A moment

My last post – here – had me questioning the work that I was doing. I struggled with the nature of direction of it; though the work itself – Marks & Traces – will provide a very valuable visual resource from a textual/semantic/narrative perspective, but a fellow student Keith Greenough in one of his recent communications with me provided a link to a work that I have found to be truly inspirational and directly connected to what I want to do in BoW.

A couple of nights ago I woke in the middle of the night, the bedside clock said 1:29 and the idea for a story had come to me – in fact it’s working title was 1:29 – mostly these ideas are forgotten by the morning unless I write them down, but this time the narrative was so strong that I held it until daybreak and jotted some brief notes down. It is a short story about love and the link that Keith provided was to a body of work by the artist Johanna Ward and in particular to a work called – I shall say goodbye with my strengthening love for you, forever and ever and it rang bells for me. I found the work in the video extremely moving and it seemed to personify almost exactly – in tone and delivery – the sort of work that I knew I wanted to do after ‘Documentary’. I had discussed my desire to write short stories about love and fidelity to both of my current L3 tutors and hadn’t really known where to start.

Before I came to the decision to retreat as per my last post, I had decided to look again at that last work in Documentary, but what this doesn’t show is the end work which is a short concertina book form, and it was that that I looked at, the physical existence of the work and not the virtual – in fact for assessment I packaged it up as a present. Johanna’s video of her books seemed to echo so many areas of what I would have wanted my work to have said, and did it in with an eloquence I have yet to approach. But I am very excited about this moment, this seems to have given me permission to find, research, develop a means to translate this type of written narrative here:

1.pdf

into a visual form. I want to be able to ‘un-restrict’ the linear flow of textual narrative and allow the viewer to insert their own experience into the flow, allowing their own experience to develop and maybe conclude the short story. I feel that by interrupting the linear left to right structure it will disrupt the easy flow, allowing greater possibilities of ‘Openness” to be possible.

I have a lot of ideas that I need to settle on, work out and notate somewhere. I think I may have left the berth for the journey.

Retreating?

 

I’m coming to realise that I need to retreat from Blenheim, it’s just not leading anywhere; though the work on marks and traces – sounds a bit too much like a High street shopping chain  – has been worthwhile. The image above is highly worked. It is the one place in the estate that allows free roam, i.e. no manufactured pathways, roads, worn tracks and so I ‘manufactured’ the track to the ‘Column of Victory’, “painted the light” as an intervention in the image, to provide a ‘trace’.

I spent a lot of time looking for both these indicators, providers of narrative within the context of the land ‘scaped by Brown. The inside of this old oak, blasted I suspect by lightning is marked by nature and human hand. The telling lines and letters, carved inexpertly, tell of some desire or other to leave an evidence, without possibly the knowledge that it will ever be consumed by another. Traces and marks that became marks and traces, the one becoming the other; what was traced into the wood as a mark becomes a trace of the emotive force that willed it to happen, that impelled the carver providing an echo of the subject that was the intended recipient.

And then on the morning after the (now deceased) Duke of Malborough dies I make this image across the ‘Main Lake’ on a dreary slate grey day. The dynamic range well within the limits of Ilford Delta 100 ensuring I, post development, add light and dark to the image, paint the columns, windows, branches and boughs with shade and contrast. Marking the image.

This tree is very near where I started to look into the telling signs of human presence, standing here for best part of two centuries (even the oldest oaks aren’t much more than three centuries old, a few remain in situ from before the land was given as a gift to the 1st Duke of Malborough in the early part of the eighteenth century). I found I was spending too much time looking for, and creating, interesting images for the sake of imagery, rather than for the purpose of investigating a narrative sense. There is a tale, apocryphal or otherwise, that the trees on the estate were planted in such a way as to replicate the troop positions on the battlefield in Blindheim in Bavaria where John Churchill defeated the French, those trees from the creation of the estate are now largely felled, with a few old and empty carcasses left.

I have spent too much time creating pretty pictures, allowing the process to overcome the intent which hasn’t allowed the formation of narrative to develop. I have decided to return to the work I was making at the end of Documentary and re-engage with that. This past weekend has provided me with some time to think about what I might want to consider and what I might want to create as a body of work. It seems I need to go backwards before moving forwards.

