Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Exercise: Analyse an essay on photography

Chapter 34 pages 380-386 of The Photography Reader - The Vertigo of Displacement by David A. Bailey and Stuart Hall is the final essay to be analysed. It seems much easier to read than previous essays but having said that there are still sections which make me stop and think “you could have put that in 3 words not 20!” and still a fair few “isms”.

I felt I had a lot to say about this essay so will cover the questions posed in the coursework during my ramblings and trying to work through personal feelings and impressions which formed my responses to these.
As a whole, The Vertigo of Displacement was very interesting but also challenging on several levels for me. In many respects I could identify with a huge amount of it but was also annoyed by some parts, this annoyance made me question why was I annoyed, what did that say about me and my own cultural upbringing and attitudes? Would this affect my review of the essay and it made me more aware that what Liz Wells had intimated, with regards to people’s baggage influencing exhibition reviews, was totally justified.

In one sentence: The essay is concerned mainly about the representation of blacks in photography and how this and the number of black photographers had changed in 1980's Britain.

Born in Croydon into a multicultural society, possibly described as from a working/middle class white background, lucky to have open –minded non racist parents who didn’t indoctrinate me with stereotypes, I accepted people as people and never saw the colour of their skin. It was only as I got older that my eyes were opened to the overt and institutionalised racism which existed, and I was horrified. Having said that I still get angry when terms like “institutionalised racism” and “empiricist” get bandied about because I want to yell “we aren’t all like that” but then I have to accept that a lot of essays, whilst pin pointing specific artists or incidents, do work with generalisms and sadly society does suck when it comes to discrimination/representation in its many forms. Historically in art/photography blacks were represented in certain ways, for example as slaves serving the upper classes, as interesting, exotic cultures through National Geographic or in documentary form as an influx of immigrants during the 1950’s. The 1980’s saw a shift in these practices which Bailey and Hall sought, through this essay, to discover how it had happened.

Thinking about the extent that the arguments are limited to Britain in the 1980’s and the usefulness of other references, this is where the narrowness of the essay grated slightly. I had to keep reminding myself that the reason only blacks and the 1980’s kept being spoken about was that it was an essay to do with the change in black photography during this period. Although it wasn’t written from a point of view that blacks and black photographers were the only ones who suffered discrimination or where there was an obvious shift in perceptions, I was still shouting in my head “but we also needed more poor/women/openly gay/disabled/insert minority photographers.” Then reminded myself yet again, these were not apparently areas up for debate but why not a nod? Another limitation of the essay was the geographical area under discussion. The coursework states the argument is limited to Britain but for me it pointed the finger mainly at England: Bailey and Hall referring to “Englishness” and the GLC (Greater London Council). Were other parts of the UK going through similar changes or were the influences taking place in London via the GLC the only ones that mattered? Or were these alone strong enough to affect the entire country? Having been to the Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography exhibition in 2011 @ V&A museum attitudes and influences have altered across the globe (although F&F deals with work produced 20 years later than the 80’s) it would have been interesting to know if there were any other outside influences.

Becker, when writing about the tabloid press acknowledges influences from the US and also touches upon other publications so I do think it would have been useful to refer to related movements in other countries as well, not just comment on the south-east of England. The GLC was well-known for supporting minority groups and it was a running joke (rightly or wrongly) that you wouldn’t qualify for a grant unless you were a single-parent, one-legged, black lesbian. Ken Livingston was the leader of the GLC during the 80’s, in favour of and a strong supporter of the recognition of gay rights and measures to address inequality faced by women and ethnic minorities. It seems odd to me, living and working in London during the 80’s, that policies which were treated as a joke by some, and introduced by a man described by the Sun newspaper as "the most odious man in Britain" are being cited as an important factor in the development of black photography. Good to know they worked!

