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.’
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.
Part of my exploration this module has been to look at the environment that would inevitably accompany my portraits. I think that up until now, I have considered these images secondary and transitional in terms of the narrative that takes you from portrait to portrait. As a result, I was unsure of how to begin this process and decided to use a psychogeography approach that we looked at during the previous module, That gave me the route, and for the content, I came across the shooting scripts written for the FSA photographers in Todd Hido’s book ‘On Landscapes, interiors, and the Nude’ (Hido, 2014, p. 123). Additionally, I think there is also a clear influence on the part of the New Topographic style of banal photography, that I have come back to time and time again when shooting this kind of image (Fig. 3).
The approach, has been to go out and collect images using the above influences, I have not aimed to focus on anything specific as yet. For this shoot however, I had the benefit of a light that I was happy to shoot with and as I ended up walking past locations from my first shoot 1 (See post). I took the opportunity to re shoot some of my images for comparison (Fig. 4 & 5). Hido discusses his approach to projects where he tends to shoot first and allow the narratives reveal themselves in the editing process (Hido, 2014, p. 114). I have enjoyed following that ethos up to this point, however considering the topics for week 5, I believe there is an opportunity to look at the land in the same way that I have approached finding my portraits and developing my approach to create images to better reflect my intentions. This is an important consideration.
Many of the images that I have shot seem to reveal a tendency to focus on the detritus that I come across along my route, for example there were at least 4 fridges* fly-tipped on the streets which although were there and existed I chose to photograph one of them owing to the children’s stickers still on the top door (Fig. 6). This for me was indexical of the family that once owned this appliance, who were seemingly able replace it, they were not apparently in the position to properly dispose of it. Having been left on the pavement denotes a potential poverty of the area, or at least a reduction of civic pride that you might not find in a more gentrified area. My intention on this shoot was not necessarily to highlight the poverty and civic pride of the environment, however part of my look at my local community is my connection to it, especially now I am being forced to move home once again (See post) and makes links back to the writing of Robert Putnam, who discusses how “residential stability is strongly associated with civic engagement” (Putnam, 2000, p. 211). The images of detritus are reflective of the people who live there, though only reflective and not necessarily representative of them as people.
How can an
environment and the land reflect people?
This is the fundamental question that I can ask myself
moving forward with the environmental images that I am taking. When considering
the gaze in which we all view the world, the reference t the Freudian idea of
anthropomorphising the land into something that is feminine, discussed in the
body and the land presentation (Alexander, 2020) intrigues me. Where
I feel more study is needed for me to recognise the feminine in the landscape,
I do see the correlation of how men occupy the world through their rugged pursuits
and women are there to be occupied, in the sense of being objectified, which
was also a conclusion drawn when John Berger interviewed a group of women in
response to an episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972). An anthropomorphising
of the land can be seen in other ways, as we potentially see those reflections
and indexical traces of the people living in them, especially within the urban
and built up areas in which I am focussing. What people throw away gives away a
fair amount of information about the people who occupy a space. As I have
mentioned previously, it can also give us clues to how connected they might be
within the community; if you are prepared to throw away and leave the discarded
where it falls, how proud are you about the place where you live? If others are
not challenging this, how worried are they about the cohesiveness of their
community? You can in essence look at a picture of a pile of rubbish within the
environment, and create a mental image of the person who contributed to it and
the socio-economic space in which they occupy.
I have discussed the neutrality of the image a lot over my
last few posts. No image is neutral, no gaze can be neutral, and also images of
landscapes also cannot be neutral. After reading the text ‘Of Mother Nature and
Marlboro Men’ by Deborah Bright (Bright, 1985) I can see that the
land forms part of the cultural myth. For the US, the Landscape is part of the
national narrative of overcoming great odds in order to occupy and control
their world, with no mention of how this might have been at the expense of the
indigenous population. In the tradition of European oil painting, the landscape
image was created to denote the spectator owners vast wealth (Ways of Seeing, 1972).
