Thursday, July 29, 2010

the portrait : view from across the channel

Henri Cartier-Bresson has commented that the portrait is one of the most difficult kinds of photograph to make and recounts that when he photographed the American poet Ezra Pound, they sat and looked at each other for an hour and a half saying nothing during which time Cartier-Bresson made only 4 photographs, of which only one photograph was worthwhile.

Roland Barthes in "Camera Lucida" writes quite extensively about the portrait and I find his views worth considering if only because they collude with my own experiences.  He describes the photographic portrait as an “imaginary analogy” that is “full of extravagance” (I would prefer the word “exuberance” and perhaps this might be a more sympathetic translation of the author’s original intent!?).

He talks about the basic “lineaments of truth” within the photograph that in a portrait may refer “to the subject’s identity, an absurd purely legal, even penal affair; likeness gives out identity “as itself” whereas I want a subject – in Mallarme’s terms – “as into itself eternity transforms it.” Likeness leaves Barthes “unsatisfied and somehow skeptical”.

He is looking for something “more insidious, more penetrating than likeness” and writes that “the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.”

He goes on to say that “The Photograph is like old age: even in its splendor, it disincarnates the face, manifests its genetic essence.” Hence, “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well”.

In photographic portraiture, I find myself trying to represent the face behind the mask; this may sound like a rather vague concept and the fact that it is not easy to define, Barthes’ refers to it as “beyond simple resemblance”, emphasizes the obstacle the photographer faces.

One needs not just likeness but an air; not just evidence but an exclamation!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A reappraisal of Camera Lucida by R.Barthes; speaker Prof. Elton

One of the most beautiful books I have read and one that like no other explores the essence of photography, is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, a collection of short essays that probe the medium. I wondered what might lead someone to reappraise the book although it does show its' age a little, having been written before the age of digital photography. However, the few references to the chemistry of the medium, seemed unlikely to be a good enough reason to question Barthes in any real way although this might lead one to question Barthes' relationship with the photograph as evidence.

It was surprising to see on the lecture screen at the Photographer's Gallery where the talk was held that this lecture was actually to be "against" Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida as an entrenched attitude was not reflected in information about the talk. I did not like this apparent affront to one of my favourite books if only because the audience had not been warned in advance of the speaker's actual stance. Professor Elkins said that he had received a lot of diverse responses to his book, Photography Theory (the book is recommended by the OCA), and that he now feels unhappy about it…

Might his new book on Camera Lucida, awaiting publication once rights issues have been sorted out, be of similar ilk!?

There are concepts in Camera Lucida that need questioning. It is 30 years since the book was written and yet much photographic theory today still derives from this one work which is regarded as an authority and seldom questioned.  Camera Lucida is mined for its' theories and also as a kind of writing, ecriture. Some books do question Barthes such as Michael Fried’s book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, in which he discusses the punctum while Derrida says that Barthes' manner of writing undermines the theoretical claims of the book. Rosalind Krauss says that Camera Lucida is the moment when such “method” writing was, in a wider sense, recognized. Carol Mauver’s response to Camera Lucida is to suggest that objective writing on photography is next to impossible yet it is rather Barthes’ refusal to accept issues such as sex and racism that is at fault. Much new writing on photography does not explore the origins of Camera Lucida.

I feel I must insert the view by OCA photography course author, Michael Freeman, that Barthes is a philosopher; I feel such an observation helps to make this discussion more realistic.

In his introduction to Photography Degree Zero, a collection of essays on the book by different scholars …

Geoffrey Batchen questions the way Camera Lucida is written yet still recognizes it as a valid history or theory of photography.

Professor Elkins considers Camera Lucida to possess a kind of tiring sentimentality such as in the photograph of the young boy with a dog. There is an easy exoticism such as in the photograph of the sailors, one of whom has crossed his arms which for Barthes is the punctum, a crucial point in his understanding of the image. Barthes is oblivious to his own racism and sexism as in the photograph of the Negro family who interest him because of their conformity and clothes with straps. Barthes has an inability to see anything more than people, memory, love and loss. For Barthes, photography is about the vernacular such as the street photograph, the portrait and journalism; he can’t respond to photographs that are not of people such as Edgerton’s Milkdrop or the image of a bullet passing through a banana. Edgerton’s photographs of balloons exploding that the U.S. Government denied ever happening, rapatronic photographs, are all denied by Barthes because they are not phenomenological; the body does not experience them. Barthes ignores the surfaces of photographs, the little tell tale marks such as evidence of sponging.

Professor Elkins expounded a little more on what photography might be about. It shows us not just objects but the space around those objects, shows us things without a story, shows us things that are otherwise hard to pay attention to and shows us pain more intensely than any other medium.

