Other People’s Vernacular

Now that I have processed two of the films I asked others to shoot for me, it is worth looking at how they might fit into the rest of my project and research.

Figure 1. Image of a concrete road bridge support (Petrucci & Hill, 2020).
James

James is a work colleague and who I initially asked to shoot some film for me, partly as an experiment to see how this might work with the other images I am creating (Fig. 1). James is the Fine Art lecturer at the college I teach, so although some of the technical aspects of the images are less than refined, his sense of composition, space, and attention to detail are clear in the resulting images that he shot (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Steps outside Watford Town Hall (Petrucci & Hill, 2020).

The first thing that struck me when I developed these images was a sense of the banal and topographic within some of the subjects that James decided to photograph (Fig. 3). James has shot a series of images on his walking commute to the college where we both work and has placed emphasis on some of the imposing brutalist concrete structures that occupy Watford. This is a vernacular of Watford that I am not sure I will have made the link, or even approached to photograph myself. However vernacular in the sense of the content and not necessarily the aesthetic of the images, which is black and white film; vernacular photography of the everyday seems to now be the domain of smartphone photography.

Figure 3. Building in Watford (Petrucci & Hill, 2020).

The overbearing grey concrete architecture is one of the myriad of reasons why I personally have never felt connected to the place; Watford seems to me never super welcoming as a result, so potentially an area I can personally develop and respond to. Interestingly, James also moved to Watford to work at the college, as I did, so I will discuss with him his feelings towards the town. These are the everyday banal features of the place that we both live.

Figure 4. Layout experimentation for WIPP (Hill & Petrucci)

I made a conscious decision to provide my collaborators with black and white film for this part of the project. For the moment at least, I felt it was important to differentiate the images of persons collaborating with my own imagery and this approach is starting to come together as I explore ways of sequencing the images (Fig. 4). The aesthetic choice of black and white is also an evolution of my initial look at FSA photography and its blanket approach to covering small towns in the US (Fig. 5), which incidentally could encompass working with collaborators in a similar way to Roy Stryker and the FSA photographers. John Tagg considers the aesthetic of the FSA as what was new way to disseminate the message of state: “Mobilising a new means of mass reproduction, the documentary practices of the 1930s, through equally the province of a developing photographic profession, were addressed not only to experts but also specific sectors of a broader lay audience, in a concerted effort to recruit them to the discourse of paternalistic, state directed reform” (Tagg, 1988, p. 12). We collectively understand that the black and white documentary aesthetic is ‘evidential’ and a perceived record of authenticity. For example, when I first introduced myself to the food bank across the road from me, one of the volunteers asked if I was going to be taking the images in black and white because this would seem more fitting of the subject somehow; a learned behaviour that all documentary needs to be in gritty black and white.

Figure 5. Page from an FSA shooting script on a small town (Stryker, 1939)

Black and white photography plays with our learned knowledge of what is truth and evidence in photography, as Tagg goes on to state: “Documentary photography traded on the status of the official document as proof and inscribed relations of power in representation which were structured like those of earlier practices of photo-documentation: both speaking to those with relative power about those positioned as lacking, as the ‘feminised’ other, as passive but pathetic objects capable only of offering themselves up to a benevolent, transcendent gaze” (p. 12). The reference to ‘Documentary photography’ is closely linked to the use of black and white, especially when considering the context in which Tagg is discussing. Giving a camera to people that I collaborate with in some ways rebalances the power that Tagg refers to here; they are able to tell their own story and representation. However, I am aware that by including these images into my own narrative I am creating a constructed ‘legitimacy’ for myself in a number of ways. The black and white aesthetic states ‘documentary’ it also creates a perception of authenticity that readers may engage with more fully that merely viewing my images individually; readers expect to believe the black and white image, and this is supported by its own vernacular and positioning having been taken by the collaborator themselves, essentially providing more proof of its place in the actual and naturalistic, and again Tagg informs us: “it has been argued that this insertion of the ‘natural and universal’ in the photograph is particularly forceful because of photography’s privileged status as a guaranteed witness of the actuality of the events it represents” (p. 160). I use this to my advantage when I sequence my images together with those of my collaborators, and will need to carefully consider how the balance of power as stated by Tagg is influenced in sequencing and if an oppositional reading is developing from this work.

Darius
Figure 6. Cassiobury Park protected tree (Dabrowski & Hill, 2020).

I met Darius at the food bank who is a regular user of the service, and asked him to shoot a roll of film for me, I decided to not give a great deal of instruction just yet, only to go and tell his own story so that we could talk through the images together. When I processed these images, I was surprised to find that the majority of them were shot in Cassiobury Park here in Watford (Fig. 6), Darius has chosen to photograph the picturesque in contrast to James’s view of brutalist concrete (Fig.3). I find this representation of himself interesting and wonder if Darius sought to photograph scenes he thought would fit a picturesque photographic aesthetic (Fig. 7) owing to the average perception of photography which occupies the learnt visual style of publications, such as National Geographic, which I have discussed at length (View Post) and have set the mythological status of the picturesque image.

