podcast. I think it is fictional but quite beautiful nevertheless and raises some interesting ideas about responsibility (“I didn’t ask them not to have curtains!”) and how easily strangers can become involved in each other’s stories.
After looking at Arne Svenson’s work The Neighbors, I have been thinking about the where the line is, in much contemporary social documentary, between the gaze at ‘the Other’ and how we are often merely recognising ourselves in the lives of our fellow humans. And what is the distance between empathy and voyeurism?
This article very much appealed to me. I have not done nearly enough ‘sketching’ as a photographer and remember having the same block when I first started properly drawing and painting. I was so afraid to produce something that people would not think was good: “what if someone sees this and I am revealed as a fake?”. Those insecurities linger but are much weaker now. Keith Greenhough mentioned how he used his iPhone to scope out sites for his ‘Lifting the Curtain’ project and that inspired me to do more. The convergence of tech encourages this – we have great cameras in our pockets at all times and platforms such as Instagram to share explorations. There is really no excuse.
Next I must master digital contact sheets….
- Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London: Routledge. (p. 103)
- Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London: Routledge. (p. 97)