This exercise asks that we read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘Panopticism’ and reflect on the relevance of his theory in regard to digital culture. Rereading the essay and reflecting on this question I was struck by two particular ideas that are relevant – that the metaphor that Panopticism as a system of surveillance and control relies on the citizen feeling that they have the potential to be constantly monitored by a controlling and invisible force (the prevalence and acceptance of CCTV would be a modern real world example) and, the concept that when citizens come to accept the inspecting gaze of constant surveillance they unconsciously begin to conform due to their participation in the ideology of their society:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself ; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 66)
While the idea of the Panopticon remains a fascinating metaphor for control and surveillance, I wonder how relevant it is to our twenty-first century reality. Take for example CCTV – a system of surveillance that seems both accepted and broadly unconventional today. I remember perhaps twenty years ago as systems of CCTV increased in use their placement led to a great deal of concern about how our privacy was at risk and the dangers of misuse. Today however, we broadly accept CCTV as a part of our lives without much consideration. This would appear to suggest that the purpose of these systems to provide a consequence to deviations from accepted behaviour has not had any affect. Or, does this mean that we have come to accept our almost constant monitoring in public areas as something benign and only a problem for anyone who may transgress? (The argument being that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.) Is behaviour and compliance unconsciously affected by the presence of a CCTV network that may or may not be constantly monitored or is this simply a false form of reassurance?
Mcmullan (2015) asks if the metaphor of the Panopticon is still relevant in the digital/internet age as surveillance and monitoring is not obvious in these systems: “state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no dead-eye lens staring at you every time you enter a URL.” Continuing, he argues that the key difference between the Panopticon and data surveillance is the physical sense of exposure in the face of authority:
“In the private space of my personal browsing I do not feel exposed – I do not feel that my body of data is under surveillance because I do not know where that body begins or ends. We live so much of our lives online, share so much data, but feel nowhere near as much attachment for our data as we do for our bodies. Without physical ownership and without an explicit sense of exposure I do not normalise my actions. If anything, the supposed anonymity of the internet means I do the opposite.” (McMullin, 2015)
The key difference between modern data surveillance and more conventional ideas about this is both the way we are unaware we are being watched and monitored and also complicit, albeit naively so. In ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, Shoshana Zuboff exposes the business model that underpins the digital world and aims to ultimately transform human behaviour:
“It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.
surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about is but not for us.” (Naughton, 2019)
For this exercise, we are asked to consider the ethical concerns associated with an article in the New York Post showing a photograph of a man moments before he was hit and killed by a subway train. Below, I have noted some of my thoughts:
It is the photographer who appears to face criticism for taking the image rather than the newspaper for publishing it. Questions are asked about why he did not intervene to help the man, but, no mention is made of the other subway travellers who failed to do anything.
There is a video of the lead up to the man ending up on the tracks which shows him and the man who eventually pushed him arguing. This is presented without comment – there is no mention of why the man who filmed the altercation, or indeed any other witnesses, did not intervene – something that could have stopped the event escalating.
I wonder if there is a significant difference in the way we interpret and digest still and moving images? The fact that the photograph freezes forever the few moments before the man is struck by the train makes it undeniably more powerful than the video footage of the men arguing. The question about what the photographer could have done to help, rather than take the image, literally confronts the viewer.
The photographer is described as a freelance, but this is clearly an example of citizen journalism by an amateur rather than a professional photojournalist. The photographer was able to take the image because he happened to be in the subway when the events unfolded and he had his camera phone. Would the criticism be more or less if the photographer was a professional?
It is astonishing that there appears to be no criticism levelled at the New York Post for publishing the photograph. It is this alone that sensationalises the events and surely the story could have been reported just as accurately without the photograph. It is arguable however that it is the image that makes the story newsworthy enough to appear on the front page.
In his blog post “Why?”, Jose Navarro uses the term “voyeuristic complicity” in reference to the BBC’s decision to show smartphone footage of a cinema shooting in Canada in 2012. To feel complicit is a difficult emotion to process so it is perhaps understandable that critics of the photographer of the subway image choose to deflect this by placing blame onto the image maker rather than themselves – despite the fact they have viewed the image. There is a certain amount of taking the moral high ground involved in considerations about how they would have behaved differently in the circumstances.
