I asked a colleague to create some images for me to start
experimenting with the idea of collaboration with my project. James is an
artist so his sense of composition so clear, he is not used to film
photography, which was a useful gauge to see if the people that I would work
with will be able to create anything that could be used for the project moving
forward. I very much like the aesthetic of James’s images in the regard, I
think that – selfishly – there is a useful differentiation between my images
and those that James took, however moving forward, it may be useful to include
more delivery on taking and exposing the image, which would be in turn useful
to support the collaboration but also to maintain a sense of me as director.
What I find works quite well with this set is that if the
vernacular and perhaps some of the images and views that I might not have
considered shooting myself. My initial intention for this experiment was to
create responses to James’s images that could either be displayed alongside, or
for my own images to take their place. I am wondering whether creating a
narrative that merges both my images and those I have asked others to do will
create a more interesting narrative.
The images in this contact sheet are from a number of shoots and put together to see if there is any areas that I need to develop further (Fig. 1). Already, I know that I need to continue collecting more portraits so that I have a strong selection to edit down ready for structuring my narrative ready for submission.
I am continuing to experiment with my approach (See posts
listed below), however, my intent for this module is to look at applying the
ideas, first in a conceptual way and then see how I can apply it to my project
looking at the naturalistic and the actual (Berger, 2013, p. 8). Not to say that I won’t be looking at
a more conceptual approach for future modules but I am happy with the look and
feel of the way my project is coming together and also how the experimentation
is starting to have an impact on it.
For example, I intend to bring in elements of the ‘Evidence’ shoot that I did as a reaction to the sale of my house (Fig. 2). I have re shot some of these images in colour, however I still like the aesthetic nature of the black and white images as some kind of perceives further truth to the image. John Tagg discussing Foucault states that ‘truth’ within society has close ties to scientific discourse (Tagg, 1988, p. 172), so we can view the myth of how we place value on, considering and believing photographic evidence and truth, which is linked to how photography was born of scientific discovery with its chemical and technological developments being a wonder of the industrial revolution. The distinct aesthetics of film images interwoven with my colour digital imagery will play with the notion of photographic truth and create an interesting contribution to my narrative, as Jack Latham does with ‘Sugar Paper Theories’ (Fig. 3).
To further explore this, I have also been asking some of my subjects to photograph using black and white film. Initially so that I could react and create images inspired by them, however I am considering whether I can also add these into my work to further test the idea of representation, in a subtle manner. Some of my subjects representing themselves. This feels much more collaborative in the way that Anthony Luvera creates assisted self-portraits (Luvera, 2019). I also was interested in Uta Barth’s idea of visual perception and will aim to look at the inclusion of more abstract elements in my work, also supporting the evolution of my look at social capital into more of a social abstraction creating more ambiguity and negate intentional fallacy that is at the core of Peter Lamarques analysis of Barthe’s ‘Death of the Author:’
“Where there is no determinate meaning there is no author” (Lamarque, 2004, p.440)
An interpretation that I gained from Uta Barth, was a sense
that the camera’s focus, potentially even her gaze, was on a subject that had
yet to enter the scene (See Post). Therefore, having others create images for
me takes this concept in a tangential relation to the subject not in front of
the scene, but the reader is aware that they are behind the camera, still
within the scene, providing some kind of acknowledgement of this has happened
in the form of a caption, or supportive text.
Also having others create images, provides a perspective that I may not consider and start to shape the way the project comes together. I also believe that there are links being made to the iddiorythmic, that Barthe’s discussed (Barthes, 2012),* how we live our separate lives within the community together with others also living their separate lives. Resemblance does not equate to representation, as a metaphor has the power to represent without resembling the subject
At the moment, very little of my narrative is likely to make sense to the reader. Partly because, I have not started to put it together.† I am also keen to maintain a certain amount of ambiguity in my work so that the reader is able to create their own interpretation. The project has started to evolve into an autobiographical look at how I fit into the community where I live so I am starting to consider how text will play an important role in creating the dominant reading of the work, whilst much of the work can allow for reader narrative to evolve. For example, there is potential to collect text from my subjects and also add elements of my experiences of engaging with my local community within this body of work.
