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Photo London 2018

On Friday I took the train up to London and visited Somerset House to see the fourth annual Photo London event. With more than 100 galleries exhibiting as well as a number of specially curated shows there were literally thousands of photographs on display – far more than it would be possible for me to absorb in a single visit – so I didn’t even attempt to examine everything closely and just honed in on pictures that particularly attracted my attention.

First to catch my eye were Antony Cairns’s IBM LDN images of nighttime London, inkjet-printed onto tinted IBM computer punchcards, then assembled and mounted on cardboard, which also feature in the Shape of Light exhibition currently running at Tate Modern. Next, and in a completely different style, Evgenia Arbugaeva’s extraordinary, dreamlike images from her Amani series. Like Cristina de Middel, whose work these images reminded me of, Arbugaeva graduated in photojournalism. Her Amani images look for all the world like tableaux of magical imaginary scenes, but they actually document a former malaria research centre in Tanzania.

Juno Calypso’s Subterranean Kitchen, installed in a fittingly kitsch side room complete with reflective metal floor, was my next stop. I also enjoyed two striking modernist-style images from Serge Najjar’s series The Architecture of Light which clearly demonstrate the truth of his motto, “It’s not what you see but how you see it,” and Sebastião Salgado’s Church Gate Station, Bombay (1995), an atmospheric image in which he captured the bustling busyness of the station with a long exposure. I was amused by David Montgomery’s Queen Elizabeth with Corgis (1967) which depicts her as a suburban housewife sitting in front of an electric bar fire, and by Paul Reas’ I Can Help: Hand of Pork (1988), in which a shopper wearing a jumper patterned with dozens of tiny pigs surveys a supermarket meat counter.

It felt like a real privilege to see so many original prints of images by Fox Talbot, Andre Kertesz, August Sander, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, to name just a few of the illustrious photographers represented, and I was repeatedly struck by how much more there is to see and appreciate in the photographic prints than is visible in books or on screen. It was exactly like the experience of seeing familiar paintings in the flesh for the first time. I also noticed that many of the most striking black-and-white prints that had particularly strong depth and texture, whether vintage or new, were gelatin silver prints, and this has prompted me to start thinking more about different print methods and technologies.

But I think what will probably stay in my mind most strongly was a two-room installation of works by Edward Burtynsky. As I descended the staircase into the first room, I saw two supersized images that triggered a moment of déjà vu as I thought I was looking at Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. But these are actually photographs of saw mills, mines, quarries and salt flats – spectacularly large, backlit images with a God’s eye view and a level of detail way beyond anything I’ve seen before. People were spending a really long time in front of them, drilling down further and further into the detail. Then, when you stand back and view them as a whole, they look like paintings – by Klimt, as I mentioned, or by Hundertwasser, Robert Sadler or Roger Hilton. The human-generated scarification of the earth is converted in these images from messy desecration into astonishingly sublime beauty.

Burtynsky produces the images with a digital Hasselblad mounted onto a programmable tripod head and a drone, taking dozens of overlapping exposures which he then merges to create a single seamless image – his 3-metre by 6-metre-plus image of Italy’s Carrara marble quarries is made from 122 exposures, each one 50 megapixels.

All in all, the immense diversity of the work on show was inspiring in and of itself, demonstrating that there really is no limit to how creative it’s possible to be in photography. And anyone who doubts that photography is firmly established as a fine art medium not just in the eyes of photographers but also those of dealers and collectors has clearly not visited shows like these, where price tags are very much in line with other art forms. As an afterthought, I noticed that vernacular photography, which was a strong theme at Paris Photo in 2012, the last major photo fair I attended, was not in evidence at all, at least as far as I could see.

References and resources

A Photo Editor (2011) Edward Burtynsky interview. Available at http://aphotoeditor.com/2011/11/30/edward-burtynsky-interview [accessed 20.05.18]
Arbugaeva, E. (2018) Evgenia Arbugaeva. Available at http://evgeniaarbugaeva.com [accessed 20.05.18]
Boulting, T.J. (2018) What to do with a million years: Juno Calypso. Available at http://www.tjboulting.com/exhibitionspage/506/what-to-do-with-a-million-years [accessed 20.05.18]
Burtynsky, E. (2018) Edward Burtynsky. Available at https://www.edwardburtynsky.com [accessed 20.05.18]
Cairns, A. (2018) Antony Cairns. Available at http://www.antony-cairns.co.uk [accessed 20.05.18]
Salgado, S. (2013) The silent drama of photography. Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/sebastiao_salgado_the_silent_drama_of_photography [accessed 20.05.18]
Spirou, K. (2015) Scaling Architecture: Abstract Geometry Meets Everyday Life in the Photography of Serge Najjar. Available at https://www.yatzer.com/serge-najjar [accessed 20.05.19]
V&A (2018) Photographic processes. Available at https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/photographic-p [accessed 20.05.18]