For this exercise, we are asked to consider an image we believe to be ‘controversial’ or to transgress social barriers. I could have chosen many images for this project, most of which could be considered controversial because they are graphic and disturbing, however, I have chosen a photograph showing the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, by Melvut Mert Alintas in 2016 because of the interesting questions about visual representation and our reading of reality that it raises.
I remember distinctly at the time that this event occurred and this image was all over the new and social media, the overriding comment was that it did not seem real or that it was like a still from a film. This comparison is discussed by Grant Scott (2016) who likens the image as being part ‘Reservoir Dogs’ – the suit, the stance, and, part ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ – the attitude, the anger, the cry to the media. Despite being an image of an extreme act of violence, Scott notes that the cold reality of the situation, and the narrative unfolding, is like “a movie still appropriate for mass media consumption.” Although it is clear what is happening, it is the space within the image that allows us to write our own narrative that makes it so shocking. Scott makes the summary that the image tells a story in “hyper digital clarity creating a cinematic news image for our times. The narrative is clear, shocking and deeply affecting in its emotional coldness.” The reference to digital is significant in reference to the way the image was initially disseminated via Twitter and Facebook. It is not unusual for news images to be shown quickly in this way, however, this is not the shaky and badly composed iPhone imagery that has become the language of eye witness photography – the obvious professionalism of the photograph is what makes it so disconcerting and causes us to question whether what we are viewing is real or staged.
The aesthetics of the image and the effect this has on the viewer is expanded upon in article by Jerry Saltz. The violence and bloodletting present in the photograph are in contrast to the upscale, art gallery setting with everyone dressed elegantly in black – something that makes them both surreal and painfully beautiful. He continues his analyis:
“What makes the pictures so different from all of the other pictures of death we see? The poses are almost classical, frozen, or rehearsed as if from theater, ballet, painting, or mannequin display. The photographer, working the art opening for the Associated Press, deserves all of the enormous credit he’s received for responding as fluidily as a war photographer to the sudden outbreak of violence. But if I told you the images were fake, or staged, you might believe me. As Kurt Andersen put it on Twitter, ‘the great photojournalism of 2016 is continuing to resemble still from a scary, not-entirley-realistic movie’ – and that strange familiarity we feel looking at the images is one reason they are so uncomfortable to contemplate. Everything in the images is emotion articulated, caught, performed, and real. All this triggers an unreal internal visual dance. It’s a new surrealism of modern life, made all the more harrowing because it could not be more truly real.” (Katz, 2016)
This tension between reality, what we believe and how it is displayed through photographs is fascinating, and I agreee entirely with Katz’s belief that that if he said the images were faked or staged we might believe him.
John Macpherson (2016) points to a number of details in the image that both make it powerful and add subtle layers of meaning. Firstly, the trigger of the gun and the way that the assassin’s finger is held away from it – something that professional users of guns are trained to do and an indication of the skills possessed by the gunman. Secondly, a detail that helps us identify with the victim in a human way – the worn sole of his shoe, only visible because he is sprawled dying on the floor, signifies a common humanity and ordinariness amongst the extraordinary scene that the viewer can identify with.
In 2017, the photographer Burhan Özbilici was awarded World Press Photo of the Year for the image. In an article for The Guardian, chair of the judging panel for that award Stuart Franklin explains that despite recognising the impact of the image he voted against it winning the top prize as he feared it would amplify the message of the terrorists:
“It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading…Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.” (Franklin, 2017)
While I agree with Franklin’s concerns, and I definitely feel troubled with giving the image a prestigious award, I am not sure there is an alternative but to show the picture. The risk that the message of the terrorist could be amplified by showing the picture is a real concern – but who should we trust to make these judgements about what should and should not be published? That said, without the power of this image, would the story have been as widely publicised and reported upon? It is widely considered that the photographic essay rather than the single image is the best way to show the reality of an event, and yet, in this age of instant news and social media, it is the single image that is increasingly important.