Oh you pretty things

Soon after I started this course I fell out of love with most of my archive, hundreds of prints created over a quarter of a century. I had spent interminable hours of work trying to perfect image creation to a set of arbitrary ideals, which stemmed from the lonely pursuit of both technical excellence and attractive images. Monochrome was my chosen medium, initially with traditional film based media before incorporating digital techniques into my normal workflow.

Abhorring the traditional camera club competitive environment I built my practice around attending workshops and seeking out like-minded photographers and building a support network that I still value today.

I described this falling out as a recognition about the depth of these images, how they were created for a single purpose which was to attract. And during the course of this course I have been troubled by both my own reaction to that purpose and by other students reactions to it as well. At a study visit to Hackney to listen to a talk by Tom Hunter he suggested that he actively employed the strategic use of beauty in his work “.. I need people to engage with the work and by attracting viewers to the image I stand a chance of that happening..” (I paraphrase). Fellow student Keith Greenough employs beauty to the same ends and has developed a practice that overtly engages viewers on an aesthetic level in order to lure viewers to his work and begin a discourse, a discourse that has a firm intellectual framework to support it. My concern with my own work has been twofold: making images that are pretty hasn’t been an issue for some time, I feel technically able to produce attractive imagery from even the most mediocre of raw material and of course whether I have the self confidence enough to produce work that has the intent of integrity that I would want.

And so I’ve come to a realization that for most, if not all, of the work I have in that archive was about the difference between prettiness and beauty and how I define that prettifying an image is designed to distract whereas a beautiful image is designed to attract. A distraction disrupts whilst beauty engages. I appreciate that this distinction is a purely personal device, but I find that it helps me to decouple the past from the present. If my pretty landscape pictures please then I am happy, and the skills I have gained from that continued process of aesthetic development means that I can utilise those same skills in the development of my BoW.

Thinking about Awe

As a photographer, or even protégé photographic artist, I think that like many others I had the notion that Benjamin was writing about the ‘new-age’ that was beckoned in with the advent of photography, when in fact, after re-reading it again recently, it appears to me it is about a new age – a new mechanical age – that whilst encompassing photography, critiques all other art forms equally. Considering, for instance, music performance at the time when Benjamin wrote his now famous essay in 1936, the year that television was first trialed by the BBC in the UK. Sales of records were having a dip due to the depression but would soon rebound, and continue to climb for decades to come. Theatre though would see an inexorable decline in attendance as first cinema and then television would send in the wrecking ball of ‘progress’ to demolish the dream theatres of live performance and then cinemas themselves. Film and music, like imagery, now reside in the ether. It might be said that the very medium that subverted the painter’s place at the high table of art – film based photography – is now the very medium that is venerated as ‘high art’.

Galleries and museums both stand accused of complicitly in working to contrive a ‘market’ that maintains the market of art; capitalism, hedge funds, neo-liberalist economics and artists have a vested interest to foster that bubble and the arguments are all now well rehearsed. But I wondered about other artforms outside of the gallery walls that stood alongside the framed visual media when Benjamin penned his essay. Is the essence of the personal strong enough to elicit still that sense of ‘awe’, or was the auratic experience a conjured occurrence to distance those with the currency of knowledge and coin from those who could only aspire without ignorance?