Much of the discussion is set within a larger socio-political framework (of or pertaining to the interaction of social and political factors) do I feel this is justified by the evidence presented? This is another area where I find my own stance and personal experiences, my grandparents at one point lived in Brixton, may temper my reply. Being a Londoner of “that generation” I am fully aware of the socio-political atmosphere at the time- and historically - and can read between the lines of what has been written or fill in the gaps where not much has been evidenced. From the evidence given there is no real background provided to the unrest in London at the time, the riots, the resentment of positive discrimination, the ridicule of  political correctness, (which is still ridiculous at some levels even now). Any evidence provided seems anecdotal, there are no citations used or referencing to validate the arguments made. Some comments are vague: “institutions, academic bodies, black individuals” where, which ones, what makes them good examples? Bailey, Hall, Armet Francis and Vanley Burke all trace back to the West Indies - Jamaica or Bahamas - it would be interesting to know if the black population at the time was largely of this heritage, I suspect it was although many Ugandans and Nigerians were starting to settle due to political unrest across the world.

This link gives an interesting potted account of black community history in London

Knowing what I do, having experienced first-hand London in the 1980’s I can totally agree with their justification for the shift being based around the socio-political. On trying to distance myself from that knowledge I think their writings heavily suggest it but they don’t provide validation.

Finally we come to eligibility – should you be black to photograph black subjects? A wider implication of anti-realism and the increase in black photographers was the possibility and need for critics to be honest, to have the ability to be negatively critical of bodies of work created of//by black photographers. My simple answer to eligibility is no, you don’t have to be black to capture black subjects, a conclusion that Bailey and Hall also reach. They do so, and correctly in my opinion, by exploring the fact that people just aren’t the sum of the colour of their skin. They are influenced by their social class, gender, sexuality, occupations and personal experiences. American photojournalist William Eugene Smith was neither Welsh nor a miner but has been accredited for taking “one of the most significant images of 20th Century Wales". Don McCullin was in the RAF during his national service, never a soldier but his war coverage is second to none.

Bailey and Hall also justify this conclusion by citing work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Both photographed black men, one was black the other white, both captured black male masculinity, both were gay, both died from complications of AIDS. I can understand why they chose to use Mapplethorpe, he was a friend of and influenced Fani-Kayode, he was a white photographer capturing black subjects but playing devil’s advocate surely if talking about a shift in the portrayal of blacks within the UK it would have been better example to show a change in how a British white male did or did not undertake this shift?according to the essay critics even now will try to argue that Mapplethorpe shows submission and therefore doesn't break some of the ideas surronding the portrayal of blacks. A possible implication of choosing Mapplethorpe is that Fani-Kayode was influenced by an American rather than the socio-political changes within the UK which partially undermines the argument.

They also fail to tell us that Fani-Kayode was from a wealthy family of Nigerian heritage. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in April 1955, the second child of Chief Babaremilekun Adetokunboh and therefore part of a prominent Yoruba family, they moved to Brighton in 1966, after a military coup and the ensuing civil war. Rotimi attended a number of private schools before moving to the USA in 1976 to complete his education. He read Fine Arts and Economics, gaining a BA, at Georgetown University, Washington DC and gained an MFA at the Pratt Institute, New York in Fine Arts & Photography. Whilst in New York, he became friendly with Robert Mapplethorpe and later admitted to Mapplethorpe's influence on his work. Returning to the UK in 1983 he lived in Brixton with his partner Alex Hirst until his death in 1989. A co-founder of Autograph ABP - a British based, international, non-profit-making, photographic arts agency I don’t think Fani-Kayode is good example of how under-privileged, disenfranchised black photographers were given opportunities to thrive or be influenced by the changes in Britain even if he is a good example of a black photographer portraying aspects of black/gay/culture.

If we believe that certain sections of society can only photograph “their own” we limit the creative possibilities of photography and the chance to see from an outsider’s perspective. Where do you draw the line of how you define things? Just because cultures/situations/places are seen from a different point of view does it make the portrayal wrong? It helps to have an understanding of a topic to both capture it and write about it. Something that I become increasingly aware of the more I read, the more I write the more I photograph.