For this exercise we are asked to read the essay by Fred Ritchin entitled ‘Toward a Hyperphotography’ (from his 2008 book ‘After Photography’) and look for visual examples of “cubist” photographs. Ritchin defines images that have a contradictory “double image” as cubist – they show that reality has no single truth. (Ritchin, 2008: 147) The example Ritchin uses for this is two images taken from opposite angles of the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994. The first shows soldiers laying on the ground in front of a helicopter, their guns raised to their eyes resting on their back packs. The image suggests that the soldiers are ready for engagement – the second image shows a number of photographers in front of the soldiers capturing the scene and causes us to question the validity of the first picture, as Ritchin observes, it is only the photographers who are doing any shooting. I would agree with Ritchin that by viewing the second image, the viewer questions what they are seeing, but, the scene seems less remarkable to me – all it shows is the reality of how news is constructed.
A much more shocking example of “unmasking photo opportunities, cubistically” are these images, again from Haiti, of a dead teenage girl Fabienne Cherisma, shot by police for looting in January 2010 in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake a few days before.
Similarly to the example given by Ritchin, the bottom image lays bear the reality of photojournalism but makes the viewer uncomfortable – personally, I feel complicit in the violence of the scene that allows Fabienne Cherisma to be violated for a second time by the scrum of photographers looking for the most aesthetically appealing angle to create the most powerful image. Peter Brook, on his blog ‘Prison Photography’, makes the argument that if an image such as this fuels public awareness, and therefore aid to help the immediate future of Haiti, then perhaps this positive effect can negate accusations of media exploitation. Unable to explain this phenomena, he makes this interesting observation:
“I wouldn’t call this the magic or power of photography, I’d call it the mysterious perversion of photography…the history of photojournalism is replete with globally-recognised subjects whose visage was appropriated without their knowledge and/or consent. There’s no model release form in war and disaster.” (Brook, 2010)
In his essay Ritchin makes some historically interesting observations about the nature of photojournalism, the problems attached to it and the possible future. Now over 10 years old, these ideas are interesting in an historic sense as the way news is disseminated in 2020, and particularly the impact of social media has transformed this, has changed significantly. At first Ritchin’s assertion that images can be contradictory (a cubist “double image”) and that reality has no single truth seems perfectly obvious and an accepted point of view to me. His solution that a “multiperspectival strategy would help devalue spin” is a noble idea but seems naive today. Rather than allowing multiple viewpoints to be shown of a single event and therefore allowing the viewer to disseminate this information and reach their personal understanding, modern digital media seems to promote a more polarised and definite reading of events. The loss of nuance and subtlety can perhaps be partly explained by the sheer amount of news that is available – something that is overwhelming – it is difficult to know what to trust, what to believe, or even, what is important. Faced with this it seems obvious that events are simplified – otherwise the reader would not have the time to digest everything. The transition from old to new media is complex and still in the early stages of evolution, I would like to believe that the eventual outcome could be a positive one, as Ritchin does, but the more I see complex information simplified and distorted with opinions presented as facts the less confident I become.
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.
For this exercise we are asked to consider an artist who uses archive material in their practice. The exhibition ‘Archive Fever’ and the UK organisation ‘Grain’ are cited as references to use for inspiration. from these sources there were many artists that I could have researched further, however, I chose to investigate the work of Thomas Ruff as he is an artist I have been interested in for some time and I wanted to take the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of his practice. My notes can be found here.
I am attracted to Ruff’s work because it is fundamentally concerned with the nature of photography – his images contain multiple meanings and there is an inherent ambiguity that appeals to me. Although his projects are seemingly disparate, he has managed to somehow build a coherent body of work that returns and reinforces his central concerns and interests. Despite the conceptual underpinning and serious ideas at play in Ruff’s work, I do not find it academic, cold and overly serious. The work often stems from a simple idea and experimentation and for me, the sense of inquiry and Ruff’s curiosity are some of the aspects of his practice that are most appealing. In a couple of short videos I found (see here and here), Ruff comes across as someone who is driven to use his practice to explore ideas and ask questions about the world. When we look at the work of an artist, particularly someone with an extensive catalogue like Ruff, it is easy to be daunted by what they have made and arrive at the notion that ideas and strategies come easily to them. It is reassuring to learn that this is far from reality and that even someone like Ruff starts a series with little idea about where it will go or if it will be successful.
