Pictures and Presentations

‘The cry of the “Improbitas” can only be heard at New Moon and bears an extraordinary resemblance to the breathing of an asthmatic Angora cat.’  –  Peter Amheisenhaufen – 1932

 

reproduced by the kind permission of the Victoria Miro gallery, Mayfair

‘Untitled’ by Francesca Woodman reproduced by the kind permission of the Victoria Miro gallery, Mayfair

Four exhibitions in a day that yielded surprise and confirmation, challenge and question. I went first to see the work of Francesca Woodman at the ‘Victoria Miro’ gallery in Mayfair, to a set of images that were at once familiar (in the main) and yet strangely fresh to me, then to ‘The Photographer’s Gallery’ for two exhibitions, Lorenzo Vitturi’s ‘Dalston Anatomy’ and ‘Primrose – Early Colour Photography in Russia’ before joining the Study visit event at the Science Museum to look again at ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ by Joan Fontcuberta.

reproduced by the kind permission of the Victoria Miro gallery, Mayfair

‘On being an angel’ by Francesca Woodman reproduced by the kind permission of the Victoria Miro gallery, Mayfair

Francesca Woodman is a photographer whose works I have know for many years; I wrote about her early on in my studies and in preparation for the visit to Mayfair I watched the movie “The Woodmans” again. I think I comprehend less about the artist Francesca Woodman now than I ever did before my studies started, which I suspect is a mark of how much I have developed – knowing less and wondering more. Nonetheless the twenty five or so farmed prints are reverentially displayed in prestigious surroundings. And it is to the surrounds that I want to discuss in this post; about how the various works at the four exhibitions augment the work, how I perceive the imagery because of how the curators have settled the show, and how, maybe, the work is transfigured because of it, becoming another work, perhaps the work of the curator. The mystique of Woodman and the political nous of Rodchenko and Mikhailov et al and the expansive creativity of Vitturi at TPG to the subversive narrative fictions at the Science Museum. These exhibitions exemplified the range, but not limit of the possibilities, of presentation. Submerged in the frame to bursting out of it, from single tone to radiant colour and then to applied muted colour tones. From mastered technique, to masterly technique, so many things to think about.

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer's Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer’s Gallery

Woodman’s work did contain a few images that I hadn’t witnessed in other publications before, but my overall impression of this show, in respect of the curation and narrative perspective, was about how constricted so much of the work appeared to be. I’m aware that there are many groups who have either appropriated her oeuvre to their own cause or movement and that narrative will hang like a sword above any reading of the work. The prints (23 of the 25 in the gallery) were small in large (by comparison) mounts. This strategy diminished the image within the frame, it constricted it, compressed the image within the viewing distance, demanding the viewer to inspect at close range and obliterating anything else from view whilst considering the image as an individual print. Stepping back from the print to contextualize with other prints disconnected this viewer from the individual image narrative and it seemed to make sense to engage at close range. I’m not sure whether the Woodman estate requested the images to be small, I have seen many of these at greater enlargements in books – these are prints of negatives at between two and five times enlargement, maybe eight inches on a side being the largest? It presented the work as personal/intimate a conversation between two people – the artist and viewer and excluding all others for the brief moment.

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer's Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer’s Gallery

Vittori’s work bursted with exuberant energy, it seemed to be escaping the frame and allowing all and sundry to engage with it, from any angle, from any perspective. This work was about Dalston market, or at least he used the market as the backdrop to his critique of the society in and around that area, and I felt the installation process that he used reflected that environment very well. It wasn’t lined up in neat rows along a gallery wall – for example like Woodman’s prints – but, seemingly, strewn across the floor in an apparently haphazard fashion; the viewer needed to be aware of the potential for pratfall as much as for engaging with the work in a non-structured gallery format.

