Penelope Umbrico

Penelope Umbrico is an artist who predominately works with found images from the internet and addresses the issues presented by the overwhelming amounts of these pictures we are faced with. Her goal however, is not to archive or collect these images, but to use them in the service of creating her own work which is often different, or even opposing, the intended meaning of the original. In response to a question about how her works de-contextualise and re-contextualise the images she uses she states:

“All photography is de-contextualization. And as soon as it can be viewed – by anyone, in any way, place or form – it’s re-contextualization. As photographers, the first thing we learn is how to frame the world. And when you put a frame around anything, you de-contextualize it. To not see the re-contextualization at this point is to normalize that framing, to make it invisible – in some ways, I’d say my work calls attention to this invisibility – makes it visible.” (Labey and Bick, 2011)

It is so frustrating to research an artist and find they do not have their own website and therefore refreshing that Umbrico’s website is so comprehensive and provides such a gateway into her practice. There is much I admire and am inspired by in her work – not least the eloquent and personal way her artists statements for each of her projects bring them to life. I have taken the liberty here of including extended quotes because of this, and also because I would aspire to be able to describe my own work in similar ways. Other notable points from her practice is how she expands an idea into subsequent projects – some of these I have signposted here. Something else that resonates with me is that despite working extensively with appropriated digital images, the physical manifestation of her work is extremely important to Umbrico. Responding to a question about this in an interview she says:

“to me…flatness is seductive, and I love the physicality of the print. I like the work to sit right on the edge between representation and abstraction, illusory 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional object. So yes, I am very particular about material and craft. It’s important to me, for example, that the sun photographs are produced via a mass-market process – 4″ x 6” Kodak “Easy Share” machine prints (Kodak actually calls them this) or that Broken Sets (eBay) are digital c-prints on metallic paper – the sheen and luminescence of that paper lends to the coolness of the subject matter (the technological breakdown derived from images of broken electronic displays sold on eBay). (Labey and Bick, 2011)

Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (2006-ongoing):

Umbrico describes the genesis and development of her ongoing project ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr’ on her website (as an aside, I particularly like the conversational tone and the way she still manages to incorporate the conceptual ideas of the project):

“I began the project, Suns from Sunsets from Flickr in 2006 when looking for the most photographed subject, I searched the photo-sharing website Flickr and found “sunsets” to be the most present (tagged) resulting in 541, 795 in 2006 hits. I thought it peculiar that the sun, the quintessential giver of life and warmth, constant in our lives, symbol of enlightenment, spirituality, eternity, all things unreachable and ephemeral, omnipotent provider of optimism an vitamin D … and so ubiquitously photographed, is now subsumed to the internet – this warm singular object made multiple in the electronic space of the web, and viewed within the cool light of the screen.

I collected those sunsets from Flickr that had the most defined suns in them, and cropped just the suns from these images … which I upload to consumer photo-labs to be printed as 4×6″ machine c-prints. For each installation the title reflects the number of hits I get searching “sunset” on Flickr at the time of installation – for example the first installation was 541, 795 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 01/23/06; a year later: 2, 303, 057 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 09/25/07 – the (Partial) in the title refers to the fact that the installation is only a fragment of the number of sunsets on Flickr at that time.

… the title itself becoming a comment on the ever increasing use of web-based photo communities and a reflection of the collective content there. And since this number only lasts an instant, its recording is analogous to the act of photographing the sunset itself.

Perhaps part of the beauty of taking a picture of a sunset is that while you are doing it it’s likely that a million other people are doing it as well – at exactly the same time. I love this idea of collective practice, something we all engage in despite any artistic concern, knowing that there have been millions before an there will be millions after. While the intent of photographing a sunset may be to capture something ephemeral or to assert an individual subjective point of view – the result is quite the opposite – through the technology of our common camera we experience the power of millions of synoptic views, all shared the same way, at the same moment. To claim individual authorship while photographing a sunset is to disengage from this collective practice and therefore negate a large part of why capturing a sunset is so irresistible in the first place.” (Umbrico, s.d. a)

David Bate (2015) sees Umbrico’s massive grids of appropriated images as demonstrating the universal appeal of the amateur sunset snapshot and how a space can be inhabited by the imagination more than any geometry of place:

“The geometrical consciousness of place as an actual location in the world, for which photography is so renowned, is replaced by a luminary psychological effect, replete with all the imagination of human feeling. The sunsets, repeated as a variation on a theme, are used to enhance a set of emotive feelings. which are only tangentially grasped by aesthetic theories of the beautiful and the sublime. Put simply, a beautiful scene pacifies the spectator, whereas the sublime excites their desire. In the case of the sunset, it can usually do both at once, invoking the sun with feelings of melancholic passion. The sunset photograph is a classic example of how a psychological image can be imposed onto geometrical space: the effect exceeds the information provided about geographic place.” (Bate, 2015: 125)

See also: ‘Sun Burn (Screensaver)’ (2008)

See also: ‘Sunset Portraits from Sunset Pictures on Flickr’ (2010-ongoing)