Working towards assignment 2, I was most taken by Ruff’s use of appropriated imagery, particularly from the internet. The series’ ‘Nudes’ and ‘jpeg’ push the limits of the digital image provocatively and force the viewer to question photographic representation. The most powerful and consistent theme present in all of Ruff’s work is the notion that how we read an image is fundamentally changed by the context and format it is presented. Ruff’s signature presentational style is to print his work at enormous sizes – the very fact that he does this with images that were never intended to take a physical form, let alone be shown in an art gallery, forces the viewer to question the validity of what they are seeing. Images of pornography that are the antithesis of what we would normally consider worthy of serious contemplation have a strong aesthetic reminiscent of impressionism. The titling of the series ‘Nudes’ is a simple, yet provocative, challenge to the presentation of the body throughout art history. The low resolution images that are the basis for ‘jpeg’ are pushed to near abstraction due to their enlargement well above the size they were intended to be shown – the pixels take on the appearance of a mosaic. Ruff’s most successful strategy through all of his work is the removal of context that forces the viewer to contemplate what they are seeing – the seemingly banal can become sinister, the academic aesthetically beautiful, and the ephemeral elevated to the status of art.
This exercise asks us to bring together a typology of 12 images, either appropriated from the internet or from our own archive, and present them an appropriate way, such as grid form, single images or as a slideshow.
Typically, I have gone a little over this by selecting 224 screenshots of various pieces of ‘wisdom’ that have appeared on my Facebook feed over the period of a couple of days. These vary from pseudo psychology to irreverent, incorporating the profane and the banal. The sharing of these memes and quotes is something that I normally pay little attention to as I scroll through my social media feeds, when I started taking screen shots however, they became something of an obsession. I have been surprised by how much I have been influenced by the work of Joachim Schmid, and perhaps just as importantly, his philosophy as an artist. Putting a large amount of images together in some way seems to increase their power.
For presentation I have experimented with both a grid format (created in Photoshop using the contact sheet action) and a slideshow (created in Lightroom). The effect I am going for is for the amount of images shown to be both overwhelming an difficult to read – something that for me represents the superficial way this type of visual data washes over us. The slideshow has a deliberately short transition of 1 second between each slide – for some of the images this is not enough time to even read the text, and even when it can be read, the transition to next one is so quick that it is impossible to fully take anything in.
For this assignment we are asked to produce a series of between four and six composite images – either portraits or landscapes based on our immediate surroundings. I was immediately drawn to the idea making work based in my local area as this is something I have explored in the past and is a continuing interest of mine. The notion that we should focus on what we know and what is familiar is one I believe in strongly – an authentic voice is something I value greatly when looking at the work of other artists, and also something that is impossible to fake. I suspect that some sort of exploration of my local area will form part of my level three work and this is something I intended to explore and develop in the meantime with the hope that I will arrive at level three with a strong idea about the direction I want to take.
The second part of the assignment brief is significant, but also quite prescriptive. We are required to produce work in two different ways – firstly, using traditional cut and paste techniques and the secondly, using digital software. Immediately I knew that the first part of this would be the most challenging for me and realised I would need to spend some time considering this and experimenting. Using two completely different techniques also raised concerns about how the assignment could be brought together as a cohesive whole – I did not want to make two separate pieces of work but knew I would need to find a strategy that brought the separate aspects together somehow.
Research and context:
It is a frustration to me that it has taken so long to get to this point in the course. Reflecting on this I considered how much time I put into research as this is where the bulk of my time has gone and whether I should reduce or cut this out completely. I am concerned that this aspect of my study has become my comfort zone and a diversionary tactic from getting on with producing work. This is certainly something that has been a significant issue in the past, and although it is still part of the problem I feel this is something of a chicken and egg dilemma. The research into artists I have conducted during part one is perhaps the most important aspect for me and has led me to feel quite assured reaching this assignment. I have been able to streamline my workflow as I have progressed and am now more disciplined in knowing when to stop, the most important realisation I have reached however, is that this is an essential part of how I make work and something I am now comfortable with rather than worrying about the time spent on this. The difficulty is that it is often not clear what will become useful or will fire the imagination at a later date – the initial reaction to the work of an artist can often be lukewarm only to change over time, allowing reflection is an important part of this I believe.
