Good feedback from Jesse on my assignment. He describes it as being a “great first assignment” and a “substantial submission”. I was worried he might find the physical presentation a bit gimicky but he did not.
As feared though, he did mention the folder I used. I’d searched for something convincingly cold war era but ended up with a black plastic Ryman’s special due to the ridiculous cost of unbranded manilla wallets. I will definitely find something more suitable and ‘archival’ before assessment.
The images being a bit tonally flat was also mentioned. I had wanted to emphasise the bureaucratic and utilitarian feel to the images but had also hoped they would be acceptable in their own right. Jesse does say “The actual photographs are also strong. There is continuity throughout the set and stand alone in themselves.” so hopefully I just about got away with it.
The core of the critique is around some of the issues I wrestled with.
“… my main criticism of your visual and stylistic approach is that it feels like it belongs to a much earlier era: it is very ‘analogue’ in terms of how you have resolved these very current and pertinent themes. It feels a lot more ‘Cold War’ rather than ‘War on Terror’. The grainy black and white photographs are largely to do with this, and I wonder whether whether a more present day vernacular aesthetic wouldn’t be better to play around with.
I suppose I would have been more excited by something that echoed more present ideas about information gathering. Particular ones ‘digital identity’ – how is our information about who we know, where we go, what we do and what we buy is stored and used. This is referenced in your introductory text, but isn’t explored in the ‘documents’ or the images. I think a more interesting approach might have been to appropriate images from the internet (distant friends on facebook for instance – or whoever you could find) and piece together stories, or explore the idea of ‘anomalies’ through images that somebody has uploaded or been tagged in. I think, for example, that if instead of the black and white images, the ‘files’ accompanied with a family portrait or works night out selfie might have a much more chilling resonance.
On the documents, the ‘anomaly’ seems to be very arbitrary – which is I guess the point, but I wonder how you might give the viewer something more to work with in the imagery so that they might have a greater engagement with the image, or a set of images/other pieces of information. (I like the way that your torn fragments in the book give less away and helps create a tension between the image and the text.) Might it not be fun to let the viewer’s prejudices and sense of stereotypes be drawn out by identifying the ‘anomaly’ themselves?”
I did comment to Jesse afterwards that I had settled on the ‘cold war aesthetic’ as I felt it would have more universal appeal and understanding than something more contemporary or futuristic. However, I totally agree with all his comments and plan to explore some of these ideas further at a later stage.
Another idea I have played around more is the CCTV aesthetic (if there is a such a thing?). This image is not right because it is not from a high enough angle but I think there is some potential to this approach.
I sort of wish I had pursued that line with all my subjects. Had I shot them all from the second floor as they walked towards the entrance of our block of flats (as with Jean-Philippe), I think there would have been a collective activity implication that would be interesting. It probably would not work with the ‘anomaly’ idea though as what I wanted to stress their was everyone’s individuality.
From the blurb: “The Commissar Vanishes offers a chilling look at how one man – Joseph Stalin – manipulated the science of photography to advance his own political career and to erase the memory of his victims. On Stalin’s orders, purged rivals were airbrushed from group portraits, and crowd scenes were altered to depict even greater legions of the faithful. In one famous image, several Party members disappeared from an official photograph, to be replaced by a sylvan glade. For the past three decades, author and photohistorian David King has assembled the world’s largest archive of photographs, posters, and paintings from the Soviet era. His collection has grown to more than a quarter of a million images, the best of which have been selected for The Commissar Vanishes. The efforts of the Kremlin airbrushers were often unintentionally hilarious. A 1919 photograph showing a large crowd of Bolsheviks clustered around Lenin, for example, became, with the aid of the retoucher, an intimate portrait of Lenin and Stalin sitting alone, and then, in a later version, of Stalin by himself. The Commissar Vanishes is nothing less than the history of the Soviet Union, as retold through falsified images, many of them published here for the first time outside Russia. In each case, the juxtaposition of the original and the doctored images yields a terrifying – and often tragically funny – insight into one of the darkest chapters of modern history.”
Another OCA student also reminded me of the Control Order House project which we saw in Brighton a few years ago.
On balance, I am pleased with Jesse’s positive and constructively critical feedback and with my work for this assignment. I stepped outside my comfort zone and am broadly satisfied with the results. This course already feels transformational for me so I am delighted with my current, albeit slow, progress.