Figure 7. Roy Stryker (1939) Shooting script for a small town
I started my project for this module with the shooting script on photographing the small town (Stryker, 1939) which I found a useful starting topography in seeking out all of the images that might be considered part of the town vernacular. I previously reflected and discussed the use of language in creating the conditions for gaze (see post), and the same could be said of the FSA shooting script that I started with (Fig. 7). The lists were written in order to focus on specific elements of society in order to present them in a way consistent with the goals of the FSA project, that is to say, to show the value of the poorest in American society, albeit not hiding the fact it was an exercise in propaganda: “A pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems (Stryker’s words)” (Sontag, 1979, p. 62). The lists could encourage and exacerbate how we gaze at such problems.
I enjoy many of the images that I took on this shoot, so the question of where they could sit in the narrative is crucial, as it the representation and also the gaze. If I am focussing on the indexical, then there is much potential to include images such as the dog bone (Fig. 8), this trace that someone was here is useful to understand the diversity of the area when I am unable to photograph everyone who lives here. My dominant reading will change depending on the way that I sequence this work, so I should work to clear up any ambiguity in my intention. Something that I don’t think will happen until the very end of this project.
I could start a project on fridges with some more material.
2020. Week 5: The Body and The Land. Falmouth: Falmouth University.
Bright, D., 1985. Of Mother Nature and Marlborough
Men. Exposure, 23(1), p. Online.
Hido, T., 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors,
and the Nude. New York: Aperture.
Hill, P., 2019. ‘Peterborough Appliances Truck Load Sale. Ontario, Canada.’. [Photo].
Hill, P., 2020. Dog bone near Churchfield Road. [Photo].
Hill, P., 2020. Fridge Freezer left out on the pavement. St Albans Road.. [Photo].
Hill, P., 2020. Palm Tree, Northwestern Avenue 08/02. [Photo].
Hill, P., 2020. Palm Tree, Northwestern Avenue 25/01. [Photo].
Putnam, R., 2000. Bowling Alone. 1 ed. New
York: Simon & Schuster.
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London:
Stryker, R., 1939. Shooting script on the Small
Town, Washington DC: Library of Congress.
Ways of Seeing. 1972. [Film] Directed by
Michael Dibb. UK: BBC.
Systemic Structure of Gaze and its Impact on my Practice
Many of the texts that we are asked to read have been written pre-Nineties and can be considered in the context of this, however they raise a number of questions of how the dominant male gaze has been established and positioned and should be challenged now. Writers such as Lutz and Collins look at the intersection of gaze (Lutz & Collins, 1991), exampling National Geographic magazine’s problematic approach to representation and gazing at other cultures through the lens if the white European, which was not acknowledged by the publication until the issue of a formal apology 27 years later (Goldberg, 2018). Having created work for the travel spin off National Geographic Traveller (Fig. 1), I question whether I am also guilty of perpetuating a type of colonial gaze with a view of the ‘other’ and the promise of exoticism for a Western audience as the lure of being paid to photograph superseded the awareness for people and culture.
Questions of how we gaze go back even further and overlap questions of representation, with Barthes discussing the view of female novelists in ‘Novels and Children’ (Barthes, 1993, pp. 50-52), which discusses the case of Elle magazine’s introduction of female writes as mothers first and novelists second (1993, p. 50), where their male counterparts are only considered for their literary achievements: “Elle says to women: you are worth just as much as men; and to men: your women will never be anything but women. Man at first seems absent from this double parturition; children and novels alike seem to come by themselves, and to women alone” (1993, p. 51). Barthes wrote this in 1957, which must beg the question of what has realistically changed.
Interestingly for Barthes, there is a predilection to use
male pronouns when referring to the photographer, and the person (or for
Barthes, the artist, the writer), so even when raising the point of female
representation in Elle magazine, Barthes will move on to referring to the next
person as he, him. You might be forgiven in thinking that as these are
translations from Barthes native French language, which is very gendered by its
structure, consisting of masculine and feminine words. However, this in itself
could be considered part of a societal construct that puts maleness on a
pedestal and everything else aspiring to it, albeit harder to break as a
culturally established form of communication.
