Whitechapel Gallery : 28 April 2012
Gillian Wearing Exhibition
Study Visit with OCA
I felt very well-prepared for this visit, with a good briefing from OCA concerning ‘Looking and Reading’. A video to watch; Guardian interview to read, and suggestions for some thinking to do beforehand.
Gillian Wearing has a degree in Fine Art, is a conceptual artist and was a member of the Young British Artists Movement. This group rose to fame in the 1990s; its members often used shock tactics; used new materials to produce art and were from the East of London (e.g. Tracey Emin). I’m assuming they were part of the postmodernist movement.
It’s obvious that the Guardian interviewer, Tim Adams, had difficulty in getting her to speak as freely about herself as she achieved with her own subjects. I gained a sense of an unsettled, shifting ground between them with Wearing using words to elude and the interviewer trying to pin her down. Wearing describes herself as a listener and I’ve found that people who are more used to listening can certainly find it hard to talk about themselves – and vice versa. There is another interview on the Guardian site (talking to Kira Cochrane) where she describes her own inarticulacy and problems she had at comprehensive school in Birmingham that pioneered large class sizes. Thinking about it, there’s a ‘listening’ mask and a ‘talking’ mask we wear when we’re interacting with others and we switch between them with greater or lesser facility according to our intrinsic personality and whom we’re with at the time.
After my preparatory reading I noted down masks, sense of self; many different selves; unexpressed selves; boundaries; verbal/non-verbal; Erving Goffman; Eleanor Rigby, and showing yourself through your art. I read Goffman many years ago and was entertained by his notion of the front and back stage personalities – that we all enact multiple roles in our lives. That was the biggest question I took with me to the Exhibition – is Gillian Wearing going to show me herself through her art – ‘communicate an inner life by proxy’ as her interviewer writes?
It was good to meet up with everyone from OCA and link some more names to faces. As before, we were greeted by Michael Lawton of the Gallery who provided a commentary as we walked round. He gave us his introduction whilst standing under a monitor playing a video of Gillian Wearing singing to herself in a shopping mall. So far as I could tell, none of the other shoppers actually paused to look at her so she was in her own inner world there. Maybe they thought she was madly eccentric. Michael Lawton drew attention to her use of colour; her switch into films and the performance element in her work.
We looked at one short film before we went to the upper gallery. This was of a girl called Lindsay, a street drinker who subsequently died. The film is grainy, in slow motion and synced with Lindsay’s twin sister speaking about her. Thinking about it now, the graininess and slow motion added a slightly drunk effect. I wonder if this was Wearing’s intention.
Whilst Michael Lawton had been talking to us I had had this odd thought that maybe Gillian Wearing was actually with us; playing the part of one of the group and observing us. Maybe it was because I’d caught sight of her self-portrait at the bottom of the stairs – wearing a mask of her own face with just her (real) eyes looking through. The smooth rigidity of the expressionless mask combined with those large eyes was quite unnerving and, throughout, the rest of the tour it was the eyes within masks that were the most compelling yet weirdly skewed to me.
The early series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ was the most ‘traditional’ to me. 600 portraits ranged around the room with the subjects holding signs. It was the sheer number of them that was impressive. Some of the signs were at odds with the subject such as a woman smiling whilst holding a sign ‘I am depressed at the moment’, and a man unsmiling and with eyes closed stating ‘Queer and happy. The latter made me think of how small children can often believe that if their eyes are closed people can’t see them. My other thought was, “How do I know that the signs are telling the truth in any case?”
There are further films where the subject’s words are synced with someone else’s voice. The twins and their mother for example. How often do I now hear my mother’s words coming out of my mouth. My daughter and I were only talking about this a few weeks ago and she said sometimes she almost horrifies herself by doing this. Sometimes my grandchildren say things in such an old-fashioned way that I know it’s a parent speaking – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and all that!. I find those occasions amusing but it was odd to see here – not knowing whether to close my eyes and listen to the words or watch the non verbal behaviour of the now muted subjects. Maybe it was harder because these were strangers I was watching and listening to.
There were further portraits – again with the use of masks. Gillian Wearing as her favourite photographers, and also as members of her own family. Again it was the eyes that seemed weird, like those films where aliens take over humans or The Midwich Cuckoos. You know there’s something not quite right about their behaviour but it’s hard to work out exactly why. Gilllian Wearing attempting to get behind the skin of other people – is this because she thinks she can or because she wants to know what it’s like to be them? I don’t know what her living family thought about the portraits but there’s another interesting Guardian piece on the creation of the masks.
Beyond this were booths where one could watch film of more people in masks giving intimate details of their lives and secret thoughts – some of which I really didn’t want to hear! One of my fellow students Julia has compared this to confessional booths, whilst also raising an important point to me concerning the ethics of this kind or work. What effect do these confessions have on the speakers; how do they deal afterwards with any feelings raised. I think it’s fine to say, “Well they volunteered to do this”, but people don’t always take into account what the consequences might be.
There were some harrowing stories as well in ‘10-16’. Volunteer actors, trained in method-acting, lip-synced to the voices of children and young people. Reminding me of how so many adults carry the bruising of their childhood within them.
I might not like her methods but Gillian Wearing is certainly full of talent and creativity. I suppose I’m left wondering how she felt about the stories she heard and whether they helped her to express or make any connection with her own feelings and thoughts. I certainly didn’t get a sense of the real Gillian Wearing behind all those different masks – even her own.
I think that in speaking as yourself from behind a mask you become an actor in your own drama and so, in a sense, unreal. Also, how real do you feel when you speak as someone else? I know I’ve certainly engaged in role plays in the past where I found I was identifying with the person I was portraying. This kind of projective identification also gave me more of an insight into them as a person – I found clues and answers I hadn’t been aware of before. This brings to mind the role of empathy in our lives and the effect of confluence. If we enter into someone else’s thoughts and feelings then the boundaries between us become a little blurred and we sometimes have to work hard to distinguish between self and other.