Camera Lucida is nostalgic with a not-knowing approach (I actually appreciate this approach for its’ Zenlike lack of arrogoance) and compulsion to see the “surround”.

Elkins mentions re-photography, the act of rephotographing places from where photographs have been made before, as seen in the work of Mark Klett who has rephotographed in the mid-west in the steps of nineteenth century photographers …

There is also the photography of living but not human things such as amoeba, made possible though microphotography. Photographs of acoustic scans might also be considered.

One example of pain in photography is in the images of Chinese linghi, a form of torture. Bourgon has objected to the making of such images into aesthetic objects suggesting such objects should only be used for legal, historical or forensic purposes. Hence, photographs of Jews being lead into the concentration camp gas chambers should not be reproduced as such images are hard to look at even years after the events they picture.

In replying to questions, Elkins reiterated Barthes’ racism, in his not offering any apology for the suffering of black people, that he was not in the right frame of mind to write about photography as he was still mourning for his mother and that his beautiful writing rather obscures the weakness of his theories.

I wondered what to make of Professor’s Elkins talk since I found myself interested in his arguments but questioning them in various ways. The following comment about one of his books from the Amazon website struck a chord …

“it's indicative of a type of "high altitude" thinking that's so busy trying to demonstrate it's own all-inclusive authority that it can't be bothered to really attend to the finer grain of other people's concerns or arguments or to do the necessary homework required to "dig down" into what is actually at stake.”

The subject of Professor Elkin’s talk was interesting to someone who has read Camera Lucida yet someone who also finds inspiration in its’ manner of delivery and likes it for not being authoritative or conclusive. Barthes does actually ask the question as to what photography really is about and comes up with answers that are at the heart of the debate rather than the web of theories that nowadays surround it.

If Camera Lucida is dated, it is perhaps in the way that Barthes puts emphasis on the facticity of the photograph; photography in the digital age has become even more unreliable as fact than before.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Having my photograph taken in a public space by a stranger re R.Barthes

Recently, while outside the Serpentine Gallery in London, someone smiled at me and took my photograph; he was completely unknown to me. I wondered what had made him want to take my photograph and felt a moment of pride that he wanted to do so which was quickly followed by a twinge of fear before the matter was consigned to the past as an event that happened.

I chose however, to consider the moment that had passed and my reactions, wondering if they related to my own feelings when photographing strangers; usually, I do not make my self known to the subject because usually they are not the subject of the image rather they help to make a scene.

Roland Barthes writes about the experience of being photographed in Camera Lucida, section 4.

Friday, July 2, 2010

two photographs by Rineke Dijkstra

The photograph above by Rineke Dijkstrseems reminiscent of a painted Christ on the cross rather than the teenager the subject obviously is; presumably, this is part of the interest generated by the photo and one wonders how much the photographer directed the subject, if at all.

Was the photographer trying to make a point here? Perhaps the similarity to a painted Christ crucified is coincidental but it seems likely that the photographer had a concept in mind. The vulnerability and awkwardness of youth perhaps.

Looking at another but similar photo by the same photographer ...

... one sees a different kind of image. There is no Christ being crucified here yet possibly a Venus for the pose is similar to Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

A sense of meaning apparently perceived by the photographer is not something I have tried to accomplish directly in assignment 1. My portfolio of Katy was concerned with showing what kind of girl she is. I did not at the time see any greater meanings though the photo of her with daffodils in the background did suggest further meanings while any of the images of Katy might be seen to have greater significance.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

6. EXPOSED@The Tate Modern review of visit by Gareth Dent

Saturday morning saw me at the Tate Modern with a small group of OCA students to visit the exhibition Exposure: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. It was a real pleasure to meet a group of students, get their perspectives on the work displayed and get a sense of their experience of studying with the OCA. I had expected that I would have been making the longest trip to the exhibition from sunny Sheffield, but Edith from the Netherlands and Kate from Ethiopia beat me quite convincingly. Having got the tickets and then looked at the catalogue, I was wondering what we would make of the exhibition.

The main perspective for the exhibition seemed to be focused on ‘what does this tell us about society?’ For example: What does it tell us that there is a demand to see images of violence? What do we think about about living in the most closely filmed and photographed society? These are important and pressing questions and it is very difficult to see some of the images of the mechanisms of surveillance without pausing for thought. For me, the image of the isolation room by Richard Ross (which you can see on the cover of his book The Architecture of Authority) is chilling. The imagination floods into the void.