Antony Cairns: IBM LDN (2017)

Evgenia Arbugaeva: from the series Amani (2015)

Juno Calypso: Subterranean Kitchen (2017)

Serge Najjar: from The Architecture of Light

Edward Burtynsky: Saw Mills #1 and #2, Lagos, Nigeria (2016)

Ian Jeffrey: Photography

Ian Jeffrey’s Photography: a concise history is a really excellent book that offers a comprehensive history of technical and artistic developments in photography and places them within the broader context of politics, philosophy, geography and other cultural issues. It provides a background to the emergence and decline of different photographic styles and subject matters, schools of thought and understandings about the purpose and meaning of photography. Jeffrey picks out individual photographers and explains their work in the context of all these factors, revealing their personal preoccupations and points of view, drilling down into individual photographs and demonstrating his extraordinary ability to extract meaning from the slightest of clues and articulate it for the reader. I learnt a huge amount from this beautifully written book and feel I’ll take in more again when I re-read it, which I undoubtedly will.

References and resources

Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: a concise history. London: Thames & Hudson.

Austin Kleon: Steal like an artist

This little book was recommended to me by Kate, a fellow OCA student, and I in turn now recommend it to others. A light-hearted self-help book for creatives of any kind, it contains plenty of helpful advice – all of which Kleon advises the reader to take or leave as they see fit. For me personally the best tip was to think of other people’s work as a resource to build on. “Nothing is original,” Kleon points out. “All creative work builds on what came before. […] If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” This single insight has shifted my understanding of research for OCA assignments from being a chore to being source material for my own ideas. Not only had I previously seen research as a kind of box-ticking exercise designed to prove that I understood the context of my own work, but I’d actually been reluctant to look at other people’s work before coming up with my own ideas for an assignment because I felt obliged not to copy their ideas so felt it would be better not to know about them rather than find myself restricted. Understanding that the opposite is true has been really empowering and I’m grateful to both Austin Kleon and Kate for putting me on the right track.

References and resources

Kleon, A. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

Barthes’ Mythologies might just be the funniest book I’ve ever read – I’m actually only halfway through it but am enjoying it so much I’m reading it slowly so it doesn’t end too soon. Most chapters are only a couple of pages long, and they cover subjects as diverse as wrestling, the royal yacht, hairstyles (on monks and in Hollywood movies), sweat, wine, writers’ holidays, steak and chips and much more – basically any subject in which Barthes detects pompous absurdities. He then unravels the pretensions simply by describing the subject in forensic detail – a process whereby he spells out all the associated cultural assumptions and implied values and brings their ludicrousness into full view. Apart from the entertainment value involved in these skewerings, from which he obviously derives great enjoyment, Barthes is making a serious point about the need for a cultural observer of any description to be able to recognise and deconstruct these ubiquitous fallacies and myths, and provides a series of masterclasses in how to do so.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Random House.

Reflection on Francesca Woodman

The view is often expressed that Francesca Woodman’s work portrays – as the OCA document for this chapter puts it – “dark psychological states and disturbing scenes” and thus reveals the artist’s depressive condition and explains, even prefigures, her suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. Tate (2018) says her images “convey an underlying sense of human fragility” and explore themes such as “questions of self, body image, alienation, isolation and confusion or ambiguity about personal identity”, while Bright (2011) puts it even more bluntly: “It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits… as alluding to a troubled state of mind.”

I strongly disagree both with these readings of Woodman’s work and with the assumption that she had a depressive personality. Taking the second point first, the fact that she suffered from depression following a move to New York in 1979 does not mean that she was by nature or habit depressive. It is not at all uncommon for people to experience a period of depression when circumstances are inconducive to their sense of well-being – and it’s not difficult to imagine all sorts of aspects of city life that Woodman might have found restrictive or alienating. A depressive episode triggered by a change in circumstances is sometimes described as exogenous depression and is considered in such an analysis to be very different to endogenous depression, which has no apparent trigger and may have genetic and/or hormonal causes.