Becker, K. E. (1990). Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press. In L. Wells (Ed.), The Photography Reader (pp. 291-308). Oxon, England: Routledge.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Exercise: An Essay on Reviewing Photographs

The problem with catching up is the bits you keep looking at and think "I'll do that later" have to be done at some point... just done the Karin E Becker analysis and realise there is the next one on Words and Pictures: on reviewing photographs by Liz Wells to do followed by The Vertigo of Displacement by David A Bailey and Stuart Hall. They don't have to be done together but bearing in mind the next thing I have to do is write my own critical review it can only be helpful...guess what I'll be doing over the next few days?

There is this love/hate relationship I have with photography essays. I love to broaden my mind (read into that fry my brain totally) discover new ways of looking at life in general but loath the non-comprehension of what I am reading. It’s not so much the not understanding where authors are coming from rather the vocabulary they use and the overly long sentence structures. By the time I get to the end of a paragraph with only one full stop I have to think where did that start again? Liz Wells’ style is a lot easier to read than most but even so I had to read the essay through several times to make sure I understood what she was putting across and what her stance was.

It is reassuring that when glancing through other learning logs I am not the only person to be flummoxed by some of the writings.

In order to answer some of the questions I thought I ought to clarify in my mind what some of the terms meant. If anyone else out there feels the need to know, read these articles which I think helped slightly.

Words and Pictures: On reviewing photographs By Liz Wells (Wells, 1992)

Wells opens the chapter by informing us that the essay was originally written as a commission for a newsletter targeting regional photo-practitioners. The aim of the essay was to reflect upon the role of the critic in relation to photographic exhibitions and consider if they were taking into account the changes happening within photography.

The main argument would appear to be the responsibility of the critic to “adequately describe visual objects” when they may only have limited and inadequate secondary sources and possible bias depending on academic knowledge or leanings towards certain art movements. Their reviews matter because they will exist for a longer period than the exhibitions themselves and will eventually form the materials used by archivists and academics and record different eras and contexts. There is also some emphasis on the conflict of writing reviews for an exhibition when taking into account publicity required, monetary gain and photographers anxious for a “good” review.

Do I consider the essay’s title a fair indication of the contents of the essay? If just called “Words and Pictures” the title would be rather ambiguous, it could suggest captioning or titles, however with the subtitle “on reviewing photographs” it does suggest that the topic is in relation to the discussion of what words are used when reviewing images. It doesn’t give any clues as to the direction or opinions of the author.
Wells does cite other authors however much of the article comes across as written from a personal point of view and from personal experience as a writer/critic. I found her criticism of Bill Jay odd? He had commented that a criticism should do one or more of the following “introduce you to photographers of who you were unaware; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place the image in the context of photography’s history; place the images in the context of the artist’s culture;…throw light upon the creative/artistic process…above all else (be) useful” (Jay, 1992)

She asks useful for what? To me he meant useful in informing the audience of something they may not know or presenting facts which they can either agree or disagree with. Is this an outdated idea, does it suggest the critic is relying on familiarity?

Wells brings into her debate context and differing art movements and how, particularly in Britain (where photography was accepted as an art form to be critiqued and discussed at a later point than in Europe) archives began to be deemed important and a suitable vocabulary deemed necessary to discuss the subject. I am in total agreement with her that some of the vocabulary is too elitist and an immense amount of work written about photography is so unobtainable to the everyday practitioner. I just want to learn and understand without the need for a thesaurus at my elbow thanks!