Figure 7. Somewhere in Cassiobury Park (Dabrowski & Hill, 2020).

The concern here is that Darius’s images is that they are not representative of his story insomuch as they are a projection of what he thinks that I am looking for. The same can be said for James’s series that has sought to look for aesthetic compositions within its banal brutalist look at Watford. This does not however mean that the images do not hold value when I create a sequence of the work. As Perter Lamarque writes of representation: “So to write a story or paint a picture is (usually) to bring into being a new story or picture world. This makes the existence of fictional worlds, unlike that of possible ones, a contingent matter” (Lamarque & Olsen, 2004, p. 354), which clearly puts the new sequence into the realm of the constructed narrative and was always going to be the case as I seek to blend the collaborative narrative together.

The picturesque images that Darius took, were surprising to me because of my assumptions of the life that Darius might lead outside of his visits to the food bank. This was not based on any other information other than my knowledge of Darius and the Food bank and highlights to me that I clearly have some bias in the expectation of what I might see when I processed the images. Looking at Darius’s set, there are some images that could really work with the narrative, for example figure 6 is an iconic view of the well-known protected tree situated in the park and would really provide context to the place I am photographing, where I have yet to shoot this kind of panoramic landscape.

Choosing to sequence my work next to that of my collaborators presents an interesting question about authorship. Logistically speaking, I have asked everyone involved to sign an assignment of copyright agreement to in essence give me ownership over the images to use as part of my project. Lamarque posits that authorship has a relationship to legal rights, which is, as Lamarque suggests, the basis for Foucault’s argument of the author (Lamarque & Olsen, 2004, p. 434). I am appropriating these images, for sure, but my intention is to create a narrative that considers the Barthesian idiorrythmic concept of everyone living separate lives, whilst also living together in the same places: “Where each individual lives according to his own rythym” (Barthes, 2012, p. 178). James and Darius, directed by me, have created a series of images that allow me to view parts of their iddiorrythm, and I aim to contribute mine.

Figure 8. Watford Town centre (Dobrowski & Hill, 2020).
Bibliography

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

Dubrowski, D. & Hill, P., 2020. Cassiobury Park protected tree. [ Photo ].

Dubrowski, D. & Hill, P., 2020. Somewhere in Cassiobury Park. [ Photo ].

Dubrowski, D. & Hill, P., 2020. Watford Town Center. [ Photo ].

Hill, P., 2020. Layout Experimentation: Mark and Concrete support image. [ Photo ].

Lamarque, P. & Olsen, S. H., 2004. Aesthetics and thne Philosophy of Art. 2 ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Library of Congress, 2011. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Written Records: Selected Documents. [Online] Available at: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Written Records: Selected Documents [Accessed 11 12 2019].

Petrucci, J. & Hill, P., 2020. Steps outside Watford Town Hall. [ Photo ].

Petrucci, J. & Hill, P., 2020. Building in Watford. [ Photo ].

Petrucci, J. & Hill, P., 2020. concrete road bridge support. [Photo].

Tagg, J., 1988. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. 1st paperback ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Representation experimenting

Figure 1. Mark from Elim Foodbank (Hill, 2020).

I have made a recent connection to the food bank over the road from my house. In order to create some images, I have also been volunteering to build relationships with some of the people that attend. I have also handed out some compact point and shoot cameras for some of them to photograph and collaborate with, in a similar way to Anthony Luvera’s approach with his assisted self-portrait series and something that I have mentioned in my post on Martin Parr (Fig. 2). Once I have collected in and processed these images, I will create a full reflection.

Figure 2. Reflection on Martin Parr and Patrick Waterhouse

I created a number of portraits of Mark (Fig. 1), who is a food bank volunteer for nineteen years and also uses the service for himself. Primarily, I wanted to add some portraiture as part of my work I progress portfolio looking at my own community. My technical approach to shooting portraits, has always been to have the camera set to the continuous mode in order to shoot a few frames side-by-side, which was to ensure that I gain a focussed image of my subject. This is a hangover from my freelance practice, where it was crucial that the shot is in focus. This approach creates a number of ‘similars’ that have little variation shot to shot, from which I select the most focussed image (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Unused Portrait of Mark from Elim foodbank. (Hill, 2020).

I am interested in exploring the nature of representation and gaze within a single frame and how this cannot be a full and truthful representation of the subject. This is a further look into the idea as I did when looking at the retouching layer from my evidence shoot film scan (Fig. 4 & 5).

