Category Archives: Coursework

Exercise – Nigel Shafran’s “Washing Up”

Go to the artist’s website and look at the other images in Shafran’s series.

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

The series Washing Up consists almost entirely of photos taken of a sink area at different times of day more-or-less from the same viewpoint. We observe the constancy of certain things such as the yellow rubber gloves always hanging in the same place over the sink. We also see how other things change depending on exactly what is happening, what utensils were used, what plates and glasses were washed etc.

In an interview with Paul Elliman in 2000, (see here), Shafran said that with the series he “wanted to start the New Year with something optimistic. And personal. Something with lots of shapes, where shapes would change, keep changing. Also something in which the light was important, the kitchen window or the overhead kitchen light …”

In a 2004 interview with Charlotte Cotton (see here), Cotton asked whether the series was simply a close-by subject that developed over time. Shafran replied with “it’s a very close-by subject and a lot of my work and the subjects I choose are because of this. It’s what I know”.

Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

No, not at all. I imagine that choice of subject says something about the photographer, but I doubt whether choice says anything at all about the photographer’s gender.

In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

I think that gender can contribute to the choice of subject, but it depends on the individual. I can imagine that more men than women might photograph a classically male sport such as boxing, but there are always exceptions and I suspect they tell us more about personal orientation and interests than anything else.

What does this series achieve by not including people?

It forces us to focus on the details of the objects, the placement, the lighting and not to be distracted by whatever a person might do. We avoid the mental stories of the person and focus on the inanimate subjects.

Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

In a subtle way, yes, but it’s more about comparing one image to another than any particular one standing out for me. Technically, I guess they count more as “objets trouvés” rather than classical still life, but they have an interest because I can relate to what has happened – it’s within my life experience in the past and in the present, so there’s an intimacy which is appealing.

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Exercise – masquerades

  • Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs, or both?
  • Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
  • Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects online and make some notes in your learning log.

Nikki S. Lee

According to this site, “after introducing herself as an artist, she spends time with the group and has her photograph taken by a friend or group member with an automatic snapshot camera”. The site continues to explain that Lee “uses this process to explore issues of identity and social behaviour”.

This may be the case, however while researching Lee’s work, I stumbled across a short documentary (see here) in which she states quite clearly that she’s not interested in documenting people’s lives. From the video, I got a strong sense that Lee is only really interested in Lee, and I believe in that sense she is in fact exploiting people even though they are aware of what she is doing.

Trish Morrissey

In an article by Sarah Phillips for The Guardian (see here), Morrissey is quoted as saying “I ask strangers if I can become a member of their family. The person I replace takes the picture”.

Morrissey’s approach is quite different from Lee since she is not using deception. Her approach has to be transparent, and while I find it slightly odd, I would not have a problem agreeing. I can imagine a lot of people having issues agreeing. There might be concerns about somehow a stranger taking their place. I think it’s important to keep in mind the end result: it’s a respectful blending of Morrissey into the scene. Investigating more of her work, it became clear that she has an ability to create scenes and put herself into them in a convincing way, but I always sense that she does it in a respectful way.

The series Seven Years is especially well done: she re-creates scenes from the 60s, 70s and 80s in a realistic way with her always in the scene, but usually with others. Her sensitivity to fashion (using the word loosely), hairstyles, furniture, even postures is astonishing.

On her website, Morrissey provides quite a long artist’s statement about The Failed Realist (see here).  The title apparently comes from a psychology term to describe a child’s developmental stage when want they want to express is beyond their physical skills. The face paintings were done by Morrissey’s daughter when she was between four and five years old and show different motifs depending on the daughter’s recent experience.

This was a case where the text helped me enormously to understand the work. On purpose, I looked through the images before reading the statement. I was a little lost to say the least. I could see a link between the painted face and the title, but sometimes only vaguely and occasionally it was very tenuous. The text provided the crucial context I needed to understand that what was a shared rainy day activity was turned into something else: a very personal record of her daughter’s development and I can imagine a memory of a joyful time.

Exercise: self-portraiture

Reflect on the pieces of work discussed in this project in your learning log and do some further research of your own.

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

  • How do these images make you feel?
  • Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?
  • What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
  • Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
  • Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal? 

The work of Francesca Woodman, although fascinating, is disturbing. The large number of works (over 500) produced in a short time, the fact that in the vast majority she is alone, often in decrepit surroundings and the occasional self-harm images suggest something beyond narcissism and in Bright’s word, suggestive of a troubled mind at the very least.

I did a blog post on Elina Brotherus which can be found here. Her images interest me, but at the same time there is a strong element of narcissism. She is usually centrally placed and often naked. We can’t avoid the fact that the element of being naked has strong cultural aspects. In her native Finland, I understand that there’s nothing special about this – in fact a 2012 article in the Helsinki Times titled Nudity not an Issue states that “For such a shy and introverted people, the Finns are quite comfortable naked. ” (see here). In other cultures, it might signify vulnerability or be rejected entirely as being taboo. Whether naked or clothed, Brotherus faces the camera directly with the same dead-pan expression which seems to say “it’s all the same to me”, so there’s an aspect of her being comfortable in her own skin and not needing more than that. In particular, the images of Brotherus lack the voyeuristic or semi-erotic nature of some of Woodman’s photos.