Whilst the ‘Great Depression’ was a critical economic backdrop in 1936 and sales of records had slumped, recovering only later in the decade as economies improved, the record of an audio performance was, and is still to this day, culturally accepted as a means by which this art-form might be disseminated to brows high and low (we might discount as an aberration the Music Union in the USA issues of 1947/8). The acceptability of a mechanically re-produced – and transmitted – simulacrum of a performance, be it a reproduction of a concert performance or that of a private/intimate facsimile matters not. The ‘original’ has very little currency mediated by whichever means, and perhaps still less so today when the recording is ‘given away’ with mobile ‘phones and suchlike. The static visual image (and to some extent the three dimensional object) has a separate place in the cultural psyche, which is perhaps steeped in the twin hegemonies of the commercial aspects of capitalism and the galleries structural framework. And this is interesting if compared to music. The best (an arbitrary term) ‘live’ performance ticket prices are likely to be no more than four or five times that of a recording – and often very similar, whilst the still image reproductions can be many orders of magnitude different. CD and vinyl reproductions tend to be less than provisional theatre ticket prices, similar to that of a ‘round of drinks’ for four friends in a pub. In, I would hazard a guess, the vast majority of cases, the experience of music is via a reproduction, and not generally considered the worse for it (it has to be said that performances by some artists have been viewed as worse than the recordings – Bob Dylan being a case in point). Recordings are reliable, Bob Dylan isn’t, you can always rely on Nina Simone’s reproduction on a functional audio system, less so in a performance engagement – though these artists fragility may add a patina of edge that provides a sense of awe?

During my time as a theatre critic I once happened on a performance by one of the ‘Great Dames’ of British theatre; it was early in the season and there was a considerable requirement for the prompt to be in attendance; a sense of ‘awe’ wasn’t what I noted in my notebook at the time. However I have found a sense of ‘awe’ in the theatre many times, maybe it is the edge of performance – that interplay between players and audience that provides it I am not sure – it is of course possible that having a sensibility to it might provide it. Theatre productions in that respect are always original, movies though are meant to be consistently similar (disregarding various ‘cuts’ etc). Performance is real, recordings are predictable. But are they? Are reproductions predictable? There are those who demand that analogue representations of are more honest than digital, but that is a whole different argument which is likely to cloud all these various issues. However for me when ‘she says, come in I’ll give you shelter from the storm’ I know precisely the storm she is referring to, she asks it in the same way everytime, the one that I want shelter from, not some other, it ignites a similar emotive reaction everytime. I seek that predictability, that storm that I run from is bigger than any other squall that might else rise on my horizon.

And so to the visual; to pictures, prints and other two dimensional artefacts on walls. I applaud Benjamin’s proposition that the auratic quality of the great ‘Masters’ has been diminished by whatever means. Whether the intervention of modernism’s mechanisms or now post-modernism’s unstructured commitment to universality. I welcome the notion that that sense of ‘Awe’, an artificial appliqué of value (both fiscal and intellectual), an exclusivity where entrance wasn’t based on egalitarian values, but one of hierarchical and/or a sense of intellectual didactic righteousness. I’m reminded again of Michael Kenna and those, ever-so-pretty prints (typical RRP £2500 each) that I saw recently and wondering why he hasn’t reached Gursky standards – perhaps it’s a size thing? Having said that Kenna is probably more costly on a square inch valuation! The reproductions of Kenna’s work in books and calendars &c makes me wonder why anyone invests in them, they are so removed from the original’s qualities as to defy even imaginative comparison. But sell they do and their value continue to appreciate. Kenna also doesn’t inform the public how many print copies he makes, limiting the earning potential only by his capacity to occupy his darkroom and the strength of his self limited awe-inspired market. Supply/demand, demand/supply.

 

 

 

 

 

Marks & traces in Thatcham

I decided to test my experiments in visual language at a meeting of the Thames Valley student group. It was a very valuable exercise, and these images here are a reproduction of part of what I presented. The initial images were the photographs I made from a few visits to the grounds of Blenheim Palace, I have been looking in a relatively small area – about two hundred yards nearby the lake but off the beaten track as I have found it easier to locate traces and marks away from the main thoroughfares.

Initially I looked for obvious, overt marks which I found quite easy to locate and I became aware that a lot of these marks were signatures, some simple signs of affection or simple statements of being there. I found both of these signs interesting; to want to ‘mark’ a presence in a formal and elevated place, maybe associating oneself with the place? I also wondered about the notion of marking one’s love for someone by coupling names together on a tree, which in all likelihood would out last the relationship – leaving aside the likely the statistical likelihood of a relationship lasting until death.

