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CAN 2 Exercise 1.1

How does Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor? What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

There are a number of things that these series have in common, and I found them both extremely moving. Both document the highest qualities of humanity – selfless devotion, unconditional love, compassion and empathy. But the two studies take quite different approaches to their subjects and have very different styles.

W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, originally published in Time magazine in 1948 and republished by the same publication in 2012, follows tirelessly dedicated GP Dr Ernest Ceriani for 23 days as he goes about his work in a remote ranching area of Colorado, US. The images have a contemporaneous film noir aesthetic, and Dr Ceriani certainly fits the bill as leading man, his craggy handsomeness accentuated by W. Eugene Smith’s noir-style emphasis on light and shade, which also brings tension and drama into the images. That’s not to say that there isn’t tension and drama already present in the situations Smith shares with us – there certainly is, and we can read it in the expressions on people’s faces including that of our heroic doctor, who is generally calm and intensely serious, but occasionally reveals his exhaustion, and – in a particularly striking image that could easily pass for a still from a Hollywood classic – his sheer horror as he realises that, as the caption explains, “he must now find a way to tell the parents that [their two-year-old daughter’s] eye cannot be saved and they must take her to a specialist in Denver to have it removed”.

While the aesthetic style of the images refers to cinema, Smith’s essay is actually straight photojournalism and has the sense of detachment implied by that term. As we watch Ceriani tend to his patients we are outside of the frame of activity, observing events from a distance. We sometimes follow a single patient for two or even three images, but Smith’s overall intention is not to create a dramatic storyline but to document the way of life of a remote country doctor and his patients.

Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project offers a much more personal perspective. In her telling of the story of her father’s death from cancer, we are there in the frame with her. She is sharing with us not just her father’s illness but her feelings about it and about her relationship with him. This is why she describes it as “an ending without an ending”. The project’s raison d’être is her father’s impending death, and the project ends when his death occurs, but the emotional issues Campbell explores in her documentation of this process do not relate only to his death, or to any specific timeline. They are eternal features of her relationship with her father, which is arguably the real focus of the series – and, as the public response to the project demonstrates, has universal relevance. At some point in our lives we all experience love, loss and grief, and it is these themes that Campbell’s series and associated texts explore above all. The power of her work lies in the way she has been able to combine the intensely personal with the universal.

References and resources

Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project. Available at http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [accessed 08.05.18]
Cosgrove, B. (2012) “W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: Country Doctor”. Time Life magazine. Available at http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor [accessed 08.05.18]

CAN 2 Exercise 2.1

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions. How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it? How many meanings can you give to the same picture? Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying.

Anchor Gingers are no longer social outcasts
Relay Harry and Meghan’s fairytale romance proves that redheads can find love.

Anchor Prince Harry to wed American divorcee
Relay Sixty-five years after Princess Margaret was forced to renounce her own divorced beau, Harry and Meghan’s nuptials have been given the go-ahead by state and church.

Anchor Beautiful woman to marry wealthy man
Relay “Looks are not important to me”, says gorgeous actress Meghan. “I love Harry because he’s the kindest and most intelligent person I’ve ever met.”

Original anchor ‘Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt’ – can republicanism survive the Harry and Meghan effect?
Original relay The campaign group Republic is committed to bringing down the House of Windsor, despite a wedding that may deepen the public’s emotional bond with the royals.

Anchor Move over boybands – the manband is here!
Relay Aiming to appeal to the now mature fans of 90s boybands, pop promoters Stock Aitken Waterman have reunited to launch new manband MenZZZ.

Anchor Men too embarrassed to tackle personal problems
Relay A survey of 6,000 men has revealed that a whopping two-thirds are too shy to seek help when they’re having difficulties.

Anchor Zumba fitness craze takes to the streets
Relay Keep-fit line-dancing phenomenon Zumba has found new fans amongst middle-aged men since street-based classes began this month.

Original anchor Chelsea racism scandal deepens as former players go public with claims
Original relay Two white players from 1980s youth setup back racism allegations.

Reflection

I found the Roland Barthes texts associated with this exercise by turns enlightening, amusing and incomprehensible. As a sub-editor I’ve been writing or editing headings and captions (either of which might equate to Barthes’ anchoring text) along with standfirsts, subheads and body text (which could all be Barthes’ relaying text) for decades without ever analysing their structural functions in this way. Doing the exercise makes very clear the extent to which an anchor limits the interpretation of the image it accompanies as well as any relay text that is present. In the examples I created, none of the relay texts could be used with any other anchor. The anchor has constrained the scope of the presentation.