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer's Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer’s Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer's Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer’s Gallery

The ‘Primrose’ work, also at TPG, regarded early Russian colour photography; I wondered about the situating titular statement denying the notion of Soviet, which then of course ‘coloured’ my ‘view’ of the exhibition. Coming straight after the top floor exhibition of Vittori these frames were very ordered, constructions of constructivists, in many instances. However I thought that many of the images were form over function and the sheer beauty of many of the images struck me. Mikhailov’s inclusion didn’t suggest an aesthetic of beauty, more of question but in and around his and Rodchenko’s work were prints of outstanding dexterity. I had never seen ‘coloured bromiols’ and some of these were multi-colour bromoils. This attention to the aesthetic by the artists detracted for me from the overall aim of the show, which is lost on this viewer, and which may have been about how the proletariat overcame the technicalities of colour reproduction for the benefit of their fellow citizens (?). And, as I’m not sure this show in respect of this post, contributes to the discussion of presentational strategies, I’ll say how wonderfully beautiful some of these images were and , to some extent, how that aesthetic detracted from what might have been intended as part of the UK/Russian year of culture…..

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer's Gallery

reproduced with the kind permission of the The Photographer’s Gallery

Fontcuberta’s exhibition I have written about here and won’t rehearse my thoughts about it again, but in respect of this post perhaps the most significant curatorial decision was the placement of it (the show) within the halls of the Science Museum. The work was designed to be in comfort with this elevated type of surrounding.

Context and narrative. All four exhibitions provided a huge variation of examples to consider. I started at the Woodman show as I had waited many years to view her work and the presentation of it didn’t help me to come closer to it, despite needing to to ‘see’ it. The work on show was wonderfully printed – helped I think by the scale of the prints – but any narrative sense escaped me. aware perhaps of the commentators continually to wrest a connection to them from her work. I think she was playing most of the time, experimenting with the form and function of photography as a means of expression, but I’m not sure, wanting as I do to mine a creative sense of visual purpose from the body of work that has been with me for many years. I’m also aware that the curation has been specific, trying to collate images that serve the curative purpose. I’m very glad I managed to see her work, but having very little contextual narrative from the artist, it will remain ‘open’ I suspect whether intended or not. I was surprised also to see references, perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but the image ‘On being an Angel’ had very strong echoes of Minkkinen’s ‘Nantucket’ image taken I think five years earlier. Interesting.

Assignment One feedback and reflection

As the eldest I occupied the privileged position beside him as he lay by the edge of the double bed. I held his hand until I felt sure his last breath had signaled the passing, keeping the hold that I had of his hand I leant forward and kissed him. I turned then to go downstairs to let his wife, my mother, know that the father of her eight children had indeed gone. When we returned, we witnessed my siblings taking it in turns to hold his still warm hand and bid their personal farewells. And we stood around the bed, all nine us of us, in our parents bedroom perhaps for the first time all together; in that space where at least four of them had been conceived and born. We were quiet and the time passed very slowly.

Sharon, my tutor suggested in the report that I am very pleased with, that I talk more about the images that I chose for the assignment and also to review the work for any linking themes. In the report she felt that she had discerned a few but wanted me to review and ponder before we talk about the work.

There were a few references to possible noticed themes in the report, memory, traces, fictions (interpretations of truths) as opposed to the deliberate falsification of lies and deceits. Sand is of course very easy to mark and the referencing of a ‘mark’ as well. I composed this image to ensure the presence of marks and then lead them away, to a place hidden behind the fence and toward the sea. The sea is a place of infinite power and unforgiving cruelty, it takes without feeling the compulsion to return. It is a very quiet and I think disturbing image with a notion of threat – at least that is how I read it. I purposefully delivered it with a subdued palette to encourage those thoughts and I think the next image has similar muted tonal qualities:

I feel/felt that the central disruption in the water reflected a sense of isolation, some sense of discord; the green isn’t a ‘good’ green and the absence of a horizon is disturbing, discordant as I say before. Taking the sheen of the water, as much as I could within camera and post-processing, allowing detail of the bottom of the shallow water to become more visible helps. The edges are important also, no horizon encourages the viewer to ‘search’ for anchorage and most of the visual imagery is ‘topsy turvy’ not making that search easy. It is a compositional norm to anchor a part of the image to a corner and I have done so bottom right, which hopes to direct the natural flow to the central disruption.

