“Community is a part of the proximate, everyday world, more immediate than the far away society yet larger than the family and primary group, that gives meaning and purpose to one’s life and that also diminishes one’s sense of vulnerability and of being adrift or alone in an anonymous world”
(Keller, 1988: 5).
Community was at the core of my research project. I have since spent time researching the impact of the way that I photograph and now developed an approach into narrative and narrative structure. I started this module reading the work of Ferdinand Tonnies, who defines two key areas of community, that of Gemienschaft and Gesselschaft (Tönnies, 2001). These consider the way that we make our connections through personal, emotional and family (Gemeinschaft), and those formed from the way that we interact and operate within a civil and societal function.
Tonnies Gesselschaft is valuable in linking to the Roland Barthes’ idea of the iddiorryhtmic communities that live together but as an individualistic society (2012). Suzanne Keller uses Tonnies concept to analyse the way that American society has effectively diverged from the personal connections formed in smaller communities:
“the present search for community harks back to the nineteenth century when, in the face of rapid urbanisation, one idea of community was dying and no other had yet emerged to its place. This led human beings to construct an ideal (because lost) past or to design an ideal (because unrealised) future”
The idealised community is what interests me the most as there exists a disconnect in the way that we perceive the past, which is usually socially abstract from the realities that they are based on. Both Alec Soth and Eli Durst have used the idea of a perceived community in their work, which also utilises black and white photography as a tool to highlight Keller’s constructed ideal and also the way that photography creates those constructions (Fig: 1&2).
Community Paper Submission
In continuing to develop my research and writing activities and into communityh, I was forwarded an opportunity to submit an abstract to the next ‘Communities and Communication: International Interdisciplinary Conference & Festival’ in April of next year, which would be online via Staffordshire University. I felt that it was a good opportunity to test my research into community and submit an abstract to involve myself in the process of discussing my ideas and work on the topic. Even if this is not successful, I find the process valuable as the act of writing about my project in a concise way really consolidates the way that I have been approaching my project and the research around it.
I will use this to form my contextual statement for my WIPP.
I am familiar with the imagery that she produced for ‘Sweet Nothings’ (Fig: 1) and also with some of the individual images from ‘She Dances in Jackson’ (Fig: 2) however not the complete series, which I am finding a really interesting place to look and research. Winship’s use of Black and White is a conscious choice and a method, as she puts it ‘showing that the world is, in fact, in colour’ (2015) and I am very drawn to that concept having become interested in the photograph as an object as it feels very much as though the black and white is a method of highlighting not only that our world is colour (at least our perception of it), it is also a way of showing that the world has been photographed. This also ties in quite well with how Vilem Flusser discusses the use of black and white photography as a way of logically analysing the world (Flusser, 2000). Winship’s approach really resonated with me when looking at her work. Her consideration to the subject and the use of a medium specifically designed to slow down the process of taking images, which was something that Alys Tomlinson mentioned when also making the switch to black and white film for her series ‘Ex-Voto’ and cited Winship as influential in taking this approach to her project. Roughly two thirds of the book ‘She Dances on Jackson’ are landscapes, which is interesting for someone who is primarily associated for her portraits. However, when speaking with Ben Smith, Winship notes that the landscapes are as much about people as her portraits are, meaning that these images are a Significant part of any body of work that Winship is creating. And she goes on to discuss more about this relationship between people and landscapes for an interview with the British Journal of Photography:
“I would like to convey something about fragility, about how both the landscape and the human beings who inhabit it are marked by their history and their place within in it, here and now”
Winship is also aware of the photograph as a subjective act and considers what she does as a junction between chronicle and fiction, which is a significant acknowledgment of how her works exists with elements of the documentary aesthetic but also constructed in its narrative. I find this the most interesting about her work as she is also making reference to the act of photography and the object of the photograph in her work.
It feels that any image made during this time, which considers people and community will inevitably be compared to how we are coping and living with covid-19 and the ‘new normal.’ During the last module this was thrust upon my project and I had to react to it. During the period between modules I was still continuing to take images, albeit not really to do with my research project but very much looking at what we all were seeing at the time and what I have since see a number of photographers focus projects on – discarded items of PPE that seem to occupy the landscape around us (Fig: 3). Now that I am back creating work for my research project, I wanted to actively avoid these objects, knowing that as people come to view my work it will be read as being about these concepts and ideas naturally. I can hint at this however, through the title of the work, for example, which considers the power of how image and text work together, as Barthes points out: “Formally, there was a reduction from text to image; today there is amplification from the one to the other” (1977:26).