To what extent do I feel she relies on Postmodernist doctrine? I found this question tricky to answer. Whilst I feel she has a definite post-modernist bias does she rely on it? Are all her arguments underpinned by this doctrine? She points out that critics need to take into consideration the changing face of photography, both in the multi-media world we live in and the way photography itself has progressed to encompass other art forms. Is this doctrine or reality? However Wells does also discuss Modernism and a brief history of the development of how art was viewed. She does give both sides of the argument and as a writer a good article/essay should do this? Therefore it can be said that you rely on both points of view to give a balanced debate allowing your audience can make up their own minds? Having said that I think she does write more pro Postmodernism and maybe does rely on this to make her essay work. I feel like I am sitting on the fence with this bit?

At one point Wells states that good writing should be “well-informed, purposeful and engaging” surely to do this the writer needs to employ some of the “menu” Jay suggests? This leads onto the final question of how important do I believe it is for a critic of photography to have deep knowledge of the practice of photography. Simple answer is no, I don’t. If writing to teach people how to take certain images then it may be important to know in greater detail what camera was used, film, f-stop but this could be supplied by public relations officers or curators. But is that what a critical review should have to contain? Do film critics need to understand every aspect of film-making to tell us what they thought worked or not about a film? Do theatre critics need to understand every nuance of lighting, writing or staging to tell us what a play was about or if it had any emotional resonance? No, they don’t. We expect them to have some understanding, to be able to compare one show against another perhaps but a deep knowledge, no we don’t. The same should be true for critics writing about photography, yes they should have some knowledge possibly a good level of understanding or how else can they be reliably informative. Also they should be able to frame discussions using photographic vocabulary but not so much that people glaze over. As with any topics writers should keep up with modern trends and technologies both for creating and presenting work but that does not mean they have to have deep knowledge. Critical reviews of exhibitions are important if they are to form historical archives but reviews are not intended to be academic critical essays full of citations and references.

Jay, B. (1992). Occam's Razor. In L. Wells, Words and Pictures: On reviewing photography (1992) in The Photography Reader Ed. Well, L (2003)(p. 431). Oxon: Routledge.
Wells, L. (1992). Words and Pictures: on reviewing photographs. In The Photography Reader (pp. 428-434). Oxon: Routledge.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Assignment Three Feedback

:o) I was really pleased with my feedback, lots of positives, and any suggestions were put forward politely and spot on. Being new to each other there were some useful reminders; especially helpful as I had such a long gap between thought processes and actually doing any projects!

General overview was a demonstration of "clear, methodical and professional approach...prepared well and did research prior to arrival...consideration to equipment required...good that I re-visited to take outside layout worked well...a wide selection of shots"

Was reminded that I should reference my work, yes I should, Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer were photographers who I had in mind before shooting but me being me and in a rush to get things underway forgot to mention this ;oD Both hoot architectural history, large interiors and use different vantage points, Hofer especially used upper levels to great effect when shooting her library series.

Born in 1954, Struth initially studied painting at the Düsseldorf academy under the German artist Gerhard Richter, before turning to photography. His "mastery of formal composition, colour and detail have made him one of the pre-eminent European art photographers of our time" Struth is best known for his large-scale cityscapes and his series of family portraits. He does shoot some work on digital, preferring to use 8x10mm plate cameras on tripods.

Thomas Struth Pantheon

Thomas Struth San Zaccaria
I liked the approach of Struth showing the large spaces, including people for scale and the columns of the buildings interiors.

Hofer’s also takes large-format photographs, with deeply saturated color and extraordinary detail. Born in 1944, she photographs buildings without people, often without any visible signs of human presence at all. For more than 30 years she has been compiling her deadpan inventory of public spaces, a social catalogue of architectural history.

From the website

Candida Höfer's photographs of libraries are sober and restrained – the atmosphere is disturbed by neither visitors nor users, especially as she forgoes any staging of the locations. The emptiness is imbued with substance by a subtle attention to colour, and the prevailing silence instilled with a metaphysical quality that gives voice to the objects, over and above the eloquence of the furnishings or the pathos of the architecture.

