Author Archives: Darryl Godfrey

Guinea: Waiting for Justice

An open-air exhibition titled Guinea: Waiting for Justice is currently taking place in Geneva in the park next to the Paquis ferry stop. The exhibition of photos by Tommy Trenchard shows people who were caught up in various atrocities committed by the government of Guinea with a special focus on the massacre on 28 September 2009 at Conakry Stadium which led to the death of at least 157 people.

Tommy Trenchard: Mamadou Saliou Diallo.
Photographed at the exit to the stadium where he was almost crushed to death during the massacre of 28 September 2009.

The photos are colour, large (approx 2m on the long edge) and typically show the subject centre frame and located in a context which is meaningful to them. This might be the stadium itself where the violence happened or in one case, the subject is standing on a bridge where her father was hanged as the alleged instigator of a coup.

Each photo is presented in a structured way: the title (usually the subject’s name) appears to the left under the photo. Central is a short description of the location and a short caption. To the right is a longer text, usually a few sentences which give the story in the subject’s own words – usually a story of torture, rape, being shot and how this has affected them.

Tommy Trenchard: Aissata Barry
Photographed in the stands at the national stadium where she was raped by soldiers on 28 September 2009.

From the point of view of Context & Narrative, this exhibition could be said to be classic documentary in style. There is no attempt to glamourise the situation – the point is to tell the stories of individuals rather then allowing us to hide behind anonymous numbers. The expressions are deadpan. The stories are told principally via the text which functions largely as anchor-text. The fact that the stories are told in the subject’s own words lends credibility. The text supports the image because it provides a subjective view of what the person went through, rather than the more objective view (facts and numbers) that we might expect from the mainstream press.

Tommy Trenchard: Hadja Rabi Diallo
Photographed on the bridge from which her husband was hanged on the orders of President Sékou Touré in 1971.

Following is an example of the supporting text associated with the photo of Hadja Rabi Diallo above:

“‘My husband was Ousmane Baldé, the finance minister. Sékou Touré accused him of wanting to take power. One day soldiers came to our house and said he had been arrested. Then one of our children heard at school that he had been hung from the bridge. When we heard it we cried. They kicked us out of our home and stole whatever they found.” (from the FIDH site)

All the photos are very dark – most of them taken at night or late twilight. The effect is foreboding and supports the narrative of suffering. The principle feeling I took away is that the suffering is not over because justice has not been done and there is little or nothing stopping these atrocities from recurring. The dark therefore represents lingering threat.

The external context of the photos is in extreme opposition to the internal context. The exhibition is placed right next to Lac Léman with an astounding view of the Jet d’Eau and (on a good day) Mont Blanc. A perfect representation of how the photos are displayed has a big effect on the interpretation. The effect is not to mislead, but to tone down what might otherwise be a heavy tale of suffering. The (probably unintended) message is: “don’t worry, it’ll be alright”.

Reflection

The use of the long text to tell the story of the subjects is powerful. Without the text, we would be left with a much shorter caption, which while it captures the situation, doesn’t explain what happened from the subject’s point of view and in their words. This is a powerful approach for certain situations and demonstrates clearly how text can work very well with an image, not to distract, but to reinforce.

Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art

This short piece is a summary of the PetaPixel article by John Mireles which was kindly shared by Clive White in an OCA forum (see here).

Summary of Article

The article presents a condensed historical summary to provide background to the situation. Beginning with the early days when photography was trying to establish itself as an art form, photographers attempted to replicate paintings because art was dominated by paintings. This produced the style known as pictorialism and is known as a soft, dreamy style. However, pictorialism wasn’t appreciated by all photographers. For example, Edward Western wrote a damning article in Camera Craft stating that “photography following this line can only be a poor imitation of already bad art” (Weston 1930).

The Rise of Modernism

With photographers “muscling into painter’s turf”, some commenters believed that the end of painting was near. The rise of modernism helped to resolve this conflict.  In the case of photography, the modernist idea was that photography should do what it does best – to capture the world in two dimensions. Weston (1930) argued that “the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired”. Modernist photography is exemplified by sharp focus, large depth of field and technically correct exposure. Classic examples include the work of members of the f/64 group: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others.