Two artists proved to be particularly significant for this assignment – Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch. Interestingly, I became aware of both of these through the recommendations of fellow OCA students. Although I arrived at my initial approach through independent experimentation, finding that these two artists had used similar techniques to me was inspirational rather than a negative. Previously I would probably have discarded my ideas – not doing this shows a growing confidence in my work and willingness to see where experimentation takes me.
One of my aims for this course was to experiment more and also publish this work on my blog. I am pleased to have started this during part one, although I think there is much more I can do in this regard. The approach has also proved to be a success given that my assignment has evolved from an early experiment I conducted without any preconceptions. (See street scene composites.) For the assignment, I decided to recreate this approach by setting my camera to take images at intervals from a set place over a period of one hour. These source images would then form the basis of the project – an important aspect of which was that I would attempt to make the final work from whatever the result. As the images were made without any intervention from me the element of risk was high, it could be argued however, that if I did not manage to find enough of these images that worked I would have abandoned the project and tried something else. The fact that there was so much of interest for me could be interpreted two ways – it either demonstrates how important chance is in this kind of photography or it could indicate that I was so driven to by the technical confines that I placed on myself for the exercise that I saw qualities in the images that I would ordinarily discount.
This was always going to be the ‘easiest’ part of the assignment for me in the sense that working digitally is my comfort zone. Despite this, the process was quite painstaking. Similarly to the approach I had taken in street scene composites, I began by creating a scene that contained no people. During this part of the process I realised how changeable the lighting conditions were over the hour period I took the images – something that immediately struck me could cause a problem. I made two ’empty’ composites, the first with cloud cover leaving the scene dark and the second under brighter conditions:
Using the cloudy ’empty’ composite as my background I then began to add people into the scene. The difficulty with this was that it was not always apparent which aspects would work together – I began by choosing people that attracted me somehow only to quickly become frustrated when these would overlap and mean that I would have to make a choice. This led me to begin again and work in a more methodical fashion by considering, and making selections from, each image in turn – a particularly long but ultimately necessary process. By the time I had finished I had created a photoshop file with 1182 individual layers – quite daunting! I put these into groups that referred to different areas of the frame before beginning to narrow my selection using colour coding to denote my preferences.
In my initial experiments I produced diptychs showing each scene both empty or as full of people as possible. Looking at the unedited images I had made for this project, I was struck by how the majority of people were either walking toward or away from the camera and arrived at the idea of making two composites showing this to go with the empty image. As I began blending each individual layer to match the background, I was struck by how the changeable lighting conditions made the way people looked in the scene quite different. Although this drew attention to the artificial nature of the composites, I found this to be an unexpected benefit rather than something to be concerned about – somehow by foregrounding artifice the scenes became heightened and uncomfortable to view. Researching artists as part of this section I was surprised that the work I was most attracted to was that which actively drew attention to the physical nature of the pieces, for example Hannah Höch and Daniel Gordon. It seemed somehow appropriate that my pieces intentionally showed this too, albeit in a more subtle form. Here are some examples of the initial experiments I made:
As I reached the end of this part of the process of experimentation for the digital aspect of the assignment, I began to consider the physical techniques I might use to make composites. With this in mind I went back to the original composites and removed the layer masks to draw attention to the process. The effect is interesting, especially given the way the different tones are accentuated, but my feeling was that this would mean too much overlap between the physical and digital parts of the assignment:
Cut and Paste approach:
Working physically is not something I am used to so I knew this would be the most challenging part of the assignment. Despite this, I had enjoyed experimenting with cut and paste techniques through this section – even if the results of this were not fantastic! I was keen to push myself to try and make something quite elaborate for this section – the indication in the course material about rephotographing these works struck a particular resonance with me and I wondered if I could create something that used photographic techniques to make the final piece in the way that an artist like Daniel Gordon does with his work that is made in three dimensions before finally being outputted as a two dimensional photographic image rather than a sculpture. I had previously experimented with ‘slicing’ the images and bringing each of these together in the final composite (see street scene composites – further experiments) and wondered if it would be possible to create something similar but then arrange them in a way that played with perspective. I selected sections of each image and then had prints made, I then cut these out and stuck a piece of card to the bottom before placing each one in a plastic holder so it would stand vertically. I then arranged these and photographed the results:
I could immediately tell that to make this approach work would require much more work – to arrive at the type of image I was imagining would require printing each ‘strip’ at different sizes, and even then there was no guarantee that I would be able to make them work.