And this is in part to continue creating the work organically and form my narrative towards the end in the way that Todd Hido approaches his ‘paper movies’ (Hido, 2014, p. 114), as I have discussed previously.
Barthes, R., 1977.
Death of the Author. In: Image, Music, Text. New York: Fontana, pp.
Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic
Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia
Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London:
Hido, T., 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors,
and the Nude. New York: Aperture.
Latham, J., 2019. Sugar Paper Theories. 2nd Edition ed. London: Here Press.
Lamarque, P. & Olsen, S. H., 2004. Aesthetics and thne Philosophy of Art. 2 ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell.
Luvera, A., 2019. Assisted Self-Portraits. [Photo].
Tagg, J., 1988. The Burden of Representation:
Essays on Photographies and Histories. 1st paperback ed. Basingstoke:
As I was preparing for Informing contexts, I wrote an essay on a particular type of vernacular image that I was creating around the Christmas period. It was also useful to start the process of applying my readings and thinking about photography. You can view that version of the essay here.
I decided to re-visit and reflect on this piece of writing now that we are half way through this module and I have a better understanding of some of the concepts and discussions.
It was also useful to revisit during this week’s delivery for ‘A sea of Images,’ taking into account elements of the vernacular, and the ubiquity of images.
‘What started as an image taken to say thank you became a question about the continuing proliferation of images and family mythology. Sharing images online transforms the image into a type of currency that seeks to provide validation for both authors and readers, this perpetuates the visual language of established societal norms through placation, morals and covert colonisation as a subtle blackmail. This is a subtle ebb which we are all complicit and must intentionally reconsider and reengage with the way we use images. Where futurity is concerned, it should begin in the unlearning and relearning of visual culture.’
I have made a recent connection to the food bank over the road from my house. In order to create some images, I have also been volunteering to build relationships with some of the people that attend. I have also handed out some compact point and shoot cameras for some of them to photograph and collaborate with, in a similar way to Anthony Luvera’s approach with his assisted self-portrait series and something that I have mentioned in my post on Martin Parr (Fig. 2). Once I have collected in and processed these images, I will create a full reflection.
I created a number of portraits of Mark (Fig. 1), who is a food bank volunteer for nineteen years and also uses the service for himself. Primarily, I wanted to add some portraiture as part of my work I progress portfolio looking at my own community. My technical approach to shooting portraits, has always been to have the camera set to the continuous mode in order to shoot a few frames side-by-side, which was to ensure that I gain a focussed image of my subject. This is a hangover from my freelance practice, where it was crucial that the shot is in focus. This approach creates a number of ‘similars’ that have little variation shot to shot, from which I select the most focussed image (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Phil Hill (March, 2020) Unused Portrait of Mark from Elim foodbank.
To further explore that here, I have decided to overlay the series of images that I shot of Mark, to consider the idea that in some ways could be more representative of him than a single frame ever could (Fig. 6). That said, the result creates an image where much is lost in the actuality of the subject, even though it is still an indexical trace of Mark, the subject, being present for the photograph. The subtle variants, as exampled in Figure 2, show that Mark was not completely stationary between the shots and there is movement and slight shifts in facial expression. This nuanced series of images shows more of the subjects individual trait and allows them to be more represented in the image. However, it could also be argued that Mark movements are as a result of my direction and not a naturalistic expression of him as a person either.
I was interested in Uta Barth’s challenge to the reader in
the way that she is asking us to consider looking, and the way that we can
derive meaning from the image, Barth states “One
goes out into the world and points it [the camera] something of beauty, something
of importance, a spectacle of some sort” (Barth, 2012) and goes on to note
that the subject and meaning can be interpreted as being the same (2012). Barth’s response to
this is to remove the reader’s attention on the subject and create an all-encompassing
experiential sense of ‘looking.’ John Berger asserted much the same in his use
of the term, ‘sight:’ “The explanation, never quite fits the sight” (Berger, 2008, p. 7) where the image of
the actual is perhaps too much of an explanation, or a kind of overarching
exposition; we are confronted by the assumed meaning of the image because it is
presented in its naturalistic format, depicted by the lens.