Long after the funeral, long after I, as executor of his will had dealt with the aftermath, I thought of those last moments; his hands, his lips, his eyelids never opening again to witness those around the bedside, all his immediate family, there wasn’t room in the bedroom for sons-in-laws, or daughters-in-laws let alone grandchildren, there was barely enough space for the nine adults around the bed that one last time. I thought about what he might have said with those lips as he moved to slip away, on whom would his eyes have rested longest on and to whom would those hands have reached for that one last time.

Whilst I don’t plan to review all of the works I submitted – I am hoping that the gist of my edit might become apparent by regarding fewer of them – these next three are specifically about isolation, maybe ‘otherness’:

The fence with the ‘light’ from the other side, chinks in the fence allowing a glimpse of what may lie there. The hedge, carefully nurtured to have a consistency, a uniformity interrupted by the sprig of ivy breaking the status quo. And finally, the one which I heavily cropped from the original image, the two ducks seemingly noticing the dead , upturned duck, by the waste pipe. More than a nod to Lempert. All three photographs isolate a physical element, in the case of the fence, the viewer from the ‘other-side’, the ivy as a clear outsider in the visual narrative and the ducks active avoiding/recognising the existence of a deceased relative(?).

I enjoy the physical contact of hands, holding them of those that I love. In that bedroom we all took turns in holding one of his hands, but I don’t remember holding my siblings hands in the room; we stood separately in near silence. Mother was consoled then of course and at the funeral, we held hands, I held her throughout. On another occasion I carried my sister to the pew at her husband’s funeral when he died prematurely, my hands were vitally important then and she clung to me with hers. I remember holding the hands of my newly born sons, encircling their tiny hands in mine; stroking their head and marvelling at their softness. Kissing them, watching them watching me, holding them in my arms. And, most importantly, those of my wife.

The fairground images starts with this photograph:

I did crop this image to emphasise the toddler, to foreground her as she was in the middle distance when I made the picture. I have no idea who she was, a woman, presumably her mother rushed over to her soon after this frame was taken. It is the opening frame of a number of images that are situated in the narrative by this contextualising shot. The young child is looking, we presume for her mother/father, she is alone and there is no-one at the fairground. A fairground is destined to be a populous place, people spilling from one ride to another, but these rides are dormant, covered over. It isn’t what it should be. There is an undercurrent  I detect in the image of suspense (?) that is amplified by the ensuing images that often have text that appears at odds with their present state:

The absence of people is transgressive. The high contrast – bright sunshine helps, I think to amplify that ‘oddness’. Why aren’t there people here having a ‘Sizzling’ time? This series has limited potential in the work for the course, not because I don’t often go to the sea-side, or indeed, the fairground. These were taken as much as part of a pyschogeographical exercise as anything. I think they reveal parts of me, as much as all images are reflections of the artist creating the image, but I’m unsure of the overall narrative and where it might lead; unsure in the sense of not knowing rather than wanting to avoid.

Looking back I can’t remember ever holding my father’s hand, apart from that scene in the bedroom. I can’t remember him holding out his hand for me, nor taking hold of mine. At the side of the road I would be told to stop and wait and look both ways before moving across. Father wouldn’t take my hand and go through the pedestrian drill. I can’t remember him holding the back of my head in a way that both my sons would reward me with a slight backward pressure whenever I did so to them. I also can’t remember kissing him before that time after he had died, moreover I can’t remember him kissing me, holding me in his arms close to his chest or face. I don’t feel sad about that.

Awayc2

These monochrome images were an attempt to create an ‘open’ narrative:

Waitingc2

I was interested to view a scene from a stable perspective and develop a scene(s) with a character in several placid and active situations and see what if anything might result. This particular place is a ‘folly’ near where I live and I have made lots of images there and nearby over the years, though never with a subject, always still and maybe lifeless images. I wanted to work with film again, I wanted to ‘mess’ with the materiality of the medium. I have been reading a lot recently about the intellectual difference between the the digital and chemical processes. I have just recently designed and built my own UV light box to better control the making and printing of cyanotypes. I have a notion that this physicalness of film, whilst a part of my past, will be important to me as I go forward in the course.