In the Exhibition itself seeing through masks actually distanced me from the person behind them, despite their often tragic stories. Their stories were just that – not quite real and so I felt both slightly troubled yet uninvolved at the same time. Thinking of theatrical tradition I’m reminded of Greek tragedies and the masked actors. The masks de-personalize and so the subjects become Everyman and their stories take on a universal resonance.
There’s a lot more of a philosophical nature concerning self, aspects of self and how all those different possibilities of our birthing gradually become distilled into a central core, so that we know when we are, or not, ‘being ourselves’. If we don’t then we can become psychotic or suffer various personality disorders. I want to re-read Goffman to remind myself whether or not he touches upon this aspect. What comes through in Gillian Wearing’s Exhibition is a view of life which seems to believe that we take on these ‘masks’ to hide something negative about ourselves. I don’t remember that coming through to me when I read Goffman all those years ago.
I’ve been given a lot of food for thought here, including how as a photographer I want to interact with my subjects. I certainly don’t want to de-personalize them yet, in the very act of pressing the shutter button, I do freeze them in time.
1st May 2012
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011
Almost a year ago, when I’d just started my Course, I wrote an early post on the 2010 Prize. I was just beginning to really look at photographs and the book of the Exhibition really caught my eye. At the time, I initially thought that the 2010 winner ‘Huntress with Buck’ was a ‘cruel’ picture in its depiction of a beautiful 14 year old who had been taken to South Africa by her parents so that she could kill her first African animal.
My visceral response to this meant that it took some time before I could appreciate the colour, rich tones and composition and compare this with ancient depictions of Celtic goddesses/queens.
I never did get to see that particular Exhibition, but last month (6th December 2011) I went to see the 2011 Prize at the National Portrait Gallery which finishes on the 12th February. It was a busy day, and the gallery seemed cramped and photographs small when I compared them with some of the other Exhibitions I had visited during the year (I’m thinking here particularly of the Thomas Struth Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Deutsche Bourse Photography Prize contenders at the Photographers’ Gallery Ambika P3, the University of Westminster).
The first prize is Harriet and Gentleman Jack, by Jooney Woodward. It’s what I would call a ‘beautiful’ image. A young 13 year old girl with long, flowing titian hair who is cradling her guinea pig, a pink eyed golden cavey, whose fur just about matches Harriet’s hair (although a deeper tone). Could it be called ‘sentimental’ well, maybe it could. It’s certainly the antithesis of last year’s winner. Two girls, a year apart in age – one who kills some animals for pleasure and the other who proudly cradles her pet. They both have similar colouring and gaze confidently at the camera. I wonder what would happen if they both met. What might they have in common?
On a technical note, Jooney Woodward used a Mamiya RZ medium format film camera on a tripod, using natural light, whilst David Chancellor used a Mamiya 711 6×7. I can’t say more than that because I’ve never used a Mamiya or a larger format camera but I’m hoping to have the opportunity in the future. There’s something so soft yet clear about the images, with such rich colours.
Apparently, this portrait inspired Woodward to continue photographing the ‘quirky’ world of guinea pig enthusiasts .
The 2011 second prize went to Jill Wooster for her portrait of her friend, Of Lili. this is a different, more gritty, image which is taken from an ongoing series by Wooster on middle-aged women at difficult stages in their lives. Of Lili was taken with a DSLR with minimal retouching.
Another portrait which caught my eye was Erika E, born in 1910 by Karsten Thomaehlen. She must have been beautiful when young and is still beautiful now – her wrinkles only enhance her bone structure.This is from a series, ‘Happy at one hundred’, taken of more than 40 men and women over the age of 100. I can only hope that, if I live that long, I will still have the inner strength and certainty to look the camera straight in the eye and state, “This is me!”.
I’m realizing now that these four females, whose ages range from 13 to 100, all have that same direct and confident gaze and this is what has drawn me towards them. I could write more on the portraits exhibited but I think I’ll leave it at this. The Exhibition is still on and the accompanying book presents the images faithfully.
When I got back home after my visit I read an email newsletter on, “The return of photo-realism”, by Robert Genn who is a painter. He was commenting on a letter from a reader that bemoaned the fact that painted portraits can now almost be indistinguishable from photographs. Genn’s response was that “tight rendering is easier to do than realistic painting done freshly and expressively”. He also reminded us that many portrait painters do also use photographs – as painters may in general I think, (cf George Shaw) plus, of course, painters also used to use the camera obscura and the camera lucida. Genn also referred to an Exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, “Snapshot – Painters & Photography 1888-1915”.
I couldn’t go to Amsterdam (and the Exhibition ended on 8th January) but there was an accompanying large and heavy book which I bought from Amazon. It’s fascinating to read. The book investigates seven Post-Impressionist painters and printmakers who also made many personal snapshots which were kept private. They are Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard (members of the Nabis group, Paris) and also George Hendrik Breitner, Henri Evenepoel and Henri Riviere who were working in Europe around the same time. The Introduction by Easton explains that all seven ‘displayed common approaches and interests. They were all enthusiastic about photography and the photographs were meant to be private records, ‘without artistic pretense or commercial aspirations’. She points out that the camera did not supplant the sketch but added a different dimension to visual material that could be drawn upon, and were sometimes taken deliberately as study material for paintings.
The three following essays discuss ‘George Eastman and the Handheld Camera’, ‘The New truths of the Snapshot”, and ‘Amateur Photography in the Late Nineteenth Century’. From there, the book looks at the seven artists and their photographs. It really is an interesting book with many photographs and you can see how some of them were translated into actual paintings – many of them being portraits (to bring me back to the beginning of this post).
I know that I’ve viewed this Exhibition in terms of what appealed to me the most out of some excellent images. So then I had to ask myself what else was there in the images that made them ‘good’. And, furthermore, what makes a good portrait in general in this modern age?
John Berger has commented that in the past, portraits in oil were often used to represent the subject’s social status – therefore they were painted in a context which emphasized this. Renaissance portraits also used symbolism in portraits to represent the subject’s learning, wisdom, explorations and, by means of memento mori, the fact that we all die!
However, Graham Clarke (1997) writes, “From the inception of the portrait photograph photographers have been concerned to express in the single image an assumed ‘inner’ being. (p. 101). He goes on to state that the portrait photograph is, “…the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological and psychological” (p. 102) which rather contradicts this. The meaning and purpose of portraiture is a complex subject and so here I want to focus upon how do I read a portrait and what makes it good.