Through Barth’s work, emphasis is placed on readers, and reading, Barth actively encourages those to become aware of their reading (Barth, 2012). Barth’s work is about perception, but still indexical. When I photograph a portrait, I almost always set of to photograph with a shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus, which creates a separation of the subject and the environment. It is this reason that I shoot my images with the continuous mode set. When I look at Barth’s work (Fig. 8), it is almost as if the image was composed to have a person present but has left the scene, leaving the camera to capture the remains. Where I feel this applies to my own work is how Barth’s approach is her visual perception that seems to segue with the concept of social abstraction, or how we disregard the unnecessary details from our lives. For example, the food that we eat is presented packaged and ready – we do not need to understand to process of how this packed item came to be.
At this stage, I want this to be purely an experimentation
where I can explore ideas, potentially one that I might come back to at a later
date. Currently, this is not something that fits my intent photographing my local
community. I have created a naturalistic approach to the shoot so far, the
overlaid image, feel out of place and potentially an obvious interpretation of
the ideas that I am discussing. It has been useful to explore it however, and I
will aim to subtly introduce elements of this into my narrative.
The portrait of Mark (Fig. 1) fits really well into how this
is starting to develop from my other shoots and portraits that I have been
creating (See Posts), although I am still keen to allow this to continue
developing in the same way Todd Hido approaches his ‘Paper Movies’ (Hido,
2014, p. 114)
and discusses the need for ambiguity for the reader’s own narrative (p. 28).
As I have written previously, I am also interested in the way Snyder and Allen
discuss the index (Snyder & Allen, 1975, p. 159) and how I am
interpreting this as representation being a consensus of opinion as opposed to
a whole truth encompassing the many nuances of individual personality. In
essence, for my current work in progress at least, I want my images to be based
in the actual as John Berger terms (Berger, 2013, p. 8), and all of my work created so far has
been looking at these actualities and the dominant reading of this work should
also follow this.
We did not have subscriptions to National Geographic in my
house growing up, however I vividly remember going to the dentist who had piles
of the magazine and I would be in awe of how cinematic the world looked. It was
these pages that inspired me to want to travel the world and photograph.
It is worth noting that National Geographic Traveller is
primarily about showing beautiful destinations that you might go on holiday as
opposed to what its parent publication supposedly stands for. National
Geographic Traveller operates and runs features in a similar way to how Conde
Nast, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Lonely Planet also publish travel
features. One of the key differences is that it comes with the branding
associated with National Geographic, including its distinctive yellow border.
As Grundberg Stated “the photographs found in the National
Geographic represent the apotheosis of the picturesque” (Grundberg, 1988), and it is through Traveller magazine
that it takes this to the most extreme. National Geographic have recently acknowledged
a past built on exploitation (Goldberg, 2018) yet still create an
aesthetic that undermines the moral high ground that they seek to occupy. For
Traveller magazine, they completely ignore this moral standing and only print
images of exotic locations to sell holidays. If National Geographic is
aesthetics for supposed cultural importance (Lutz & Collins, 1991, p. 134); National Geographic
Traveller is purely aesthetics for the sake of exoticism. My assignment for
example, was to illustrate an article on Bali, Indonesia that was created off
the back of a press junket paid for by the Indonesian tourist board, a common
practice in travel editorial but not what you would expect in its parent. When
picking up Traveller magazine, the reader looks at that yellow border and
distinctive brand logo and would naturally associate this spin-off with all of
the mythology that National Geographic is synonymous for. In many ways, franchises
and spin-off publications that utilise the coded branding of National
Geographic are everything that is wrong with National Geographic.
I am completely complicit in this. I shot the assignment and
took the money. Reflecting on this for my oral presentation in Positions and Practice,
I questioned my moral and ethical position and how I would photograph the most
aesthetically pleasing image whilst also witnessing all of the challenges and
the poverty that happened around me. Since then I was listening to Hannah
Starkey discuss the challenges of gaze (Starkey, 2019), who equated a rise
in male gaze was in part to do with the last recession, creating a culture of
lazy advertising. Starkey was talking about the commodification of women,
however where this relates to National Geographic and Traveller magazine is how
we also commodified the land; sex and exoticism sells. As a freelancer in my
twenties around the same time, it was exciting to be paid to travel and
photograph as ignorant as I was to the impact that my images have.