Figure 4. Evidence experiment shoot
Figure 5. Retouching layer from ‘Moth Trap’ (Hill, 2020).

To further explore that here, I have decided to overlay the series of images that I shot of Mark, to consider the idea that in some ways could be more representative of him than a single frame ever could (Fig. 6). That said, the result creates an image where much is lost in the actuality of the subject, even though it is still an indexical trace of Mark, the subject, being present for the photograph. The subtle variants, as exampled in Figure 2, show that Mark was not completely stationary between the shots and there is movement and slight shifts in facial expression. This nuanced series of images shows more of the subjects individual trait and allows them to be more represented in the image. However, it could also be argued that Mark movements are as a result of my direction and not a naturalistic expression of him as a person either.

Figure 6. Overlaid images of Mark. (Hill, 2020)
Figure 7. De-saturated overlaid images of Mark. (Hill, 2020).

I was interested in Uta Barth’s challenge to the reader in the way that she is asking us to consider looking, and the way that we can derive meaning from the image, Barth states “One goes out into the world and points it [the camera] something of beauty, something of importance, a spectacle of some sort” (Barth, 2012) and goes on to note that the subject and meaning can be interpreted as being the same (2012). Barth’s response to this is to remove the reader’s attention on the subject and create an all-encompassing experiential sense of ‘looking.’ John Berger asserted much the same in his use of the term, ‘sight:’ “The explanation, never quite fits the sight” (Berger, 2008, p. 7) where the image of the actual is perhaps too much of an explanation, or a kind of overarching exposition; we are confronted by the assumed meaning of the image because it is presented in its naturalistic format, depicted by the lens.

Figure 8. Ground #42 (Barth, 1994)

Through Barth’s work, emphasis is placed on readers, and reading, Barth actively encourages those to become aware of their reading (Barth, 2012). Barth’s work is about perception, but still indexical. When I photograph a portrait, I almost always set of to photograph with a shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus, which creates a separation of the subject and the environment. It is this reason that I shoot my images with the continuous mode set. When I look at Barth’s work (Fig. 8), it is almost as if the image was composed to have a person present but has left the scene, leaving the camera to capture the remains. Where I feel this applies to my own work is how Barth’s approach is her visual perception that seems to segue with the concept of social abstraction, or how we disregard the unnecessary details from our lives. For example, the food that we eat is presented packaged and ready – we do not need to understand to process of how this packed item came to be.

At this stage, I want this to be purely an experimentation where I can explore ideas, potentially one that I might come back to at a later date. Currently, this is not something that fits my intent photographing my local community. I have created a naturalistic approach to the shoot so far, the overlaid image, feel out of place and potentially an obvious interpretation of the ideas that I am discussing. It has been useful to explore it however, and I will aim to subtly introduce elements of this into my narrative.

The portrait of Mark (Fig. 1) fits really well into how this is starting to develop from my other shoots and portraits that I have been creating (See Posts), although I am still keen to allow this to continue developing in the same way Todd Hido approaches his ‘Paper Movies’ (Hido, 2014, p. 114) and discusses the need for ambiguity for the reader’s own narrative (p. 28). As I have written previously, I am also interested in the way Snyder and Allen discuss the index (Snyder & Allen, 1975, p. 159) and how I am interpreting this as representation being a consensus of opinion as opposed to a whole truth encompassing the many nuances of individual personality. In essence, for my current work in progress at least, I want my images to be based in the actual as John Berger terms (Berger, 2013, p. 8), and all of my work created so far has been looking at these actualities and the dominant reading of this work should also follow this.


Additional Posts on Representation:
Bibliography

Barth, U., 1994. Ground #42. [Photo].

Barth, U., 2012. Light, Looking: Uta Barth [Interview] (22 March 2012).

Berger, J., 2008. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.

Hido, T., 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York: Aperture.

Hill, P., 2020. Mark from Elim foodbank. [Photo].

Hill, P., 2020. Overlaid Portraits of Mark. [Photo].

Hill, P., 2020. Retouching Layer from ‘Moth Trap’. [Photo].

Snyder, J. & Allen, N. W., 1975. Photography, Vision, and Representation. Critical Enquiry, 2(1), pp. 143-169.

National Geographic and Me

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.

National Geographic Traveller, March 2013 (Warrick & Hill, 2013)

This week’s task is an interesting one for me as I have shot for the spin-off publication, National Geographic Traveller Magazine (Fig. 1). I have also reflected on this, when we looked at Gaze.

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)

Figure 2. Mark at Elim Foodbank (Hill, 2020)
Bibliography

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 2019).

Warwick, H. & Hill, P., 2013. Free Spirit. National Geographic Traveller (UK), 01 03, pp. 92 – 101.