Candida Hofer Beautiful Libraries - Napoli
Candida Hofer Queluz Palace Portugal

Great to see how she researches, books, internet, people who live there. Once there she walks around to take in the place first until she decides which perspective to shoot from. She likes using digital due to the versatility. Hofer thinks using a tripod makes the image look more static...interesting thought to ponder over..her last thought was be persistent!

A query as to why I had used a monochrome image and nowhere did I justify this, again true; there were a few reasons why I chose the monochrome version, firstly I thought an awful lot of my images looked "brown/rusty" in tone and wanted to have a contrast within the series. Also the bust of Bazalgette is very monochrome and was trying to tie the images together in that respect. Finally there was the association of the historical context but as the original image is actually very sepia-ish in its own right I possibly didn't need to do this? I'll create the spread again with the original and see what difference it makes. I had also been looking at some magazine spreads from Kew Gardens and they had a few mixed spreads so thought I would experiment.

Image below not monochrome.

Suggested reading/viewing

Londei, J.2007 Shutting Up Shop: The Decline of The Traditional Small Shop

I’m really pleased this was recommended.The publication reveals the scope of his project photographing “traditional small shops” for a seventeen year period starting in 1972. His project was not based on a specific community with the many shops featured  scattered across the county. The premises are shown devoid of people bar the owners.

With every shot there is an explanation about the history of the shop and  the people who ran them. Frequently he was capturing scenes that would soon be gone,with many of the shopkeepers being elderly; the last of their family keeping the business going. In some ways this reminded me of the Non-Conformists by Martin Parr, looking at a disappearing part of our heritage. Although Londei took the images in the 70s and 80s, the book was not published until 2007, by which time he returned to see what had happened in the ensuing years. Sadly, as to be expected, the majority are no longer trading with only seven of the original sixty shops featured remaining in business.

Interesting and useful project to review, a long term project and how to approach looking at something that will provide historical interest later on, finding out personal details that add to the images and how to hang each image together as a narrative.

Germain, J.2005 For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness

I must admit to only looking at this online and not getting hold of the book but it again looks to be a fascinating documentary project following the day to day happenings of an elderly man. It's a simple portrait of an elderly man's life.

Germain became friends with Charles Snelling in the early nineties, was interested in his life, and began photographing him. With visits instigated by companionship rather than than the idea of taking photographs Germain said "Photography was undoubtedly part of it because I always took my camera, but it was a relatively small part with no end product in mind, no deadline and no pressure to 'succeed'." Nevertheless, Germain produced a series of quality photos, enough to fill roughly two thirds of the book.

The remainder is filled with Snelling's own scrapbook albums, woven seamlessly into the material with Germain's own photographs. The albums are presented as true facsimiles with yellowed pages, dog-eared covers.Through these we gets a sense of Snelling's life before he met Germain. We are introduced to his deceased wife Betty,via a series of holiday photos and everyday snapshots.

The experience of thumbing Snelling's old scrapbooks has been described as "rich and cinematic, and the photos have an authenticity that no outside photographer can match. Indeed, this is one of the project's central paradoxes. Germain's photographs of Snelling -- artfully composed with shallow depth of field -- are wonderful. But they look like, well, fine art photographs."  He not only throws scrapbooks into the mix, but gives them the same respect as his own photos. This echoed for me the work of John Stezaker and Joachim Schmid's use of found photographs.

To summarise another brilliant technique to show a social documentary using a mix of older and current images and putting them together to tell a pertinent story.