The situation in the folly has an interesting ‘lightscape’, it might be described as episodic as the eye moves from frame bottom to frame top through the image. The placement of subject in differing ‘light-spaces’ helps to generate a narrative sense, and of course playing with the order also disrupts what might be thought of as a ‘straightforward flow’.

And so to themes:

Memory is a constant in the way I consider photography, Sharon has suggested Barthes and Camera Lucida – and if I go down this route she suggests a ‘blog-post’. I have written on this particular subject before and will therefore look to see what my earlier thoughts were and look again at the text. And a ‘quote’ that Sharon drew form a text she also provided “Traces are not made; rather, they are (involuntarily) left behind.” And yes, I see the theme of trace in some of this assignment, perhaps especially the work from France and possibly in some of the novice tableau work at the folly. I have a quick look at a photographer referenced in the report – David Favrod, not one I have come across before, first impressions are that I can see a linkage between his accomplished work and my direction.

The suggestion is that I start to try and focus on ONE area/strategy that I want to develop and strengthen. And of course, as it is perhaps obvious I am very interesting in narrative fiction. Lots to do and I need to get up and running. Oh, and more reading!

Of course I do remember his hands, his eyes and his lips, they were a constant presence in my life, both physical and mental. When he reached out, as he often did, it would only be to strike a blow. This would be with his open hand or fist, or quite often with an implement the better to focus it’s attention on where it would land on me. Sticks and straps the most commonly commandeered implement. Those lips would also engage with me; describing what and why he was either doing or was about to do to me. Discussing how it was that I would likely fail at all that I attempted and why it was never worth his investment to do anymore to help such a lost cause. And those eyes that always seemed to cast a disparaging glance.

 

 

Old film, new stories

‘Traditional photochemical photography imposed a tempo, an agonizing interval between the click and the consummated experience of the image, and during this gap the projection of hope and desire would intervene. This disappears with velocity, and this dissolution engenders a sense of loss that goes beyond the poetic and symbolic, an aspect that also concerns the possibility of retaining the memory.’

Joan Fontcuberta, essay “The Invisible Image (and not non-existent on that account) Pandora’s Camera

I’ve been using film more frequently just recently, black and white film, medium format and 35mm and because of that I have been pondering on both what it means to me – now as opposed to before I started studying photography as an art practice.

I have found, amongst other objects of my past, some twenty or so rolls (still) of 120 Ilford Delta 100, and some other makes. The use-by date (mainly) is June 2006, making the film quite old and likely (or so I thought) to be unusable. August 2006 I went to France on holiday and so it happened that I went back there this year – to the same location, in fact the same house – owned by our friends. I decided that I had nothing to lose by taking the film and making some images there, if they developed successfully all the better, if they didn’t then no worries.

That earlier trip in 2006 was with my in-laws and there were due to come again, but due to health issues they cancelled at the last minute. I purposefully left the film for about a month before developing – I had a notion that the latent image may conflict with my memory, I read Joan Fontcuberta’s Pandora’s Camera whilst I was there and his essay on the latent image was one of many that I found very interesting and illuminating – and maybe his idea (above) led me to stay the development, I’m not sure.

The photography was very easy to slip into; the exposure method, the composition using a waist level finder, the ponderous nature of largish camera on a tripod, the reloading and careful stowage of exposed film. The purchase and eventual mixing of the developer and fixer from the supplier (who also manufactures both), the process of development and the scanning, the spotting of each negative – typically an hour each – resulting in, so far, thirteen files from which I might get some prints. I felt at ease making them, I have a very strong feeling that they will print beautifully (post writing edit – they do). Content at the time of capture and development, that they served no other purpose than the instant gratification they might or might achieve.

And now they are made, they exist in my hands these images of a place now in my memory, in monotonic – and maybe luxuriant – tones, they make me wonder though about what Fontcuberta also said about the difference(s) between the forms: “…The materiality of silver gelatin is bound up with advances in chemistry, the development of steel and the railways, machinism and the colonial expansion driven by capitalist economics. In contrast, digital photography is the product of an economy that privileges information as a commodity, opaque capital and invisible electronic transactions. It’s material is language, codes and algorithms; it has the same substance as text or sound and can exist in the same networks of transmissions….. It quite clearly links up with a second or fictional reality, equivalent to parallel cyber-life worlds…. We are witnessing an unstoppable process of dematerialization.” Ibid.