When I go back to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, I am reminded that the best 60 portraits (out of over 6,000 entries) were chosen by a judging panel who then agreed the 5 prize winners. The panel were not told the identity of the photographers – although one might guess that some were recognized, (Bibi Aisha, by Jodi Bieber for example). The judges saw prints right from the beginning. Sandy Nairne, Director of the national Portrait Gallery, writes in the Director’s Foreword of the accompanying book, “Only from prints can the richness and subtlety of the very best portraits be appreciated to the full” (p. 2, 2011). I’m going to assume as well that as the photographers were anonymous the members of the judging panel didn’t know the story behind each image, or that some were part of a series – information which can add further depth. What was it that made those 5 winners stand out from the 60 best?
I’ve already commented on the richness and colour of Harriet and Gentleman Jack and Woodward has said that she was most struck by the visual potential in the similarities of colouring. You can see how the soft flow of Harriet’s hair is mirrored in the silky softness of the guinea pig’s fur. There are a few small details such as the label on the guinea pig’s ear, Harriet’s nail varnish; the scratch on her hand and the safety pin near her lapel. The girl and guinea pig stand out against the hazy background.
Of Lili is very different. Jill Wooster specializes in creating fashion portraits, “that she characterizes as ‘over the top and slightly surreal’” (p. 9, 2011). However she describes her personal work, such as this portrait, as, “….more about an attempt to get under the skin of something” (ibid). She wanted to see if she could capture the balance between Lili’s confidence and vulnerability – the gentle persona with anger just beneath the surface. Wooster states that isn’t sure she succeeded but did get something else, which is Lili’s strength. Is this what came through to the judges? There is her sinewy body in heavily belted jeans and sleeveless tops which show of her slight musculature and whipcord arms. In softer opposition to this Lili has a lacey embellishment on her singlet, is wearing lipstick and her hair is softly arranged. I can see a hint of tension in her stance; her shoulders are slightly raised towards her ears and her face looks slightly frozen. There is a vulnerability about her bare neck. Of course, there are question I want to ask. Does Lili normally wear clothes like that? Does she usually wear lipstick, etc or has this portrait been stage-managed to fit the theme? There is also a greyness about the background/processing which seems to reinforce the tension.
With Erika E, born in 1910, (which didn’t win one of the 5 prizes) there are the small clues such as her collar brooch and rings. The softness of her top matches the colour and softness of her hair. I can’t see any obvious attempt to fade her wrinkles. There is an air of confidence and clarity which shines through. Maybe this is too ‘ordinary’ a portrait to win an actual prize. I don’t know anything about her other than her age at the time the portrait was taken. Is she still alive? I hope so. Did/does she have a clear mind – I hope so. Is this part of a ‘good’ portrait as well – the viewer wanting to know more and asking questions about the subject?
I seem to have been asking quite a few questions here which is good because it means I’ve opened my eyes more.
25th January 2012
Clarke, G, The Photograph, 1997, Oxford University press, Oxford.
Easton, E.W. (ed), Snapshot. Painters and Photography 1888-1915, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
National Portrait Gallery, Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011, 2011, National Portrait Gallery Publications, London
Postmodernism : ‘Style and Subversion 1970-90’ and ‘Signs of a Struggle – Photography in the wake of Postmodernism.
OCA Study Visit to the Exhibition at the V&A on 29th October 2011
I know it’s not considered academic due to lack of scholastic verification but Wikipedia seems a good place to start, because this is where I first looked after hearing the term Postmodernism. Also, Wikipeia is, of course, a product of the era itself.
“……., modernism and postmodernism, are understood as cultural projects or as a set of perspectives. “Postmodernism” is used in critical theory to refer to a point of departure for works of literature, drama, architecture, cinema, journalism, and design, as well as in marketing and business and in the interpretation of law, culture, and religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Indeed, postmodernism, particularly as an academic movement, can be understood as a reaction to modernism in the Humanities. Whereas modernism was primarily concerned with principles such as identity, unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality, textuality, and skepticism.”
To me this seemed too all-encompassing to fit with my notions of theories and models which can be put to the test so that you can say “This is, or isn’t true”. My other problem is that, in becoming an adult within this period, I’ve probably absorbed its influences and accepted them without realising where they came from and why. I’ve also learned from history studies that periods of change evolve slowly rather than in the steps so clearly defined by historians.
If I continue with the latter view then out of a gradual period of change there came sufficient number of intellectuals to agree and state that Modernism had now become Postmodernism. Except of course that all the other “ism’s” were still there.
I found the language used to describe Postmodernism to be impenetrable and so bought “Art Theory for Beginners” (Osborne & Sturgis, 2006). I’m not going to attempt to provide a summary of its description of Postmodernism (pp 158) because I think I’ll get lost in language again, eg
It does conclude that everything we started off associating with art has been thrown into question in the Postmodern world and that Art is a form of visual curiosity which means that , “it is always in some sense about how we view ourselves and others in the world” (p.186) What I discovered for myself by visiting the Exhibition was that the concept has to be experienced rather than understood and described in a logical fashion – at least for now.
The Study Visit
The visit was some time ago (it’s now 17th January 2012) and I really must now write down my reactions. The major problem was that I haven’t been able to work out what I thought about it. I’m hoping that putting my fingers to the keys now will bring me to some kind of conclusion.
As ever it was good to meet with other students (not only from Photography) and also to meet more of the tutors from the other disciplines. The morning was spent going round the main Exhibition and in the afternoon I went to the smaller, separate photography exhibition. The two events being punctuated by a pigeon – surreal, but fitting to the day.
Exhibition : Postmodernism ‘Style and Subversion 1970-90’
Here is the V&A’s own general article.
and another article about the creation of the Exhibition is here
The multi dimensional aspect was very much in keeping with the theme. Post-modernism is more generally associated with its roots in architecture but it seems to have been quickly taken up by other creative arts.
Architecture appeared early in the Exhibition. I was struck by the work of Venturi and Scott Brown. There was a model of a house which Robert Venturi built for his mother in the early 60s.
To me, this house looked less modern and more retro in the sense that it reminded me somehow of early buildings in the American west when large facades were put onto the front of smaller shacks. The couple were very much taken by Las Vegas and filmed a research trip there. Their view was that the architecture of The Strip has to be read at 35mph. Quite fast, you can only see the impact rather than the core (just like the old style buildings?)
Moving on in design there were models of buildings which looked like teapots and teapots which looked like buildings. Another teapot was in the shape of Double Cooling Towers (Teapot No. 10 by Richard Notkin). Notkin had studied Yixing Chinese teapots and, as a means of addressing topical political themes, integrated these forms into his creations. Part of his artist statement was
“It is not the objects created which are of prime importance, but the lives of people who may be touched in significant ways.”
As I walked around the Exhibition what was coming over to me was that sense of almost childlikeness in terms of “I can do or make anything, with whatever materials, in any shape or form I choose” a freeing of restrictions of cultural and artistic conventions. Historicism recreated methods from the past, inventing new creative renditions and designers also salvaged distressed materials.
Working through the Exhibition layout, as the later years came I recognized many of the designs of pottery and furniture I looked at in the magazines then or upmarket shops. Of course, I couldn’t afford to buy them! The clothes too of course, particularly as worn by pop stars of the 1980s such as Annie Lennox, Boy George etc. Vivienne Westwood springs to mind in designer terms. These are clothes more likely to have been seen in magazine and major cities but not in the suburbs from what I remember. There was the music – some of which I enjoyed such as the rather robotic melodies of Kraftwerke’s “Shop Window Dummies”. – we are all just forms to be clothed. Postmodernism had metamorphed into something else – almost an emptiness and recognition that that wonderful bright new post-war future which had once been envisaged had turned out not to be so bright after all. Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) conveyed this sense of a post-apocalyptic world – drab colours, with robots performing human functions. Something that the old style refuse tips always used to remind me of before they become sanitized, segmented and orderly with everything labeled and in its right place.
I felt depressed and jangled as I walked out of the Exhibition and decided that a walk around the shop would do me good. I bought two books. “Introducing Post-modern-ism : A graphic guide”, is all black and white, apart from the cover, and in cartoon style. If you think of sound-bites then this book is a visual version. The book which accompanies the Exhibition itself is much broader and academic in approach. “Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990”. The latter book brings together the thoughts of a group of historians, theorists and critics who assess the impact of postmodernism on all areas of art and design. It’s good to see from the inside of the front cover that, “The radical ideas associated with postmodernism……have always resisted straightforward evaluation” which probably explains why I have had such difficulty getting a grasp of it. The book is beautifully presented and full of information and photographs although, oddly enough, photography as such doesn’t merit much mention as an art form.
After a brief lunch I decided to visit the much smaller Photography Exhibition.
Signs of a Struggle : Photography in the wake of postmodernism
There were three images which particularly struck me.
This met me as I walked in. A photograph of still-life arrangement – a vase of sunflowers; a painting of it, and a handwritten, childlike get well card. It is bright, eye-catching and a visual play on words and pictures. David Hockney did the get-well painting in 1995 for Jonathan Silver, his friend and collaborator (creator of the Salt Mills Gallery, Bradford). The photograph is printed on watercolour paper and obviously references Van Gogh.
“Haywain with Cruise Missiles”, Peter Kennard
A reworking of Constable’s painting. This is a photomontage lithograph created by Kennard in 1980 in protest against the siting of American cruise missiles in Britain.
“Nostalgia for the Future” John Kippin, 1988
Part of a series . This particular one is not on his website but it is reminiscent of a postcard, depicting picturesque scenery disrupted by a caravan and a rusty ship.
There was a self-portrait of Cindy Sherman a constructed tableau by Jeff Wall. I recognized one of Karen Knorr’s images (see an earlier post) “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Helen Chadwick’s “One Flesh” 1985 assembled from photocopies and an evocation of Mother & Child Renaissance imagery. However, the child is fairly obviously female and a golden placenta provides a ‘visceral depiction of the physical bond”.
I could recognize the similar paths being followed in terms of recreating from the past, making use of ‘found/recovered’ photographs; painting directly onto objects which are then photographed (Calum Colvin, ‘Utitled 3”).
To me there was a sense of liveliness about most of the images which was missing for me in the larger Exhibition.
I still don’t feel as if I have got to grips with Postmodernism. I think I started off wrongly somehow in thinking that it was a philosophical stance regarding Art. It might have been to begin with but now it just seems to be one more collection of stylistic devices alongside all the ones which went before. It borrows, renews, pastiches, turns the old styles on their heads. It’s just the way things are at the moment in the age we’re in. I think we need a new name for it now – Prevision or something like that.
20th January 2012
Adamson & Pavitt, 2011, Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990. V&A Publishing, London
Appignanesi & Garratt , 2007, Introducing Postmodernism: A graphic guide, Totem Books, Cambridge
Thomas Struth Photography Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
OCA Study visit on 3rd September 2011
I did some reading around Struth and his photography in preparation for the Study Visit. Born in Germany in 1954, he originally studied painting at the Dusseldorf Academy but then moved towards photography where he came under the influence of Bernd Becher, professor of photography and his wife , Hilla. The Bechers were known for their rigorous devotion to the 1920s German tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), and their photographs were clear, black and white pictures of industrial archetypes (pitheads, water towers, coal bunkers). In an early interview whilst still a student, Struth commented that
“Photographs that impress me have no personal signature”.
“The photograph – “the undeniable truth of what is in front of you” – is for him the product of “an intellectual process of understanding people or cities and their historical and phenomenological connections. At that point the photo is almost made, and all that remains is the mechanical process.”
For me this goes right back to the early photographers with their belief in the objectivity of the camera, whereas as now much more is written and discussed regarding ways in which the camera reflects the photographer in choice of composition and view etc.
My journey to the Whitechapel Gallery was not a good one. It was a warm day; there was more weekend disruption than usual to underground services and the train was stifling. People were wandering around underground corridors trying to find a train to catch! I had to travel to a different station (Liverpool St) from the one I normally use and I was unsure of directions. There were also groups of police at various points along the way, and some of them I spoke to said they were waiting for an ‘assembly’ by the English Defence League (EDL). (Apparently we are no longer allowed to call them demonstrations). It was odd, I felt almost unreal and this feeling persisted (more on this later).
Our group had already started their tour of the Exhibition so I joined them on the fringes to begin with. The photographs were in groups, but not in chronological order and I will refer to the ones which particularly struck me as I walked around. The first photograph I saw was
A semi-submerged rig (2007). Almost covering a wall and with vivid colour. This remained the most striking image of the whole exhibition for me. Struth has captured the immensity of the rig and the sharp diagonal lines of the anchor cables almost leapt out of the frame towards me. It looks like a behemoth arising from the sea.
Stellerator Wendelstein 7-x 2009
Grazing Incidence Spectometer
These are examples of the highly detailed technological photographs. The Guardian interview reports Struth comparing these to “landscapes of the modern brain” – the one-sided investment in technology and science versus the “dwindling of political thought and engagement”. I’m not actually interested in the insides of engines etc but there was something that drew me towards the sheer complexity portrayed. I also thought what wonderful jigsaws these would make.
I had another thought as well concerned with scale. There is immensity of external scale of a structure (rig) as opposed to complexity of detail within a structure where everything has to be in a certain order to work to work properly (and safely). Am I learning anything here about Thomas Struth and a search for order within?
Another room displayed a selection of family portraits taken around the world between 197i8 and 2010. Here Struth is reported as attempting to show the underlying social dynamics by inviting the families to organise themselves within the pose. I was reminded here of Bert Hellinger, the German psychotherapist and his theories on family and systemic constellations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Hellinger. Hellinger adopts a phenomenological approach towards recognizing what is essential out of all the diversity present in the world. So far as families are concerned he formulated an idea of ‘The Order of Love’. Each family follows an order of precedence and some of us may take on destructive family patterns as a way of ‘belonging’ to our family and re-enacting earlier generational traumas.
The Ma Family, Shanghai
It looks as if they chose to sit in their kitchen. I can only conjecture that this is the room where they experience themselves most as a family, eating and talking together but , then, this is only my imagination. The image is very large and in the actual very large photograph you can also see some motion blur on the gentleman standing by the fridge. I wonder why he moved?
The Felsenfeld/Gold family 2007
What is this room? It looks like a school room with the large map on the wall and the worn, wooden floor. What are they showing about themselves? Does this mean the family originate from all over the world? To me they look only partially relaxed in their environment somehow – erect, sitting forward, some arms and legs crossed.
Eleanor & Giles Robertson, Edinburgh 1987
Here the depth of field is shorter so the background is shadowy. To me this looks like an informal, formal photograph. Why did they choose to sit at the dining table and opposite each other? Is this how they often sit? Mr Robertson looks interesting to me. I can see a twinkle in his eye. His wife looks rather bored.
I found all of the portraits intriguing. The ones displayed were more formal than informal as if the families are responding to an older, Victorian idea, of how families should pose for family photographs (or could we be seeing something here which fits with Hellinger’s theories?). I would have liked to have seen some relaxed and informal photographs but I guess that Struth doesn’t go in for that type of photography.
It also reminded me of his diamond jubilee portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip – which isn’t in the Exhibition. They are also posed in this kind of way – being informally formal as it were. The Guardian interview goes into more detail about this portrait and how Struth approached it, “My approach was to say: here is the Queen and her husband, but here, also, is an elderly couple of the same generation as my own parents. What I am happy about most of all is that they are both very alert and so present in the room at this second, that they are not thinking of anything else at that moment the picture is taken.” That reminds me of the Robertsons’ portrait taken so many years before.
There were smaller black and white photographs of cities.
A very poor, low resolution image but showing the perspective which Struth captured in his series. Taken in cities such as London, Rome, Tokyo etc and somehow showing the less attractive side of cities. There is mainly an absence of people but remnants of them such as cars. It’s as if he’s trying to show you that all cities are pretty much the same – people are less important than buildings and cars. Again , in terms of composition, they reminded me of early photographs, composed along architectural principles and concentrating upon a central perspective..
There were other larger, coloured images of sprawling cities/towns – one in Peru built on sand and another in Japan. Again showing their immensity of scale. I was very much aware here of patterns made by windows and bricks.
Struth has been reported as looking for stillness in his life. During his search to conquer his inner restlessness, he made a series of photographs of jungles entitled New Pictures from Paradise. They have been described as the opposite of the cityscapes. He has said, “I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything”. Very different from the Spectometer and Stellerator and yet similar in terms of complexity and detail. Again, to me, the jungles, although in different places, looked the same – a lush greenness, like the green abundance of nature where I live and where I can choose to be alone or mingle with other people.
I have read some of the blogs from fellow students and more than one has referred to a feeling of flatness. I felt the same. There was an absence of liveliness and beauty for me. The portraits seemed static. I could stand and admire the largeness, colour and meticulous technical detail but I didn’t feel drawn towards them. I still felt slightly unreal
There was a marked contrast when I walked outside the gallery. The sun was shining and it was even hotter. Again there was a long walk back to Liverpool Street and I didn’t really know where I was going until I saw the Gherkin in the distance.
For once it seemed like an old friend. I knew where I was and how I could get to where I wanted to be. I joined up with a couple of my fellow students and we exchanged views about the Exhibition and discussed cameras. There were even more police, in riot gear, with walkie talkies crackling and we debated whether to dare to hang around and see what happened. We slowly walked toward Liverpool Street and, to our surprise, some of the protesters were there actually blocking our way into the station.
During my journey home I reflected that, maybe, I felt the way I did because there was just too much disparity between what was happening inside the gallery and what was happening outside. Detail and precision versus the messiness of life!
6th September 2011
“Figures and Fictions” Contemporary South African Photography Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum 2011Posted: July 25, 2011
Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography
OCA Study Group Visit to the Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum
I visited on 2nd July and I’m going to quote here from the Exhibition leaflet:-
“Figures & Fictions presents the work of 17 South African photographers, all of whom live and work in the country and whose images were made between 2000 and 2010. Each photographer is represented by one or more projects that are linked with South Africa’s political and photographic past and the ethics and poetics of picturing people.” As such they also represent the changes in South African photography over the years from documenting the effects of Apartheid
I’m not going to describe each photograph or even a photograph from each photographer. Instead I will focus upon photographs/ photographers that particularly interested me and why.
Pieter and Maryana Vermeulen with Timana Phosiw – Pieter Hugo
This is the first photograph which greets you as you enter the Exhibition gallery. The photographer is Pieter Hugo and this image is part of a set Messina/Musina which raises questions regarding race and the nature of family (http://www.pieterhugo.com/messina-musina/). His website includes transcript of an interview where he talks about the portraits he took of firstly couples then families. He makes an interesting point about the dynamics which took place between adults and children when he ‘gave them a bit of space with minor art direction’. He also talks about the way in which he is subverting the unreality of commissioned portraits by applying the notion of commissioned portraits (ie a perfect family) and showing it in a different way.
So far as this particular portrait is concerned you can look at it in different ways – grandparents with child or foster parents for example. However, Pieter Hugo tells us that this is the little boy of their landlord and they are taking care of him because the father was shot during a heist and is in hospital.
Of course, this portrait is also subverting another, older stereotype – that of a black nanny taking care of a white child and there is such a photograph in another Exhibition of photographs taken by David Goldblatt during the Apartheid years.
The Hyena and other men – Pieter Hugo
The Exhibition also shows an image from this series. At first I didn’t like it. It reminded me of young men with pit bull type terriers in this Country and the aura of violence and aggression. Were these men keeping the hyenas as pets? If so, they seemed a strange companion. The photographs stayed in my head though and also the desaturated colours. I read more about it on his website where he gives a fascinating account of his meetings over time with the travelling sellers of traditional medicines, from Nigeria, who tame hyenas for street performances. He sees this relationship as a metaphor for the ‘fraught relationships we have with ourselves, with animals and with nature’. (http://www.pieterhugo.com/the-hyena-other-men/)
Real Beauty – Jodi Bieber
These are from a series which relates to the increasing influence in South Africa of Western ideals of female body shape. Bieber asked for female volunteers and photographed them in their own homes in poses of their choice. (http://www.jodibieber.com/index.php?pageID=17&navLay=3)
There is obviously more context in the second portrait. Here is the older lady; with an insouciant air: in her kitchen, with cigarette in hand. I almost expected her to have a cocktail in the other.
I had a mini discussion about these images and we agreed that those poses are the kind that we might make in the privacy of our own homes when we’re examining our figures and how we look. In that sense, to me, some of us are sharing the same concerns between two cultures. I’ve seen these types of image before, particularly in the Dove advertising campaign but also in various women’s magazines and I think it’s good for photographers (particularly women photographers) to be subverting media representations of ‘the perfect woman and how she should look’.
Against this, I contrast another photographer taken by Bieber which is not in this Exhibition. This is of a beautiful Afghan young woman whose face was brutally mutilated by her Taliban husband and in-laws for seeking protection from their brutal treatment. The powerful image appeared on the cover of Times Magazine. A fund was set up – The Bibi Aishan fund (http://www.womenforafghanwomen.org/front_lines.php) for Bibi’s care and she received reconstructive surgery.
There’s such a contrast here and I first thought that “Real Beauty’ seemed a rather banal series. However, most women are affected by society’s expectations of ‘the perfect woman’. We go as well from the stark contrast between aspirations towards beauty and those who wish to destroy it.
Young Afrikaner – a Self Portrait – Roelof Petrus Van Wyk
A collection of images of Van Wyk’s peer group. It was odd but to me – they looked pale and insipid at first sight and I didn’t find them interesting. In fact, thinking about the images now they reminded me of the children in John Wyndham’s book – The Midwych Cuckoos possessed by aliens and looking like clones. The leaflet information refers to Van Wyk’s generation (young members of the Afrikaner community) and their concern with questioning the historic roles of their parents and redefining their identity as ‘Africans’
The collection draws upon the anthropological conventions once used for cataloguing ‘racial types’ by subjecting them to photographic display and measurement, with, this time, the Afrtikaners being seen as ‘other’. I am therefore assuming that Van Wyk chose only those young people who conform to this ‘type’.
Obviously this is a negative as it were of similar photographs of black ‘racial’ types and the black backgrounds also contribute to making them look very ‘white’. I’ve been asking myself why these young people wish to define themselves by how similar they are rather than how different they are from each other but, having looked again at Roelof Van Wyk’s website (http://roelofvanwyk.wordpress.com/), I can see physical differences in face shape and hair colour for example.
Tradesmen – David Goldblatt
Born in 1930 (and so the oldest photographer in the Exhibition) has photographed his native Country since the late 1940s. He continues to work in the documentary tradition. His earlier photographs were in black and white and I looked later at a display of his work from the Apartheid years.
Tradesmen is one of the projects shown in the Figures & Fictions Exhibition. Artisans were photographed at their workplaces next to hand-painted roadside signs advertising their services. I was particularly attracted towards one of Ericson Ngomane who is a painter. I haven’t been able to find an image of it but the colour looked mellow and almost duotone. I discussed this with one of our tutors, Jose Navarro and he said he thought it was achieved through bleach bypass – a process which desaturates colour and then increases contrast.
Street Party – Mikhael Subotzky
Subotzky’s recent work captures the structures and rituals of surveillance and this photograph is from a series, Security whose subject is the guards employed by the middle and upper classes for protection. I had recently been involved in a street party to celebrate the Royal Wedding and it was initially the contrast with my own experience which drew me to this image.
We had a sunny day with lots of colour, activity, movement and enjoyment. The street party here looked static, hemmed-in. I explored it closely and spent time trying to work out how the effect was gained. The colours are almost de-saturated with heavy red, oranges and greens. There are quite a few people but they look almost huddled together around the table. The guard is some distance away and looks half-asleep. There is a barbecue which, in the perspective almost looks like a barrier. The gates and railings could just as well be keeping the people in as keeping others out. From the way the light falls it looks as though the sun is setting and, if I was being fanciful I might almost say it looks like a metaphor for the sun setting on a society which used to rely upon the subjection of one people for the benefit of another.