In the world of painting, modernism took an entirely different direction:

“If the function of painting was no longer the realistic reproduction of the visual world — that was photography’s job now — then it became free to pursue other, nonrealistic representations of time, space and form.” (Mireles 2017)

Mireles gives a couple of examples of modernist painting: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. So while both camps embraced modernism, the results were entirely different, leading to the situation where modernist photographers find it hard to understand their painter counterparts.

Post-Modernism and Beyond

Things get more complicated that this simple divergence, however. Mireles states that “while Modernism still rules in the world of professional and enthusiast photography, it has largely been abandoned by artists working with photography as a medium”.

Enter the post-modern world where suddenly what is in the frame may play a only a minor role.  Bull (2009) defines post-modernism (as the term is applied to photography) as “an approach to the medium that paid little or no attention to aesthetic content and focused instead on the cultural context of photographs”.

This situation causes even more conflict with modernist photographers. As Mireles says, “this idea that one must read additional documentation to understand an artwork contradicts those Modernist values held dear to photographers — especially the precept that an image should be complete in and of itself”. In art circles, no longer can an image be expected, or relied on, to contain a complete narrative. Increasingly, viewers are expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, semiotics and popular culture as a starting point. They also have to absorb artist’s statements and other written material before actually getting to the photographs themselves. And perhaps there are soundscapes and overlaid video etc. etc. Rantoul (2016) points out that “for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on”.

Conclusions

The article by Mireles concludes with the thought that modernist photography is stuck in a dead end. Great images will continue to be produced, but they will never be accepted by the contemporary art world. He argues that contemporary art will continue to change and develop, while photographers (at least those with modernist leanings) will be left behind. The challenge, then, is to decide on which side of this fence we wish to be on.

Reflection

Coming from what I now understand to be a strongly modernist, tending to minimalist, background myself, I found this article to help me gain perspective on the gap between modernist-derived photography and contemporary art. I have to confess that I am one of the many (very many, actually) who just don’t “get” much of contemporary art. When I am required to read a small book, or understand a photographer’s personal life in order to start to appreciate their work, I think somehow we’re missing the point. As Rantoul states “this resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely”.

I feel there must be a middle ground. For example, Kaylynn Deveney’s work The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings, (see here) quoted in the course notes provides a good example. The text (mostly anchor-text, from my reading) works to support the images, but not overwhelm them.  Indeed, the photos can be appreciated without the text entirely, in my view. The photos themselves are well composed, well lit and mostly straight in style – in short, modernist. However, the addition of text and the strong narrative suggest at least a nod to the post-modern.

For my own work, I think I need to keep an open mind. I also need to understand that, while the photography might be poor from a modernist viewpoint, perhaps the whole package works from a contemporary art viewpoint. And therein lies the challenge – to appreciate both worlds.

References

Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)

Mireles, John (2017) Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art. At: https://petapixel.com/2017/03/04/photographers-dont-get-modern-art/ [Accessed 06 March 2017]

Rantoul, Neal (2016) Opinion: A Disturbing Trend in Photography. At: https://petapixel.com/2016/05/31/opinion-disturbing-trend-photography/ [Accessed 11 March 2017]

Weston, Edward (1930) ‘Photography – Not Pictorial’, Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp.313–20. Available at: www.jnevins.com/westonreading.htm [Accessed 07 Mar 2017]

Assignment 1: reflection

My tutor’s feedback for assignment 1 can be found here.

Reflection

This assignment was an unusually tough one – I hope the rest of C&N won’t be the same. It took me a long time to come up with an idea that I could live with and I thought that I’d understood the brief of the assignment, but from the feedback of my tutor, plainly I’d missed the point.

The lessons I learned is that I need to carefully read the brief and stick to it more rigidly than I’d become used to in EYV where my tutor encouraged me to use the assignment as a starting point, and not be afraid to take risks and explore new areas. I have to hold back the creativity a bit, I think, which might make that part of the assessment more challenging to meet. I can accept though, that it’s possible to be creative while still meeting the brief. A bit disappointing, but on to Part 2 – let’s see what that brings.