Barthes is not alone, Walter Benjamin notes: “in principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artefacts could always be imitated by men” (Benjamin, 1968, p. 218), emphasis on the man-made and men, and although the writing of Benjamin is also a translation from German to English in this instance, this writing will have a fundamental impact of those who read the text. Thankfully, Susan Sontag does not rely on this and primarily refers to ‘the photographer’ (Sontag, 1977, p. 117) in her text, which although is a useful neutrality, the assumption could still be of the male, especially given the dominance of the white male photographer. For Barthes and Benjamin and the contextual sphere of influence that they occupied together with other white male writers, and indeed photographers; the photographer is male.
This perhaps is not the total causal reason for the dominance of the patriarchal gaze, however the impact is in creating the systemic baseline in which we gaze. Man traditionally refers to ‘everything’ and can mean both genders: ‘man-kind,’ ‘man-made,’ as in humans, and made by humans for humans, whereas women are distinct and clearly defined in referring to the female, but not male. Men can be generic in the default sense, no need to be highlighted, they* exist. Women are specific and can be singled out. If we are reading that maleness is the default position then the gaze in which we view the world should be that everything else is adherent to it, and subservient to its wills, whims and desires.
Continually being told that the default position is man is massively undermining, as Hannah Starkey points out “How can you be what you cannot see” (Starkey, 2019) as it is crucial that you can see yourself in the role that you aspire to, and specifically for Starkey if you cannot see yourself in the world then why would you aspire to, so it crucial women see other women occupying these roles. For me, it is easy to see myself in the role of the photographer as many of the photographers that I have viewed, the writers that I read, all look and sound as I do. I have to recognise that my gaze has been learned from consuming these texts and other cultural signifiers, potentially built on this air of authority granted to me by all of the men that have preceded. Through reading and seeing this vision of the male photographer, I have had no reason to question it. Which was the case when I photographed for travel and lifestyle with little consideration for how the people were being viewed; it was exciting to be paid to photograph such places.
Figure 2. Phil Hill (December, 2019) Portraits from ‘Peterborough Curling Club’
Within my current practice I have always felt that the most engaging photographic narratives are most effective when they have people as part of the series (fig. 2). I am intrigued by them, I want to gaze at them, which makes me a voyeur. I photograph the things that I am unable to engage with normally and use my camera as a way of entering into these spaces that I would never usually go, in the same way Sontag writes of the camera being the passport that removes any inhibitions (Sontag, 1977, p. 4), I use it to train my gaze onto what intrigues me. I find that photographing strangers is one of the most difficult things to do, yet I am compelled to do it as I am aware that these almost always are the strength of the narrative (Fig. 3). The reciprocal gaze of the subject is something that I have aimed to control in the creation of my work and is what drives it. Many of the subjects I photograph look away and off camera, which I have discussed previously that it reduces the confrontation between the subject and the reader, allowing a wider interpretation of the image (see post). However, feedback on this approach has been that maybe I do this too often. Perhaps it is not the confrontation between subject and reader that is confrontational, but it is in the tension between me and the subject that truly reflects my gaze in the images that I create. My aim in my current practice has been to reduce the ‘otherness’ of the subject in the images through a more collaborative approach, in a sense a shared gaze, one of the author and that of the subject.
Linking back to the example of how male pronouns support the established systems of a learned gaze, I don’t feel I view the world in this way, especially now having more of an awareness of the constructed language that may have impacted on this. However, if I am saying that the people in my work are to make sense of the narrative, then I am objectifying them to a certain extent, even if they are complicit in the creating of my portraits, the reader is not and can create their own reading from a respective gaze. As we have discussed before, no image is neutral, so no gaze can be neutral. When I am gazing, I am comparing myself and a kind of measuring myself against the subject in some way. Not to say that I am considering myself better than, I only want to view the differences in order to better understand them, in an empathetical sense. I hope that my gaze is one of empathy, however I am unsure if I am successful in this hope, which where the importance of a proper dialogue and collaboration is vital to remain aware of how learned behaviour might continue to have an impact.