I feel these images, or the process by which they were made is important to me. I spent the best part of thirty years coming to a practice that, whilst satisfied with the aesthetic quality of the prints, was somewhat underwhelmed by the purpose of them. That people were happy to buy them wasn’t nearly enough, however I have a feeling that these rolls of defunct silver gelatin and maybe more reliable ‘in-date’ rolls of film might be playing a more up to date role in my burgeoning practice as an artist photographer.

 

 

 

(faith) Stranger Than Fiction

Artistic fiction does not stand in opposition to the true, but is opposed to the true and false alike (the false in the sense of an error or a lie). Nor is it opposed to referential realistic discourse, rather, it places the referent in parenthesis. It does not engage with the truth or falsity of the statement, but with our capacity to believe, our ability to accept a proposition we believe to be true (whether it is or not). The difference between artistic fiction and referential discourse, then, is not semantic but pragmatic.

Joan Fontcuberta, essay ‘Documentary Fictions – Pandora’s Camera’

As I write this, news is heralding the discovery of a previously un-documented dinosaur – the “Dreadnoughtus” and to prove it’s (previous) existence here is a video:

and a photograph of one of the excavation team posing with a large fossilised bone at the dig-site, note the gaffer tape on the knees, the ruler-like object on the fossil and the dusty shoes: It must therefore be true. Why would we doubt it? It is announced on the BBC news web-site; it’s authority is difficult to challenge.

The Science Museum, whose ‘About us’ suggests: “The Science Museum was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, and gained independence in 1909. Today the Museum is world renowned for its historic collections, awe-inspiring galleries and inspirational exhibitions.” is the venue for Joan Fontcuberta’s first major exhibition in the UK, “...six of Fontcuberta’s best-known works..”.

The artist wants to ask why should the photograph be burdened with veracity? Since it’s inception it’s inability to tell the truth has been manifest – I write about it here – little has changed since. The echoes that are found in the BBC report of the “Dreadnautus” suggested that I should question this report as equally as the Fontcuberta’s fictions. The artist provides video evidence, sound recordings, journal reports and sketches, ‘ stuffed specimens’ in glass cases to add context to the photographs in the various exhibits at the Science Museum.However, Fontcuberta is a photographer and artist, and because he is known as such it is to the photographs that the viewer is directed to view and engage with together with the ‘evidence’ provided by the artist some of which is more compelling than the report from Patagonia. The surrounding paraphernalia, such as those listed above all contribute context to the narrative, this narrative is on the one hand the story of, for example, the ‘Linnaeus-like’ taxonomic work of multiple ‘new’ species of plants:

 

Number 11: Lavandula angustifolia 1984, reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Joan Fontcuberta

and on the other hand asking the viewer to ‘look’ to question and to ponder about the manifold imagery that invade our world.

The Science Museum provides the context then for Fontcuberta’s exhibition, suggesting a relational nexus of the scientifics that might not have been questioned at another establishment on the other side of Exhibition Road, the V&A. The SM has a primacy about it that suggests to it’s visitors ‘here is what happened, here are the discoveries, here are the ‘inventions’ and presented as they are in glass boxes, surrounded by the quotidia of scientific life, the visitor is not encouraged to question the veracity of the exhibits but marvel maybe in awe at them – at least in other parts of the museum.

Fontcuberta seeks to tests these criteria of faith in many ways, at the scientific as well as the religious. The notion of religious faith in the exhibit ‘Karelia, Miracles & Co’ where a monk-like figure is seen performing (or not in some cases) miracles. Karelia is a contested land between Russia and Finland and maybe the artist chose that site specifically to undermine his work intentionally, however the notion of meerkats in the northern climes being taught to read the Kalevala by ‘Munkki Juhani’ was a photograph to bring a smile.

The exhibit ‘Sirens’ brings the ‘Dreadnoughtus’ most immediately to mind. The discovery of a ‘mermaid’ like creature supported with video, fossil and photographic evidence, in every way as compelling as the video above demonstrates Fontcuberta’s ability to contextualise his narratives in order to test both the credulity and faith of the viewers.