Now that this position has been challenged, I hope to move forward in a more engaging way and not occupy the view of the photographer as Ariella Azoulay described as “a male figure roaming around the world and pointing his camera at objects, places, people, and events, as if the world was made for him. He can vanish from people’s worlds in the same way that he appeared in them” (Azoulay, 2016, p. 2).
To test that here, I have selected a recent portrait that I created at the food bank over the road from my home. It might be worth noting that I also spent the afternoon helping out with the aim of gaining the trust of the people that I wanted to photograph (Fig. 2)
Azoulay, A., 2016.
Photography Consists of Collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and
Ariella Azoulay. Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 01
01, 31(1 91), p. 2.
Goldberg, S., 2018. For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/ [Accessed 21 10 2019].
Grundberg, A., 1988. PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; A Quintessentially American View of the World. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html [Accessed 4 March 2020].
Hill, P., 2020. Mark from Elim foodbank. [Photo].
Lutz, C. & Collins, J., 1991. The Photograp as an
Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. Visual
Anthropology Review, 7(1), pp. 134 -148.
Starkey, H., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations
with Photographers. Episode 102 – Hannah Starkey [Interview] (3 April
Warwick, H. & Hill, P., 2013. Free Spirit. National
Geographic Traveller (UK), 01 03, pp. 92 – 101.
Photo Books, for example. I absolutely adore them and spend
many hours looking at my own small collection. However, I was interested to
listen to Simon Norfolk in a recent Small Voice Podcast (Norfolk, 2019), who said that he himself is done with
them. His reasoning for this is down to the audience of photobooks, which is
almost entirely that of other photographers, and a middle-class demographic of
photographers, which can be problematic for a number of reasons. When you
consider that many of these books have small print runs of around 150, and can
be exceptionally expensive, this can be limiting in the dissemination of the
work; for the socially concerned photographer, what you are actually doing is
creating esoteric works for other people like yourself which does not bring
issues to a wide and diverse audience.
Norfolk’s critique continued, and he also discussed the way
that some of the major awards operate to only reward those that are part of the
same cliques within the traditional photography world and this kind of
self-congratulatory feedback loop will ultimately harm the practice of
photography and its relevance.
Interestingly, Norfolk cited Instagram as the space where
the most current photography is happening and has worked to increase his own audience
to around 150,000 followers (Fig. 1). Norfolk also discussed photographers such
as Joey L as potentially moving the medium forward in this sphere, yet wouldn’t
be considered by the traditional gallery system. Added to this, I also read
recently of the TikTok photographer Derek Harris with a 3.6 million fan base (Harris & TikTok, 2020). These two examples
are not who you might consider as legitimate photographic artists and social
media creates a homogenised view of photography (Fig. 2), yet they draw
audiences that clearly cannot be ignored, and to a great extent show that
photography still has a large audience, albeit a younger demographic than those
who might follow the Photographers Gallery; this could be considered a gateway
into other parts of the photographic world. The rise of these photographers is
surely a reaction by a generation that only consumes media via an online
platform and technologies potentially considering the way we consume imagery
archaic and obsolete.
Norfolk’s comments on Joel L were an interesting one
however, he stated that he did not really like his work, a statement of which I
tend to agree with owing to L’s highly exoticised gaze which is similar to the
discussion around the National Geographic gaze we are looking at this week.
However, Norfolk did have a great deal of respect for his ability to create an
audience, and L’s aesthetics and technical ability can’t be discounted wholly.
When I looked up Joey L’s Instagram however, he was actually using his most
recent posts to promote his own first photobook, ‘We Came from Fire’ (L, 2019). So, even with L’s
large online audience it seems he still places value on the tangible medium,
albeit with a much larger print run no doubt.