During a draft of this text, I first wrote ‘we’ instead of ‘they.’ ‘We’ referring to men, because I was writing the post as a male, this was my default response to refer in the first person, whether or not this was an error of which person I should have been writing the text in, it is interesting to recognise this learned behaviour. Only after proof reading the text did I realise that I should perhaps use ‘they.’ It is an ingrained response that continues to shape the discussion. Interestingly, in the introduction presentation to week 5, Jesse notes “Man has always looked” (Alexander, 2020) which perhaps is purposefully done to highlight the perspective of the default male position.
Barthes, R., 1993. Mythologies. 1st Vintage
Edition ed. London: Vintage.
Benjamin, W., 1968. Illuminations: Essays and
Reflections. Translation ed. New York: Random House.
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 3 February 2019].
Hill, P., 2019. Peterborough Curling Club. [Photographs] (N/A).
Hill, P., 2020. Billy Suldisha outside a local Barber Shop. [Photo] (N/A).
Hill, P. & Warrick, H., 2013. Free Spirit. National
Geographic Traveller, 1 March, pp. 92-93.
Lutz, C. & Collins, J., 1991. The Photograph as
an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. Visual
Anthropology Review, 7(1), pp. 134-149.
Sontag, S., 1977. On Photography. London:
Starkey, H., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations
With Photographers EP102: Hannah Starkey [Interview] (4 April 2019).
Reading the forum this week, I notice that a good number of
the feedback given to the images is informed by a pre-existing understanding of
the work of my peers. I was aware of the previous work of many of my peers
through engaging on the forums and webinars over the last few weeks, plus following
many on social media.
I believe that the task was with the aim of removing this knowledge of the work in order to read the image ‘cold,’ which would be useful to understand how a variety of meaning can be drawn from an image where it may be viewed without the context and the understanding of the author’s intent. This is important as it poses the question of whether the communication of the image’s meaning is understood without the supporting documentation that might accompany a piece of work. Also, worth considering Barthes’ removal of the author, which may distort this reading of images (Barthes, 1977, pp. 142-148).
With this in mind, I decided to test the reading of my current portrait practice but realise that many of my peers have seen much of this work already. With the aim of gaining this ‘cold’ reading, I decided to use a portrait taken within the timeframe of this current module and in a similar style to the work that I have intended to shoot for my work in progress portfolio (Fig. 1), however is unrelated to the look at my local community.*
Authors might not be
that dead after all.
This week, I spent some time looking in detail at Roland Barthes’
essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977) with the aim of seeing
how this could apply to my practice. Barthes suggests that the reading of a
work becomes a relationship between the reader of the work and the author, which
has a fundamental impact on how that work is read. The background of the author
could be prioritised over the message of the work. For example, if I am telling
you that my project is about a fractured sense of community, is this being
communicated through my images, or are you as a reader attributing this information
to the work and changing the meaning of what has actually been presented.
The image that I added to the forum is a portrait of Dave, who is a member of the Peterborough Curling club in Ontario, Canada (Fig 1). What information in the image is actually telling us this? And did the reading of the image support this? One of the most immediate signs in my image of Dave is of the Canadian flag sewn onto his hat with the rest of the image fairly monotone by comparison. Red, I find is a very useful colour to use when composing images as it instantly draws the eye to it. Is the flag a dead giveaway that the subject is Canadian, not necessarily. Fashion items regularly use flags as an accessory, and there are a number of clothing companies that utilise the Canadian flag as part of its brand. Personally, I feel that there are a number of factors that link this image as being taken in North America, and Canada specifically. The Colour tone is typical of this part of the world, but potentially I am only aware of this fact having spent a good amount of time in the country; I purposefully chose to move Dave to the panelled background to increase this feel to the image. Dave is wearing a plaid shirt, which is also typical of a person living in Canada, however this too could be circumstantial and coincidental. Lastly, and most telling, is the name badge, which although not part of the plain of focus, you are able to make out the name and ‘Peterborough Curling’ however this too can be confused as someone living in the UK city of Peterborough. My intention that when these are read together, you are reading a portrait of a Canadian male.
