Category Archives: Coursework

Liz Jobey: A Young Brooklyn Family

We are asked to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth.

In the chapter, Liz Jobey presents a comprehensive analysis of the Diane Arbus photo A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. 1966 along with a great deal of background material from interviews with Diane Arbus and from her writings.

The article is long and delves into quite a lot of detail about Arbus’s life as background for making hypotheses about why she did what she did. The tone is unforgiving and quite harsh with the overall implication somewhat along the lines of Sontag – that Arbus was after something sensationalistic. [Interestingly, the name “Arbus” appears 44 times in Sontag’s book On Photography, suggesting that Sontag had a special degree of dislike for Arbus.]

At the end of the article, I felt I had learned more about Jobey’s own world view than I did about the motivations of Diane Arbus and of the family who posed for her. As an example of deconstruction, it is probably exemplary, but after pulling everything apart, it seems to me that Jobey has trouble reassembling the pieces in a way that doesn’t seem like an extended complaint.




Exercise: deconstruction


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.


Glenfiddich advertising from Cigar Aficionado magazine

The image I selected was from an eMagazine that I subscribe to. This particular magazine has a strong “lifestyle” orientation in its advertising, so this seemed to be a good approach.

In terms of overall context, the image is full-page, on the right-hand side of a standard double-page spread. The right-hand side is generally preferable for western audiences due to our left–to-right writing system, which generally means that we “pick up” more quickly on images on the right-hand side (see here). This kind of premium placement also suggests a premium product because advertising costs are considerably higher on this side.

The colours used are eye-catching with a strong emphasis on the bottle, and with complementary colours all around. The largest, dark-golden, text has a colour very similar to many India Pale Ales (more on this later).

There is a great deal of text on the page, mostly acting as anchor-text, describing various aspects of the preparation. The product is plainly a whisky, however the process used was a little unusual – apparently the company brewed their own “craft” beer to season the oak casks used to mature the whisky. The text supports the beer connection with images of hops and labels such as “zesty and hoppy”. On the bottle itself, there is also quite a lot of text, but the message is a little mixed. In the centre of the bottle, right where we’d expect to see a label describing the contents, we see not the brand name, nor even that it’s a whisky, but the text “Finished in India Pale Ale Casks”.  It’s not until we look towards the bottom of the bottle that we decide that it is in fact a whisky from the Glenfiddich company.

On the lower-left side, we see the text “Experiment #01” which is echoed further down in the text which reassures us that the this is the first release in the Glenfiddich Experimental Series, however the implication of “Experiment #01” is “we got it right first time” and now as consumers, it’s up to us to enjoy the result. It would be an entirely different interpretation if it was “Experiment #2403”.

On the lower-right side we see the text “Craft Brewer” along with an image of a bottle cap typically found on a beer bottle. The craft beer industry in the United States (the primary audience for this particular magazine) has exploded over recent decades and is now estimated as having a retail worth of approximately $23bn (see here). The growth of this market sector is potentially an interesting “hook” for new products by association. We have no idea of whether the Glenfiddich beer used to season the casks was actually very good, but just by association we (or at least American audiences) may assume that any product associated with the craft beer industry must also be good.

In conclusion, although it becomes clear that we’re talking about a whisky, the message is confused about the linkage between the two products (beer and whisky). Many whisky producers age their premium products in barrels from other regions – sherry being a common example, and even bourbon on occasion. However, the association with beer is much less common and perhaps even innovative. The strap-line at the bottom of the page says that the product is “designed to push boundaries and create the unexpected”. This may be true, but I suggest that the overall effect is one of confusion.



Exercise: Elliot Erwitt’s New York, 1974

In this exercise, we are asked to look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

Elliot Erwitt: New York, 1974

Due to the careful positioning of the small dog and the eye-catching hat, the eyes are first drawn to this part of the image. The fact that the far left set of (fore)legs plainly belong to a much bigger dog is only noticed after a time. The small dog’s head is positioned quite precisely to draw our attention: at the mid-point of the frame vertically and approximately a 1/3 of the way across the frame from the right-hand side. The boots of the assumed owner (quite possibly a woman) are positioned centrally and the legs of the larger dog are positioned in the left-hand third with careful cropping to exclude the rear legs which would have made the joke much less effective. The overall effect is of across the horizontal axis, helped by the line of the lead to the smaller dog adding some “weight” on that side of the image. The camera viewpoint is very low – at dog’s eye-level we could say. We can imagine Erwitt holding his beloved Leica almost on the ground to achieve the shot.

The cropping of this image is critical to the joke and to the impact. Taken further back, at full height, we could imagine a woman with two dogs and the power would be completely lost. By getting closer, the joke is complete.




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.

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