Exercise 1.2

Notes on artists cited in this section of the course notes:

Jeff Wall

Sam Taylor-Johnson

Daniel Gordon

Hisaji Hara


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 Badger argues that there is far too much work that revolves around art historical references (art about art) and that this approach is often used as a crutch – his reaction to a restaged Vermeer or Hopper is ‘so what?’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.

Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (1979):

Jeff Wall - Picture for Women (1979)

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.

Bibliography:

Badger, G. (2010) The pleasure of good photographs. New York: Aperture

Burnett, C. (2005) Jeff Wall. London: Tate Publishing.