Reflection – March 2016

I am not entirely sure where the time has gone since I completed my first G&M assignment but gone it has and I am staring into the face of April already.  Things are going well though, overall. My directory of photographers is growing all the time and I am endlessly fascinated by the range of ideas, subjects and variety of styles.  Meanwhile, my understanding of the key concepts around photography and visual culture continues to develop and I’m able to read academic texts with more confidence. My challenge, as always, is to be able to find the time to contemplate what I am exposed to, distil the learnings and develop my own ideas sufficiently.

My optimum workflow  seems to involve a hybrid of handwritten notes, Mendeley, mass annotation and tagging of books and journals and mad scribbling in my commonplace book. This blog is good for reflection and the aggregation of loose ideas and points of interest and of course for the uploading of images for the coursework exercises.  I’ve found that attempting to write too many mini-essays here, suitable for public consumption, was slowing me down so this now feels like a better mix.

So on to the aggregation of loose ideas and points of interest…


The programme has been announced. I am still conflicted about how much research to do in advance. There is something delightful about seeing an image for the very first time exactly as the artist wanted it to be presented and I do find the atmosphere in Arles to be so conducive to that journey of exploration.

The chosen ‘cover’ image is certainly dramatic and has a wonderful colour palette and graphic design feel but it sets my teeth on edge.  Punctum, turbo-charged, possibly.

Fine Art photography research

Watching the Richard Billingham clip mentioned in the course notes, I was reminded why prison is not always a deterrent to people who have had very disrupted childhoods.   He is carrying the burden of blaming his parents for never locking the door – no wonder he seems so fragile. Not the same film but it is good to see that he raised the money for his Ray & Liz film project on Kickstarter.  The short film clip on Nowness reveals a world that is already familiar which is a testament to Billingham’s photographic skills.

From researching Larry Sultan: “I want to investigate the stereotype of the suburbs and complicate that stereotype, make it a richer field, something that isn’t filled with the assumption of generic lives.” [1]  This feels like a very positive approach: to complicate a stereotype.

Surveillance projects

These seem to be everywhere I look now. I wonder if culturally we are all starting to find this style visually attracting or if it is just that artists are becoming more concerned about the implications.

This project is interesting (although not very visually appealing to me) because it so powerfully shows how intrusive public webcams can be. It inspired an idea to try this style of representation next time I go to Havana (or possibly to treat some of my existing images in this style).  I am still struggling to pinpoint why this imagery appeals to me so much – maybe as they say here it is the “inescapable and uncanny quality”.

I came across Mary Frey’s work while researching Tina Barney and found this statement, which ties in with surveillance:

“Photography invites us to pay attention. It describes with economy, precision and detail. It enables us to stare, scrutinize, and become voyeurs. Taxidermy allows us to do the same. Its complete replication of an animal’s stance, gesture and look provides us a way to study and comprehend its existence. Yet I find that these animals, often portrayed in suspended animation, seem simultaneously strange, ghostly and beautiful. Their gaze is both familiar and unknown. I intend this work to move beyond what is merely seen to the territory of the imagination, where what is remembered and known is transformed into something new.” [2]

A project featured in April’s BJP explores the issue of state-controlled archives and the “strange power relationship between people and their history”. Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is a collection of effectively 3D images which can be moved around and scrutinised by zooming in. The artists describe them as being “almost an affront to the idea of portraiture… there has always been an exchange … even if the subject is undermined by the process – in a mugshot for example. But with this technology, that’s gone. It’s like a thread has been broken. There’s something empty about the image.”  [3]

Also featured in that edition of BJP is False Positives by Esther Hovers. Like my first assignment, this is based around ‘anomalies’ but, in this instance, exploring how technology can help to identify deviant behaviour in order to recognise and prevent criminal activity. The anomalies include: standing still at street corners; synchronized movements in groups; fast movements and repeatedly looking back over your shoulder. The images were shot in the financial and political district of Brussels using the appropriated visual language of the surveillance camera.

I particularly liked this aspect of how her process echoes the subject: “After trying out several approaches using single images, Hovers decided to layer the photographs to create montages where several examples of the anomalies could be spotted. The layering of the photographs almost echoes the way the anomalies were created. Through a process dubbed ‘machine learning’, the surveillance system is fed a multitude of examples so it can develop a pattern of normal and deviant behavior. The project is also made up of drawings on graph paper and text to emphasise the structured and algorithmic method underlying the theory.