Martin Parr & Patrick Waterhouse

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.).

Figure 1. USA. Kentucky Derby. 2015. (Parr, 2015)
Figure 2. 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. (Parr, 2015)

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.

Figure 3. Rob, Merton, South London (Mcdiarmid, 2016)

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).

Figure 4. SWITZERLAND. St Moritz. St Moritz polo world cup on snow. From ‘Luxury’. (Parr, 2011)

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).

Figure 5. South Hedland. Garden Centre. (Parr, 2011)
Figure 6. AUSTRALIA. Broome. Cable Beach. Scratch Football BBQ. From ‘No Worries’. (Parr, 2011).
Figure 7. Australia. Broome. Cable Beach. (Parr, 2011)

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.

Figure 8. ‘Various Front and Side Portraits’ (Waterhouse, 2019)

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.


Bibliography

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 Editions.

On Diane Arbus

Figure 1. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut, 1961. (Arbus, 1961)

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.​*​

Figure 2. ‘Untitled (22) 1970-71’ (Arbus, 1970-1971).
Figure 3.  Betty, from FACE (Gilden, 2015).

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.

Figure 5. Assisted Self-Portrait of Joe Murray from Residency (Luvera, 2019).
Footnotes

  1. ​*​
    I will aim to return to this post in the coming weeks and reflect on the work as it evolves.
Bibliography

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] (Magnum ).

Goldberg, V., 2005. Light Matters. 1st ed. New York: Aperture.

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: Penguin.

Ways of Seeing. 1972. [Film] Directed by Michael Dibb. UK: BBC.

Reflecting on Gaze

Systemic Structure of Gaze and its Impact on my Practice
Figure 1. opening spread from the March 2013 ‘National Geographic Traveller’ magazine (Hill & Warrick, 2013).

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. Portraits from ‘Peterborough Curling Club’ (Hill, 2019).

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.

Figure 3. Billy Suldisha outside a local barber shop. (Hill, 2020).

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.

Footnotes

  1. ​*​
    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.
Bibliography

Alexander, J., 2020. Week 5 Introduction: Gazing at Photographs, Falmouth: Falmouth University.

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: Penguin.

Starkey, H., 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations With Photographers EP102: Hannah Starkey [Interview] (4 April 2019).

Further Questions of Representation

Questions of representation, authenticity, constructions and the photographic nature of photography makes me reflect on a freelance job that I did for an episode of BBC’ Panorama, titled ‘Inside Europe’s Terror Attacks (2016). Within the episode, a series of ‘most wanted’ mugshots are displayed and shown to be developed in a photographic darkroom before being hung up on a clothes line in a row.

Figure 1. Still from the darkroom segment of the ‘Inside Europe’s Terror Attacks’ episode of Panorama (2016).

My role in this production was to turn a series of digital images into ones that could be processed in a darkroom and shown to appear inside a darkroom as the journalist narration happened. To do this, I re-photographed each of the images onto film and prepared a series of prints with the latent image ready for processing during the filming. Incidentally, it is also my hand in the film processing these images (Fig. 1).

The segment plays with our very notion of photography as evidence through our collective awareness and an intertextual referencing of primarily via film and TV (Fig. 2), of how a detective might use the darkroom to illuminate and support an investigation, that lightbulb moment that shows that you have found the smoking gun evidence that will close the case.

Figure 2. Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in the darkroom (Funny Face, 1957).

This episode of the Investigative documentary series really plays to the theatrics and performative nature of photography in showing the images in this way and the perceived authenticity that photographs have, it was heightened here to purposefully exaggerating the characteristics of the photograph and increase the veracity of the moment. This also plays into the notion of digital images being less authentic than those shot using film. The images that were supplied to me to re-photograph were all digital files that were printed digitally using an inkjet printer and then photograph using a copy stand onto 35mm film. Do the images now become more authentic now that they have become analogue? The supplied digital files were in some cases low resolution screen grabs, some of which were also from social media.

In terms of its construction, it seems to have increased the tension of the situation that a digital graphic may not have. Like a punctuated moment away from the expected news style digital visuals that you would expect to see through news gathering services and have become immune to. This feels somewhat real with a heightened sense of urgency that someone needs to catch the people depicted and that they are working hard to do so. It is a fiction, a construction for the sake of the documentary, especially when we consider that the methods on display are completely obsolete and the images would almost certainly be viewed through a computer screen and potentially never reach the point of a tangible print.  There is also the assumption that turning the images into black and white adds an inherent ‘truth’ to what we are viewing.

Bibliography

Funny Face. 1957. [Film] Directed by Stanley Donen. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Panorama: Inside Europe’s Terror Attacks. 2016. [Film] Directed by John O’Kane. UK: BBC Panorama.