Fiction and Photography: Imaging Reality

At the Science Museum November 8th 2014

One of the principle enticements for this one symposium when I signed up was the presence on the panel of Joan Fontcuberta; in the end he wasn’t present. However David Bates, Peter Kennard, Lucy Soutter, Mia Fineman and Christina de Middel were. A long day which, for organizational reasons, had a delayed start in a crowd packed part of London.

I had been to the Fontcuberta show twice before and I have written about it here, this third time with fellow students Catherine and Penny was still as inspiring, a reminder of how stilted my own creativity is by comparison. But to the symposium:

David Bate opened proceedings with a discourse on truth, as opposed to the titular opposite fiction, and by investigating the notion of how the medium has been blighted (my word) with the responsibility of revealing/ exposing/ presenting the ‘truth’. I think all three opening speakers referred to Rosler’s questioning of that photographic quest of sysophus, as well as questioning the pact between commerce and image. Bates suggests through his talk that the fiction of photography is that it provides a non-fiction, the lie that truth is evidenced as a mechanical function.

I found his questions on the nuancing of truth, or perhaps conversely, fiction very interesting, by suggesting that, for example Rosler’s dialectical montage work, so obviously in it’s manifestation a fiction that it’s truth or Rosler’s fiction becomes more easily determined as opposed to the craft of the digital manipulated image. Rosler’s deceit is more open to interpretation, the ‘textual substance’ of the image is more obviously honest – whether we believe in the rhetoric or not. I wrote a couple of other notes which I am unsure of the context, but which I am sure is about my reflection of the use of fiction in storytelling, which might form the basis of my work going forward – should that day ever dawn:

Where does truth fit in? and Where do dreams fit in? two questions for another time and place I think.

Mia Fineman titled her talk “Let’s Not and Say We Did” and spoke about the questioning of the veracity of the narrative. Using space travel, specifically the voyages to the moon in both fiction and ‘supposed’ reality she exampled work that was purported to be the truth, that purported to be fiction and their complete polar opposites; imaging that purported to be fictions about the truth and also the unraveling of fictions because they were truths in reality. What we were left with was a cogent argument to consider the imagery with a deal of skepticism. For example Fineman suggested that a poll of US Americans which asked whether they believed NASA put a man on the moon in 1969 revealed that a significant proportion, I seem to remember around 20%, believed it to be a fiction, similar proportions responded likewise in the UK but France were even more skeptical. There were all sorts of reasons Fineman suggests for it was felt the discrepancy existed, but I wondered about perspective, and perhaps especially narrative perspective. If the question were asked of all US Americans whether the 9/11 atrocity happened, I suspect a greater proportion would attest to it – maybe all of them. If the question were asked in Pakistan, I suspect the number would be less, by how much I couldn’t say of course. And so I wondered about the role of fiction in such incidents. The planes flew into the buildings, that camera footage provides unassailable evidence; but what of the stories? The stories are all mediated through a western capitalist construct. ISIS would have a completely alternate perspective. For us in the west it right and wrong, a dichotomy. In the Middle East is it wrong and right? Not sure about this, but I am fairly sure that fiction, rather than it’s polar opposite, would provide light into the darkness.

Lucy Soutter’s talk was entitled “Fictive Documents, Fictional Lives” I found this quite inspiring as it discussed, amongst other things, the strength of the narrative component of fiction and compared the visual narrative structure with it’s written counterpart. How fiction provides perspective, Soutter referenced work by Bloomberg and Chanarin, Walid Raad – again I thought of the 9/11 perspective. There was mention of the narrative strategy being not of human, but of object, citing Geraldine Brook’s written work and also the subtle difference between the artist as author versus narrator of their work – I subsequently emailed Lucy on this subject and she kindly replied very quickly with a response that included a reference to her book ‘Why Art Photography’ which I have a copy of and have read. The two comments I made at the end of her talk were “unhinge the position of the viewer” which I took to mean to perhaps encourage the viewer to reflect on their position as reader and ‘What is the drive to reveal truth”.

Christina de Middel,

The artist gave a potted history of her career before detailing the creation of the ‘Afronauts’ book, something I have written before here my feelings towards the work were not ameliorated by listening to the artist. I was interested in some of her tactics in sequencing.

Peter Kennard.

In my humble opinion one of the great artists still working today. Still as angry, still as opinionated and my only comment on his talk was a direct quote:

“Creation of a fiction as a fact” this of course can be read and reacted against in a multitude of ways and Kennard did so in his talk which ranged from his early influences of surrealism coming out of the Bauhaus, Soviet iconographic imagery from the likes of Rodchenko and then his own iconoclastic work with penetrating images speaking truth the power.

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6 thoughts on “Fiction and Photography: Imaging Reality

  1. Succinct and a very eloquent overview of the day John. I’m just going to copy and paste it all…just kidding. I have been thinking about the space landing conspiracy theories a little. Once that seed of doubt has been planted, it’s difficult to return to acceptance of the given truth…the onset of suspicious minds.

    Anyway looking forward to seeing your fictitious autobiographical storytelling.

    Fontcuberta was definitely the highlight for me…and such a shame he couldn’t attend, or me!

    • Thanks Penny. That someone would consider copying and pasting is good enough for me, despite the end use! The freedom of Fontcuberta’s work, how, despite the ‘one trick pony’ aspect – which I don’t wholly agree with – he pursued the contextual and narrative framing to the work. Terrific. Lots to think about from the event though, my head still hurts!

  2. Thanks for the overview and you’re very quick to the post! I’m sure this is something we’re going to keep discussing.
    I thoroughly enjoyed Mia Fineman’s Case Study – telling us facts about fiction and reminding me how closely truth and fantasy can become entwined. For me, Fontcuberta was definitely present in his absence. I still keep thinking about his work; the depth of his research; fine detail and wishing, “If only some deer did have wings”! Is that what you mean by the ‘one trick pony’ or something else?

  3. Pingback: Le Reflet | Body of Work

  4. Thanks John! I wish I was less isolated so I can enjoy such gatherings.
    Speaking about truth and fiction and what lies in between; did you ever watchLoose Change? Deals with the 9/11 case and I think there is a more up-to-date doc made by Massimo Mazzucco.
    Fontcuberta is a genius!

    • This symposium was organised by The Science Museum, nothing anyone can do about that. I have organised a video presence at the Johanna Ward event in order to circulate other students. By the way the Brotherus event was also video’d, not sure when it will be ready though.

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