These two monochrome images had an echo in them – I felt the ripples left by diving grebes and the fleeting sun on the truck of the tree seemed to align and help make the pairing. The combinations of imagery took some time to develop. I decided to reduce some of the narrative layers by editing all the images to square; some of course were square to begin with being 6X6 medium format film photographs, but the digital, all of the colour photographs are digital capture, and one or two of the monochrome were cropped to comply with a single format type. I then edited the images with a text in mind. The handwritten text (including it’s colour) stems from a quotation by Saussure which I found apposite to the experiment I was undertaking.

I broke the text up and then spent a good deal of time coupling image pairs – and in one case a triple – that made some kind of sense to me. This process enabled me to consider the images in different lights, I saw different ‘marks’ and different ‘traces’ as I went about the work. I felt, for example, that the light became in one sense a ‘Mark’ or perhaps illuminated a ‘Mark’, but in other instances it became a ‘Trace’ – I do wonder of light can be seen as a ‘Trace’, I think the ephemeral nature of it suggests that it might? Something to consider.

The square images were relatively small 3.6cms on a side. I think I chose that scale as I have been exposed to relatively small prints lately; the Kenna images at Stowe School and the Francesca Woodman work in the Victoria Miro gallery. Of course this image size would be very difficult for a gallery wall, but for the student exercise it seemed to work, the students being close enough to work out the image content and to read the text – I had laid the images out in a sequence that privileged the text.

It is of course difficult to tell, but my feeling is that the form of the second presentation of sequenced images, albeit paired (or tripled) couple with the text enabled the viewers to seek or perhaps eke out some of what I was requesting them visually to find, namely ‘Marks and ‘Traces’.

 

There can be no doubt that my vocabulary isn’t anywhere near sophisticated enough to leave images untethered by the anchorage of text. Even if it were I am not sure I would necessarily want to leave my viewers, at this stage free to roam. I became very aware that care must be taken to engage the viewer visually as well as narratively, so my work in the image couplings was well spent, even from a limited set of edited visual phrases. I feel that as I develop my vocabulary, and hence my voice, viewers to my work will find it easier to discern a sense narrative form – even if it isn’t the form that I had when generating the piece of work. I was very pleased that the Thames Valley students were all prepared to engage with the work and start to embellish the images with narrative structures, which because of the scant nature of text must surely have been anchored in their subconsciousness’.

I need to do more work to develop my phraseology and think very hard about the narrative that I want to develop. And then try to develop a contextual referencing to situate the work.

Lights and Letters

 

Jane Wheeler, aged 19. of Steeple Aston, was brought before Magistrates Rev’d T. Churme and W. Foster-Melliar Esq. at the meeting of the Wootton North Petty Sessions Court on 23rd June 1876. She was charged with stealing a purse containing three shillings, two sixpences, and four penny piece, the property of James Horwood….

The prisoner appeared in the dock with a baby, said “I had the money and spent it”. She was sentenced to 3 weeks imprisonment with hard labour. Bicester Herald 30th June 1876.

Michael Kenna, in a talk he gave that I attended the other day, suggested that his work is collaborative, between him and ‘the tree’, or perhaps less specifically the land. Kenna has ‘special trees’ in different places, the first being in a park in Widnes where he grew up and now in different situations around the globe, such is his reach these days. My reach these days are more purposefully local. Introspection is not a country I want to explore too deeply too quickly at level three, though I suspect it will be one of the stopping-off points. Kenna’s work, prints of outstanding beauty were on sale together with his new book ‘France’ and ready to be signed at a discount of £5 from the normal retail price. I’m sure that those who took the offer will find, as many others have done in the past, that the investment will reap dividends in the not too distant future if past performance is anything to go by – investments may go down as well as up! 

These photographs have been made as part of the build of imagery, to try and find a way of building visually narratives that I want to communicate. I feel I am at a starting point with a general direction in mind. I have been researching at the local library and have had some success in finding not only texts, but texts with imagery of people from the local area i.e. local to me and the Blenheim estate. I want to be very careful to not make documentary work that attempts to deliver a ‘truth’, I instinctively feel unable to do so, I want to build a sense of the area, perhaps in an historic context and construct a fiction. There is something very compelling in David Favrod’s imagery, maybe partly because it was suggested by Sharon, nevertheless I can’t seem to be free of it, especially when I considering what it is I want to do. This text introduces ‘Hikari ‘This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my own memory. To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but have unconsciously influenced me while growing up’. I wonder about the ‘knowing’ of the unconscious influence, but I feel that the body of work works extremely well. I can sense that the unconscious will affect whatever we, as artists, will conjure and it is with in mind that I am trying to assemble a visual syntax, personal statements in light and shade, tone and texture, composition and form that, hopefully, will form a cohesive language. As I see into the future I want to rely on text less and less. I am interested in the work being ‘openly’ read.