However a secondary perspective is also explored and for me is the most interesting one. What does the body of work tell us about photography and photographers that they seek to capture images of others surreptitiously or they document aspects of their lives compulsively? And it seems to me that what links Walker Evan’s subway photographs to Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a striving for the ‘authentic’. This is a slippery concept. One can readily see that Evans’ images from the subway appear natural because the subject is not given the opportunity to pose, but this is only part of the process. His selection of which images to print cannot fail to introduce his own perspective. And this was indeed the critique of an outraged media faced with the images in Robert Frank’s The Americans (There’s a good podcast on the subject here).

More problematic are the images of the personal. For me, the exhibition gave an opportunity to see Nan Goldin’s work as it was originally intended – a slideshow with music. The sheer number of images convinces that while there is clearly an editorial process at work, the images are from a life lived rather than a world visited. And yet there remains the question of what is authentic in this context – a mere glimpse at Big Brother (the TV show) yields multiple references to contestants who are suspected by the peers of being fake for the camera. Did Nan Goldin and Larry Clark set out to live a life of challenges in order to photograph it. The question is clearly ridiculous, but the lingering doubt remains about Araki’s erotic macrame.

Yes, let’s continue the debate about surveillance, but let’s wonder at what is being surveyed.

Finally the image above was taken in response to a challenge from OCA tutor Clive White. In an exhibition devoted to surveillance, where photography was banned, it was just too tempting.

In the image above you can see me photographing a work by Oliver Lutz – The lynching of Leo Frank – which itself is based on a photograph made at the time of the lynching in 1915. The photograph was taken to be used in a postcard. Postcards of such events apparently circulated widely in the American South at the time. A point to remember – the next time someone tells you that the internet is a scourge – people have always used the tools at their disposal, for good or bad.

5. EXPOSED@The Tate Modern discussion with fellow OCA students

After seeing the exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, at the Tate Modern, a group of us shared a cup of tea and discussed our reactions with Gareth Dent. There was a variety of people, not all doing the photography course with some also involved in other disciplines such as writing; it included Dave B who is apparently well known on the OCA forums. In fact, there was some discussion about the OCA forums since Gareth often has to moderate these particularly when discussions become arguments and people can get angry or just plain silly.

Something I learnt almost immediately from the discussion is that the photograph of the Queen and her corgi's seen in the exhibition is not actually of the Queen but uses models. This photographer had fooled me completely and left me wondering what the significance of the image in this context was. One might devote a whole exhibition to the forms of subterfuge that photography uses!

Nan Goldin's "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" was discussed and there was the suggestion that this was a sensationalist exhibit. I could not agree as the themes she is dealing with of which violence plays a big part (one photo is of her own bruised face) have been around for a long time and will no doubt continue to be. She is one of the few photographers who has been able to capture sexual abuse intelligently.

The question of whether one should ask before photographing came up. There were different views since this is something that is likely to vary from situation to situation. What about photographing people sleeping on pavements?

Should people be seen smiling as they often do when being photographed, a response that gives a rather predictable feel to an image. There was an interesting insight from Kate Eshete who lives in Ethiopia. When photographing people for sponsorship, she had to tell them not to smile to make them look more unhappy and hence more likely to attract sponsors. This brought up the issue of photographers making images with a pre-conditioned mindset on what to show and reveal and hence possibly missing what is there.

Someone pointed out that many photojournalists are not motivated by a desire to record events but by a wish to become rich and famous, to aspire to a certain kind of lifestyle. I presume this is so but the photojournalists I have met do not seem to fall into this category; they really do seem to care about what they are doing.

We went on to discuss the effects some of the violent events that photographers have witnessed might be on their own psyches and those of others.

Simon Norfolk's photography was mentioned. He photographs the sidelines of war rather than the action.

We discussed Susan Sontag's viewpoint that although violent images tend to desensitise us they also help to make us more aware of what is going on.

I found myself wondering what the exhibition was really about. A particular genre of photography or merely violence? I have another visit planned and purchasing the book of the exhibition may further help to understand the exhibition as a whole.

4. EXPOSED@Tate Modern my second visit 26.6.10

This visit to the Tate Modern's photographic exhibition "Exposed" was at the invitation of Gareth Dent, the CEO of Open College of the Arts, and was also in the company of various other students. It was not however a guided tour and we went around independently, occasionally bumping into each other, but afterwards meeting for a cup of tea and a discussion about the exhibition.

I decided to try and visit every room of the exhibition (there were 14 in all) in the allotted time and pick out at least one image that struck me from every room. This meant that I missed much but did at least get an overall view of what was being presented.

