Since the need to be inside, there has been a shift in the way that I have to approach my work.
I had been exploring the idea of the documentary aesthetic after reading John Tagg’s discussion on the subject: “that a photograph can come to stand as evidence, for example, rests not on a natural or existential fact, but on a social, semiotic process” (Tagg, 1988, p. 4). Here Tagg notes that the photographic image as ‘truth’ has become a learned part of our culture, it is a mythology that is underpinned by early documentary photography and the semiotic process being referred to is tied closely to how the images were black and white, such as the FSA photography of the 1930s, of which Tagg notes: “The ‘truth’ of these individual photographs may be said to be a function of several intersecting discourses” (p. 173), where even these early images are not part of some empirical fact but a tool for state and media bias, where Susan Sontag also acknowledges this by stating: “The FSA project, conceived as ‘a pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems’ was unabashedly propagandistic” (Sontag, 1979, p. 62).
Since the start of the module, I have come back to the FSA project multiple times, especially when considering the idea of truth and representation. For example, when photographing my home as ‘Evidence’ to highlight the differences in the imagery and rhetoric of how an estate agent portrays our home, for the sake of our land lady (Fig. 1), and taking this a bit further by utilising the idea of the ‘killed’ image that Roy Stryker applied when rejecting images (Fig. 2). I had also begun to collaborate with others in my community by providing them with a camera and black and white film to create photograph of their own interpretation of community. My thought process behind this experiment, that the images of my collaborators would hold more ‘truth’ in black and white and play with the authenticity of the narrative, and the idea of fractured community and connective decline by placing these more ‘authentic’ images next to my own study of the community (Fig. 3). However, I think that this part of the work definitely needs more development and I have decided to shelve the idea during the lockdown period as I am unable to effectively work in collaboration and properly direct this part of the project. I am however still asking people to collaborate and create work whilst in isolation and may come back to the idea once we have returned to normality.
Eli Durst’s work ‘The Community’ (Durst, 2019) focusses on the community space and through this he seeks to explore American society and how people come together within these spaces. Durst writes of the work “A quintessentially American space that is simultaneously completely mundane and generic, but also deeply charged psychologically as a point of ideological production” (Durst, 2019) and many of the images create a topology of religious iconography (Fig. 4), not least because many of the space that Durst photographs are church basements. Durst creates these images in black and white and with direct flash, and although Durst comments “I quickly realised I was less interested in a documentary-style project and I became more interested in trying to capture strange, ambiguous moments in which one activity can bleed into another” (Angelos, 2019), his conscious application of these techniques, which are a departure from previous work (Fig. 5), creates a sense of the learned documentary aesthetic, in a similar way to the work of Weegee used them (Fig. 6) historically and also blend into the learned knowledge of how a documentary photograph is expected to look. Where I disagree with how Durst seems to disassociate from the documentary aesthetic, his exploration of the subject really starts to consider the mythology of American culture through these spaces and links very well to the writing of Robert Putnam, who discussed the decline of social capital through traditional sources, such as religion, citing a study by Wade Clarke Roof and William McKinney: “Large numbers of young well-educated, middle-class youth … defected from the churches in the late sixties and the seventies … Some joined new religious movements, others sought personal enlightenment through various spiritual therapies and disciplines, but most simply ‘dropped out’ of organised religion all together” (Putnam, 2000, p. 73). Yet the need to congregate continues, and Durst is starting to answer the question of what is replacing religion in these people’s lives, noting “Many need a secular sense of purpose or identity” (Durst, 2019).
I have found it useful to test how my own practice uses the documentary aesthetic and see where I sit on this continuum. Commercially at least, my work sits in the editorial genre, which utilises an inherent documentary aesthetic in the way that the images are primarily used to illustrate writing and provide a visual actuality of the event that has been described in the text; as Barthes’ states: “Formerly, the image illustrated the text (made it clearer); today, the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination” (Barthes, 1977, p. 26). In this space, writing informs the reading of an image to create the meaning for it. So my work is already tied to the notion of photographic ‘truth,’ in what both Barthes is stating and also how Tagg refers to the “naturalistic and the universal being particularly forceful because of photography’s privileged status of the actuality of the events it represents” (Tagg, 1988, p. 160). Understanding this is already present in my work, I don’t feel I need to resort to using black and white as this could become to overt and superfluous to my intent, however my awareness of this has become more of a conscious decision. I also intend to utilise text in my work in progress portfolio to provide additional meaning and reading of my narrative.