Evidently the assumption amongst commentators who believe they see a troubled mind even in Woodman’s pre-1979 work (which includes many of her best-known photographs) is that she had endogenous depression – in other words, that her depression pre-dated her move to New York and was an intrinsic part of her personality. There is no evidence for such an assumption beyond a reading of her work as being dark and disturbed – a reading that in my view is based entirely on an ex post facto awareness of her suicide.

My own reading of Woodman’s images is that they are light and carefree, and capture her playful experiments with space, time, light, texture and a few quirky props she finds to hand. Her obvious delight in visual puns suggests an upbeat demeanour, and her engagement with them to my mind expresses her sense of being at one with the world around her as she merges herself with wallpaper, a swan, birch trees, window shutters, curtain ribbon, tree roots and (in her blurred self-portraits) light. I see no sign that any of these mergings represent, as is often claimed, Woodman’s wish to hide or erase herself – or as the OCA notes put it, “to help herself disappear”. Indeed, her own parents feel that her work has been misinterpreted: “Fans and critics alike, [her parents] believe, tend to ignore the humour in [their] daughter’s work.” (Cooke, 2014).

And yes, she did commit suicide. But again, the tragic fact that she wished to die instead of live on that particular day after a relationship break-up does not mean that she lived any part of her life before that in the shadow of suicidal intent. Of course, I can’t prove that she didn’t, any more than anyone else can prove that she did, except by looking at her work – and what I see there is the joyful, life-affirming worldview of a startlingly creative young woman who is confident of who she is and what she does – an artist producing works of timeless poetry.

References and resources

Bright. S. (2011) Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Cooke, R. (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman [accessed 12.06.18]
Schimelpfening, N. (2018) Endogenous and exogenous depression. Available at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-endogenous-depression-1067283 [accessed 12.06.18]
Tate (2018) ‘Finding Francesca’. Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512/finding-francesca [accessed 12 June 2018]

Reflection on copyright

Since starting the OCA photography degree course in January, I had been under the impression that the use of other people’s images in my blog fell within the scope of the “fair use” provisions of copyright law because the blog is part of my formal academic studies. But thanks to a debate on the OCA student forum which can be read here, I have been disabused of this impression. Taking into account also the points that were made in that conversation about looking at the issue from the point of view of the photographers who made them, I have now removed all such images, with the exception of two from The Guardian which are integral to a specific exercise and I feel need to be viewed simultaneously with the text for the purposes of the exercise.

Maria Short: Context and Narrative

I found this a very easy-read book covering pretty much the same ground as the OCA course notes for this module, except that its tone and careful spelling-out of even the most basic aspects of a project – half a page elaborating on the observation that the “choice of film type, speed and other technical considerations in relation to the intention and final output are important factors in the image-making process”, for example – suggests that it’s written for A-level students or someone with no previous experience of photography. For these reasons I found it surplus to requirements and it didn’t add anything to the considerable changes in my understanding and appreciation of the subject that I’d already gained from the OCA course materials. I did, however, read the book cover to cover in case I was missing anything, and found a few interesting snippets such as the observations of Josef Sudek’s assistant Sonja Bullaty about the lengths Sudek would go to to achieve the lighting conditions he sought:

“His sense of light became crucial, often planning for a year or more to capture the exact lighting situation… We set up the tripod and camera and then sat down on the floor and talked. Suddenly Sudek was up like lightning. A ray of sun had entered the darkness and both of us were waving cloths to raise mountains of dust ‘to see the light’, as Sudek said, Obviously he had known that the sun would reach here perhaps two or three times a year, and he was waiting for it.”

References and resources

Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

I was expecting Camera Lucida to be like Image Music Text, which I’ve read several chapters of and found a lot more opaque than Mythologies, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Camera Lucida nearly as readable as Mythologies. Barthes’ reflections on the photographs he uses to illustrate his philosophical ideas gave me as much insight into the individual images and Barthes himself as they did into his primary subject, the ontology of photography. As in Mythologies, Barthes comes over as an extremely sensitive person with a strong sense of humour, attempting here to find a vocabulary to express his visceral and intuitive responses to particular photographs and to investigate whether these responses and their triggers are entirely subjective and unique to him or can be identified and described objectively. He defines two elements – the studium, the field of information contained in a photograph, and the punctum, an element that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me”, and concludes that the latter “is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there“.