Out of Order: Broken Sets/Bad Display (2007-ongoing):

For this series, Umbrico presents cropped images of broken monitors and TVs that are sold for spare parts on eBay. In order to show that the electronics behind the broken screens still work, the sellers present them switched on, for Umbrico, the abstract patterns of the displays show an “incidental beauty” which derives “from the failure of their own promising technology.” The images are printed and displayed in grid form which emphasises both their formal and abstract qualities. From her website, she elaborates on her intentions for the series:

“In all these works the medium that serves up the image (the screen) functions not only as a site of projection and reception, but also as a sifting mechanism, or a censor, letting some information through and keeping some out. As the substrate on which one sees images, the screen is invisible until something goes wrong. By focusing on the failed screen, I draw attention to its physical materiality. I make photographic prints of these transient images in order to draw attention to the materiality of the objects from which they come. The photographic print fixes them – makes them transient still, and serves to emphasize their stubborn physical presence.” (Umbrico, s.d d)

Moving Mountains (1850-2012) (2012):

This project is Umbrico’s response to a commission from Aperture where artists were asked to pay homage to work featured in a previous Aperture publication that culminated in an exhibition – Aperture Remix. She chose to focus on images of mountains featured in the Aperture Masters of Photography series, rephotographing pictures using an iPhone and a series of apps and filters. The text from her website summarises the presentation of the work in the gallery space:

“For the exhibition, Umbrico exhibited a grid of over eighty new images side-by-side with vintage prints of each of the images that had been photographed in reproduction, from the pages of the Masters series. In doing so, the expansive and elastic nature of contemporary photography was neatly illustrated – from the original, stable object of the Masters, to the ever mutating, fluctuating digital iterations possible today.”

See also: ‘Range’ (2012-ongoing)

Sun/Screen (2014):

See 46 second excerpt (of 35 mins.) of ‘Sun/Screen’ here.

‘Sun/Screen’ is a video installation which expands on the ideas explored by Umbrico in ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr’. Using an iPhone, a range of found images of the sun were rephotographed from her computer screen and then edited together as a slideshow. The conflict between the sensor of the iPhone and the computer screen resulted in as constantly shifting moiré pattern as the suns dissolved into each other. Umbrico says this about the work on her website:

Sun/Screen draws attention to the materiality of the screen and further distances us from the natural sunlight source of the original images. It is a meditation on simulated light activated to produce images of natural light derived from digital images found online of a natural light source (the sun) it is a dialogue between analogue and digital; natural and simulated; surface and screen; projection and reception.” (Umbrico, s.d. b)

The piece was shown in 2014 in the Photographer’s Gallery Media Wall exhibition space, this analysis is made on the gallery’s website:

“The shimmering hazy illusion of heat and light lends a material quality to the screen itself and conversely is more suggestive of natural sunlight than the original images, inviting questions about the nature of reproductions and verisimilitude.” (The Photographer’s Gallery, s.d)

Sun/Screen – installation view at The Photographer’s Gallery

TVs from Craigslist:

This deceptively simple series features images of TVs found by Umbrico for sale on Craigslist. The original pictures are cropped to show only the screen and printed at the scale of the TV being sold. The unintended reflections in the screens are amplified by the process and “offer inadvertent glimpses of intimacy and function as self-portraits of the sellers.” From her website, Umbrico explains further:

Although these images are purely utilitarian, taken only to sell a TV, they all have embedded in them the subjectivity and individuality of the photographer/seller. The inadvertent reflections of the sellers become the subject within the dark screens of their unwanted used-TVs for sale. I find gestures of intimate and private exposures, various states of undress, unmade beds, dirty laundry – all accessible to an entirely anonymous public.

The source images that these prints come from are very small: it’s likely that the seller has no idea that he or she is pictured there. But thinking about the promise, and ultimate absence, of intimacy that the internet fosters, I can’t help thinking there’s a subconscious undercurrent of exhibitionism here; a plea for attention.

Going from city to city on Craigslist in search of TVs has become a somewhat voyeuristic proceeding. It’s like I’m invited into people’s living rooms and bedroom to look at the TV they want to sell and there they are, with unmade bed, sometimes completely naked, reflected in the surface of a TV they no longer want. It’s sad really – at one time the centre of the family room, now rejected, the last picture of the TV that will exist holds on to a little ghostly image of its owner…. Or, the ghostly image is forever stuck in the machine its owner doesn’t want.” (Umbrico, s.d. c)

Barry Johnson (2012) says this about the series:

“While initially simple visually, Umbrico’s work TVs (from Craigslist) gradually illuminates a vast array of unintentional private interiors. The pieces are at once abstract and representational. The camera flash on each black-framed black print is blinding; but once your eyes adjust and focus, the subtle, hidden images of living rooms, garages, bedrooms, and their occupants become clear. So many people take pictures today and think nothing of it. Many of these photos are subsequently posted on the internet, at once swallowed up by indexical monsters that are Google Image Search, Flickr and Facebook. A few keystrokes can bring you to the shared visual creations of millions of photographers (whether professional or otherwise). So vast is the collective database that we can now search by ever more specific color, composition, subject and tag.” (Johnson, 2012)

See also: ‘Signals Still’ (2011-ongoing) which is a series of images of TVs from Craigslist which are switched on but show no image, only signal: “Emitting eerie light, they are present but mute, they hum or hiss but tell no story.” (Umbrico, s.d. e)

See also: ‘Pirouette for CRT’ (2012) – a video installation in which images from ‘TVs from Craigslist’ seem to spin round in the centre of the screen. On her website, Umbrico explains:

“the bulky CRT TVs that are pictured in profile seem like anthropomorphic characters that have been rejected by their owners and yet physically persist, dig in their heals and insist on being dealt with. They are the manifest dinosaurs of technology, physical bodies as symbols of their own obsolescence. Using these found images, Pirouette for CRT is a choreographed tribute to the mortality of the CRT, and of the image.” (Umbrico, s.d f)

Links:

Bibliography:

Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Cole, T. (2015) On Photography. The New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/NYTM_Teju_Cole_2015_v3.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Evans, D. (2019) Penelope Umbrico: (Photographs). Elephant, 5th January 2019. Available at: https://elephant.art/penelope-umbrico-photographs/ (accessed 1st March 2020)

Hirsch, F. (2010) Penelope Umbrico: LMAK projects. Art in America, November 2010. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_ArtinAmerica_2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Johnson, B. (2012) Hoffman Gallery: Extreme photography and abstract sales. Oregon ArtsWatch Website. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Hoffman%20Gallery-Lewis%20and%20Clark.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Labey, C. and Bick, E. (2011) The digital sublime: A dialogue with Penelope Umbrico. Conveyer Magazine, Spring 2011. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_Conveyor_v2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

The Photographer’s Gallery (s.d.) Penelope Umbrico: Sun/Screen. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/digital-project/penelope-umbrico-sunscreen (accessed 1st March 2020)

Rutledge, V. (2013) The image world is flat: Penelope Umbrico in conversation with Virginia Rutledge. Aperture Magazine. Available at: https://www.markmoorefineart.com/attachment/en/581c5e0c84184e51358b4568/Press/581c5ea384184e51358b7f5f (accessed 1st March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)a Suns from Sunsets from Flickr. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/suns/ (accessed 1st March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)b Sun/Screen. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/sun-screen/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)c TVs from Craigslist. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/tvs-from-craigslist/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)d Out of Order: Broken sets and bad displays. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/broken-sets/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)e Signals Still. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/signal-still/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico P. (s.d.)f Pirouette for CRT. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/pirouette-for-crt/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. and Haik, J. (2015) Flashes that have the character of ghosts. Conveyer Magazine, Fall 2013. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_Conveyor_Spectrum2_v2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

OCA North Study Day – Halifax – 8th March 2020

Vic Allen with a print of ‘Catchpoint’ (1932) by Bill Brandt. (Credit: Andrew Fitzgibbon)

Despite our guest OCA tutor being unable to attend the meeting at the last minute due to being unwell, we decided not to cancel our planned event as it had been in the diary for some time. I am so glad that we did as the day turned out to be well worth the journey with Vic Allen, arts director at Dean Clough Galleries where we hold the meetings more than ably filling the afternoon with an informative and entertaining presentation about holding an exhibition at the venue. By his own admission Vic can talk, but in a good way! He covered so much in his presentation, from the business of running a gallery, the history of the site and his personal views and opinions on art – all with great humour and enthusiasm. I have included some notes below that I managed to jot down as Vic spoke, although I must admit that most of the time I just enjoyed listening to him generously share his knowledge. The meeting ended with the group enthused about the possibility of holding a group exhibition next year, although it was apparent that this would require a great deal of work and collaboration. We agreed to focus on the practicalities of making this a reality at the next meeting and to putting ideas more formally together.

Notes from Vic’s presentation:

  • There are established ideas about what the art world is – however – in reality it is hard to activate and is often different to what is expected or assumed.
  • The artist needs to take responsibility for creating their own ‘art world’ through building connections, networks and engaging with like minded individuals.
    • Artists are often the best patrons and supporters for other artists.
  • Exhibitions are not about selling work but about seeing work in a different context and gaining feedback.
    • This moves an artists practice along and helps them develop.
    • Exhibitions can show the strengths and weaknesses in a body of work and present unexpected opportunities of viewpoint.
    • Exhibiting is an ongoing education – all artists should strive to exhibit as much as they can.
    • We learn from our mistakes not our successes and these move an artists practice on.
    • The collaboration between artist/curator/venue should not be underestimated.
  • Art vs. culture – an antagonistic relationship
    • Culture can be described as habit and art should be about breaking habits.
      • e.g. The Mona Lisa is now so much a part of cultural iconography that it can no longer be consider art.
    • Becoming a famous artist can mean having to (or being forced to) repeat the same formula.
    • Art should have a sell by date to keep it fresh.
    • Art is wider than the gallery space.
  • The gallery is to art what a car show room is to a car.
    • But cars aren’t built to be kept in a show room – they are for journeys and travelling.
  • You can’t have an art world where only great artists exist.
    • Art is not about excellence but about living life with artistic values.
  • Obsession with galleries as the only place to show art is a problem for the art world – too insular.
  • Dean Clough philosophy is about holding a mirror up to the community and inviting them in.
    • Exhibitions range from master to amateur – an approach not embraced by the art world usually!
  • What motivates you to make art?
    • Money?
      • Adulation?
        • Reverence?
          • Social impulse/impact?
            • Sense of fulfilment?
  • Dean Clough operates an open submissions policy (unusual for the art world) with exhibitors being chosen by a panel.
    • See Dean Clough submission guidelines on website here.
    • When making submissions think carefully about how/who to approach – important to build a process of connectivity with places would like to exhibit.
    • Visit and understand the venue.
    • Send concise information
      • It is best to package proposals as definite suggestions rather than leaving open ended which forces a yes/no response.
      • Submissions should be focussed and not overwhelming – “never send two paintings when one will do.”
  • Go to exhibitions and openings.
    • Opportunity to network and make connections.
    • Also the right thing to be interested in new work and galleries as a practicing artist – inspiration.
  • Have a website/web presence.
    • Only problem with this is it being out of date!
  • Deadlines can be useful in not letting work drag on unfinished forever.
    • Can also be a psychological benefit when things aren’t perfect!
  • Maintain a database of contacts – anyone who has expressed interested in work.
    • This is also your fanbase!
This famous 1932 photograph by Bill Brandt was brought out by Vic in a matter of fact way to illustrate a point he was making about the perceived value of art. (He quipped that a vintage print of the same image had recently sold for £140k, but as this was a later, and inferior print he thought it was only worth about £60k!) The scene where the image was shot, although clearly much changed, could be viewed from the room where our meeting was taking place. It felt like a privilege to view such an iconic photograph while at the same time I loved the way Vic showed admiration, but not reverence, for it. For the majority of the meeting it stood propped on the floor in the corner of the room – I wondered was it the image itself, the famous photographer or the value of the photograph that made it so special, and indeed, how much of this influenced how I felt about it.

Exercise 2.3

Notes on artists cited and researched in this part of the course can be found here:


For this exercise, we are asked to produce a piece of work that either explores the family album and its iconography or reflects on representations of the self in digital culture. My first thought here was to use something from my personal family archive to consider how I have conformed with the conventions of the family photo album. Something that impressed me about the work of Hans Eijkelboom is his use of repeating motifs which force us to consider similarities and differences closer than we would ordinarily. Being the father of three children there are many images in my family album which would fit into this description – mainly based around celebrations and events such as birthdays, holidays and Christmas. I found similar themes recurring such as blowing out candles on a birthday cake or the three children standing together on a day out that would be worth exploring further. I chose to look at images from Christmas day however as taking a picture of the children sitting on the stairs as they wait to be given permission to come downstairs on Christmas morning has become a tradition I uphold despite the eldest now being 16. I expected to have 11 years worth of photographs of the three of them together and was surprised that my memory had played tricks on me and these photographs have only been taken for the last 7 years. (I have included an eighth image as it features the three of them but is not posed in the same way as the further pictures.) For me these snapshots are imbued with strong emotional resonance as I remember the excitement that filled the house each Christmas morning and I look at how the children have aged over the years – I suspect their interest would be limited for anyone else outside my family however. The striking thing from this process is how strongly I have misremembered that I have been taking these images in the same way since the youngest was born 12 years ago – while the charge of how personal memory can be proved to be false through photographic evidence is not present in the images for anyone else but me, this has affected me so much that I wonder how I could use it as a subject for a future project.

Vibeke Tandberg

Vibeke Tandberg is referenced on page 50 of the course notes and cited as a photographer who experiments with self-portraiture by employing photomontage techniques. (This link gives an indication of the type of work she makes.) An article by Inga Hanstveit describes the diversity of Tandberg’s practice with the artist explaining she is driven to work in different media (photography, conceptual art, writing) as she can become bored working with the same thing for a long time. I feel like there is much more to be inspired by in Tandberg’s work and frustrated that my research has only scratched the surface of this, I suspect she is an artist I will learn study further in the future.

Living Together (1996):

This series of seemingly innocent family snapshots show two women, who we assume are sisters because of their resemblance, in a series of everyday, domestic situations. Despite the way the images convince, at least initially, they are digital constructs with Tandberg paying the role of both ‘twins’ in the frame. On closer inspection it can be noted that there is a tension in the behaviour of the ‘twins’ that suggests spilt identity and forces questions about what is real and what is fantasy. Joan Fontcuberta (2014) has this to say:

“they add the diffuse fear that perhaps we can no longer distinguish between appearance and reality, reality and simulacrum, or original and reproduction.” (Fontcuberta, 2014: 97)

Line (1999):

At first glance the portraits from Tandberg’s series ‘Line’ appear to be straightforward, straight candid shots. However, digital technology has been used to merge Tandberg’s facial features with those of her friend – literally investing the image with an intimate connection between photographer and subject. Charlotte Cotton (2014) makes this analysis:

“there is a suggestion that the photographer’s relationship with the subject would be intimate, professional, detached, or a simulation of all these positions. In fact, Tandberg has used digital manipulation to blend fragments of her own facial features with those of her friend, illustrating how a photographic portrait, no matter how guileless it may seem, is partly the photographer’s projection of herself onto her subject. At the heart of this lie the possibilities that postmodernist practice represents for contemporary art photographers: to be able to knowingly shape the subjects that intrigue them, conscious of the heritage of the imagery into which they are entering, and to see the contemporary world through the pictures we already know.” (Cotton, 2014: 217)

For Inga Hanstveit (2018), Tandberg’s staged and manipulated self portraits problematise notions of the self at social, psychological and political levels. Lars Bang Larsen (2000) sees the series as a merging of personae which is aligned with a therapeutic acceptance of repressed elements in the psyche:

“In ‘Line’ the photographic merging reflects the artist’s conquest of desire and temporary ego loss, her split personality healed in chaste, almost painterly, monumental photography

Rather than portraying an authentic self caught up in a repertoire of simulacra, she deals with the slippage between me and you, privileging intimacy as an evolutionary hot-house for identity’s deviation. ‘Line’ is a rendition of what discreet psychodramas are enacted when you live under the same roof as your desire.” (Larsen, 2000)

Links:

Vibeke Tandberg: experimental self-portraiture employing photomontage techniques (link 9):

Bibliography:

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Fugitive identities. In pps. 90-103: Pandora’s camera: photogr@phy after photography. London: MACK

Hanstveit, I. I. (2018) Vibeke Tandberg – Where literature meets art at Turner Contemporary. Norwegian Arts. Available at: https://norwegianarts.org.uk/event/vibeke-tandberg/ (accessed 23rd February 2020)

Lange, C. (2005) Reviews: Vibeke Tandberg. Frieze. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/vibeke-tandberg-0 (accessed 1st March 2020)

Larsen, L. B. (2000) Reviews: Vibeke Tandberg. Frieze. Available at: https://norwegianarts.org.uk/event/vibeke-tandberg/ (accessed 23rd February 2020)

General Election 2019

The 2019 General Election appeared to offer timely material for assignment 2. From the beginning there was much discussion about how the use of social media would be critical to the success, or otherwise, of the political parties so I decided to follow this closely. I set up specific accounts for Instagram and Twitter and followed all of the political agencies and candidates and news outlets I could find and saved any relevant posts. Keeping up with the posts was quite labour intensive and I am sure I missed a great deal as well as coming across the same information being presented over and over which was a wearying experience in itself. Despite this, by the end of the campaign I had amassed 1870 screenshots which varied wildly in their content and presentation. Here they are in thumbnail form:

Straight after the election I struggled to see what, if anything, I could make of these images and suspected that I may have wasted my time with the whole exercise. My preconception was that some sort of narrative would emerge but all I could see was a variety of propaganda from all sides the only difference being how openly it displayed itself as such. It also struck me how quickly all of these had become out of date – for example – the spectacularly brutal political exit of Jo Swinson. I considered juxtaposing opposing viewpoints or making a collection of memes but neither of these ideas particularly appealed. The more I thought about the various campaigns and how the Conservative’s successfully managed to return a large majority, the more I began to realise this success was not the result of winning any sort of argument but due to putting Boris Johnson front and centre – despite being in government for 10 years the campaign managed to change the narrative in a way that Boris represented something different to what had gone before. (There is huge resonance here with the success of Trump in the U.S. of course.) It seemed clear to me however that the persona Boris cultivates is a careful construct and apparent that this was the real story of the election. As I began filtering the screenshots by those that featured Johnson, my daughters mirror happened to be near by and I instinctively used it to take a photograph of Johnson reflected in the mirror with my smartphone:

The light around the mirror created an interesting halo effect, the contrast also pushed the digital noise which combined with the distortion caused by the angle I took the image. The thought of appropriating the imagery without any sort of intervention did not appeal to me and this seemed like a way I could add my own twist. I set about experimenting taking more images and removing the background of these in Photoshop:

There seems to be something here worth pursuing and experimenting with further both visually and conceptually. I showed these early experiments to fellow students at a recent DI&C hangout and they agreed which was encouraging. Considerations I need to make:

  • Uniformity of the images – initially I liked the varying angles of the images but this could be distracting when presented together. Perhaps I should try to find a way of photographing in a more uniform way? I took these by displaying the images at full screen size and then moving the mirror and smart phone around until I managed to capture an image that isolated Boris as much as possible. One possibility could be to keep the mirror stationary and move/enlarge the image on screen to be displayed to achieve the result I am looking for.
  • Presentation – if I continue with this idea for assignment 2 the course notes ask for the work to be presented as a book. I am not enthused with the idea of producing a traditional book but at the same time do not want to make something different for the sake of it. I have been interested in making a handmade concertina book as I have seen this used to great effect in other projects and like the idea that the viewer can juxtapose images themselves. I have also been increasingly interested in the handmade after some experimentation through part one, although my ambitions are not necessarily matched by my skills. There is a risk that I could become completely side tracked here that I need to be aware, and keep check of.
  • Does it need to be a book? – I have noted that some DI&C students have completely disregarded the idea of producing a book and made something else. The idea of making a film appeals as this is something I want to explore more in the future, although I am not sure what this would look like. An extension of my early experiment for the preliminary exercise ‘Image Flood’ could be a possibility as having a large amount of subtly different images would work well together.
  • Text – my initial thoughts are to keep to text to a minimum or even to have none at all. One thought I have however if I choose to include text is to make a ‘found poem’ from words found in the social media posts. This is something comedian Dave Gorman does to great effect with comments from the internet and is influenced by the cut up technique famously used by William Burroughs and David Bowie to create unexpected relationships between words through the use of chance.
  • Sequencing – a comment made in response to my assignment 1 by tutor Andrew Conroy at an OCA North study day I attended was that I should experiment with allowing cut up sections of the images to fall in a random fashion and then photograph the results. This could be a potential technique to use when sequencing the images for this project.

Hans Eijkelboom

Hans Eijkelboom says this about his practice:

“What I do is actually very unclear…As a form it seems like a very simple way to collect information about people’s behaviour. But the exhibitions and books that I make do not show any useful and coherent information at all.” (White, 2020)

Bakker (2020) believes Eijkelboom’s work asks questions about human identity, vulnerability and how this is shaped by the public space and interaction with society. His work is rooted in the conceptual photo art of the 1960s which is typified by seriality, repetition, typologies, performance and humour. He explains that he uses photography as a way of making notes about what he encounters and “to employ photography as an instrument to show how the world appears.” In the introduction to the catalogue for his 2017-18 retrospective he explains:

“I explore the world daily and register aspects of my voyage of discovery with a camera. I do this in a detached way, because the thought that I can predetermine what is or is not significant in the formation of my world perception should not exist. In this way a stream of observations of these not directly responsible formation aspects of my world perception emerge and are recorded” (Bakker, 2020)

With My Family (1973):

For this series, Eijkelboom places himself as the father figure in a series of family portraits that plays on the predictable uniformity of the family photograph. At first the images seem authentic and believable, but the presence of Eijkelboom in each one causes the viewer to question what they are seeing. Erik Kessels (2016) observes that the conventions of the family photography seek to deliberately obscure all of life’s imperfections:

“Photography is not only a form of documentation; it’s just as often a tool for manipulation.

Each individual family portrait is entirely believable. Eijkelboom never looks out of place. The persuasiveness of the image allows him to deceive us. And in doing so, he questions our ideas about identity and pokes fun at photographic clichés.” (Kessels, 2016: 137-144)

Identity (1976):

This series of self portraits show Eijkelboom acting out the profession that former school mates who had not seen him for ten years imagined him to now be engaged in. Eijkelboom contacted his former friends and asked them what they remembered about him and what they thought his occupation might be now. Sean O’Hagan says this about the series:

“Alongside the often expansive and hilariously uncomplimentary answers -“going by what I remember about him, I don’t think he has become anything special” – Eijkelboom poses in the clothes of the profession attributed to him. In one, he is a somewhat unlikely-looking businessman sitting behind a desk; in another, a forester in the traditional costume of plus-fours and gamekeepers feathered hat. One woman confesses to having “been in love with him for years”. Another man calls him “a real blackguard always willing to finish the discussion elsewhere – with his fists.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

The Ideal Man (1978):

For this series, Eijkelboom devised a questionnaire which he sent out to 100 women asking them to describes their ideal man in terms of appearance and clothing. He chose 10 of the most diverse of these and worked with a make up artist to transform himself into the ‘perfect man’. The author of the questionnaire was present at a photoshoot to capture the results and offer final direction. The images of the ‘ideal man’ alone, and then with their would be partner were presented alongside the questionnaires.

10 Euro Outfits:

For this series, Eijkelboom made a series of self-portraits wearing entire outfits bought for €10 or less. Sean O’Hagan observes:

“They range from the drab – pinstripe trousers, grey-striped polo shirt, pale cream sandals – to the plain weird: a swirly-patterned shirt made of green nylon and camouflage trousers. He emerges here as a kind of European everyman, and, as such, looks depressingly familiar. The series could be a critique of Europe in the age of austerity, or a wry look at the homogenisation of high-street budget labels. Either way, it’s another example of Eijkelboom’s deadpan, though-provoking take on identity and, like all his work, makes you think and smile simultaneously.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

Photo Notes (1992-2007):

From the early 1980s, Eijkelboom predominately stopped pointing the camera at himself and began to a number of experiments with street photography. The approach he chose are described as ‘Photo Notes’ and he uses a set of rigorous rules for making the work that have become his mode of working in every subsequent series. Dieter Roelstraete (2011) makes a link between Eijkelboom’s practice and August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, although he asserts that Eijkelboom’s series is only superficially similar:

“the artist takes to the street not only armed with his camera, but also with a set of rigorous, non-negotiable rules. Photographing only takes place in a precisely determined spot, for a precisely determined length of time (both facts are always included at the bottom of the resulting arrangement of photographs as crucial bits of information) and the ‘subject’ is correspondingly narrowly defined to ensure maximum sameness. Young girls with Spice Girls T-Shirts, young men with Che Guevara T-shirts … or middle-aged men with Rolling Stones T-shirts; topless types on rollerblades; middle-aged mothers and teenage daughters schlepping shopping bags while talking to their mobile phones; people who are not emergency workers yet still wear yellow coats – as a document of changing fashions, Photo Notes certainly creates the impression that what was in reality only a decade-and-a-half ago is light years away in time.” (Roelstraete, 2011)

Although the thousands of photographs from this project are of individuals, it is repetition, and sameness, that is the point of Eijkelboom’s visual anthropology. Marcel Feil (2007) notes the diaristic nature of the series and the way its visual development is shaped by repeated observations over an extended period of time: “like the stalagmites and stalactites in a cave, which have gained their shapes through the ceaseless repetition of falling drops of water.” Though Eijkelboom has used different conceptual strategies throughout his career, his work is unified by some key concerns:

“One common feature of the photo projects Eijkelboom has embarked on since the early 1970s is a profound interest in questions concerning our identity. How we see ourselves and how do others see us? Is there a connection between what we wear and what we are? How does each individual manifest his or her idea of identity? And – more fundamentally – what is the relationship between expression of our identity and our (self-) awareness?

In Photo Notes Eijkelboom depicts the individual and unique in terms of the vast numbers of individuals who populate our cities. Because the photographs for Photo Notes were taken over such a long period and because of the constant repetitions and comparisons and the sheer quantity of visual material, the personal observations on the diary gradually acquire a universal validity. By looking at others, we also observe ourselves; subject and object become one, and the tension between the individual and the mass is highlighted.” (Feil, 2007)

Paris – NewYork – Shanghai (2007):

This series which culminated in an exhibition and book, sees Eijkelboom document everyday life in the cities of Paris, Shanghai and New York which he regards as the capitals of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These seemingly disparate cities are shown to be more similar than we would at first imagine, for Jim Caspar (s.d.) the project is driven by Eijkelboom’s obsessive search for anthropological-sociological typologies and provides proof that the differences in exotic cultures have already been conquered and eliminated by globalisation. He describes the design of the book as essentially three books in one, which allows the viewer to simultaneously compare and contrast images showing the similarities in France, America and China. From the introductory essay, Tony Godfrey makes this assessment:

“For a book of art photographs, there is an extraordinary array of images. Having opened it, I turn the pages of each volume simultaneously: I can see sixty photographs of men in striped shirts; turn again, and I see an army of seventy-two men in suits marching to work; turn again, and a panorama of empty civic spaces. What are we being told? That this is a small world after all? Is this a Family of Man on a minimal grid?” (Godfrey, 2007)

People of the Twenty-First Century:

For this ongoing project, which Eijkelboom has been engaged with since the 1990s, he captures “little points of commonality”, such as behaviour or dress, in various cities around the world. For Ryan White (2020), the series is “a fascinatingly simple sociological study into individuality in relation to collective behaviour.” Eijkelboom believes that the city is where society is most visible. He is not interested in pointing his camera at the extraordinary, but in recording slight differences in dress, appearance, body language and gesture – an unintended extra aspect to the series due to the length of time he has been engaged in it, is that he has also recorded how this has changed over time. Eijkelboom explains: “what becomes almost invisible due to its prevalence, the accumulation of coincidental phenomena of which the significance is not yet clear.” (Bakker, 2020)

Eijkelboom describes his photographs as “photo notes” and his process as:

“simply that I walk to the centre of the city where many people are. Then I walk around for 10 to 15 minutes. When something in the crowd intrigues me or touches me, I decide that will be the theme of the day. Then I start photographing for two hours. Many times, it goes wrong: I don’t see anything, do I don’t photograph that day; or I go to the city, see my subject, start photographing and, surprisingly, in the next two hours never see my subject again. And then, for that day, there is no photo note.” (Petridis, 2014)

Alex Petridis (2014) sees the work as simultaneously mundane and compelling with a hypnotic, repetitious quality. Despite the superficial similarities in the way people look however, it is significant that these accentuate the subtle differences in the individuals photographed: “the longer you look at them, the more nuances become apparent.” An article in the BJP expands the notion:

“The people depicted in each collage are wearing very similar outfits, making the images initially look like a comment on the loss of individuality; on closer inspection, each person has put their own stamp on the clothes, hinting at the persistence of each personality in our increasingly homogenous societies.” (British Journal of Photography, 2017)

Street Fusion: Bristol in 2019 (2019):