Into the domestic environment
Continuing to develop on the themes identified since the lock down and looking at the work of Clare Gallagher and Rinko Kawauchi, I have spent some time exploring my domestic environment and seeing how I can apply this to my project that looks at community. I have created a mixture of images to test some ideas, some looking at my family, which are my community now (Fig. 7), and then considering my intent, which in part was that of the connective decline within community I started to look at the windows in my home.
The window is the view to the outside world (Fig. 8). Outside is where the community lives. Yet, we are now confined to exist in the inner space of our homes. So if I am not able to go out and photograph the community, then I can aim to photograph my tenuous connection to it; the window. The windows in my home have become an overlooked chore (which actually creates a link to the work of Clare Galagher’s investigation of domestic load), the windows have become incredibly dirty as the result of a busy family life, career, and the distraction of finding a new house to live in after being told that we needed to move out. Now with the lockdown, all we have to connect us to the outside world is through these dirty windows. This supports the intention of my work on multiple levels. Metaphorically, the window is a barrier to the outside, which has become hostile to all of us. The obscured glass creates a view of the existential anxiety and there is the unknown of when we might be able to re-engage socially and with the community once again and it was Rinko Kawauchi who puts this into some context “I believe quietness, fragility and anxiety are included in beauty” (Kawauchi, 2016), creating a series of terms in which to explore the concept of community within the home a remotely.
I have chosen to put the focus onto the glass and the dust and dirt on it (Fig. 9). As a result, the subject beyond the glass in the environment and the street outside of the home are thrown out of focus to heighten the obscured view. This is inspired by Uta Barth’s use of focus to force the reader into a state of investigation and ‘experiential’ looking, who says “I wanted to challenge that by removing the central subject and to look at and think about the background, which ascribes meaning to the subject in an almost subliminal way” (Barth, 2012). There is an expectation that when I photograph a window, that I should photograph what is beyond the window, whereas the window as a barrier is what needed to be highlighted here; I am inside looking out with nothing else to do but investigate the minute details of the domestic.
In Praise of Shadows
When researching the work of Clare Gallagher I was pointed to an essay she cited (O’Hagan, 2020) by Junichiro Tanzinaki called ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (Tanizaki, 2001), which has become quite inspirational in the investigation of my domestic world. In it he goes to great length in describing the minutia of the many intricacies of the domestic environment: “The purist may rack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in the corner of the hallway” (p. 5) and it is in the intricacy and detail where Tanizki finds this beauty. Where I feel this truly applies to how I am approaching the image of the window is in the way that Tanzinaki views dust and grime within the home: “On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the lustre has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina” (p. 18). So then, the window takes on this level of beauty as the built up layers of dust on the outside surface reflect the light in an aesthetically pleasing way, feeding into my idea that the window is the barrier and the metaphor of our isolation; what Kawauchi says of anxiety creating beauty.
Angelos, A., 2019. Eli Durst captures the strange and unified goings-on in an American church basement. [Online] Available at: https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/eli-durst-the-community-photography-301019 [Accessed 30 March 2020].
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.
Barth, U., 2012. Light, Looking: Uta Barth [Interview] (22 March 2012).
Durst, E., 2018. Pinnacle Reality. [Online] Available at: http://www.elidurst.com/pinnacle-realty [Accessed 30 March 2020].
Durst, E., 2019. The Community. [Online] Available at: http://www.elidurst.com/the-community
[Accessed 30 March 2020].
Durst, E., 2019. The Community by Eli Durst [Interview] (18 December 2019).
Felig, A. ‘., 1960. Lost his Horse. [Art].
Hill, P., 2020. Darcie colouring during the daily briefing. [ Photo ].
Hill, P., 2020. Evidence experiment. [ Photo ].
Hill, P., 2020. Kitchen Window. [ Photo ].
Hill, P., 2020. Living room window. [ Photo ].
Hill, P., 2020. Mark, volunteer and patron of Elim foodbank for 19 years. [Photo].
Hill, P., 2020. Rear Window view. [ Photo ].
Kawauchi, R., 2016. In and Out [Interview] 2016.
O’Hagan, S., 2020. ‘Even dust can be interesting’: the woman who photographs housework. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/05/even-dust-can-be-interesting-clare-gallagher-photographs-housework [Accessed 3 March 2020].
Petrucci, J. & Hill, P., 2020. concrete road bridge support. [Photo].
Putnam, R., 2000. Bowling Alone. 1 ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Russell, L., 1937. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. [Art] (Library of Congress).
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.
Tagg, J., 1988. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. 1st paperback ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tanizaki, J., 2001. In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage.