New Materialism & Object Agency – Another ‘Berlin’

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

Photography & Object Orientated Ontology

When discussing Edmond Husserl, Graham Harmon notes how he believes there can be two Berlins: “One of them a content inside the mind and the other an object outside it” (2020: 15). The meaning of this assertion is to suggest that if I were to describe Berlin to you, assuming that you had never been there, it would be different from the one that you might find if you went there yourself. Not necessarily so different that you wouldn’t recognise it as the Berlin I described, but the way that I perceive a place and then describe it will inevitably abstract certain details. I may skip bits less important to me, which you then find crucial to the way that you experience it. I really like chocolate and there was a pretty good chocolate shop by the Brandenburg gate, or the cool northern district where I bought that t-shirt but can’t remember its name – began with an ‘F’ I think. You will experience and remember a different city to me; you may even remember the name of that district. Husserl acknowledges the negligible difference between these two realities as an “absurd notion” (p. 15) however, shows that human perception of the concrete world is a construction of bias and truth, even if that construction describes that same reality.

Harmon is an advocate of Object Orientated Ontology (OOO), which creates agency in the object that is free from how humans perceive it and removes us from being the central focus of interpretation of the world. The described object has its qualities, which can be interpreted in innumerate ways by us and some of these qualities can be abstracted. The object however, remains as it is, regardless of how it is interpreted by us, as Harmon notes, “we abstract certain features from these objects, which exist in their full and unexhausted plenitude quite apart from all our theoretical, perceptual, or practical encounters with them” (2020: 18). Within the sphere of OOO, Berlin would be considered an ‘object’ like any other: “any ‘thing’ is an object, whether living, non-living, artificial, or conceptual”  (Kerr, 2016). Photography is an act of interpreting objects, albeit narrowly, and when considering Husserl photographically, it can be thought of as a third ‘Berlin’ as it also abstracts, leaving out many of the static features that exist in the object.

Figure 1: Micheal Padilla (2020) From ‘Plague Kids: A 21st Century Photo Diary’

The interpretation of the object is based on how it has been photographed: how the apparatus has been programmed, how it has been lit, how it has been composed. The object has its own immutable qualities, yet the interpretation is closely tied to the qualities of the photograph, which can supersede those of the object. I was struck by a recent example of this from one of my peers, Michael Padilla. In his series, ‘Plague Kids,’ he takes the clean colour digital images from a DSLR and prints them onto previously printed-on paper using a laser printer from the 90s, which completely downgrades any of the perceived ‘clean’ quality of the original image (Fig: 1). However, by doing so, he also creates something far superior with greater meaning, even as it is interpreted as degraded. Padilla has taken the abstraction of the photograph one step further by supplanting the qualities of the photograph with its printed outcome, shifting the context – creating a fourth ‘Berlin’ to continue with Husserl’s analogy.

A more common example of this might be in advertising, where the object is photographed in such a way as to accentuate particular qualities attractive to those who are willing to make a purchase. I have also discussed previously, that some of the best photographic works seem to draw attention to the act of photography, which is another way of saying that they also accentuate particular qualities of the photographic process. It is worth noting that photography would also be considered an ‘object’ by OOO, with agency outside the sphere of our interpretation. As Harmon argues, “the external world exists independently of human awareness” (2018: 10).

Figure 2: Phil Hill (August, 2020) PHO703: Surfaces and Strategies work in progress portfolio submission, titled ‘I hope this finds you safe and well’

When considering the impact of OOO on my research project (Fig: 2), the idea of multiple ‘Berlins’ can just as easily be interpreted as multiple ‘Watfords’ (though not as ‘cool’) in a figurative and literal sense of the word. So far, I have suggested that there are four of these interpretations however, as each of us has a unique learned knowledge of the world, it is argued that there are in fact an infinite amount – even as the concrete existence of Watford and the communities that occupy it remain. OOO encourages a way of removing human interpretation from the object’s own agency and creates an opportunity to analyse the impact of the object’s qualities on the way that it is read by us; first consider the object and then the photographic process acting on it.

What I have aimed to do with my project is to consider the perception of these qualities in terms of how they are photographed and how the qualities of the photograph can overcome the qualities of the object photographed – my community. This has become fundamental to the understanding of how I will photograph my community moving forward and also how I connect with it. If I start to think of the community as an object, I can start to identify its qualities and then consider ways in which I can apply the qualities of photography to create my narrative; connecting with the community by drawing attention to my process of photograph. And this is why analogue has become quite important to my practice. The way that we perceive community in its rose-tinted, better-in-the-past bubble, and the way that black and white documentary photographs have shaped this collective understanding are qualities that can be exploited to create my authorship of the presented work – connecting me as the photographer to the community that I am photographing.

Bibliography

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

Harmon, G., 2020. Art and Objects. 1st Paperback ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kerr, D., 2016. What Is Object-Oriented Ontology?. [Online] Available at: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/the_big_idea/a-guide-to-object-oriented-ontology-art-53690 [Accessed 9 August 2020].