I had been mulling over something for sometime involving the profiles of people who have died but still have a presence on Facebook. Of course, I have been mulling over it for so long than it has now been done and under several guises I believe. BJP covers the installation, After Faceb00k: In Loving Memory ❤ (by an anonymous duo from Montreal) which was curated for a show last year by Joan Fontcuberta, with “ ‘the post-photographic condition’ as his theme, interrogating an era shaped by the proliferation and ubiquity of images, and our exponential consumption of them in all aspects of our lives.”

The duo say: “People very consciously construct their online identity. The images they post represent the choices they’ve made on how they want to be seen publicly. What we’re interested in is unraveling those preferences.” So I can see the appeal of them remaining anonymous. Looking at these images feels incredibly intrusive to me and did not generate the feelings of connection I had expected. I wonder how many of the people who were featured knew that their Facebook post setting was fully public?

Alec Soth – The Photography Show

I very much enjoyed the Alec Soth talk at The Photography Show last week – he has such a gentle, honest demeanour.  He started by explaining that he likes to keep his investigations ‘elastic’ and let the images shape the projects so the theme can be ‘wandering’. One thing leads to another via links – sometimes very subtle – like web-surfing, but in the ‘real world’. Photography is an excuse to be intimate with strangers and find chance connections and below-the-surface elements. Sleeping by the Mississippi is mostly about dreams.

Going on to Niagara (his ‘penis-project’), he described how he had found the images where he separated bride and groom to be more powerful than when he captured the couples together. This came up again later when he talked about photography being about the space between him and the subject. He used super-saturated images to convey the heightened emotions of the place.

Soth touched on language – how there is so much wrapped up in photographs and that there are dialects and different forms: words, symbols etc and there are nuances of culture. He likes to include elements of the narrative such as hand-written notes but always debates how much to give the viewer. There is a tension between the narrative and the non-narrative all the time. This is why Soth prefers to photograph in the USA because he can read the landscape.

Broken Manual was very much designed as an instruction book for how to escape but it is non-functional as it is impossible to run away – this remains a fantasy.

The love of sharing work on multi-platforms came through very strongly. Soth likes the gallery walls to be able to keep the images away from the text as he always struggles with that aspect. The newspaper approach is more informational while Songbook could be more lyrical.

Advice to students in the audience was to use a tripod, even if it is unnecessary from a technical point of view, as it slows down the process. He referred us to more advice from him and his Magnum associates here:

[and here he touches on what I have just read in the G&M course notes about being experimental to find your own voice: “Try everything. Photojournalism, fashion, portraiture, nudes, whatever. You won‘t know what kind of photographer you are until you try it.”]

Soth believes that the viewer projects into the space between the photographer and the subject. He believes in walking around and finding stories. [Which ties in wonderfully with this article sent to me by a friend]

He mentioned a new collection he is pulling together on Hypnagogia and recommended Sketch Up to help visualise gallery lay-outs. He also talked about having more of a film-maker mentality by using equipment suitable for the project. A member of the audience commented on Broken Manual being very masculine and asked how Soth felt about his approach to gender. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the subject and alluded to the fact that he’d been wrestling with the issue but said that in the end it came down to the fact that he is not a neutral observer: he is a man, an American and is from the mid-West – this is all wrapped up in his way of seeing.

And finally… 

Another little snippet from BJP: I discovered this marvellous book after reading the Erik Kessels ‘Any Answers’ interview.  What a great collection that reminds me of The Predator from the Jean-Marie Donat Collection shown in Arles last year, which really becomes sinister and increasingly intriguing (maddening) because of the repetition.

Right, well, time for me to go out and take/make some pictures.






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One Response to Reflection – March 2016

  1. Catherine says:

    Full of interest and energy – as ever! Such good advice from Alec Soth as well. The Surveillance Projects are very interesting and also illustrate the positives and negatives of its use.
    I’ve only just begun “Digital Image & Culture” but my Pinterest Board is growing rapidly. I only wish there was a way of including boards within the Board.


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