Wood, T.1998.All Zones Off Peak

All Zones Off Peak is an epic fifteen-year bus journey through the streets of Irish-born Tom Wood’s adopted home, Liverpool. A body of work that documents a photographer’s (and a city’s) daily transit, All Zones Off Peak is a celebration of the ‘ordinary’ and an affectionate ode to Merseyside, narrated by its own inhabitants.
Those who share Tom Wood’s passage through the city are mostly unaware of the camera’s presence– often commuters lost in a pensive trance, as the monotony of the daily commute unfolds. Those who acknowledge their fellow traveler and his lens stare, blankly cocooned in their own private isolation. The pained reality of a city blighted by political neglect, poverty, and social disenchantment is depicted as the bus passes the littered and graffiti strewn urban streets. But in the passing of time and the turning of the page – a more confident city emerges and a more complex, layered portrait of a place and its people is depicted.
All Zones Off Peak begins as a gritty monochrome journey, but within the two decades and three thousand rolls of film, a city saturated in color emerges through the bus’ windows. In his accompanying essay, Mark Holborn describes the work: “On this repetitious route through the Liverpool streets the focus dissolves as the journey unwinds. The pictures move gradually through the sequence toward abstraction. The window becomes a screen, not a barrier, and the window frames form skeletons for the images in correspondence to the frames of the film itself.”
Affectionately named by locals the “Photie Man”, Tom Wood is a photographer anchored to place, a documentarian of home. Through his lens the anonymous, mundane, and everyday becomes strangely engaging and the rhythm of his Liverpool intimately compelling.
Its really great that you can review books online sometimes brief notes - a mix of black and white and colour images, spreads different sizes, framing not always square on. if the main subject is in shot he does not worry about cropping out others, with arms legs and feet dangling into view.

These last few books are a sage reminder than it is not always good to have to rush a project....these have taken years to compile...if I want to do something interesting I ought to start now!!
Soth, A.2008. Sleeping By The Mississippi

snipped on photography

"I went to school to be a painter, but I soon realized I wasn’t very good... attended a lecture by the photographer, Joel Sternfeld...realized that was what I wanted to do...fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things....a kind of performance.  The picture is a document of that performance. What really frustrates is that photography is not very good at telling stories.  Stories are so satisfying.  Novels and movies satisfy, but photographs often leave me feel like something is missing."

on fragments

"...photographs can succeed in telling stories when they are collectively put into a narrative sequence... it seems to me that, in Sleeping by the Mississippi, you are trying to get away from overt sequencing, away from a clear provide the viewer with a scattered assortment of fragments, which they can try to make sense of afterwards...question...would you prefer that the viewer regarded each image in Sleeping by the Mississippi individually, like a book of collected poems, or would you prefer that the entire body of work were considered a single unified whole, as in a film, a novel, or even a lengthy dream?"

answer " Definitely the unified whole..lesson learned that great pictures are all about luck...anyone can take a great picture...very few people can put together a great collection of pictures.  It is incredibly difficult to put these fragments together in a meaningful way...this is my goal."

on why photography Minnesota?
"This is a terrific question.  The obvious reason that I’ve photographed the Midwest is that I live there; in Minnesota.  So I have a feeling for the place..  The Midwest isn’t exotic.  And photographers (myself included) are attracted to the exotic.  Middle sometimes means bland. Of course, when you get involved in the Midwest, there are a lot of interesting nuances.  But it isn’t obvious. The Midwest doesn’t have the grandeur of the West or the exoticism of the South.  This was one of my favorite things about working along the Mississippi."

on social documentary..
" I understand that you never intended Sleeping by the Mississippi to be a social document. But grouped together, these images inevitably comment on the people, communities, and environments that you photographed.... Also, could you possibly discuss your reaction to being nominated to Magnum; how do you feel that you fit in with the agency’s history and its current output, and has this changed your work in any way?"

answer "I’m not entirely comfortable with this project being described as a social document.  This is why it is titled “Sleeping by…”... trying to suggest that this was more internal and dream-like.  Of course, as you say, the pictures do indeed comment on the people and places I photographed.  And thus it is a kind of document.  But there are just so many gaps.  I was shaping my own river.  This is what photographers usually do, right?  They create their own vision."
fascinating interview...I liked his comment on it NOT being social documentary..but it kind of is....

So...amendments to make, tasks to do and the next assignment...

*update re-working Here