Continuing this point, Last week’s reading of Bright’s ‘Of
Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, I was struck by her discussion regarding Lisa
Lewenz’s ‘Three Mile Island Calendar’ (Bright, 1985) which consciously
presented the work using a highly mass produced format playing with the notion
of how these images would normally be viewed – primarily in a corporate report
setting. This kind of presentation has impact over how you might expect to see
a landscape image within its black borders and hung on white walls. To do
something similar in a contemporary form of mass production, which ultimately
would be using an online platform such as Instagram, the context could quickly
drain away (Sontag, 1979, p. 106) as the image gets
swallowed up by the countless others uploaded every second.
Where the photo book may hold more resonance with audiences outside of the photography world might be through publishers such as Hoxton Mini Press who will look for secondary markets for the books that they produce. For example, the book ‘One Day Young’ by Jenny Lewis (Lewis, 2015) is a beautiful series of portraits of mothers and their brand new babies, which was bought for me and my wife when my daughter was just born, and I have also seen it for sale in stores such as Oliver Bonas, creating an opportunity for those unaware of photography in the esoteric sense to access it. However, and I consider my editorial print background here, market forces shape the creation of photography for the masses and ultimately leads to its homogenisation, as broad appeal and aesthetics take the place of challenging work, which was certainly the kind of images that I shot for airline and travel magazines. There are advertisers and increasing market share to think about.
Anonymous & Instagram, 2020. Insta_Repeat Instagram Profile. [Online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/ [Accessed 2 March 2020].
Bright, D., 1985. Of Mother Nature and Marlborough
Men. Exposure, 23(1), p. Online.
Harris, D. & TikTok, 2020. derrekharris TikTok Profiles. [Online] Available at: https://email@example.com [Accessed 2 March 2020].
Lewis, J., 2015. One Day Young. 1 ed. London:
Hoxton Mini Press.
L, J., 2019. We Came From Fire. 1 ed. New York:
Norfolk, S., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations
with Photographers [Interview] (12 June 2019).
Norfolk, S. & Instagram, 2020. SimonNorfolkStudio Instagram Profile. [Online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/simonnorfolkstudio/ [Accessed 2 March 2020].
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London:
His images create a grotesqueness in the use of obvious flash. These image are a construction, and the choices made to represent people, objects, and indeed people as objects is unrelenting, anything that the light falls is framed and appears garish in colour, fashion and presumed attitude of the people within then frame. Parr does not shy away from this, and refers to this appearance of the grotesque in his own biography (Parr, n.d.).
I find opposition in how I read some of his work, compared to how he describes himself and aims as a photographer. For Parr, to create the work that he does, it seems that it requires distance. Parr is taking his images behind the safety of his camera, in the sense that the flash technique that he employs feels a kind of interrogators spot light pointed at the subject to reveal things about themselves that they might not be prepared to reveal normally (Fig. 1). There is a distance there, there is also an intrusive element to some of his work, even when the subject is complicit, there is a feeling that they may not actually be in on the joke (Fig. 2). Parr states “It’s the quality of the connection you make with the subject which is absolutely key. And there should always be some kind of story behind that, some kind of tension or vulnerability” (Magnum Photos, 2018), Which is an interesting statement as there seems little connection with some of the subjects, although there is always a tension within his work, and I wonder if the vulnerability is in the actual awareness of how his subjects might be represented in the final images; Are they aware that they could be considered ‘Other.’ When I look at this work compared to other similar subject matter, for example how the photographer Nial Mcdiarmid photographs the UK, the difference feels embedded in the empathy towards the cultural coding that his subjects are displaying (Fig. 3); these images feel closer to a collaboration between subject and author over Parr’s images.
I do enjoy much of Martin Parr’s images despite of his confrontational approach; it could be considered a re-balancing of the cultural anthropological images that western culture has taken from others by turning the lens onto our own consumption. There is a use of gaze that confirms and mocks our capitalism – especially throughout the excess of the eighties and the nineties where Parr’s look at the middle and upper classes feels the most relevant, and a necessary foil (Fig. 4).