It seems to me that in defining the punctum in Camera Lucida, Barthes has given a name to something he explored a few years earlier in a chapter of Image Music Text, ‘The Third Meaning’, in which he tries to locate the precise point of ‘obtuse meaning’ in a series of Eisenstein stills. Here too he is seeking to define what it is that pierces him with a sense of significance beyond what is provided by the obvious story in the image, and here too it is always a small detail, something that awakens something personal in him – something subconscious and intuitive like a dream or a distant memory.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.
Barthes, R. (1987) Image Music Text. London: Fontana.
Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Random House.

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery: Gilbert & George

Despite having been aware of Gilbert & George’s work since the 1980s and having seen it in galleries on numerous occasions in the past, it wasn’t until I visited the Gilbert & George Artist Rooms exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery last week that I consciously realised that their work is primarily photographic. From their 1969 photo diptych George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit through the 1972 film Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk, to a wall of domestic-scale framed photographs of pub scenes, hung in a higgledy-piggledy fashion and many of them blurred, to their 1981 film The World of Gilbert & George, and finally the huge multi-section images overpainted in bright colours like stained glass for which they are now best known, every piece in the exhibition was based on photography – mostly still, occasionally moving. How did I not notice this before? While the world debated whether photography could be considered art, it would seem that Gilbert & George quietly went about making art out of photography anyway. Perhaps people were so preoccupied by the content that they didn’t pay attention to the medium. My new perspective made me experience the works as if for the first time, and I found them fresh, uplifting and inspiring. Clearly, though, they weren’t everyone’s cup of tea: one visitor scrawled in large letters on the comment board: “KEEP IT PG!”

Artist Rooms: Gilbert & George is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery to 2 September 2018. For more info see brightonmuseums.org.uk.

Towner Art Gallery Eastbourne: At Altitude

I only recently discovered Mishka Henner, in the course of reading Robert Shore’s Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera, so when I heard that some of his works were on show in Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, a 45-minute drive from me, I had to go and see them. As always, I was struck by how much more impressive the images are when seen in full size in a gallery-quality print than in a book, even though the reproductions in Shore are of an extremely high quality and a generous size compared to many similar photo books. There were actually only two Henner images in the exhibition, both from his Dutch Landscape series, taken from Google’s satellite images with pixellation added by the Dutch government to blot out locations it considers sensitive. As Henner has noticed, this pixellation not only draws attention to these sensitive locations, it also creates a readymade artwork.

As its title At Altitude suggests, aerial photography was the theme of the exhibition, which also included a diverse range of pieces ranging from some of the earliest photographs taken from hot air balloons to a supersized print of Wolfgang Tillmans’ End of Land, of a woman peering over the edge of Beachy Head. There were also several very engaging video installations including Tacita Dean’s A Bag of Air and 30km by Simon Faithfull, a bumpy and vertiginous film shot by a camera being carried to the margins of outer space by a weather balloon.

Although it was a fairly small exhibition, every piece was so interesting that I feel I need to visit again to do it all justice, and will do so perhaps later this week. But my overall takeaway from the show was the realisation that a fascinating and multilayered artwork can come from a very simple idea. This led me to the thought that my present feeling of being out of my depth and lacking creative insight, which has enveloped me since early on in the Context & Narrative module, is perhaps due to my current tendency to overthink things.

At Altitude is at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne to 30 September 2018. For more information see townereastbourne.org.uk.

References and resources

Shore, R. (2014) Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Robert Shore: Post-Photography

It took me a while to get around to reading this book after my EYV tutor Derek Trillo recommended it some months ago, perhaps because I felt intimidated by its huge weight (almost 1.7 kg) until I finally opened it a couple of weeks ago and immediately became absorbed. The format is very accessible – brief but informative profiles (a one-para bio plus artist’s statement) of 53 artists who work with photography in innovative ways, followed in each case by three to five pages of high-quality reproductions of the works referred to.

Before reading the book I was only familiar with a handful of the artists surveyed, so it has introduced me to a whole new world in which photographs are so much more than something created in a single click of the shutter. It has fundamentally changed my understanding of photography, and I am simultaneously overwhelmed and inspired by the apparently unlimited well of creativity that exists in this space.