My intention is to call this body of work ‘I hope this finds you safe and well,’ which is a phrase that I have adopted to open correspondence such as emails. This was to adapt the common phrase ‘I hope that this email finds you well,’ the emphasis is on the word ‘safe’ that should resonate with the audience, as the word has come to symbolise this period.
Even though I may not be looking for the artifacts of the pandemic to include in my work, I believe that there is still an anxiety in the people and the landscape, which I am aiming to include in the images. My project has inevitably evolved as a result into a kind of post lock down exploration and journey through the landscape, which is starting to consider Watford one of the characters in the narrative as much as any of the portraits might be. It is important to start considering this and had been a key point of my feedback received for the project so far. Essentially, I really need to ground the narrative in the place, much like Alec Soth does with his work ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ (Fig: 4). Soth considers the river a metaphor for the kind of wandering that is present within the book (Soth in Schuman, 2004). Soth also is considering the mythology inherent in this part of the US, connected to the perception of ‘America’ through the culture that we consume, which strikes an interest for me me as there are elements of this through the research into documentary photography and the way that we expect that kind of photography to look based on the documentary canon of images that exist already.
What is a Watford then?
For me Watford has always felt like a place without a clear identity. Its proximity to London means that a vast majority of people who live here, do so to commute into the city. This same proximity also means that the shear size of London and its cultural content dwarfs anything that might happen within Watford itself. The town is inside the M25 roadway that surrounds Greater London but it is not part of the capital, though it is considers an Urban district. As well as the M25, there are a great number of other significant transport links in the town: Heathrow, Luton, the M1 and the A1 are nearby; the high speed rail link that goes to Euston, the Metropolitan underground station, and the Overground all run from Watford. All of these are designed to speed people away.
Historically, there is also the Grand Union canal running from London to Birmingham and it was the introduction of the canal as well as the railway that led to Watford’s initial rapid growth leading to its establishment of a major printing town (Moorhead, 2014), where the place that I work was once called the Watford college of printing, responsible for training typesetters and printers for the newspaper industry in the UK and also the world and also the production of all government propaganda during WW2. If Watford was to have had an identity it would have potentially been tied to the now defunct printing industry here and also the impact that the education of printers will have had on the printed word. This could of course be an area to consider when creating my own publications.
“Rotary photogravure was a technique which was first used in Watford to reproduce very fine, high quality fine art prints and then it went on to be used to produce colour magazines. All the ladies’ colour magazines, like Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Own, were all printed in Watford, as well as most of the colour supplements for the Sunday newspapers.“
From a transport perspective Watford appears to lack its own agency as to get anywhere outside of London or Birmingham for example, you must travel into London first. It is a significant commuter town and has evolved to nurture this as it is one of the main reasons for its success as a town. It is also one of the last places that you could encounter before it is London, between London and Countryside. Surrounding Watford, there are a number of really beautiful parks and natural landscapes, which I have started to really take an interest in. I was struck when reviewing my first images that some of them almost look like they could be North America, a particular resonance for me and my Canadian wife.
Linking back to my use of black and white, its use by Winship and other photographers is a way of drawing attention to the fact that something is being photographed. It could also be that this acknowledgment of the medium in the image is a way to place myself into the narrative, albeit subtly. I am there through the act of photography without having to be in any of the images as a subject. There needs to be a further development in the landscape and really placing Watford as one of the central characters of the project together with the portraits and the use of black and white, which places me as another character.
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation ed. New York: Fontana.
Flusser, V., 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2018 Reprint ed. London: Reaktion Books.
Moorhead, R., 2014. At one time nearly everyone living in Watford had a job connected to the print industry. Now Dr Caroline Archer has put together an exhibition – 100 Years of Printing Education. She talks to Rosy Moorhead. [Online] Available at: https://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/leisure/localexhibitions/10962647.at-one-time-nearly-everyone-living-in-watford-had-a-job-connected-to-the-print-industry-now-dr-caroline-archer-has-put-together-an-exhibition-100-years-of-printing-education-she-talks-to- [Accessed 8 July 2020].
Schuman, A. & Soth, A., 2004. The Mississippi: An Interview with Alec Soth. [Online] Available at: http://seesawmagazine.com/soth_pages/soth_interview.html [Accessed 8 July 2020].
Winship, V., 2014. Still dancing: Vanessa Winship discusses her work [Interview] (6 August 2014).
Winship, V., 2015. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 03 – Vanessa Winship: [Interview] (11 September 2015).