I found Parr’s approach a little more challenging when looking at his work for the book ‘No Worries’ (Parr, 2012). The book was created in conjunction with the 2012 FotoFreo festival in Western Australia, where I was living at the time. Parr was invited by the festival to focus his attention and unremitting style onto Australia and create a body of work that would also be exhibited at the festival (Parr, 2012). The work was to “examine the nature of the people, at work and at their leisure in a number of port towns and cities along the coast of Western Australia” (Magnum Photos, 2011). The exhibition that accompanied the work felt unremarkable compared to some of Parr’s earlier work, partly due to the technique that Parr uses didn’t seem to translate to the large format printing owing to his switch from film to digital. The series also felt fairly repetitive and in places forced. It was his images of indigenous Australians that were the most startling. Considering my comments on the re-balance of the anthropological imagery that we are used to seeing in publications such as National Geographic; here it seems to have reverted back the clichéd tropes of inconsiderate representation, together with the subject not even afforded a title (Fig. 5). This mirrors Diane Arbus’s problematic lack if titles in her later works (See Post), with another image also creates the idea of other through the view of indigenous Australians seeking hand outs (Fig. 6). These images read as though it could have been taken in a hurry, and quickly back onto photographing other Australians once more (Fig. 7).
in considering a different approach, I have since come to enjoy the work of Patrick Waterhouse, who has worked with the Walpiri of Central Australia, and sort to collaborate in keeping with the culture and tradition of their culture (Waterhouse, 2019). The persons depicted, restricted the images by traditional painting (Fig. 8). The series was created in part to the way that ethnologists Francis J. Gillen and W. Baldwin Spencer documented Aboriginal groups in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century (Waterhouse, 2018), spurring the myth of exoticism and the way that non-western culture has been portrayed ever since.
This is a continuum and Parr and Waterhouse seem to sit on each end of it in how they have represented. Both photographers use a highly constructed approach and in terms of the hunters and farmers analogy from week 3 (See Post), I would place Parr as Hunter, and Waterhouse as Farmer.
Where do I fall? Again it is somewhere in between these extremes, though much more toward how Waterhouse constructs his images with the Walpiri. I am not, as yet, fully collaborating with my subjects in this way, however, I do not believe that I am polarising the view of the representation of my subjects either.
Magnum Photos, 2011. Feature – No Worries Martin Parr. [Online] Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspxVP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRGQW9DQ [Accessed 28 February 2020].
Magnum Photos, 2018. Martin Parr’s Advice to Documentary Photographers. [Online] Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/martin-parrs-advice-documentary-photographers/ [Accessed 28 February 2020].
Mcdiarmid, N., 2016. Rob, Merton, South London. [Photo].
Parr, M., 2011. Australia. Broome. Cable Beach. [Photo] (Magnum Photos).
Parr, M., 2011. AUSTRALIA. Broome. Cable Beach. Scratch Football BBQ. From ‘No Worries’.. [Photo] (Magnum Photos).
Parr, M., 2011. South Hedland. Garden Centre.. [Photo] (Magnum Photos).
Parr, M., 2011. SWITZERLAND. St Moritz. St Moritz polo world cup on snow. From ‘Luxury’. 2011. [Photo] (Magnum Photos).
Parr, M., 2012. No Worries. 1 ed. Perth,
Western Australia: T&G.
Parr, M., 2012. No Worries. [Photo] (Western Australia Maritime Museum – Part of Fotofreo).
Parr, M., 2015. USA. Kentucky Derby. 2015.. [ Photo ] (Magnum Photos).
Parr, M., 2015. USA. Utah. Salt Lake City. Mr Mac’s. Two Missionary’s trying on their Suits. Matthew Tanner on left and Preston Toone on right. 2015. [Photo] (Magnum).
Parr, M., n.d. Martin Parr: Introduction. [Online] Available at: https://www.martinparr.com/introduction/ [Accessed 28 February 2020].
Waterhouse, P., 2018. Various Front and Side Portraits. [Online] Available at: https://patrickwaterhouse.com/archive/selected/restricted-images-front-and-side-portraits/ [Accessed 28 February 2020].