My second idea was to cut sections of the scene out and place onto acetate. I would then photograph these in front of each other to try and give the effect of different layers being separated from the background. Again, I was immediately struck with technical issues as the weight of the sections of prints caused the acetate to bend and not stand up straight, however, placing the acetates over the background image did give an interesting 3D effect:
I also tried removing the background image to leave the selected sections ‘floating’:
I was surprised how well the impression that the images have been physically (rather than digitally) manipulated came across in these – although I knew that this idea of working with acetate would not be a direction I wanted to pursue. I went back to the strips I had picked out earlier and arranged them on a flat surface. The overlap of each strip made a clearly defined but subtle transition between each image:
Although I had originally discounted the idea of arranging strips vertically, probably because I was worried the execution was too simple, there seemed to be something here I could pursue. Because I had chosen random strips of irregular size there was an element of repetition in my selection that was interesting but did not feel like it was working successfully. I decided to go back to the original source images and divide the scene into 10 equal ‘strips’ in Photoshop. I then went through each strip in turn and selected the ones where something interesting was happening before copying and pasting these into another file. I realised that these could follow the same ‘rules’ as the digital composites with two images featuring people and the other one being completely empty. I then brought these together as a digital composite:
At this point I showed the work in progress to my peers in one of our regular Digital Image and Culture hangout sessions. I was encouraged by the positive feedback – particularly about the second set of images that I had been worrying so much about. There was a feeling that it was evident that I had spent a great deal of time selecting each aspect of the image, and interestingly, that although it was evident that these people were brought together from different photographs, there was still a sense of them all being in the same place that was effective. One of the issues with this set is that because I had chosen to have most of the strips filled with a single person or couple, the foreground was empty. It was suggested I could crop the images but this did not seem appropriate to me as an important aspect of the series is that I have used the whole scene as it is to create the composites.
Fellow student Nuala Mahon commented that the ‘strips’ technique reminded her of the work of Serge Mendjisky – an artist that I was not aware of but enjoyed reading more about. The sharing of knowledge with fellow students in our hangout sessions is something that is invaluably useful and worthwhile. (See post on Serge Mendjisky here.)
The next, and final, part of the process was for me to order prints to create the final, physical, composite images. As I liked the way the edges showed in the earlier experiments I had made due to the images overlapping, I decided to have strips that were double the width that I required to accentuate this. After bringing the pieces together, all that was left was to rephotograph the results. Something I will have to consider for assessment is how I will present these images – the brief asks that the physical work is rephotographed, however, the tactile nature of the work would be lost by doing this so I wonder if sending the original would be more appropriate?
The brief for this exercise asks us to make collages using readily available images – something quite daunting as making physical work is completely outside of my comfort zone. Anyway, I tried to embrace this and bought all of the requisite tools – scalpel set, cutting board, glue, card to stick everything down on. I then bought a selection of newspapers (broadsheets and red tops) from which to take the raw materials for the exercise. Two news stories were widely reported – the birth of the new new royal baby Prince Archie, this story also had the controversy surrounding Danny Baker and a Twitter comment he had made that had been deemed racist. The other story widely reported was the ongoing Brexit deadlock. So I began cutting and pasting and quickly found the process both enjoyable and relaxing.
At the time of writing this post there is about 3 months elapsed since I started making these collages…perhaps a note on this would be appropriate. Three things have impacted me – firstly, I needed to complete my assessment submission for my last course documentary – something that took much longer and was much more difficult than I anticipated. In hindsight it has been a mistake for me to start digital image and culture without first finishing documentary completely. The other problem I faced with this was that I was quite unhappy with the submission I sent to the assessors and this had a negative effect on my confidence and motivation. Secondly, I have had a very busy time both at work and with family commitments meaning I have had little spare time. And lastly, we have been getting some major building work done in the house which has both taken longer than expected and been much more of an impact than I had anticipated. Thankfully all of this is now complete and I am trying to get back to grips with the course. I am feeling much more philosophical about my documentary submission – I passed the assessment and realise that at this stage this is all that matters in continuing with the degree programme. I do need to find a way I can move through the course quicker however as time is very much against me with this course.