Chasing Shadows – Santu Mofokeng
This series represents a set of caves used as both a Christian prayer site and a place of traditional healing. The leaflet states that, “He has long been engaged with the poetic and symbolic potential of black and white photography. To me they had an old testament feel and a lovely use of shadow and light to create a sense of mystery and spirituality.
Colour; muted tones,; shadow and light; images exploring links between the past and present South Africa and also some universal preoccupations. There was so much to see and discuss at this Exhibition and I’m pleased I had the opportunity for the visit.
Paul Graham: Photographs 1981–2006
Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
I was pleased that I was able to visit the Exhibition on 21st May along with other students from the OCA, with Gareth Dent to lead us. I downloaded information from the Whitechapel Gallery website but didn’t read it before visiting. I’ll give my impressions and then see how these relate to the information that I read later.
The Gallery is a bright spacious place to visit and a lot of space has been given to this exhibition of Paul Graham’s work from 1981 to 2006 on the various floors. We had a member of the Gallery staff as a guide but had time later to wander on our own. That was helpful because there was a lot to take in all at once so it was good to be able to go back to review.
The information leaflet described the exhibition as a comprehensive survey demonstrating Graham”s “innovative approach to documentary, reinventing traditional genres of photography to create a unique visual language.” One of the first things I learned was that Paul Graham was amongst the first photographers to use colour in documentary photography which was a radical step. I find it difficult now to appreciate that because I’m used to seeing colour and that fits with our guide’s comment that we review them on the basis of the picture not the colour. I don’t agree with that entirely because I did judge some of the photographs on the basis of the colour.
The sets of images were grouped according to series and I was interested to note how the framing changed and how different size images were put together in the same series. The chronology is divided into three time periods – 1981-1986; 1988-1996 and 1996-2006 but, I think, with concurrent rather than consecutive explorations in photography.
The earliest ones were the most striking for me. “Beyond Caring” (1984-85) takes us into various unemployment offices in England. I spent quite a bit of time there accompanying unemployed people and the series does capture that sense of endless hanging around waiting for your number to come up, although it doesn’t capture the underlying frustrations which could sometimes erupt! In this series there is evidence of ‘shooting from the hip’ photography in the angles and slightly tilted lines.
At first sight, and from a distance, the “Troubled Land’ series (1985-86) looks like fairly ordinary , often urban, landscapes. However, this is Northern Ireland, and it was only when I moved closer that small details took on more significance (http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/troubledland.html#a). The Gallery information refers to the fusion of traditional landscape with war reportage – the soldier moving across the roundabout; posters on tops of lampposts. To me, once noticed, they seemed like sharp pinpricks pointing to the everyday reality of this constant state of tension. Graham returned there in 1994 and chose a more abstract view in “Ceasefire”. I have to say that the series of clouded skies didn’t have the same impact for me at all. If I hadn’t been told I wouldn’t have been able to name the country.
The later photographs record travels further afield Europe; Japan, the United States where he now lives. One of the series, “A Shimmer of Possibility” (2004-2006) mirrors his early travels up the Great North Road and records travels across America. Some of them reminded me of the exercises in my Workbook – a sequence of composition. In those exercises we were asked to move around and see what caught our attention and here Graham does the same. He follows a woman with a younger man (her son?) carrying their shopping home. There’s no sense of timescale but they’re obviously moving because the scenery changes, but very slightly. Another set of images is of a man mowing the lawn http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/possibility.html. I’ve now read a transcript of an interview with Richard Woodward in June 2007 (http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/interviews.html) which is based around books written by Graham, each of which is described as “a filmic haiku”. In the interview Graham says that his source was Chekhov’s short stories and the critical essays around them. There isn’t much happens in the stories and they are dealing with simple, everyday things. In this case I think that Graham achieved his aim because there certainly isn’t really very much happening at all, what Graham describes as “isolating a small rivulet of time”! The Roundabout in Belfast in 19484 also showed a snapshot in time but it is so different. For me Graham moved from the complex to the banal but then, we all have our own unique reality at any given moment in time don’t we.
The interview is interesting because it reveals more about Graham’s, influences experience and thoughts on photography today. One thought I had going around the Exhibition was about the sense of Paul Graham being an observer – standing back – so that for me there was a sense of unconnectedness with his subjects. Richard Woodward makes this point about Graham being clearly an outsider and we never learn much about the people and Paul Graham’s response is to say, “I don’t want to feign being intimate with somebody I met 5 minutes ago. I accept and embrace that so much in life is “ships passing in the dark”. It was honest o f him to say that but, maybe, that’s why, for me, there wasn’t anything exuberant or joyful in his work, or moving either. For that to happen I think that a photographer needs to feel some kind of emotional connection, to be able to think, “That could be me”.
London Street Photography Exhibition at the Museum of London
OCA Study Day – 15th April 2011
I was already planning to visit the Exhibition and it was a nice surprise when the OCA newsletter arrived giving the information about the planned study visit.
We all met up at the entrance to the Museum to be welcomed by Jose Navarro and Clive White, OCA tutors. Jose explained the format of the morning – relatively informal, for us to view the Exhibition however we wished, being joined at various points by either himself or Clive to share thoughts/views. We would have around an hour and a quarter and then meet in the Museum café for lunch (provided by OCA which was another nice surprise).
My first impression on arriving at the bottom of the stairs into the Exhibition area was of it being rather gloomy, with low lighting. The explanation was that a lot of photographs were old original prints which could be damaged by too much light. Even so the low lighting made it harder to see the older photographs and I noticed that others as well were craning forwards to be able to read the descriptions.
I made brief notes as I went round, also noting particular photographs which interested me for one reason or another so that I could do further research later. The following are just my initial, snapshot impressions.
1860 – 1890 Origins
The early cameras required long exposures and the small format photographs were mainly of buildings. These sometimes included people who were either posing for the camera or self-posed. In these early photographs I particularly noticed how the photographers were utilizing perspective, lines, diagonals and shapes and was thinking how much they had been influenced by architectural principles.