Research Point: image and text

Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field (see interview in the Appendix to this course guide) where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.

Look these pieces up online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Write down your own responses in your learning log.

  • How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?
  • Another way to incorporate text into an image-based project is to include interviews or audio.

The New York Times has a simple but effective project online called One in 8 Million about the inhabitants of New York. It includes images of people from different walks of life and professions with audio clips overlaid to give a voice to the subject. It is a clever way of celebrating the richness and diversity of a city with such cultural and social diversity.

Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle

The rationale behind the work (see here) is that Calle received a breakup email. She didn’t know how to respond – it was if the email wasn’t for her. The email finished with the words “prenez soin de vous”.

In the Museo Marco interview (see here),  she says that she did not understand very well what her boyfriend was trying to say, so she had a friend read it and try to interpret it. That gave Calle the idea to give it to other women, and specifically those who had jobs dedicated in a certain way to interpretation. In the end, she asked 107 women to interpret the email from their own point of view.

The postmodern approach is demonstrated by Calle’s use of a variety of media to communicate the responses of the women asked to interpret the letter including video, audio and text overlaid on photos, a classical example of relay.

Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

According to the Photographer’s Gallery blog (see here), Sophy Rickett is a visual artist based in London, working with photography, video and sound installation.

While working as an Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, Rickett began her project initially inspired by old analogue negatives of the night sky. The negatives were from a specific kind of telescope which produced black-and-white negatives of space. Rickett also wrote a text to accompany the images which is reproduced in the blog.

The text is a series of vignettes – experiences that were obviously meaningful to Sophy, including discussions with the inventor of the telescope which produced the negatives.

According to the Photoparley interview (see here ), the project consisted of several series of photographs, a monitor based video and a text, in this way being very much a postmodern approach to narrative. In reading the interview, it becomes clear that the text connects the work with experiences and emotions in Rickett’s past and reflects her interest in optics and photography.

The photo titles serve only as anchor-text. They are factual and don’t seek to guide our understanding in any way. A serial number would have done just as well.

 Barthes (1967) describes relay as occurring when “text … and image stand in a complementary relationship … and the unity of the message is realised at a higher level”. The difference between anchor and relay is therefore quite subtle and perhaps open to interpretation. Bull (2009) gives an example of a photo by Martin Parr in which he maintains that only one word of the title serves as relay-text due to its connotation of the exact opposite of the denotation of the photo, while the rest of the title serves as anchor text.

In the case of the supporting text written by Rickett, it’s clear that it isn’t anchor-text. It doesn’t directly relate to the images at all and therefore should be seen as complementary in the sense that Barthes meant. The meaning, in effect, consists of the relay of messages between the photos and the text, not entirely in one or the other.

The New York Times: One in 8 Million

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

According to the One in 8 Million website:

“New York is a city of characters. The Green Thumb, whose community garden in a Brooklyn housing project shows children that eggs don’t come from eggplant. The Dictaphone Doctor, last of a dying breed. The Jury Clerk, who says ‘Good morning’ 200 times a day, and means it. The Teenage Mother. The Tabloid Photographer. The Iraq Veteran. The Walking Miracle. Throughout 2009, The Times introduced 54 such individuals in sound and images, ordinary people telling extraordinary stories — of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions. ”

By complete chance, I happened on the story of a photographer – Jim Romano – a tabloid photographer who, since 1946 has chased news on Staten Island for The Daily News, The New York Post, and other papers.  Via a series of black & white images, he explained how he got into photography while recovering from tuberculosis.

References

Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)

Exercise: Image and Text

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. Blog about it.

Response

In Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes notes that “anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements”. He goes on to say that relay is less common and good examples are cartoons and comic strips where the text (perhaps a part of a dialogue) and the image are read together. He goes on to say “while rare in the fixed image, this relay-text becomes very important in film, where dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meanings that are not to be found in the image itself”.

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

The first example comes from the Tribune de Genève with an original caption of: “It’s the carnival period for the catholic cantons (here, that of Monthey, in Valais). Festivities will finish by the biggest carnival in Switzerland, at Basel”. In this instance, the anchor-text is particularly useful, because the photo is quite bizarre without any context at all.