GIllian Wearing takes a quite different approach, with her work Album, reminding me a little of Cindy Sherman, but without the theatricality. Wearing painstakingly creates masks and uses props to make herself resemble her mother, sister etc. Her purpose seems to be to question whether family roles are fixed. After all, if one family member can appear like an another, could they not also act like another? What does that mean for our ideas of family stability?

The images can work without accompanying text, but the text can add a much deeper layer of meaning. For example, knowing about Brotherus’s failed IVF treatment and deep sadness about not being able to have a child adds significantly to the interpretation of some of her work such as Annonciation and certain images in Carpe Fucking Diem.

Lastly, Elinor Carucci’s work is different again. In the Closer series, she produced images of herself and and immediate family. She does not appear in all images, but in all cases the images are sensitive ones showing what we can imagine is the interaction of a very close family. This intimate theme is continued in Mother – her story of being a mother herself. Nakedness is used, as in the case of Brotherus, to show a close family (just herself and her two children) over a number of years. These images can certainly work without text or even a caption because the intimacy and love is obvious between the family members.

 

Elina Brotherus

The course notes refer to Elina Brotherus as follows:

“Elina Brotherus is a contemporary photographer who has become renowned for her vulnerable and honest depictions of herself and her experiences. She has a varied and diverse approach to her photography practice but often includes herself in her work, both as an exploration of herself and as a study of her circumstances.”

According to her website:

“Elina Brotherus lives and works in Helsinki, Finland and Avallon, France. She has an MA degree in Photography from the University of Art and Design Helsinki (2000) and a MSc in Chemistry from the University of Helsinki (1997). She started exhibiting internationally in 1998 while still in art school.”

In exploring her work, mainly through her website, the link with Francesca Woodman is obvious in early work such as Model Studies (2002-2008)   Some images, particularly involving mirrors show this link very strongly, but the overall effect is not as dark as Woodman’s work.

Elina Brotherus: Model Study 14

Other work such as Artists at Work (2009), explores ideas of who is the artist and who is the model. The series develops to include in the image painters who are at work painting the artist/model who in turn has a camera pointed back towards the viewers. The end result is an amusing collage of artist/models which also somehow includes the viewer of the work.

Elina Brotherus: Artists at Work 4, from the series Artists at Work (2009)

More recent work such as Les Femmes de la Maison Carré (2015), place the artist as the seemingly only occupant of the building Maison Louis Carré (1959) near Paris. Susanna Petterson, Director of the Finnish National Gallery Ateneum writes about the series:

“The photographs in Les Femmes de la Maison Carré are at once composed and natural. They are direct yet mysterious. They live in this moment and in the past. They effortlessly make use of the house and its surroundings.  In practice, Brotherus walks into one of the most iconic buildings of modern architecture and makes the experience completely her own.”

Some of the scenes such as the one below remind me of Gregory Crewdson. There is an air of mystery – that we’re in the middle of a story and we can’t help but be curious about what it is. Crewdson would take a more cinematic approach, primarily through lighting, but same sense of narrative is there.

Elina Brotherus : Arrière-cuisine

The connection with the artist’s own life is continued in Carpe Fucking Diem (2011-2015)  which contains images (syringes, a child’s rocking horse) and the following image which we can’t help but see as a reflection of her bitterness at not being able to fall pregnant, even with IVF treatment.

Elina Brotherus: My dog is cuter than your ugly baby

 

Exercise: three case studies

This exercise asks us to look at three bodies of work:

  • Peter Mansell – work done for his OCA course
  • Dewald Botha – Ring Road
  • Jodie Taylor – Memories of Childhood

Brief

All three of these projects are examples of personally driven work but they become universal when we can relate to the feelings they present by visiting our own personal histories.

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you’ve created?

Resonance

The strongest resonance for me comes from the work by Botha. Born in Australia and living in Switzerland near Geneva, I can understand some of the feelings of separateness and alienation that Botha must feel. I have only visited Hong Kong, never mainland China, but I can imagine that the gap between South Africa and where Botha was living at the time must have been huge. For me, it is less obvious, but that makes it all the more frustrating at times. Superficially, people here are similar to what I am used to, but every so often there is a cultural reference such as a French movie or a TV show which I completely miss. Even after living here for 11 years, I still struggle at times with fast-moving and slang-ridden French. In conclusion, while I believe that the cultural gap is less extreme than for Botha, the feelings of not “fitting in” are definitely there at times.

Authorial Control

I believe that this so-called “loss of control” is a central strength of all art and is actually exciting, rather than threatening. As artists, we are trying to elicit a response to our work. Even revulsion can be an interesting response: look at much of the media’s response to some of Damien Hurst’s work, for example. The viewer projecting their own emotions and experience is a way for them of understanding and taking ownership of the work that they are viewing. I see that provoking such a response is encouraging – I am always curious to know how others see my work.

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]