After my hiatus I came back to my half finished collages and had to face up to the fact that part of the reason I had stopped making these half way was that although I was enjoying the process the results were far from anything I was happy to show. However, I resisted the urge to either throw them in the bin or not share them here as I realised it is important to show these as part of the learning and developing exercise that they are…even if this does take me out of my comfort zone.
In making the collages I was influenced by the early Dada pieces of Hannah Höch, John Heartfield and George Grosz such as ‘Cut with the kitchen knife through the belly of the Weimar Republic’ and ‘Life and times in the universal city at 12.05 noon’. The non linear nature of these, particularly the way attention is drawn to the cut and paste nature of the works, is what attracted me – perhaps I was also subconsciously hedging my bets that I could argue anything that looked homemade and rough in my own work was a result of a deliberate strategy on my part! Things I quickly learned from making these collages – using a scalpel is harder than you think, newspaper is not the easiest to cut, it is best to plan what you are doing rather than just sticking everything down, and, glue gets everywhere!
For the first collage about the Royal baby I found two images of Harry and Meghan that I managed to cut out successfully and decided to use at each corner of my A3 piece of card. Unfortunately, these were the first things I stuck in place without really thinking about it which severely limited what I could do compositionally! Also, I ran out of material to be able to add to the collage. I have started to add text which seems to work, but, there is not a enough of this. The ‘finished’ collage would benefit from more pictures and better planning, or being started again from scratch! Anyway..here it is:
For the second piece around the theme of Brexit, I started by creating a background of text made up of random paragraphs cut from the various newspapers. Next, I cut out any politicians associated with Brexit and any headlines or keywords that could be used. Something that struck me about my first attempt was how using pictures cut in a rectangular shape only worked if the edge was completely straight, something I did not achieve with very many. I had bought a compass scalpel so decided to crop all of the pictures out using this – something that contrasted well with the straight edges of the background and the headlines. To bring everything together, I placed everything randomly and then played around with where each image sat before sticking them in place. Again, this is far from something I am pleased with, but as an experimental exercise I have learned a great deal. Putting so many images together in this way can only result in something that is chaotic – something that I was initially interested in achieving but certainly lacks refinement and focus. Despite that, having a more planned approach here has made for a better final result:
Before moving on from this exercise, I decided to have another go using multiples of the same image. I secured half a dozen copies of local listings magazine ‘The Crack’ to use as my source material. I was immediately struck by the cover which featured a black and white portrait of the actor Albert Finney from the 60s looking rather cool and moody. This picture was reprinted on the contents page which gave me 2 sets of 6 identical pictures to use. Below are some rough assemblies of possible ways they could be brought together – I was researching the work of John Stezaker as I made this and his influence is evident:
Although these are just rough experiments where I have been playing around, they were quite enjoyable to make – I may even been improving in my scalpel skills! Looking at these next to the work of Stezaker shows how the simplicity of his approach makes his pieces much stronger. In terms of how this informs the physical requirements of the first part of assignment 1 I am not sure – my instinct is now towards a simple technique, perhaps involving straight cuts through the pictures. Also, I keep thinking about the way Daniel Gordon creates three dimensional work, that could almost be classed as sculpture, before rephotographing the completed compositions. I am wondering if there is a way I can use elements of this, although at this point I have no idea what this would look like.
This exercise asks that we first reflect upon a photograph that uses an existing work of art as its staring point before producing a photograph that does the same. As I began researching I was surprised by the amount of artists who use this approach as a strategy for their work. Some of this I found inspiring, but most left me cold, wondering if this was merely an exercise in aesthetics by the photographer or a demonstration of their own knowledge with the aim of impressing the critic. I also felt uninspired to produce anything myself – what would be the point of making something that is just a pastiche?