This series, commissioned by the Martin Parr Foundation and exhibited in 2020, is described by Eijkelboom as “a continuation and departure” from ‘People of the Twenty-First Century’. The work was made in Bristol over a period of 11 days when Eijkelboom made images around different themes each day. In an interview, he describes the difference in his methodology between this and the earlier project:

“For the first time, my photos are not on display in isolated groups, but as part of a continuous stream of observations during walks in the centre of Bristol. The basis of the exhibition is the question: which is more important for forming our image of the world — the isolated moment or the continuous flow of more or less repeating images that come to us every day? The exhibition has two ambitions: To show a moment from the stream of images that form my world view, and provide a fleeting snapshot of society in Bristol.” (White, 2020)

Martin Parr makes this comment on Eijkelboom’s work:

“If I were an anthropologist, the first photographer I would call upon is Hans Eijkelboom … Over a long career, he has photographed mainly in the street, observing people and places with the discipline, rigour and engagement that has all the hallmarks of anthropology. In fact, if I were a visitor from another planet looking for information on the nature of city life, I would engage the services of Eijkelboom.” (Williams, 2020)

Links:

Bibliography:

Bakker, T. H. (2020) The ideal man. British Journal of Photography, issue 7892, February 2020.

British Journal of Photography (2017) Hans Eijkelboom gets a major retrospective in The Hague. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/09/hans-eijkelboom-retrospective/ (accessed 7th February 2020)

Feil, M. (2007) Paris-New York-Shanghai. FOAM. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/FOAM-ENG.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Gierstberg, F. (2006) Hans Eijkelboom. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Museum-Rotterdam-ENG.pdf (acessed 11th February 2020)

Godfrey, T. (2007) The work of Hans Eijkelboom. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Tony%20Godfrey.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Kessels, E. (2016) Failed it! London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Arles 2014: Hans Eijkelboom and the unbearable Dutchness of being. The Guardian, 11th July 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/11/arles-2014-hans-eijkelboom-dutch-group-show (accessed 11th February 2020)

Parr, M. (2007) Introduction in the book Paris – New York -Shanghai. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Martin-Parr.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Pellerin, A. (2014) Hans Eijkelboom on photography for aliens. AnOther. Available at: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/4045/hans-eijkelboom-on-photography-for-aliens (accessed 3rd February 2020)

Petridis, A. (2014) Same but different: Hans Eijkelboom’s tribal street photography. The Guardian, 23rd October 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/23/hans-eijkelboom-street-photography-tribes-people-twenty-first-century (accessed 11th February 2020)

Roelstraete, D. (2011) The mass ornament – revisited: reading from Hans Eijkelboom’s Photo Notes. Afterall. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Dieter%20Roelstraete(Afterall).pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Roelstraete, D. (2014) Hans Eijkelboom. Documenta 14. Available at: https://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/13568/hans-eijkelboom (accessed 11th February 2020)

White, R. (2020) The photographer proving we’re not so different after all. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/k7e83e/hans-eijkelboom-photographer-street-fusi-bristol-in-2019 (accessed 13th January 2020)

Williams, (2020) Hans Eijkelboom’s snapshot of Bristol. Creative Revoew. Available at: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/hans-eijkelboom-street-fusion/

#personsofinterest

Browsing Facebook I came across a post from my local police force asking the public for help in identifying a suspect. The details of what the individual was wanted in connection with were left tantalisingly ambiguous, with wrongdoing only being suggested as they were ‘a person of interest’ wanted in relation to an ‘incident’. The most immediately striking aspect of the post was that the image was of such a low resolution that I doubt even a close family member would be able to identify them which led me to consider what the intentions of the police were – was this a case of sloppy amateurism or something else?

A quick look through the comments on the post amused me as most responders made fun of how bad the image was. Pressing the hashtag #personsofinterest brought up a whole series of further posts in a similar vein and my mood began to change from amused to troubled – how ethical was it for the police to attempt to identify people this way? It seemed that each of the people featured were at best suspects that had not been charged with anything, potentially ‘outing’ them in this way could damage anyone identified significantly. Even if they were guilty of something, how could it be right that they are portrayed as such without some sort of due process? The quality of the images was so poor that incorrect identification could be a strong possibility – indeed, many comments alluded to this as friends were tagged in jest.

I am unsure if there is any potential use for these except for making me think about the nature of surveillance, law enforcement and all of the connected issues and ethics involved. It also made me consider how much we are unknowingly filmed and photographed each day and how this could potentially be used to control – it is not so much of a stretch to think that we are at a point in everyday surveillance that makes the controlling principles of the Panopticon a reality. These images are so poor that the intentions of the police in showing them have to be questioned – is it such a leap to believe that the aim is not to catch the people in them at all but to make a wider suggestion to the population that any illegal activity could lead to their image being shared on social media? Is this crime prevention by stealth that makes everyone consider the consequences of any potential actions before engaging in them? Or, is this simply a way for the police to demonstrate to law abiding citizens that they are engaged in bringing wrong doers to justice? Perhaps there is a more pragmatic reality that due to funding cuts the police need are using every tool at their disposable to detect criminals and this is a particularly easy way of achieving this.

#personsofinterest