These trees from Blenheim could be from anywhere, that they are in the grounds of the estate provides a contextual framework for me to work from. I want to ‘use’ these trees, these trees that have held root for decades and sometimes centuries bearing witness. Simon Norfolk has photographed some of the more esoteric examples in the estate here, however these images seem somewhat superficial but no doubt they fitted the ‘brief’ when they were made. Michael Kenna explained in his talk that a significant part of his practice is the acquainting and re-acquainting of the land he wants to image, returning many times – dozens, sometimes scores of times to look and re-look. I have been to Blenheim a number of times, but plan to increase the frequency and to limit the places of interest to a few, less well travelled paths.

William Brooks, 25, was brought before the Magistrates at the Petty Sessions held at the Town Hall, Deddington on the 19th January charged with stealing a hammer, value 1s, the property of John Hopes on the 13th January at Great Tew……

William Brooks was sentenced to 2 calendar months imprisonment with hard labour in the House of Correction at Oxford.

I am fascinated by the need to ‘mark’ these trunks, leaving mementos, and how these words develop with the inexorable increase in height and girth of the tree. I am also fascinated by the light on both the words and bark, seemingly highlighting certain left massages.

I do feel that there is a collaborative feel working within a certain area, returning to the same area, getting to understand the light. Kenna’s talk was in the nearby (to me) Stowe School, part of ‘Arts at Stowe‘, the facilities were wonderful, his exhibition in the Watson Art School and talk in the ‘State Music Room’ (actually changed to a larger venue, still within the school facilities) was organised by his Gallery agents, Beetles and Huxley. I’m not sure I’ve seen prints more beautiful than these and if the queue for book and calendar signing was anything to go by it was a lucrative evening for this ex-Banbury School of Art and Design student. Local, local local. And whilst I felt the prints were extremely beautiful I wondered about the context of them in this setting, what it was saying about photography as a commodity, what it said about the artist who has a reputation amongst prestige motor manufacturers for creating images that sell their products. I’m not entirely sure what this all means, perhaps I’ll donate my old Michael Kenna book to a charity, perhaps this one.

 

 

Marks and Traces

I set out determinedly to start to make some images for the course. I have an idea about ‘marks and traces’ and I have a notion about the grounds of Blenheim Palace, which is quite near where I live. The day didn’t go well! I have decided to start, at least, with monochrome film – I’m not sure why – perhaps it’s something to do with the past, no matter I’ll see where it goes. I appreciate that by using it I am consciously referring back; but that seems to echo with the work, with what I’m setting out to find.

I have walked the area a few times now without a camera of any kind, but today I took two film cameras and a digital camera. I wanted to be as ‘open’ as possible in gathering evidence and this trip comes after spending some time in Woodstock library in their local history section trying to find a ‘way-in’. There are many formal footpaths in the grounds, but also quite a few ‘tracks’ and I wanted to walk these less structured routes. I was doing fine until after the first location when the batteries in my medium format camera ‘ran-out’. I was cross with myself about how careless I had been. I have a roll of film exposed and some 35 mm frames as well, but the main walk was abandoned and I will return again soon and fully refreshed on the battery front.

These images then are digital and whilst I knew about the ‘calendar tree’ (my name for it) I happened on the dead bird and hanging foil on the tree above. I have a good deal of research to do and evidence to collect over the next week or so, looking for traces and marks, but also to find the trace of a narrative that I want to communicate.

It is difficult to divorce the political from this land, I may not be able to do so, but I have a strong desire to find another strand to illuminate with images, and these photographs here all provide the sort of sense of what I am looking for – though not yet the direction.