There are several of his works not on show here, Semiopolis – photographs of Braille texts and Sputnik, where he created a ‘documentary’ about a Russian Cosmonaut who was ‘airbrushed’ out of Soviet history when a Soyuz space programme went wrong; a story that was picked up by at least two Spanish news programmes and aired, despite having a a denial in the artwork by Fontcuberta, he blamed the laziness of the news reporter!

As a sideline, many of the prints are both large and analogue i.e. not digital; either ‘C’ prints or, Soft selenium-toned gelatine prints. I would recommend essay three in his latest book ‘Pandora’s Camera’ on not only the delights of pre-digital photograph, but also about what it means both to the practitioner and the viewer in an age saturated by digital imagery.

An exceptional exhibition.

 

 

Crimp at the fête

garden1c2

In my case it was a lifetime achievement, in other’s it is an annual event, this first stroll of mine to the Church Fête in the village on the last Saturday in August. Settling amongst these ‘cast outs’, as these purveyors were from the Church, to ply their trade in the ample grounds of the Vicarage – though no doves were visibly on sale, I was surprised to be considering Crimp’s essay on ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’, whilst pondering the acquisition of tea and cake and in conversation with our local Rector Graham, whom it seems, is off for three months ‘study leave’, but will be back for the Christmas rush after what is, apparently, the annual ‘lull’ in the church’s normal business of ‘hatch, match and dispatch’.

Crimp talks about a few things in this essay that I found interesting: the notion of auratic erosion, first suggested by Benjamin as the essence of difference between painting (or perhaps all ‘fine art’) and photography, its diminution due to the effect of multiple manufacture, authorship and, as this essay was written in 1980 how the photographic “image” contests the previously understood notion of where to assign the currency or perhaps the substance of ‘awe’. I think the timing of the essay is interesting for I have the feeling that that question gained prevalence through the seventies, though I have no certainty of it.

garden 2c2

Graham is off to study pictures, specifically work depicting the time before Christ was born; he has previously studied works of antiquarian art some of which was housed in museums and galleries, but others in situ – frescoes on walls. It seems important to him to view the original works, that closeness to the artist is important to this man of faith. Crimp talks of the ‘presence’ in art, how the ‘connoisseurship’ of the medium seems to elevate the ‘original’ from the copy or reproduction. And the sense of how I see this, this overturning of the judgment-seat of art , is that the mechanics of the ‘art-world’, this ‘apple-cart’ contrivance between museum/art historian and money/status was firmly up-ended by the introduction of photography as a means to communicate other than, though not necessarily excluding, the mechanical reproduction of that set out in front of the lens.

When Graham views the recumbent Bathsheba (he mentioned a version he is looking forward to seeing again; he wants to view the expression of one of the women in the frame whose expression has remained with him – the study is called ‘Receptions’ – how the viewer receives/interprets imagery) it will be important, perhaps vitally important, that the authorship uncontestable, that he is viewing the strokes made by whichever ‘master’ made those marks. As Crimp mentions the collusion of vested interests that hold to that notion that the original is the ‘enemy’ of the mechanized production that threatens the ‘inherited ideas’ that the possession of ‘aura’ is mandatory for ‘art’. The mitigated presence of the auratic bursts the bubble that presents a crisis to contend with; namely that photography will begin to compete with ‘Art’ for gallery space. Well three and a half decades after this essay was written photography does compete, and whilst the ‘art-market’ is still relatively buoyant, it has been joined by reproduced imagery under the auctioneer’s gavel.

I wondered when I first read the essay whether it was a criticism of painting as an art tradition, then I thought perhaps it was a critique of Art Historian’s but I now think it is perhaps a celebration that finally another form of visual art has entered the canon. The once artless mechanical master of reproduction has been seen to not be able to replicate faithfully or faithlessly but to reflect and shine a light by receiving it, open up discourse to an audience that isn’t only privileged. As the author suggests; “Postmodernism is about art’s dispersal, it’s plurality… (not) it’s pluralism.”