I have been continuing to consider the documentary aesthetic and authority that exists in the photograph. If all photographs are constructions, can any of them be considered knowledge by using the epistemological definition of ‘Justified True Belief’ (JTB). In an attempt to explore this, I have been aiming to apply this to photographs by also looking at the Gettier problem (1963), which creates the conditions for knowledge, albeit based on a false premise. Additionally, I have also been researching the idea of object orientated ontology (OOO), which states that the art object can be a form of knowledge drawn from its aesthetic qualities (Harmon, 2018).
The research has been useful to define new ways to consider the photograph as a way to represent and document a subject in its raw form before they are approached from a constructivist learned knowledge of the world. I have written an essay, which can be viewed here:
I decided to take Ed Rucha’s ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ (1963) as inspiration. It has always been a book that I have enjoyed, having discovered it very early on studying photography.
The images were selected from a number of 35mm film shoots that I have been doing between the modules, which are a departure from what I have been completing for my work in progress (Fig: 1). This was as I am researching to consider the way documentary photography is perceived and see if it could play a role in developing my approach.
I wanted to create a series that first might be perceived in an arbitrary and mundane way through aesthetically pleasing images of trees in blossom (Fig: 2), which then plays on that sense of collected awareness drawn from the context of this happening during the peak of the lock down. Beautiful yet surreal when considering the time in which the images were taken. I have also added a series of double exposures to juxtapose these feelings, which I aimed to show the chaos of the situation without photographing indexical gloves and masks that have appeared en masse (Fig: 3).
I aimed to use Rucha’s book as a framework to present my own work and to form the basis for the narrative within the images and followed this with the blossom images, which also utilises ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ in the format of the text as a way to provide additional context in the way that the images can be read. The title is also a reference to Ruscha’s book in the graphic style of the typeface and a subtle gradient on the cover to create a sense of the aging and yellowing of the pages that Rucha’s book has been subjected to over the years since its printing (Fig: 4), which is evident in the walk through video of the book (Fig: 5).
Ruscha, E., 1963. Twentysix Gasoline Stations. 1 ed. Los Angeles: National Excelsior Press.
I have found editing my WIPP quite challenging in create a cohesive narrative that others are able to follow and understand. I have been quite keen to create a narrative that interlinks all of the elements that I have photographing: My environment, the sale of my house, portraits of people in my community, how we are now living with Covid-19. However, due to the disparate nature of the work the sequencing only truly makes sense to me. Initial editing together, I put together portraits with the abstract windows (Fig. 1), which received a positive initial response from my peers during a webinar, however it was noted during this critique that I might want to explore putting some space and distance between these images to see how they might ready differently. It was also noted that in isolation the meaning of my work was not coming through with the sequence I put forward.
I aimed to develop my approach by incorporating some text to contextualise my images and create a sense of my dominant reading and intent. Here I took elements from my research, for example a quote from the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (Tanzinaki, 2001, p. 62), which I felt summed up the need for all of the community to retreat into the home as the Covid-19 crisis developed (Fig. 2) and is an ode to the beauty of domestic aesthetics. I also wanted to create another development in how I used the estate agent text, which aimed to create a link to my own disconnect with the community, owing to the lack of being able to put down roots (Fig. 3), this was originally at the core of my approach to my project, inspired by my research into the idea of social capital, where Robert Putnam states: “Nevertheless, for people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems. It takes time for a mobile individual to put down roots. As a result, residential stability is strongly associated with civic engagement” (Putnam, 2000, p. 204), my own link to community had been continually disrupted because of regular travel and moving from house share to house share. I also attempted to include a couple of quotes collected from other forms of community: via community social media platform ‘Nextdoor’ (Fig. 4), and a headline from the local Watford Observer Newspaper (Fig. 5), which aimed to bring more of the local community into my sequence and edit. Lastly, I also put the text and quotes onto a muted yellow page, which was to create an intertextual hint at the way leaflets and directories, such as the Yellow Pages display information for the community which they serve.