As I considered why I felt this way I began to think about the aspects of the work that I admired and what attracted me to them. I also needed to reflect on the possibility that something was preventing me from even trying this exercise – the idea that ‘everything has been done before’ is a potentially paralysing one that I am trying to avoid, and yet I seemed to be caught this trap. By coincidence I came across an essay by Gerry Badger (‘Photography and Photoshop’ in The Pleasure of Good Photographs) that chimed with my concerns about some of the work I was encountering and articulated this in a way I was struggling to. Badger argues that there is far too much work that revolves around art historical references (art about art) and that this approach is often used as a crutch – his reaction to a restaged Vermeer or Hopper is ‘so what?’ Despite this he uses the examples of Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman as artists who use this approach successfully because “their art is talking more about the world than art…and is creating a persuasive and viable world of its own…there is a quality of both imagination and seeing.” (Badger, 2010: 241) These comments suddenly helped me make sense of my struggle to make work of my own for this exercise and rather than feeling constrained I felt liberated to choose not to do this – perhaps I will come back to this exercise at some point later in the course, at this point however, continuing to progress rather than become hung up on completing every aspect of the course seems the most pragmatic way forward.
Also see my post on Jeff Wall which includes some further thoughts on ‘Picture for Women’.
Jeff Wall is an artist I have admired for some time, I am inspired by his meticulous working methods and the way he packs each work with meaning and references that reward close analysis and consideration. Wall studied art history before becoming a photographer which explains the influence this has on his practice. I would argue however that his images can be read without any prior knowledge of the works that inspired them, although arguably prior information could enrich the experience. Many of his works would be difficult to place as being directly inspired without the contextualisation that Wall provides for the work.
The photograph I am drawn to consider here is ‘Picture for Women’ (1979) which Burnett (2005: 13) describes as a “remake” of ‘A Bar at the Foilies-Bergèes’ (1881-2) by Edouard Manet. It is perhaps my prior knowledge of ‘A Bar at the Foilies-Berèes’ (I considered the painting in relation to the notion of photographic realism as part of UVC here) that attracts me to the work – although I stand by my assertion above that prior knowledge of the artworks Wall references is not necessary to appreciate his photographs, being able to recognise how he references Manet here undoubtably enriches my experience. Both pictures deal with themes that are of interest to me, particularly the representation of reality, power relationships in imagery and notions of the male gaze. In his photograph, Wall produces a work that is both response, reference and updating of Manet’s painting. Most importantly, the ambiguity that is central to Manet’s work is front and centre in Wall’s photograph. The similarities and differences in each work are significant – both show a female figure returning the viewers gaze with a mirror used as a device to show more than would otherwise be possible in a ‘straight’ view and draw attention to the artificiality of the picture making process itself. Each show a man, the artist, regarding the woman, the model. Both pictures are voyeuristic – it is unclear if the woman is unaware or unconcerned about being viewed but the power relationships present seem to suggest that this is something she must accept. Both artists draw attention to the artificiality of the picture making process while using conventions of realistic representation – Manet through his limited depth of field effect in his depiction of the patrons of the bar shown in the reflection, something that is potentially inspired by emerging photographic conventions at the time he made the painting. Wall places a camera front and centre, significantly placing the woman on the left of the composition. Although her pose and gaze reference the bar maid in Manet’s painting, the implication is that the camera is now the subject of the photograph – something which draws attention to the picture making process itself. Despite initially seeming like a captured documentary moment, it is quickly apparent that Wall’s photograph is carefully constructed and therefore artificial. It is not even certain whether are looking at a reflected image captured by the camera in the photograph or something that is designed to have the appearance of this.
With ‘Picture for Women’ Wall successfully references ‘A Bar at the Foilies-Berèes’ without copying – both works are on the surface deceptively simple and reward reflection and consideration. The ambiguity in both pieces are elements that appeal to me. Ultimately, it is the fact that ‘Picture for Women’ can be read solely on its own terms that drove me to consider it for this exercise – Manet’s painting is a stepping off point for Wall but ‘Picture for Women’ is not a simple act of copying or pastiche, nor is it a self conscious and knowing attempt to show off his knowledge of art history – the main success is that Wall shows that photographs can be as complex, multilayered and full of narrative potential in a single frame – exactly the same way that a painting can be.
Badger, G. (2010) The pleasure of good photographs. New York: Aperture
Burnett, C. (2005)Jeff Wall.London: Tate Publishing.