Waterhouse, P., 2019. Restricted Images – Made With
the Warlpiri of Central Australia. 1st ed. London: Self Publish Be Happy
I have been considering the work of Diane Arbus in relation to my own. Comparisons could be made on the surface level to some of my portraits that I have created up to this point. Am I perusing and creating an ‘otherness’ in the work that I am producing? This is an important question that I should continually ask myself, even after this post is complete.*
There is not a lot of detail in what Arbus’s intentions truly were, she was famously aloof in the discussion of her work, and her estate is quite guarded on releasing much of the material she left behind. Arbus’s later images seem to clearly show otherness (Fig. 2) and there is a separation that exists in the language and even the lack of language used to describe them as ‘untitled’ and ‘Freaks.’ Arbus’s own language in relation to her images exacerbates the problematic gaze that we assume she views them: “Most People go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience, Freaks were born with their trauma, they’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats” (2005, p. 38). However, in that statement there seems to be a kind of nobility in which she views the subjects. It is the use if the word ‘freak’ however that creates an uncomfortable tension, if this work was created and described as such now, it would clearly incite a justifiable outrage against the artist, and has been, in the critique of Bruce Gilden’s approach (Fig. 3), who could be considered equivalent of Arbus in the fall out from recent work, as his critics posit similar views of them “so unforgiving and intrusive they dehumanise the subjects” (O’Hagan, 2015). Even when we take into account the context in which these images were taken, which might be viewed as an Ignorant infancy in the evolution on thinking about gaze and its impact, Arbus’s contemporary, Susan Sontag, was particularly critical of Arbus’s approach: “For it is based on distance, privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other” (Sontag, 1979, p. 34). A damning indictment of Arbus, which suggests that even during the period, there was a clear awareness of how problematic her gaze was. Discussions were taking place, albeit considered in other terms, critics such as John Berger discussed aspects of looking and seeing, which is highly relevant to the ways that we view the topic today (Ways of Seeing, 1972).
Sontag’s view and basis for her critic was that this was
based on a kind of punching-down of those deemed other and Arbus’s own affluent
background & privilege was front and centre to this view. Arbus sort to
destroy her personal history in order to enter the world of her subjects. She
deconstructed her life in order to change the detachment that she felt growing
up (Goldberg, 2005, p. 42), perhaps creating
the conditions for further detachment. Arbus photographed the ‘outsiders’ and
was an outsider herself.
Arbus’s gaze was a troubled one, and she was a troubled
herself; Her images could be a reflection of this. It is worth considering
perhaps whose Gaze is the most enlightened, when context, as Sontag herself
suggests, drains away (Sontag, 1979, p. 106). The language and
the execution of Arbus’s images were problematic, however, the way that Diane
Arbus photographed, what were considered fringe cultures at the time, created a
dialogue of what we are allowed to gaze at, taking it to the most extreme. Her
images show is that, indeed, these people existed and should be accepted (Goldberg,
2005, p. 37),
and although not the answer to the challenge, but the road map to how we view
them now. Arbus herself had lifelong relationships with many of the people that
she photographed, and would suggest that this meant her intentions were good.
We may never know as Diane Arbus is not here to reflect on this work.
Arbus’s work is at one of a spectrum that I don’t feel my images compare (Fig. 4). Arbus talks about her lack of experience with the world, writing that she had never had felt adversity and learning about it was purely an academic exercise (Goldberg, 2005, p. 42). Whereas for me and my practice, my intention was to look at my formative community, one that was deeply working class as was I, and reflected in the culture of the carnivals of the region; are they the kind of carnivals that Arbus photographed? Of course not. My own comparison, and perhaps of my peers, might be that I have been subtler than Arbus as I am now the outsider, having worked to change my demographic, so going back to photograph my old community could be considered a look at the other. However, it is from personal experience, which Arbus did not have, and where I also maintain lifelong friendships with some of the people involved, and who helped me connect with the carnival in the first place.
And moving forward onto my current look at where live now, I can see great poverty, and what might be termed ‘other.’ For example, I aim to connect with a foodbank to explore the idea of how we ostracise some in order to build a community for the majority; pain as Dexter Dias discusses, is a form of social control (Dias, 2017, p. 124). You can cross the street from the house that I live and you will have reached this foodbank; it is part of where I live and a shared experience of the community. Perhaps the bigger question that I should be asking myself is that of my lack of engagement with this place up until now, and why has it taken a photography project to engage with them. And this creates parallels to the critique of Arbus, but also differentiates our approaches – My camera is my passport, yes, but it is not my license to do whatever I want and do whatever I want as Arbus wrote (Sontag, 1979, p. 4), it is my means of meaningful engagement. I see my project now as an autobiographical look of people and place, I must collaborate with those that should self-represent, in a similar way to Anthony Luvera’s Assisted Self-Portraits (Fig. 5), though not without my own imagery; I live here too.