The first series of photographs was “Street Life in London’ in 1877 produced by John Thomson. One of these is ‘Hookey Alf”
‘But in the fore-ground the camera has chronicled the most touching episode. A little girl, not too young, however, to ignore the fatal consequences of drink, has penetrated boldly into the group, as if about to reclaim some relation in danger, and drag him away from evil companionship. There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story- the little child leading home a drunken parent. Well may those little faces early bear the stamp of the anxiety that destroys their youthfulness, and saddens all who have the heart to study such scenes. Inured to a life crowded with episodes of this description, the pot-boy stands in the back-ground with immoveable countenance, while at his side a well-to-do tradesman has an expression of sleek contentment, which renders him superior to the misery around.’
The above was taken from a web site about the publication
The description in the Exhibition is that it provides, ‘a compelling image of childhood’. Personally I can’t see this. To me, the girl looks clean, reasonably well cared-for and not unhappy.
Some photographs have a 3D effect and are stereophonic. Jose explained that the effect was gained by having 2 lenses on the one camera. An example of this was ‘Temple Bar’ taken by Valentine Blanchard. (more information on http://www.billjayonphotography.com/ValentineBlanchard.pdf )
Blanchard used a small-format stereophonic camera, utilising a cab as a darkroom so that he could process the film instantly.
I was then drawn to ‘Bishops Court’ 1882 by Arthur Ephraim Eason.
You can see the effect of the light in blown-out highlights in the sky. The perspective leads to a triangle. My eyes were immediately drawn to the slightly off-centre cart and I could see the little boy sitting at the bottom with white knees drawn up. For me this made the picture and he was my focal point. I had a discussion with Jose about this. He couldn’t see the boy as quickly as I had and wondered whether Eason had actually noticed the boy when he took the photograph. I think it possible that Eason could have unconsciously noticed it flash across his peripheral vision but we’ll never know now.
Technical developments in this period led to the first hand held multi-shots; off-guard photographs and then a growing number of amateur photographers due to Kodak. An ‘anonymous’ photograph of a toy seller taken around 1920 attracts me due to the short depth of field and bokeh effect which I hadn’t noticed so far.
‘Derby Day’ c1910: Large profile view of a woman with a cigarette. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/london-street-photography-museum-of-london-2238534.html
“There is a photograph by Horace Nicholls at the Museum of London’s excellent London Street Photography that neatly encapsulates the elusive magic of street photography. It was taken at the Epsom Derby in 1910 and features a well-dressed lady in her thirties, who sits slumped at a table resting her head in her hands with a cigarette in mouth, lost in thought. But what thought? Street photography can capture a fleeting moment in a stranger’s life for eternity, but it will never tell you what they were thinking. That’s for the viewer to ponder.”
She is large in the frame and actually reminded me of a photograph my husband took in France of a back view of a lady sitting at a table and smoking. I am obviously looking for reference points, continuity and similarities in styles.
1930-1945 : Observing the street
This period saw the Weekly Illustrated (1934 onwards) and Picture Post (1938 onwards). At this time there was an influx of émigré photographers from Central and Eastern Europe who held up a critical mirror documenting London’s social contrasts. Felix H. Man (1893-1985) was one of the pioneers of modern photojournalism, introducing picture stories such as “A Day in the Life” and methods of working only with natural light. I enjoyed a misty image of a foggy Cambridge Circus on Charing Cross Road (Wolfgang Suschitzky b1912)
George Rodger (1908019950 who co-founded Magnum in 1947, was a World war Two photojournalist and one of the first photographers to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2008/02/06/060208_george_rodger_feature.shtml
He also wanted to show the lives of ordinary people and how they coped with the vicissitudes of war. “Painting an Oxford Street Shop front” 1940, shows an attractive young woman in turban and overalls perched on a ladder.
1946-1979 Capturing the Street
Henry Grant’s photograph “Trafalgar Square” taken around 1955, shows a woman absolutely surrounded by pigeons.
It reminded me very much of a 1992 photograph “Lola in Central Park with birds and snow” by Bruce Davidson which I saw on the Magnum website.
When I mentioned this to Clive, he told me that this was a particular genre. I’ve obviously followed it (as have others) having taken two photographs of people and pigeons in St, Mark’s Square, Venice last year.
As I’d been walking around I’d realised that I was less interested in the photographs taken during the period when I was an adolescent/young adult. Probably because they were of scenes I could see every day then and also I probably saw them at the time so they are not new to me. When I mentioned this to Clive he took me to see some photographs by Lutz Dillie (1922-2008) explaining that these were American style which are more contrasty and manipulated –
This was taken in 1961 and I could see how this and others were composed more close-up/”in your face” – well at least to me.
“The Whisperers’ John Benton-Harris (b. 1939 and UK based) caught my eye. A dual portrait! Quite close-up with two older ladies wearing headscarves whispering together, whilst there are two policemen wearing helmets, talking together at the back.
1980-2010 Reclaiming the street
By this point in the Exhibition there was more colour and the influence of digital photography and web-sharing was referred to. My husband had also gone to the Exhibition but walked round separately. I talked with him briefly and he was commenting how little colour there had been so far and did this type of photography need colour anyway. I mentioned this to Jose and he took me to a colourful panorama of a London street by Mike Seabourne. It shows both sides of the tree with the sensation of pedestrians and traffic rushing towards the viewer. Red is a predominant colour. I discussed this with Jose, and what it would look like in black and white or even what it would look like if it was de-saturated and then the red put back. I wasn’t sure it would look good in black and white
Further search informed that Mike Seaborne is Senior Curator of Photographs and Curator of the Exhibition. I think he’s done an excellent job here.
There was a lot to take in in the relatively short period of time there. And I’ve only referred to a few of the many photographs. I found it very interesting to see the development of street photography in London and also to see how similar themes continue – ordinary people doing both ordinary and extraordinary things and contrasts between wealth and poverty. I will go again before the Exhibition closes in September so that I can absorb more.
17th April 2011