New Materialism & Object Agency – Another ‘Berlin’

During the module break, I aimed to consolidate some of the research that I have been doing on the photographic object and the idea of agency in both animate and inanimate objects, which has become important in the way that I start to include myself into the images that I produce. I wrote an essay that also coincided with a ‘call for papers’ on new materialism from Canadian art journal ‘Esse.’ As a lecturer, I am keen to develop my theoretical underpinning of my art practice and consider writing a fundamental area to support my practice.

Object Agency – Planning for Surfaces and Strategies

The central focus around which I based my research project was to create a body of work that had portraiture as the main thread running through it. It is where I believed that the strongest stories in photography are; people being at the core of my narrative. Since the outbreak, I have had to evolve this approach and it has forced me to consider different ways of representing the idea of idiorrythym with the community and my connection to it, without people present.

I was fairly happy with the outcomes of the last module’s work in progress portfolio (Fig: 1), however this felt more of a reaction to the situation than of complete intent. There are some clear ideas that came out of the evolved approach together with some concepts that feel like they could have a valuable impact on my project as it moves forward.

Figure 1: Phil Hill (April, 2020) Work in Progress portfolio submission for Informing Contexts.

During the break I have been researching the concept of Object Orientated Ontology, which seeks to consider the agency of the object in the sense of how the qualities of the object impact the outcome of the photograph and ultimately how it is read. For example, Barthes’ discusses the mythology applied to wine, especially in French culture, for his essay ‘wine and milk’ (1993: 58-62). In it he creates a metaphor and symbols by which wine is interpreted, consumed and viewed by our learned culture:

“Other countries drink to get drunk, and this is accepted by everyone; in France, drunkenness is a consequence, never an intention”

(1993: 59)

“Wine is part of society because it provides a basis not only for a morality but also for an environment it is an ornament in the slightest ceremonials of French daily life”

(1993: 60)

Wine for Barthes symbolises quite a lot for French culture and also wider culture. Wine is so crucial to our wider culture that Peter Conrad also included an updated version to discuss the screw-top wine bottle when he created his ‘21st Century Mythologies’ (2014). Much of the way that Barthes’ discusses his mythologies is a way of anthropomorphising the inanimate to create the metaphor, yet these are formed from the qualities of the object and shape the experience of it. Graham Harmon refers to these as sensual qualities (2018), the sun for example is not an object that as humans, we can tangibly verify from its physical qualities, however we are aware of its sensual qualities: the light emitted, the heat it provides.

These qualities also have a fundamental impact on how the photograph is constructed. I can make decisions on how I want to take my photographs, but these are ultimately governed by the sensual qualities of the sun. The time of day to create the most aesthetically pleasing image, also known as the golden hour, is an example of this agency over the photograph. These qualities govern the way that the camera reacts to what it is pointed at.

Areas of exploration during surfaces and strategies

I am aiming to continue exploring the research that I began around the idea of the documentary aesthetic and to extend this by experimenting with the inherent qualities that are inherent in these images, or at least, the qualities that are expected to be seen in these images from our collective awareness of how they should look. These qualities, physical and sensual have important roles in the way that images are read and create impact. As I have started to look at the concept of OOO and how this applies to objects, the art object, and their agency. More specifically, how the photograph is an object in its own right and creates agency.

Initial ideas
FSA Hole Punches:
Figure 2: Paul Carter (1936) Hole punched through – Untitled photo, possibly related to: Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts. Photograph: Library of Congress
  • I have come back to the FSA images a few time during the MA so far, after reading the discussion of Susan Sontag and John Tagg unpick the images as propagandist and complete constructions, with Sontag noting “In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects” (1979: 6), which considers how the photographer acts upon the objects (or subject), however as I have been researching in OOO, those subjects (or objects) can also act on the photographer and the photograph.
  • As I have become interested in a documentary aesthetic, I have been considering how the FSA images have come to define how we expect documentary images to be presented back to us. Sally Stein also noted this in her essay on Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ image, stating: “is often treated as the quintessential 1930s documentary photography” (2020: 59). And goes on to discuss the appropriation of the image, which has little to do with the reality of the situation that she photographed.
  • What really interests me from the vast archive of images was the ones that were ‘killed’ by Roy Stryker by punching holes through them (Fig: 2). I wrote about during the last module and created some experiments based around these, which seemed fairly superficial and I decided to move on fairly quickly so I am keen to look at this again. Instead of creating images that have been ‘Killed’ I want to explore the idea of looking at the punched hole from the image itself. There are many of these ‘killed’ images in the Library of Congress archive, which interests me as although the images were considered rejects, they were still kept for posterity whereas the missing part of these images – the holes – were discarded. Lewis Bush created a zine of this archive (2017), which suggests Stryker’s motives for such a violent rejection was due to any deviation from the official narrative that these images were aiming to portray.
  • The discarded part of the image, which does not fit the narrative, is what intrigues me and really connects to some of my earlier research into the ostracised (Barthes, 2012: 81).
  • Separation is a theme that has entered into my image making. I want to explore this further by creating separation through image processing. Vilem Flusser discusses that the photographs abstract from reality: “traditional images are abstractions of the first order insofar as they abstract from the concrete world while technical images are abstractions of the third order: They abstract from texts which abstract from traditional images which themselves abstract from the concrete world” (2000: 14), so one of my explorations will be to create levels of abstraction using photographic processes, which is also an area I want to look at in support of the photograph as an object in its own right.
  • Black and White film is a way to begin this. During the module break I began to use film a lot more as I went out on my daily walks. Black and white in itself is an abstraction of the concrete world, and Flusser even highlights the way that black and white infers a theoretical concept into the visual: “Black-and-white photographs embody the magic of theoretical thought since they transform the linear discourse of theory into surfaces. Herein lies their peculiar beauty, which is the beauty of the conceptual universe” (p. 43). Therefore, I want to experiment with its ability to abstract from the concrete and also explore the way it translates the conceptual. Alec Soth used a black and white aesthetic in his series ‘Songbook’ (2014) to reference a nostalgia for such imagery, which the FSA partially created. I also aim to extend this research into black and white use by looking at the work of Alys Tomlinson’s Ex Voto series (Fig: 3) among others.
  • Push processing film beyond its normal working range is something else that I am considering. I have a bulk roll of Fomapan 100 film that I am working through and will shoot some at 3200+ to see how this has an impact on image quality. I have seen people push HP5 to the extremes with interesting result to the grain of the negative, giving an aesthetic similar to that of Fukase’s Ravens (Fig: 4)
Figure 3: Alys Tomlinson (2019) Untitled from ‘Ex Voto
Figure 4: Masahisa Fukase (1986) Image from ‘Ravens’

Barthes, R., 1993. Mythologies. 1st Vintage Edition ed. London: Vintage.

Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bush, L., 2017. Stryker. London: Lewis Bush.

Conrad, P., 2014. 21st Century Mythologies: Episode 1 – Screw-Top Wine Bottle. London: BBC Radio 4.

Flusser, V., 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2018 Reprint ed. London: Reaktion Books.

Harmon, G., 2018. Object Orientated Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. 1st ed. London: Pelican Books.

Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Soth, A., 2014. Songbook. 1 ed. London: Mack.

Stein, S., 2020. Migrant Mother Migrant Gender. 1 ed. London: Mack.