After being introduced to Karen Knorr’s work in Expressing your Vision and in particular her series titled Belgravia, it was a delight to see her work Gentlemen, at Paris Photo 2016.
According to her website, Karen Knorr was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1960s. She finished her education in Paris and London. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.
The work titled Gentlemen (1981-1983) was photographed in Saint James’s clubs in London and investigated the patriarchal conservative values of Britain during the Falklands war.
Knorr explains the background behind the series on her website:
“I wanted to make work that used humour to explore attitudes prevalent amongst the English establishment in the 1980’s. Despite being Prime Minister and head of the Conservative party, Margaret Thatcher as a woman was not allowed full membership at the Conservative Gentlemen’s club ‘The Carlton’. Old Etonians, like the present leader of the opposition David Cameron, still belong to such Gentlemen’s clubs. It is in these clubs that behind the scene influence is still used to influence politics and business.”
Each black and white image is of luxurious surroundings, often but not always with a presumed gentleman. As in the series Belgravia, each image is accompanied by a caption.
The caption in this case is much more than a title. It is a short narrative that is illustrated and supported by the image.
Short (2011, p153) describes how “the viewer derives understanding from the context of images and text. Without the accompanying text, the image fails to communicate its full meaning and vice versa”.
By providing quite a detailed caption, Knorr is giving us a strong context in which to read the photo. Barrett (1997) makes the point that such a caption helps to make the interpretation explicit – not everything is left to the imagination of the viewer. He calls this “the information surrounding the picture in its presentation” or the “external context”.
Berger (2013) agrees: “In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.”
Sontag (1979) agrees with is this idea of the relative weakness of a photo in conveying truth, but also points out that captions don’t necessary lock things down permanently: “In fact, words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning”. Her point is that captions can be separated from photos or even changed, and therefore the context for the viewer would change. In the case of Knorr’s photos, the change would be dramatic because the captions provide a great deal of background and detail.
There is a strong sense of continuing narrative implied by the captions and the accompanying image of luxury and power. The implication is, as stated by Knorr herself, that the privileged members of these clubs have considerable influence over how decisions are made both in the political and business worlds. Chilling.
Barrett, Terry (1997) Photographs and Contexts. At: www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf (Accessed on 9th August 2016)
Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 03 Oct 2016)
Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA
Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. Penguin