Alternative captions could be:

  • The Walking Dead / Friends of Jazz Club arrives in Town
  • Zombies Invade Peaceful Village after having Attacked Brass Band
Tribune de Genève: EPA

Tribune de Genève: EPA

The second example, also from the Tribune de Genève is captioned (loosely) “The spectators were excited on arriving at Saint-Moritz, opposite the television screens”. The caption on its own doesn’t actually tell us much, other than something is happening at Saint-Moritz. In fact, St-Moritz is hosting the Ski World Championships 6th-19th of February 2017, so it’s quite a big deal.

Alternative captions:

  • Display of Swiss Nationalism in Advance of Vote to Join EU
  • Swiss Football Fans give Support to Home Team
Le Temps: AP PHOTO/MATTHIAS SCHRADER

Le Temps: AP PHOTO/MATTHIAS SCHRADER

The final example comes from Le Temps and has the caption “Mike Pence and Angela Merkel, two leaders of the western world meet at NATO”.

Alternative captions:

  • Mike Pence and Angela Merkel practice Square Dancing at Summit
  • Two Countries, Two Different Directions
Scott Adams

Scott Adams

The Dilbert series of cartoons by Scott Adams provide a great example of relay-text. Little happens in the actual drawing part, and frequently frames look identical with the only changes being in the text. We more-or-less take in both at the same time.

Another superb example of relay is William Kentridges’s More Sweetly Play the Dance (seen at Rencontres d’Arles 2016 and written about in my EYV blog – see here). The work is video projected on a series of panels, so that the characters move around the viewer. The video is supported by a soundtrack of music and speech which could be seen as relay.

References

Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 19 February 2017]

 

Exercise: Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

There are a number of similarities between the two works:

  • Both works clearly fall into the documentary category: they show the situations just as they are. They don’t glorify the subject, rather they just tell the story.
  • The photos show a range of emotions: some happy times as well as serious times.
  • Neither work provides much context – they both focus mainly on the subject e.g. in Smith’s series, there is only a single image showing the town of Kremmling and the surrounding mountains.
  • They both use captions to help explain what we see.

There are also a number of important differences between the two works:

  • Smith’s use of black and white vs. Campbell’s use of colour give the works a different feel with Smith’s being more classically journalistic while Cambell’s are obviously more realistic, but also more intimate.
  • While both use captions, some of Campbell’s are quite long illustrating her thoughts and feelings, while Smith’s are factual and don’t speak at all of his own feelings.
  • Campbell’s images are more personal rather than documentary – you can tell that her Dad was aware of her presence, while Smith’s work appears to be more of the detached journalistic style.
  • Campbell’s images can be seen as a linear narrative because we clearly see the degeneration that her Dad went through. The timeline is therefore important and re-arranging the images might produce a confused message. On the other hand, Smith’s images don’t have a time element overall, although there are some sub-narratives such as that of the amputation of Thomas Mitchell or of the little girl who was kicked by a horse. However, even those sub-stories could be swapped without any loss of meaning. For the most part, the images are standalone – each one telling a short story, but within the overall narrative, the exact order is not important to comprehend what is happening.
  • Finally, we can’t escape that Campbell’s work is very personal – the death of her Dad, with whom we can imagine she had a very loving relationship. Smith’s work, while plainly deeply involved, can never have the same connection.

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

I think she means that while her Dad’s physical life has ended, in a sense he lives on within her through the memories she has and the values that he instilled in her such as “waste not, want not” which appears at the beginning of the essay. I think she sums this up perfectly right at the end of the essay:

“I consider myself fortunate that the memories of my wonderful dad’s death enrich me rather than depress me, and fortunate for feeling comfortable talking about it. It means I can do it as often as it may be relevant, thus keeping his memory ever present. I am so grateful to my dad and for giving me a way to keep moving forward with him, and to photography for making it possible.” (Campbell, 2011)

References

Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project At: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 19 February 2017)

Cosgrove, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. At: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 19 February 2017]

 

Assignment 1: Two sides of the story

Brief

Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’.