Again, I found that the initial reaction from my peers was on the whole quite positive, Michelle found however that my approach was still confused, which potentially in part was linked to how she viewed my presentation on my work and the discussion on my intent, which at this stage is potentially not quite synchronous. I started my oral presentation by stating that my project is about community connection and connective decline, which in part is a way of considering the way that I fit into it, or have not fitted in. This is not completely obvious in my presentation yet, which looked at the theory quite heavily. One of the main points of feedback that I have received from my presentation was that I really need to bring the focus of my review back onto my own practice wherever possible and relevant to the theory, or how I actually apply it. Michelle’s feedback was extremely valuable in getting me to consider that I might actually start to create more of a synergy between the way I am explaining my intent and the way that I am showing it through my WIPP.
Additional feedback on the way that I created this layout was that there is potentially too much disparate imagery happing within the context of this WIPP and potentially less is more when it comes to the edit. I had further discussion with Michelle who suggested that I could resolve this by splitting the portfolio and editing two bodies of work and use the mitigating statement to justify the reasoning behind this, which would be the impact that covid-19 has had on the direction of my work.
Following from this feedback, I have decided to consider the connection to community again. My original intention was to explore the idea of my connection to community, I wanted to shoot portraits of people within my local community as they exist and operated within the community, which is also linked to the idea of social capital and the relationships that allow it to function (Fig. 6). These are also all of the people that I live idiorythmically, in the same space, the same community, yet are unaware of who they are and what they do, which considers the social abstract.
For example, Clare, who volunteers to clear litter from a local woodland (Fig. 7) so that it can be enjoyed by the wider community; when something is discarded, it becomes someone else’s problem, do we ever consider that person that actually comes along to collect it? Stephen, a prominent member of the Watford deaf society (Fig. 8), exists in a hearing world not built for him to easily operate. Mark who has been attending the food bank across the street from my house for the last 19 years and is also a patron (Fig. 9). These examples, are all people who exist within my community, and up until now I was unconcerned with the details of their individual rhythm (Johansen-Stene, et al., 2018, p. 1).
There is a voyeuristic nature to the portraits that I am presenting here, that until now, I have been unaware of their idiorrhythmic existence and now choose to engage with. With these images, I am still not fully part of the community that I photographing, it is more of a topology of subjects that make the community around me. Potentially, the natural evolution of this work would be to go into greater depth with these subjects to truly understand the sense of community they have and I do not. However, the interruption of Covid-19 has had a fundamental impact on the community and inevitably on my project, yet I do not see this change as detrimental. I have been considering the idiorhythmic and the isolation presents an opportunity to photograph my own individual rhythm. By focussing on my windows, I can continue the voyeuristic connection that is somewhat present in my portraits. In this new edit of the work, I have placed my most abstract window images next to the portraits (Fig. 7,8,9), to create a heightened sense of the voyeuristic. This also serves to place me into the work, potentially resolving the challenge of showing my connection. The abstract series of windows are from my house and are my only connection with the community, my view of the outside world. In essence, this is now my connection to the community. Yet, as a society, we have been asked to stay indoors, which again brings me back to how Barthes view the idea of the rectangle being the most basic form of power (Barthes, 2012, p. 113); they are the homes in which we live and now form the boundaries of our community. The window is another boundary which allows some semblance of contact with the outside but is controlled and measured through the glass that separates the interior from the exterior (Fig. 10).
The Pathos of Distance
By placing portraits with the windows, I feel really starts to explore the idea of the idiorrhythmic by showing a glimpse into my subjects’ individual rhythm, albeit disrupted by the intrusion of my direction, or how Susan Sontag stated “photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them” (Sontag, 1979, p. 42). This disconnect that links to my initial intention is portrayed through this topological visit in which I place an image of an abstracted window because I can no longer engage with the community, even if I wanted to. Barthes’ also places value on distance, which in a reference to Nietzsche termed as “the pathos of distance” (Barthes, 2012, p. 132) and has a particular resonance when we consider the current pandemic. For everyone, this connection of the community has been severed, or at least extremely reduced, so when looking at my windows, there is a sense of this connective decline and pathos that Barthes’ suggests (Fig. 11). So, this is where I can position this sequence, whilst still under the intent of exploring community, even when the image is abstracted.