In Room 1, I was struck by a large photograph of a "black man" whose face was partially obscured by another head. What makes such an image so important? I had heard that this particular individual tried to sue the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia but failed on the grounds that the artist had a right to freedom of expression! Also in Room 1, were some more classic photographs by Walker Evans from his series of subway passengers made in the 1930's and published in his work, "Many Are Called". There was also an interesting comment on the wall by Sandra S. Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that "as a society we appear to no longer view voyeurism with the caution we once did." Towards the end of the exhibition however, there is a comment by Mitch Goldstein who says that "In the early 70's - when I first photographed NY - the street and the pubic were fair game for a photographer, and people not only tolerated but enjoyed having their picture taken. But in the 1990's, I found myself questioning how a photographer functions in public space: what is acceptable and what is not."

In Room 2, I found myself reflecting on how spy cameras do perform a useful artistic function in that they capture the subject without the subject knowing and hence reacting to the process rather than acting normally and showing a more genuine expression. The photograph I noticed here was by a photographer whose name stirred a distant chord, Paul Martin; the image shows a group "Listening to the Concert Party on Yarmouth Sands, 1892", a remarkable insight into what people looked like over 100 years ago. The kind of camera used here was a "six-pound box-shaped camera ... carried under the arm, and could be wrapped in paper, completing the disguise of a package!"

In Room 3, my eyes were caught not unsuprisingly by a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph called Hyeros, France. It bears the characteristic concern with geometry within the image that the photographer had as well the decisive moment as the blurred movement of a passing cyclist completes the image.

In Room 4, there is an early example of press intrusion into the private life of celebrity although this has been going on since the beginning of the previous century. Here we see Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sharing intimate moments on a boat; the photographer is Geppetti.

In Room 5, there is a remarkable photograph by Helmut Newton of a woman looking unashamedly at a man. Usually, photography has an undercurrent of men looking at women and of course, that is also happening here as the photographer is male, but the subject is different.

In Room 6, there is a photograph from a recent Susan Mieselas exhibition in London called Pandora's Box; shot 15 years ago in the mid - 1990's, it is of a close circuit TV screen showing a woman leading a man towards a dungeon for masochism. There is something disturbing about this image in the pliant attitude towards violent punishment; that this subject is taboo is the apparent reason for the length of time (15 years) taken to be able to show such images to the world at large.

Gareth Dent, the CEO of Open College of the Arts, exchanged a few words with me here, saying that he did not like the way that sexual desire and violence were clumped together under the heading of violence.

There is also a print of Brassai's famous image of "Lovers in a Cafe". Knowing a little more than I used to about photography leads me to believe that this photograph was almost certainly arranged.

In Room 7, one passes night photographs made by a Japanese photographer of people having sex in a public park and of other people watching them! It took a long time of visiting the park before the photographer felt able to start making images.

In Room 8, Nan Goldin's images from the photobook, Ballad of Sexual Dependency, regarded by some as one of the best photobooks of the last quarter century, were projected onto a screen with musical accompaniment; this gave the photographer's work a much wider dimension and also allowed many more images from the body of work to be shown.

In Room 9, "witnessing violence", there is a finely crafted image by Lee Miller showing the dead body of a Burgermeister's daughter 1945, who had recently taken her own life following the end of the Second World War. Another image in this room, is Larry Clarke's "Untitled 1943", a graphic image that appears to show a couple of drug addicts on a bed. There are also 3 groups of photographs showing people in the act of suicide; in the first taken by Metinides in 1971, a man is saved from leaping to his death off the Toreo Stadium in Mexico.

In Room 10, there is a small TV screen showing a sepia toned image of the "Lynching of Leo Frank"; it takes a little time to see the body hanging from a tree and as one does so, one will be surprised to see a photograph of oneself appearing on the screen owing to a strategically placed camera.

In Room 11, Bill Eppridge has photographed Karen, a prostitute and drug dealer, standing on a street corner from a window above the street. There is a more mundane photograph by Jonathon Olley of a surveillance camera in Belfast as well as a couple by Magdnaz which I commented on after my first visit to the exhibition; what I did not notice then is that these 2 images form a diptych, one with and the other without a surveillance camera.

In Room 12, there is an untitled photograph from Mitch Epstein of an item of clothing, possibly a body, lying in bushes. 

Another set of striking images are those taken of three hotel rooms. One sees a large print of the doorway to the hotel room and then further smaller photographs of items found inside the rooms. The exhibit takes up a stretch of the gallery wall.

In Room 13, there is a video that takes 51 minutes to play through (Nan Goldin's images take about 45 minutes  to play through but does offer variety and music while here there is no perceptible movement or sound. The scene is the studio of the composer Bruce Nauman and was made in 2001.

In Room 14, there is a video installation by Harun Faroch from 2002 of various machines operating, an army tank and factory equipment for instance, and one sees the way these work and the simulation devices that are used to train people to make them do so.

The photographs mentioned here are just a small part of the overall exhibition but by focusing on them, I was able to see a little more of what the exhibition was about.