References and resources

Shore, R. (2014) Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Bishopstone Railway Station: A Longer View

Although I was really looking forward to seeing solargraphs in the flesh for the first time, the 13-mile drive along the coast from Brighton to Bishopstone is one I always enjoy, and Bishopstone itself is a bleakly beautiful area of Seaford, with a mile-long pebbled beach leading to the spectacular Seven Sisters cliffs, so I didn’t feel that my trip was a complete waste of time when I discovered on arriving at this exhibition that all the images had been torn down.

Note to self: remember this experience if I’m ever offered an exhibition in an unsupervised location with unrestricted public access.

A Longer View was scheduled to be at Bishopstone Railway Station, Seaford to 31 August 2018. For more information see https://www.diephaven.org/a-longer-view.

The Photography MA show at Brighton University

My niece Lara, who studied photography at UWE and has a friend who just completed her MA at Brighton, brought this show to my attention, and I’m really pleased she did because it hadn’t come up on any of my usual information channels. Lara sent me the details in an Artrabbit link, and when I downloaded their app I also found two more interesting exhibitions I hadn’t been aware of, both part of the Brighton Digital Festival, which I visited after the MA show and the following day respectively.

At the MA show I noticed that the themes and concerns of all the photographers were very much in alignment with the subjects and approaches we’ve been studying in C&N, focusing largely on issues of identity and subjective experience, and that I was consquently able to read and understand them far better than I could have done before starting the module. One thing that stood out and surprised me, however, was the number of students working in b&w. It didn’t occur to me to count them, but my retrospective impression is that the proportion was somewhere around 25 to 30 per cent.

Another thing that surprised me was that (if I recall correctly; again I didn’t count at the time) all except three students exhibited only prints, the exceptions being one exhibit consisting of photographs of the sky cut into small squares and made into a kinetic sculpture, another being a slideshow projected onto one pane of a battered old four-pane window frame suspended from the ceiling, and – my favourite piece in the show – a video by Gina Kawecka of women swimming, shot just below the waterline and inverted, so that the interplay of the light and the water surface looked like an alien environment in which the strange and clumsy gracefulness of the humans was emphasised and the inversion of the image also inverted the perception of our place in the world.

The 2018 Photography MA show is at Brighton University’s galleries at Grand Parade from 15 to 20 September. For more information see https://www.brighton.ac.uk/about-us/news-and-events/ma-shows/index.aspx

Images from Inner Rooms (2018) © Greta Lorimer. For more info see gretalorimer.com.

Stills from Immerse (2018) © Gina Kawecka. For more info see ginakawecka.com.

Susan Bright: Auto Focus

I found this book a real eye-opener and was amazed to discover the depth and breadth of today’s interpretation of the self-portrait. Bright’s commentaries are hugely insightful and helpful and the book is beautifully designed, with excellent reproductions which are large enough to see clearly and are printed on high-quality paper which brings out the colour and detail.

The book was recommended to me by OCA student Allan513287 during a forum discussion about my own attempts to find a way of putting myself in the picture. For the project in question I actually excluded myself from the images, an approach that falls outside of the definition Bright used for this book, in which the self-portraits must show the artist. Bright divides her study into five categories based on the artists’ approaches to self-portraiture: Autobiography, Body, Masquerade, Studio & Album and Performance. This segmentation is very helpful in enabling the reader to get a sense of the overall terrain covered by this genre today and beginning to understand the many different ways of thinking about the subject of self-portrayal.

I’m now torn between reading the whole book again so that I can really get it all into my head or moving on to her Art Photography Now. But I’ve had exactly the same feeling after finishing all the really good books I’ve read for this course, to the extent that it’s a relief when I don’t get that feeling, and I now know that the correct response is always to move on to another one, because there are so many excellent books to discover and because I will never be able to completely absorb the entire contents of the good ones in the way I feel I want to.

References and resources

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Howarth & McLaren: Family Photography Now

What a beautiful and inspiring book this is! A survey of 40 photographers’ approaches to photographing a diverse range of family groupings, the factor that unites these projects is the honesty and sensitivity of the portrayals, which moved me to tears on several occasions. The writing is as tender but unsentimental as the images, and together they offer a beacon of tolerance and hope in a world that seems sadly lacking in these qualities at the present time. A reference I will undoubtedly return to repeatedly.

References and resources

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2016) Family Photography Now. New York: Thames & Hudson.