Second Sequence and Plato’s Cave
When planning this module in my project proposal for positions and practice, there was an idea to photograph the environment of community as a way of bridging the gap during the period of building the relationships that I needed to shoot more portraits. From this approach, I have created a significant number of images that created a challenge in terms of the sequencing of the work as a whole. Since the onset of the pandemic however, these images have started to make sense through the sequencing of before and after diptych images (Fig. 12). I have placed images from before the lockdown next to images in the current situation, which create more metaphore than the straight portraits that John Berger would describe as an “actuality” (Berger, 2013, p. 8).
For example, I mirrored an image from a local community hub with one of my less abstract window images as aesthetically there were compositional synergies between the images (Fig. 13). Metaphorically, I also considered the allegory of Plato’s cave, in part owing to the opening chapter of On Photography (Sontag, 1979, pp. 3-24), and also after listening to Nick Waplington discuss its use for some of his painting practice (Waplington in Smith, 2019). The exterior is projected onto the interior, albeit abstract and is a sense of the reality that we are becoming accustomed to; will we recognise the world after the lockdown is lifted? And for my project, will we recognise the community in the same way again after being socially distant? Moving forward, there is potential to take these ideas into the post Covid-19 world as we seek to connect all over again.
For Sontag, the allegory of Plato’s cave is linked to the photograph as ‘truth’ and how our reality is shaped by the images that we consume, the images become the shadows projected onto the cave walls: “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph” (Sontag, 1979, p. 5), which is something that I have been exploring throughout Informing Contexts. I have been interested in experimenting and exploring the idea of how ‘evidential’ my images are to really unpack the way that I construct my images in this way so allowing a more metaphorical approach to play its role.
I have been exploring this based on a documentary aesthetic to create a form of evidence and ‘truth’ where the images are considered authentic and and an actuality, albeit constructed and not a complete ‘truth’ (Fig. 14). Moving forward with the development of this work, I have attempted to use this intertextually; all images are considered ‘authentic’ as Barthes’ suggests: “the important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force” (Barthes, 1981, pp. 88-89). Therefore, as I discussed in a previous development (Fig. 15) there is no need to create the images in that overt documentary aesthetic, which has been employed by Alec Soth and Eli Durst (Fig. 16 & 17), as the evidential element to the images are pre-existent; even when they are constructed, it exists in all of the photographs that I am making.
I have discussed the idea of existential dread playing a part in the work before, however I think in my previous edits, this has either not come through in how they are read, or it has been so obvious this has not worked either. For this development, I have attempted to create a subtle sequence of the work, which builds on the lessons I have learned during the module. For example, I have placed the image of the for sale sign next to an image of my kitchen floor (Fig. 18), which aesthetically mirrors the shape of the sign in the light projected onto the vinyl tiles and seeks to show that the home is in poor condition and a comment on the rental trap, or current housing crisis. This placement is more subtle than the way that I put these images together in figure 3 and without the text, however they ask more questions and utilise Uta Barth’s idea of ‘experiential looking’ through the removal of this central subject allowing the reader to ascribe their own narrative to the work. I am undecided wether to utilise the text in this current sequence as I fear this may lead to an unsubtle obvious reading of the work once again. However, I am considering a foreword of some kind, which might be in the form of the mitigating statement we have been asked to submit with this WIPP submission.
Barthes, R., 1981. Camera Lucida. 1st ed. London: Vintage.
Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism). Translation Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.
Collins, R., 2019. Watford’s Manhattan should not come as a surprise. [Online] Available at: https://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/18115564.watfords-manhattan-not-come-surprise/ [Accessed 12 April 2020].