It might be interesting to consider the project as evidence for a court case. What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell? Would it stand up in court?

Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea. Discuss this with your tutor.

Concept Development & Research

After coming up with and abandoning a couple of ideas, I decided to more-or-less take the suggestion in the assignment text and use self-portraits to show multiple sides of a story. This approach allowed me to explore questions of identity and how we use symbols to tell a story about ourselves.

My research started with Cindy Sherman, who is well-known for taking a strongly narrative approach and using herself as a model. Her chameleon-like ability to take on different personas   leaves the viewer in doubt about whether we see anything of the true Cindy Sherman or is it all make-believe. Badger (2014:165) points out that while photos such as the example below appear to be self-portraits, in fact they are not – it is simply that Sherman was her own model and role playing was the point of the work.

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

In searching for other photographers who are known for self-portraits (or at least, for using themselves as models), the names of Vivian Maier (admittedly, only a small part of her work was self-portraiture), Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and of course, Francesca Woodman came up (see my EYV blog item on Woodman here) and of course, the famous series done by/of Martin Parr.

Approach

Irving Penn, "Pompier" (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

Irving Penn, “Pompier” (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

The approach was kept very simple in order minimise distractions.  The simple, clean approach of Irving Penn with his Small Trades series was very much in my mind at the time.

I setup a black background and placed a small stool about 2 meters from the background to avoid too much detail of the background showing in the final images. I used natural light reflected down a light well. The camera was placed on a tripod, focused on a tripod temporarily placed over the stool and controlled by a remote unit. Very little post-processing was required: an adjustment to the white balance as the originals were a little too warm and a slight crop to 5:4 format to reduce the distracting expanse of black background given by the 3:2 format sensor.

The assignment was effectively about setting up multiple narratives where each is equally convincing, but which may or may not be true. For the narrative to be consistent and clear,  I used two approaches: props and text. While the props themselves may have been sufficient, I felt that the use of titles helps to drive the message home.

Selects & Selection Process

The selection process consisted of discarding the obvious duds and selecting the images which showed the symbols (skis etc.) most clearly. Clarity of message was my primary goal in this case, so the selection process was relatively quick.

Contact Sheets

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

Self-portraits are a pain, no doubt about it! Focusing, depth of field, movement – everything works against getting a straightforward, sharp image. After experimenting with flash and not liking the harsh results, I opted for natural light. Having a programmable shutter release meant that I could set a delay before taking a series of shots with slight differences in poses. Even so, as the contact sheets show, there were a lot of failures.

2. Quality of outcome

Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

I used this assignment as an experiment in showing different sides of a subject. At first glance, the photos might show my work, hobbies and interests. But how do you know what is true and what isn’t? Just because I wear motorcycle helmet, does that mean that is the “true” me? How can you tell? Ultimately you can choose to believe or not as you wish, which is the nature of documentary.

3. Demonstration of creativity

Imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

From a creative point of view, I really struggled with this assignment, taking far longer than I planned. My original idea of looking at two sides of Geneva: the attractive and the ugly was initially interesting, but I couldn’t get engaged with it. It wasn’t until the idea of self-portraits came to my head, which I then realised linked back to the suggestions given in the brief that things started to click. Creatively, I think the work is “ok”, but no more than that. I think I could go further, but perhaps would end up too much down the path of Cindy Sherman.

4. Context

Reflection, research, critical thinking

Of the people I researched, all except Vivian Maier show different sides of themselves whether real or imagined. We could say that this approach is somehow the opposite of conventional documentary, but in a way, it also tells us about the photographers – at least about their interest in and ability to take on other personas.

As background to this assignment, I looked into the sections on narrative and semiotics in Short (2011) and also in Hall (2014). I understood from these two sources that the props were indexical signifiers – that is, they are “physically or causally linked to the signified” (Short 2011:123). The titles could be seen as symbols since they represent the concept that I was trying to communicate. In this case, I recognise that there is no subtlety about my approach, however given that the outcome is meant to documentary in some sense, then the approach is justified.

References

Badger, Gerry (2014) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA