Archive research – Some preliminary ideas

I have identified some archives and organisations collecting photographs that can be interesting to explore in the future for work ideas:

The V&A Prints & Drawings Study Rooms (South Kensington, London): This houses an important collection of 19th and 20th century photographs amassed by the museum over decades (the V&A has been actively collecting photographs for over 100 years), which was recently enlarged by the transfer of the RPS collection from the Science Museum. The original photographs, including those made directly on glass plates, can be accessed by the public under certain circumstances and are grouped in boxes, with some of them contain work by unknown photographers, so this could be an interesting way of discovering new artists and ideas that could perhaps depart from the mainstream.

The National Archives (Kew, London): The archives have various materials and documents as well as photographs that could be accessed by the general public for viewing. Some of the photographs can be searched online, but viewing / downloading incurrs a cost, so it may be better to view them directly in the archives’ reading rooms. The selection of photographs do not seems as extensive as in the V&A, but the combination of photographs and documents could provide interesting ideas to explore.

The British Library (St Pancras, London): The library holds an important collection of photographs, including the archives of Fox Talbot, one of the medium pioneers. Like the V&A, this is another good way of getting to know early era photographers, but obtaining a reader ticket seems to be more complicated than in the case of the V&A, so I would probably leave this as an option for later.

 

 

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Assignment 5 – Self assessment

Following completion of my fifth assignment for this course, I have made some notes about how I feel the outcome matches the course assessment criteria

Criteria Self-assessment
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills. I believe the final photograph was completed to a reasonably good technical standard and that it reflects my initial intention in terms of composition, contrast and illumination. The setting was quite complex, particularly from the lighting perspective, and I needed to make various takes with different lighting options over several days, as I could only achieve the required darkness around mid-night every day. The final image required some post-processing work as it was the combination of two photographs taken with different focal points to increase depth of field and I believe the end result was quite seamless.
Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas. This was perhaps the most challenging part of the assignment, as I decided to focus my attention on a single photograph, whereas in previous assignments I was working with a series. It is often easier to build up a concept over a series of images, and therefore, I was sometimes unsure if I could convey the anguish and uncertainty that the two characters developed for this assignment were supposed to be feeling at the moment the image was captured. I tried several points of view and poses and decided that in the end the way the characters were portrayed in the final image comes closest to what I wanted to convey, noting that in the future, I would like to explore how the same scene would look using a more narrow angle of view that could bring the characters closer, and a different point of view (other than the two explored), and how this could change the interpretation of the stories (in this attempt, I deliberately tried to use a wide-angle lens to increase the distance between characters).
Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention. Most of the experimenting done for this photograph was primarily in lighting and point of view. Having determined the location for the photograph, I tried different points of view (from upstairs, from inside the car) to find out which one worked better aesthetically but also from the story-telling point of view. For each of these alternatives, I tried different light settings, and the final shot includes a combination of available light (from a street lamp) supplemented by different controlled light sources (tablets, LED panels, continuous light under soft boxes) that were gradually added, and in some cases removed from the scene, until it was lit in a way that was satisfactory.

Once the final point of view for the image was selected, the other technical challenge I had to overcome was the awkward location for the camera, and how to stabilize it sufficiently so as to be able to take two shots of the same scene with a relatively slow shutter speed (to keep ISO as low as possible). This was achieved by designing a flat plank with a moveable rail (made up using an old flash bracket) that allowed the camera to be repositioned on location to achieve the ideal vantage point.

Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking. For this part of the course I looked into a number of artists that have used the photographic tableaux throughout their career, including Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Hannah Starkey, Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman. While my inspiration for this image came while looking at a work that is not a tableaux (Nicky Bird’s “Question for Seller”), I was mostly inspired aesthetically by Cindy Sherman’s work, particularly by some of her pictures from the Untitled Film Still series. The way she looks away from some of her pictures (see for instance, Untitled Film Still # 10 (1)) not only heightens tension, but also enriches the narrative by pushing the viewer to think about what is going on outside the frame. I tried to achieve a similar effect in my photograph by having the main character looking away, seemingly concerned.

(1) MoMA. 2018. Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #10. 1978 | MoMA. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/56555. [Accessed 01 July 2018].

Assignment 5 – Developing the idea

One of the stories is about a character whose car breaks down loudly in a quiet neighbourhood. He parks the best he can at a corner and calls the car recovery service. While he waits, he notices somebody waiting next to a wall in the distance, seemingly doing nothing and starts to worry about this guy. The other story is about a woman trying to sleep in the house next to where the breakdown from the first story happens. Her house was recently burgled and she is alone and worried about the loud noises she hears outside. She decides to check out what is going on, but can only see the arm of somebody inside a poorly parked car just under her window, not sure what to make of him. I decided that I wanted to create an image that would encompass the two main characters from each story, bringing them together but at a distance, representing their fears and apprehensions. This would be better achieved by using a wide-angle lens, which has the effect of enlarging the scene.The main set would be the street just outside our home, and we used our car as a prop for a broken down vehicle that came stationary by the corner of the house. I tried two different points of view for this: one from the top floor of our house, looking down, and another one from the inside of the vehicle looking up towards the top floor of the house.I did some testing of the scene looking down, from inside the upper floor room of the house. These shots were taken with a 14mm equivalent lens. I was primarily concerned about the lightning conditions, as I wanted the subject looking through the window, to be illuminated but did not want the room to be fully lit. I wanted to recreate the lighting conditions of a reading light. At first I tried a bedside table lamp, but this was too unfocused and did not really illuminate the subject (see picture one below).Figure 1My second attempt was using a spotlight from the other side of the room, opposite the window. In here, the light was more directional but also harsher, creating strong highlight blocks in the curtains and the frames of the windows (see figure 2 below).Figure 2A final attempt was made by using a light box just on the side next to the subject. This to me created the best effect in terms of achieving the desired side illumination of the subject without brightening the inside of the room excessively (see figure 3 below).Figure 3I also did some tests inside the car. The first attempts were made with a mobile phone, equipped with a 31mm equivalent lens. This gave a slightly more compressed view than what I was looking for, and did not allow much by way of context, but I felt that it provided an interesting basis to work with.Figure 4Following these proof of concept shots, I decided to concentrate on the picture from inside the car. The reason for this is that it allows me to show the face of the driver and to play with his expression in order to convey his anguish, as described at the end of the story. In the picture from the top room, the character would have to be shown in profile and this did not allow for any expressiveness, diminishing the impact of the image. I also was more pleased with how the elements balanced out in the car shot. The second test was performed with a 14-28mm equivalent zoom lens. I tried to place the camera in a similar place where I had my mobile, just behind the helm.Figure 5Following the second test, I decided to tackle the illumination problems in the two sets separately. The upper room set was illuminated using a large soft box on the right hand side, which would provide the main source of illumination, and a small LED box on the left hand side to provide fill light on the other side, complemented by a bed-side lamp with a warm lightbulb. Initially I also kept the main room light on, but this resulted in too much illumination for the upper room, compared with the light available inside the car, which made balancing the final exposure more difficult. In the end, I decided to turn this off and just leave the bedside table light on, together with the soft-box and LED box. The main lighting set-up for the upper room is shown below.Figure 6Inside the car, I had two main problems. The roof was too dark and the overall illumination of the subject was too poor. In the story, the character is playing with his phone while he waits for the recovery service. I decided it would be a good idea then to complement the ambient light by illumination from a phone, placed in front of the subject close to where the camera was set. The car has a cup holder next to the door and it would fit a mobile phone. It is conceivable that the driver would place his phone here while he takes a break from the Internet and watches the stranger that has captured his attention and has him worried for some time now (as per the storyline). This not only lifted the subject but also added some light to the roof of the car, which was primarily large black surface in the test pictures. In order to stabilize the camera in position, I crafted a narrow support plank with 5mm foam board, to which a flash bracket was fixed in order to be able to mount the camera and allow for some side adjustments for framing. The plank was resting on the main steering column on one side and on a tripod on the other. A pre-final test was taken to check for any final lighting problems and also to determine the final position of the characters:Figure 7For the final shot, I decided to try two alternatives to the mobile phone I used to illuminate the subject inside the car, as I still thought that the car and room illumination was too unbalanced. The first one was a small LED flash (two LEDs), but this source of illumination proved to be too strong and harsh on the subject. The second option was to use a tablet to illuminate the subject rather than a phone. In the end, the latter was the preferred option given that it provided a large, soft source of light and enabled a better balance between the two sets (as previously advised, I also reduced the light inside the second set in the upper room). Because this light essentially cancelled the slant shadow created by the external lamp-post, I experimented by adding a second led light on a stand just outside the car to complement the street light, but in the end decided not to use it for the final shot.Figure 8Figure 9Figure 10The final shot was taken with the characters dressed as intended. The man (myself) on the car was wearing a long, clear smart shirt, as if he was returning home from a long day at the office. I opted for clear tones here to aid with the illumination, as previous tests with darker casual clothing resulted in almost no highlights inside the car. The subject wore no glasses to avoid any distracting specular highlights. The character in the upper room (my partner) was told to look down towards the subject inside the car, who in turn is looking away, with a stern, concerned look. It is like if the characters were serially connected rather than making direct contact with each other, their anguish traveling from the upper room set, to the car, and then out of the frame.Technically, the final photograph, which is shown below, was taken as two separate exposures, one focused on the interior of the car and a second one focused on the window of the upper room. Both exposures where then combined in Photoshop. Distracting specular highlights and reflections on the house windows were cloned out or toned down in post processing. Other than this, most of the post processing adjustments where for colour balance, white / black points and shadow levels, with mild noise reduction applied. The picture was cropped to a 6×7 format to reduce negative space on the right hand side and to increase tension by having the main character looking out so close to the edge of the frame.

Assignment 5 – The break-in (short story 2)

For the first time since the burglary, she was alone at home. Her husband tried to avoid the trip, but his boss was adamant he had to go. It was only a couple of days, and he would be calling home every night anyway, he said, trying to calm her down. They just had installed an enhanced security system, and the back door, through which they broke-in a few weeks back, had been replaced by a new one reinforced with steel, almost unbreakable, or so the leaflet claimed. The night was quieter than usual, and far from calming her, it heightened her senses. The smallest drop of water – from the broken tab her husband would not fix, or the old radiators – would wake her. She was unable to sleep, in spite of having drank all the warm milk and valerian root pills she could find around. She tried to watch some tedious TV shows, in an effort to be bored into sleep, but that did not work either. Frustrated, she decided to grab a phone and lock the bedroom door from the inside. At least if they came back in, she would have time to call the police, and hope they come on time this time around.

She went back to bed and switched the TV on again, but soon got bored and decided to look outside for a while. It was dark in the room, with only the faint light from the bedside table lamp illuminating her. She walked carefully from the bedside and peered through the wide, panelled window but could see nothing moving. Not even the usual foxes sniffing through the trash cans. Her own car was missing from the driveway – her husband took it to get to the airport – and so there was this strange emptiness, a break in the continuum of parked vehicles below her property. She sat on the window sill for about 20 minutes just looking out, fixing the gaze on the horizon, and she started to feel a bit tired. She was grateful for that, and promptly returned to bed, falling sleep almost immediately but leaving on the faint bedside light, as she was still afraid of the dark.

No more than 20 minutes had passed when a clunking noise woke her again. It was a solid, metallic repeating sound, like somebody rhythmically banging a hammer against metal. It was clearly coming from below, and it was getting closer and closer to her. She was terrified and could not move, but after the sound had stopped for about 10 minutes or so, she mustered the courage to get up and look through the lock hole of her door. She could not see any light or movement outside. Definitely nobody had broken into the house, it all being dead quiet for a while now. She then moved back to the window and carefully looked at the street outside. In the empty space in front of her driveway there was a small red car, badly parked. She could not see inside, but managed to catch a glimpse at the hand of the driver as he moved his arm to place his phone on the dashboard by the car window – “Who is this man and why has he parked in front of the house?” she kept repeating in her head, trying to make the connection between the mysterious noises she heard earlier on, and the presence of this man, sitting quietly inside his car in the early hours. She grabbed the phone and returned quickly to the window, where she stood still for a while, peering through the curtains, waiting for the man to make his next move.

Assignment 5 – The Breakdown (short story 1)

The roads were quiet. He always found it problematic to drive at night. Occasionally drunk pedestrians would wonder adrift in front of his car, as if they were just strolling along the pavement, and would just wave their hands moronicaly, thanking him for not running them over. They were a nuisance, but he was mostly afraid of the crazed drivers who tailgated him until he either moved aside or speeded away. Those thugs left so little room for manoeuvre it was almost a miracle to evade them without incident. But that night everything was all right. He put the radio on and just rolled along a route he knew too well, by heart. So much that he could almost turn, brake and speed away automatically, like the scripted movement of an assembly line. After a couple of straight greens in the empty expressway, he turned left into a narrow, undivided suburban lane flanked by parked cars, and gently cut down the speed, as the path was full of wondering foxes and headlight-struck cats. The junction ahead made a sharp, short Z shape, one that required him to turn all the way to the right and then, almost instantly, back all the way to the left. It was there that he first hear the jarring, sharp thump, as if something had been torn from the steering train and hit the body of the car. He was immediately alarmed but tried to dismiss it as something of no consequence – “I must have hit the kerb when turning” – The car continued at its usual pace for a while but when he next applied the brakes the noise came back, now accompanied by metallic grinding, and never left again. The helm started to shake and pull to the side, and it became increasingly difficult to control movement. Instinctively, he slowed to a halt and then, with great difficulty, as if the power steering had given up, turned as much as he could to the left into one of the side roads, coming to a rest by the corner, badly parked but at least not blocking the road.