One thing that strikes me is that in the internet age there is an additional structural level to many texts, which could be called the lure. The role of the lure is to attract attention to the text (and hence the image), either by persuading a search engine to rank it highly or by acting as clickbait in a social media setting. This raises an issue that Barthes could not possibly have foreseen, which is that parts of a text are now written specifically for a non-human audience – a search engine’s algorithms and bots. Using, as Barthes did, a commercial situation as an example: if you are advertising a red t-shirt for sale and the accompanying image shows clearly that it’s red, you’d be unlikely to mention its colour in print, but for online titling and captioning this is essential, because the search engine needs to be told in text form that the t-shirt is red if you want it to include that information in deciding whether to present your t-shirt to someone googling “red t-shirt”. Of course, these lure texts must be intelligible and read naturally to humans as well as search engines, not least because they must avoid running foul of google’s semantic analysis tools and penalised as attempts to spam its algorithms, but the interesting thing about them in this context is that they are a new kind of text with a new function and a new status in a text’s structure.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the image’ in Image Music Text. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd
Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The death of the author’ in Image Music Text. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd

CAN 2 Research point 2.1

Write down your responses to Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field in your learning log. How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?

Both Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field use postmodern approaches to narrative, in that both employ narratives that are non-linear and collaborative, embracing and welcoming the sometimes conflicting interpretations that collaboration brings with it. Indeed, both projects actively seek out viewpoints and contributions that are different to the artist’s own, and make them the focus of the work.

This is particularly the case in Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, for which she invited 107 women from different professional backgrounds to respond to the email her ex-lover sent her ending their relationship. The highly diverse responses included the email being shot, sung, made into a crossword and corrected for grammar, and its writer being profiled by a psychologist and evaluated by a judge. In combination they make a convincing philosophical statement about our ability to choose the way we respond to life’s challenges, and demonstrate the power of human connection and communication to solve even problems of an intensely personal nature. The individual contributions range in emotional tone from light to dark, but the overall impression of the work is ultimately celebratory and euphoric, foreshadowing #metoo as a collective statement of female assertiveness and raising a middle finger not just to this individual man but to any man who presents himself in as self-absorbed a manner as Calle’s ex.

Rickett’s Objects in the Fields is an altogether drier project, in which the collaboration between the artist and Dr Roderick Willstrop, inventor of the Three Mirror Telescope and retired fellow of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge feels like a struggle to find a common language and frame of reference. This is explicitly also how Rickett experienced the collaboration, so she has succeeded in transmitting that experience into her writing; and the images, which are reminiscent of 3d illusion works by Anish Kapoor, are beautiful. Overall, however, the work feels somewhat incomplete and unresolved, which again is probably what Rickett intended to convey and is her statement about the nature of collaboration between an artist and a scientist.

References and resources

Chrisafis, A. (2007) He loves me not. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/16/artnews.art [accessed 11.06.18]
Jeffreys, T. (2014) Objects in the Field. Available at http://www.thelearnedpig.org/objects-in-the-field/900 [accessed 11.05.18]
Jones, J. (2009) Sophie Calle. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/19/sophie-calle-review [accessed 11.05.18]
Photographers Gallery (2014) Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field. Available at https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field [accessed 11.05.18]
Rickett, S. (2014) Objects in the Field. Available at https://sophyrickett.com/objects-in-the-field-1 [accessed 11.05.18]
TateShots (2008) Sophie Calle – Take Care of Yourself. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9E4dA0EGaM [accessed 11.05.18]

CAN 2 Exercise 2.2

Choose a poem that resonates with you then interpret it through photographs. Don’t attempt to describe the poem but instead give a sense of the feeling of the poem and the essence it exudes.

A New Way

Wishing you were a different man I catch the locust of your personality weeping in a darkening cloud burning country waiting to be burned linking your destiny of the earth.
Paracleptically intending briskly strolling winged clicking with tendrils of antennae determining your exact path of intuition and retribution to those in the way of being different.
The yellow line the traffic warden sees is a brick road to the rat at night.
Imagine you were caught in a coughing place placating the sad desires of the way you really want to be, and the difference is that rage is a comely friend and peace gives nothing to self esteem.
What if you were treading a terrible place that had no wealth, or if your clouds were poison when you thought that beauty was a cold thing that could bring you into placedom, market day, friendly with a tetchy touch or column placing exercise, a Classical kind of putting you where you belong.

Ed Jones, c.1992

Reflection

I found this exercise interesting because it made me aware of how deeply the idea of photography as representation is embedded in my mentality. It was quite a struggle not to pick out words or phrases from the poem and attempt to illustrate them literally. I got around this by reading the poem through several times, putting it aside, and then jotting down a list of words that popped into my mind. I then looked through these words and found several themes, which I made into the focus of my interpretation. I decided to use my personal photo archive as source material instead of making new images, because this allowed me to direct my attention towards interpreting and curating, which I felt was what I needed to investigate with this project.

While I am very aware that my images don’t do justice to the poem, and at best only scratch the surface of the existential themes it deals with, I am reasonably satisfied that they capture some of its bleakness without being too goth. I feel the images reflect the poem’s concern with structure and organisation and its theme of polarities, even though these are not words I wrote down. I conclude from this that while the word-jotting exercise gave me an overall direction for my response, it didn’t prevent me from bringing in ideas that I had not consciously noted.

I originally included five images in my response, but rejected the fifth (pictured right) after I saw them together on the page and decided that this one was too much like a literal depiction of a man taking stock of who and what he is, feeling constrained and alienated by the structures that surround and define him.