I will aim to return to this post in the coming weeks and reflect on the work as it evolves.
Arbus, D., 1961. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut, 1961. [Photo] (Estate of Diane Arbus).
Arbus, D., 1970-1971. ‘Untitled (22) 1970-71’. [Photo] (Estate of Diane Arbus).
Dias, D., 2017. The Ten Types of Human. 1st
paperback ed. London: Penguin Random House.
Gilden, B., 2015. Betty, from FACE.. [Art]
Goldberg, V., 2005. Light Matters. 1st ed. New
Hill, P., 2020. Week 5 WD24 Shoot. [Photographs].
Luvera, A., 2019. Assisted Self-Portrait of Joe Murray from Residency. [Photo].
O’Hagan, S., 2015. A latter-day freak show? Bruce Gilden’s extreme portraits are relentlessly cruel. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/19/bruce-gilden-face-street-portraits-photographs-book [Accessed 27 February 2020].
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London:
Ways of Seeing. 1972. [Film] Directed by
Michael Dibb. UK: BBC.
As I research texts that looks at the community, I have come across Roland Barthes collection of lectures entitled ‘How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces’ (Barthes, 2012). This text is a look at “idiorrhythmy” which is primarily a system of community related to how many religious groups co-exist, such as monasteries. When related to the broader community, it is how we as individuals, and our individual rhythm can live with others whilst respecting their individual rhythm withing the same spaces.
It would be good to consider those within certain communities that have been excluded. This according to Barthes as ‘Perhaps there is no such thing as a community without an integrated reject’ Roland Barthes discusses that any community that exists to include some, also excludes some as well, with some communities go as far as ‘guarding’ their rejects and preventing them from leaving, presumably so that a comparison to ‘The Other’ can be made of ones situation over another. (Barthes, 2012, p.101).
Rectangle as the basic shape of power. (Barthes, 2012, p.114)
In nature, the rectangle shape does not exist (With limited exceptions). Barthes creates a view that the spaces that we build for ourselves are a form on control. Control of the environment, in the shaping of it, control by the state are formed of rectangles. The same could be said of photography that creates compositions within the bounds of a rectangle. This is worth considering when looking at the buildings and architecture of community.
Barthes considers the typology of communities in ‘How to Live Together’ discussing the relationship that we all have with beds, as an example. The bed too, is a rectangle, a system of controlling our sleep. The object itself is a functional item, designed for a purpose, an impersonal object. it’s connotations are also deep in meaning and provide a gamut of meaning, for example in language, we refer to ‘Death Beds,’ ‘Marital Beds,’ and how one could ‘Make your bed, and the sleep in it.’ (Barthes, 2012, p. 114). When considering the objects that I will explore in this part of my project, I really need to consider the relationship that these objects and spaces represent.
Reading ‘How to live together’ there is also a nice link back to the work of Todd Hido that I was reading. Barthes considers the night time and the need to be around other people. (Barthes, 2012, p. 129) Living in any community means that this is unavoidable, except at night. Living together is a way of avoiding the loneliness of the night time. Todd Hido’s work is primarily shot at night and leaves a sense of separateness and loneliness. His image of the two windows with television light illuminating them (Fig. 1) suggests that these are at least two people ‘living together’ but choosing to spend time apart (Hido, 2014).
Also very much related to the work of Hido is the idea of ‘space.’ Barthes notes that the ultimate possession that we have is space. Distance is valuable. Sometimes however, it is not a literal distance that is being referred to. This could be a distance between socio-economic groups, it could also be through how you define and be yourself, in what Barthes calls the “pathos of distance.” (Barthes, 2012, p. 132).
Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. Translation Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hido, T., 2001. #2133. [Art].
Hido, T., 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors,
and the Nude. New York: Aperture.