Writing as Process

I have been spending time considering the photograph as an object related to my research around Object Orientated Ontology, black and white images and a documentary aesthetic. Source magazine also have a writing prize, so I have put together a short article about the topic as i feel this would be a good way to explore ideas and also use writing as a process to present them:

Drawing Attention to the Photograph
Robert Frank (1955) Elevator, Miami Beach – From ‘The Americans”

When Robert Frank penned his application to the Guggenheim foundation leading to the hugely influential ‘The Americans’ trip, he wanted: “To produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation” (Frank, 2012). This accomplishment was never in dispute. However, he also did something else: Frank showed the US photographed and by doing so, drew attention to the act of photography in challenging the stiff, formal technical proficiency of traditionalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and his mentor, Walker Evans (O’Hagan, 2014). Frank broke all the rules with his approach to process, As John Szarkowski points out: “what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography” (2013). Frank’s photographs openly display the act of photography by showing you the means of its production (showing you the strings): motion blur, un-level horizons, moving the depth of field from the main subject of the image, shifting attention. Things that are only shown through photographs, and considered mistakes by some, yet they cut through the illusion of perfection, making them relatable and placing Frank into the photograph as the photographer.

This idea of drawing attention to the photographic act might sound pretty obvious to anyone looking at Frank’s photographs, now part of the mythology of a documentary aesthetic: black and white inviting the reader to view the subject nostalgically, for example. These quintessential qualities of the photograph are opposed to the way that we interpret the world and a learned knowledge of their perceived importance, as Vilém Flusser notes: “Many photographers … prefer black-and-white photographs to colour photographs because they more clearly reveal the actual significance of the photograph, i.e. the world of concepts” (2000, p. 43). Of course, for Frank, black and white film was the primary means to photograph, yet it still highlights a contrast of the real world. Contemporary photographers such as Vanessa Winship, choose to utilise this conceptual suggestive power of black and white, clearly recognising the subjective act of photography, or as she puts it best, the area “between chronicle and fiction” (Winship, 2015), drawing attention to her photographs’ contrast of the concrete world and as objects in themselves.

Drawing attention to the act of photography separates it from the sea of images occupying our daily lives, perhaps one of the last bastions of differentiation that the photographer has. It is easy to take a picture, everyone has the means to do it, but the awareness of the photograph as an object remains with those willing to study it and then accentuate its qualities, both conceptual and technical. Photographers do this often with apparatus. For example, Joel Mereowitz considers the theatre of the 10×8 camera in which he captured Provincetown a significant part of that work, where even during the late 70’s and early 80’s must have seemed like apparatus from a distant time (Meyerowitz in Perello, 2020). This idea also led to Alys Tomlinson making a ‘break through’ in pursuit of her seminal project ‘Ex-Voto’ when she switched to large format black and white (Tomlinson in Smith, 2020).

The theatre of apparatus also draws attention to the photographic act, though not necessarily for the viewer. It is more of an interaction between the author and subject as it creates the means to interject the visual associations of candid and vernacular; apparatus invites intrigue, breaking down tension with a curious subject. It should be noted, this reaction may not have happened without its presence bringing up questions of subjectivity and representation as it is more an intervention by the photographer author, as Philip Toledano reminds us, “The art is always about you [the photographer] in some respect, it’s just a question of how visible you are in that photograph; how much you can see yourself or other people can see you” (Toledano, 2020). In our world of images, how does the photographer differentiate themselves from the vernacular and the sea of images? Going back to the example of Robert Frank, who’s subject was the vernacular – you draw attention to the photography within the photograph.

Bibliography

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

Frank, R., 2012. A Statement by Robert Frank (1958). [Online] Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/07/robert-frank-a-statement-1958.html
[Accessed 15 July 2020].

Meyerowitz, J., 2020. The Candid Frame #500 – Joel Meyerowitz [Interview] (26 January 2020).

O’Hagan, S., 2014. Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won’t look back. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/robert-frank-americans-photography-influence-shadows [Accessed 16 July 2020].

Szarkowski, J., 2013. John Szarkowski On Robert Frank’s Book ‘The Americans’” (1986). [Online] Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2013/05/john-szarkowski-on-robert-franks-book-the-americans-1986.html [Accessed 16 July 2020].

Toledano, P., 2020. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 132 Phillip Toledano [Interview] (10 June 2020).

Tomlinson, A., 2020. A Small Voice: Conversations with photographers – 123 – Alys Tomlinson [Interview] (5 February 2020).

Winship, V., 2015. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 003 Vanessa Winship [Interview] (11 November 2015).

Object Agency – Planning for Surfaces and Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

(1993: 59)

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

(1993: 60)

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

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

Areas of exploration during surfaces and strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gettier and the Pyramids

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:

Bibliography

Gettier, E. L., 1963. Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?. Analysis, pp. 121-123.

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