The feedback more or less confirmed this (Fig. 2). The name badge and outdoor clothing meant that Dave was assumed to be working outdoors, and that the work was a defining characteristic of who Dave is. In fact, this portrait was taken indoors, however the clothing is necessary as this is a curling club where the ice needs to be kept at a low temperature. Dave is also retired and a member of the club for social and active reasons. Joanna spotted the Canadian flag and made the connection that he is indeed Canadian. Apprehension and annoyance was also a reading of the image, which is fairly accurate. Dave allowed me to take his portrait and even moved to the panelled background, however, he was not there to have his photograph taken, and was keen to continue curling, which can be viewed in some of his expression. However, I quite like this tension in the image and it is one of my favourite images from the curling club shoot. Linking to my initial commentary on pre-existent knowledge of the work, Andy’s feedback was interesting in that he does have an awareness of the kind of work that I produce having helped me out on a shoot for the last module where we have spoken at length about both of our practices. I am happy with Andy’s reading of my work but aware that this could come from a position of being more informed than most. I am interested to understand what he meant by the lack of meaning as this is a clear area of development for me.
‘Death of the Author’ is useful in that the communication needs to be strong enough for the work to stand on its own. Barthes’ requires us to consider that a work can be read in a multitude of ways, and the term ‘reader’ does not mean a physical one, but instead a way of placing the work in a space where all possible readings can be extracted (Seymour, 2017, p. 27). This notion is useful in that we can view a work liberated from authors, who might seek to control how a work is consumed (p. 22). The image of Dave was not necessarily ambiguous enough for an oppositional reading to truly test the nature of my dominant reading, the denoted elements tell enough of a narrative of who Dave is, even if this is not completely accurate.
Removing authors as the primary means in which we consume
and read work can be a useful tool of reference to bear in mind how that work
is being read and it puts the focus back on the message and not the messenger –
for example, in the way that we understand a speech of a political figure (Seymour,
2017, p. 43).
I am not sure that I fully support that you can completely
remove authors from the work as they could provide useful understanding of the
intent of that work. It is almost impossible to do so anyway, especially in our
information driven era where everything can be accessed and re-accessed online,
although it could be argued that by virtue of the way images are shared online,
they can lose meaning and easily be recontextualized in the form of memes, for
example. There are a number of reasons where it is useful to understand the context
in which that work was created, which could also include background information
of the author. For example, as a way of breaking established hegemony in
colonial and male gaze. A number of Barthes’ contemporaries such as Raymond
Picard were critical of this approach to Authors, arguing that the historical and
context are crucial to understand the work (Seymour, 2017, p. 24). Stanley Fish also
discussed the importance of context in how we interpret meaning and an important
consideration of this is in the author (p. 57).
It is important to continually assess the spaces left by the author when we look at the work in their absence. It is helpful to view a work with this separation, and a notion discussed by Michel Foucoult in his essay ‘What is an Author’ (Foucoult, 1980). However, Barthes’ himself also notes that the image is used to illustrate written word, we may also need to include some kind of commentary (in the form of words) for it to be fully understood (Barthes, 1977, p. 26). And although text does not necessarily relate to the author, it can be useful for understanding the intent. Therefore, there must be a middle ground in which images should communicate effectively and where the intention can be supported through the dominant reading of the author but not held hostage by it.
Although I am now wondering if this is a factor that should really matter. My project idea is looking at the notion of the fractured community, so a portrait of a small community group in Canada that I shot whilst visiting my wife’s family over the Christmas period may support the narrative of never truly fitting into one place.
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.
Foucoult, M., 1980. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. New Edition ed. New York: Cornell University Press.
Hill, P., 2019. Dave, Peterborough Curling Club, Ontario, Canada. [Photo]
Kurowski, J. et al., 2020. Week 4 Activity: Viewers Make Meaning (Forum), s.l.: Falmouth University.
Seymour, L., 2017. An Analysis of Roland Barthes’s
The Death of the Author. London: Routledge.