Johansen-Stene, K., Refsum, C. & Schimanski, 2018. Living Together – Roland Barthes, the Individual and the Community. Wetzlar: Verlag.
Putnam, R., 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 1 ed. New York: Simon Schuster Paperbacks.
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.
Tanzinaki, J., 2001. In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage Books.
Waplington, N., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 118 Nick Waplington [Interview] (21 November 2019).
I had been avoiding Alec Soth, as I very much like his work and also very familiar with it visually. However, It was mentioned to me that my work has some similarities (albeit i’d argue tenuous), so I decided that it might be good to look at Soth for this task, which has turned out to be a revelation to how I am approaching my own practice. The interview that I am using is a conversation that Soth had with American Suburb X (Soth in ASX, 2015).
I found his discussion about the work ‘Songbook’ (Fig. 2) particularly interesting as Soth quickly moves into the way he created this work aesthetically, utilising black and white images with direct flash, which he is mimicking the look of press photography of the 1950s. This is something that resonated with me immediately as I have been writing about a documentary aesthetic, which has been driven by the look of this style of photography from the earliest FSA imagery and also how the look of press photographers, such as Weegee, who Soth also referenced in this interview, which was a nice validation for a post I did earlier in the module (Fig 3). Soth states “the work is referencing another time,” which is how we look at the period of the post war era as a sense of wonder, and how people have a deeply romanticised version of the past. From here Soth also makes reference to community and how there is a sense of loss of it, yet it has never really gone away. I had also been looking at a recent publication by Eli Durst, called ‘The Community’ in which he also creates images using this aesthetic, and seems to also reference another time. I have been discussing this aesthetic in relation to my own work, which is colour, however I don’t think that I have been able to truly resolve the reason why I have not created my work in black and white despite choosing to reference and research a range of black and white photography until listening to this interview. I believe that my work exists on the spectrum of the documentary aesthetic, however unlike Soth and Durst, my project is based on the present, so to use Soth’s conscious referencing to a romanticised past would be confusing and my use of colour makes sense in this context.
Soth also referred to a range of his works, which might be aesthetically different but are connected to each other and that every project that he creates is what Soth termed “Stuff that happens in America” but they are also about himself and some of the work is more inward looking than others. I have been struggling to resolve my project in terms of the editing of my work in progress portfolio, owing to a range of disparate imagery. My intention is to look at my connection to community, or lack thereof, which also makes my project a kind of autobiography in where I fit in. It has been useful to re-examine Alec Soth in relation to my own work. I think that in terms of how he resolves the autobiographical elements of his images could prove useful in the editing of my own WIPP.
Another interesting question posed to Soth was regarding his association with Magnum Photos, in what interviewer Brad Feuerhelm termed “the slippery position of being an artist and working with Magnum,” however after all our examination of National Geographic a few weeks ago, the statement of the ‘Magnum Artist’ feels like an oxymoron when considering how we perceive Magnum as a collective of documentary photographers. However, Soth states that Magnum has been misunderstood as being a news agency and confused by some its founding photographers who were closely linked to war photography, citing Robert Capa and Heri Cartier Bresson as “surrealists who exist in the real world,” and I wonder wether this statement sums up what I am aiming to say about this documentary aesthetic, which gives off the assumed authority of veracity but are aesthetic constructions in the same way National Geographic utilises similar tropes in the pursuit of empirical authority and arguments that have been put to the work of Sabastiao Salgado that we looked at a couple of weeks ago.
Durst, E., 2019. The Community. [Online] Available at: http://www.elidurst.com/the-community [Accessed 30 March 2020].
Soth, A., 2014. Songbook. 1 ed. London: Mack.
Soth, A., 2015. Brad Feuerhelm of ASX in conversation with Alec Soth [Interview] (4 November 2015)
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
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.
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Hill, P., 2020. Kitchen Window. [ Photo ].
Hill, P., 2020. Living room window. [ Photo ].
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Hill, P., 2020. Rear Window view. [ Photo ].
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