He tried to look behind the wheel with the little flashlight from his phone, but could not make much of it. He was no good at fixing things, despite his father owning a garage and him growing up surrounded by mechanics and playing with discarded spare parts. Given how late it was, the best he could do was to call the recovery service and try to sort out the problem tomorrow. After giving his location to the operator, he hang up, rolled down the window and checked the Internet on his phone while he waited for the towing truck to arrive. – “It’ll be here within 30 minutes” -, he repeatedly thought, like if learning by rota, knowing full well that it was going to be a long night. From time to time, he would raise his head and look around. It seemed like a quiet neighbourhood at first, but something was not quite all right. In a corner two blocks up there was a guy resting on a brick fence, seemingly doing nothing. He tried to look away, but his eyes kept coming back to the guy, waiting to see if he made a move. Nothing happened for a while, as the guy continued frozen into position, his legs straight at an angle and his butt firmly pressed against the short brick fence. Both hands tucked inside his black tracksuit jacket. Then, after a few more minutes, the right hand came out of the guy’s pocket, holding a luminous sphere. – “A phone?” – he thought. It would have been reassuring if the guy was just outside his home making a long, romantic call to his girlfriend, away from the curious ears of his parents or perhaps even his siblings. But from the distance he could not be sure, and he did not have any intention of finding out.

Assignment 5 – Initial notes

I was originally inspired to produce this photograph while reading the text accompanying the exhibit “Question by Seller” by Nicky Bird (1)(see my original commentary on this here). The exhibition centred around lots of old pictures that Bird purchased on eBay, in auctions where she was the only bidder. She asked the seller of each lot for information about the origin of the pictures. The text compiled the answers given by the various sellers. There was a case that struck me particularly. It was about a family in Manitoba whose estate was cleared by distant relatives. As they did not know the deceased, they had no connection to the photographs and decided to get rid of them. It then occurred to me that the persons buying these photographs, collectors or otherwise, could develop an attachment to these images, or at least an interest on discovering more about the people and places in them. This curiosity could easily become an obsession, resulting in awkward situations. What if the buyer of these images decided to visit the places where they were taken, completely new to them? What would be the reaction of the occupiers of these places? Would they interpret this as harmless eccentricity? Or would they assume they are being stalked?

We encounter strangers frequently in our daily lives. Most of these encounters follow social conventions which make them bearable, but when we perceive the rules are being transgressed, or when we cannot identify the other’s intentions, we fall back to defence mode and may not know how to react, resulting in moments of anguish and tension. In this assignment, I wanted to explore this through a picture, working around the idea of perception and how uncertainty about somebody else’s intention can shape our reaction to events.

Based on a personal anecdote, I decided that the scene would involve a driver in his car and somebody inside a house looking at him. While I had some preliminary ideas in mind, I was not sure how to frame this at first, so I decided to write two short stories about these two characters, with the idea that the end of the stories, when both characters “come together”, the picture will happen. The two stories can be found here and here.

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(1)  Question for Seller – Nicky Bird. 2018. Question for Seller – Nicky Bird. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nickybird.com/projects/question-for-seller/. [Accessed 23 June 2018].

Part 5 – Exercise 3: A recorded conversation

I was talking the other day with a friend about the differences between religions and their approach to bad deeds. She was arguing that Christianism focuses on redemption and the possibility of overcoming bad deeds (and saving yourself / go to heaven) by repenting and embracing god. On the other hand, she mentioned that Eastern religions were more focused on fate and the idea that bad deeds results in adverse consequences for that person, who would reincarnate in a lower life form as punishment. I commented back, half-joking, that this allowed for people to “shop” around religions depending on their circumstances in life, with people who committed crimes more likely to embrace Christianism later in life, as it offered the prospect of a better outcome. She mentioned that this of course did not matter much, as some Eastern religions do not care about affiliations or initiation rituals and anybody, regardless of their religious denomination, was capable of reaching Nirvana or being punished depending on their daily actions. We then spoke about reincarnation and I remember arguing that unlike Christianism, which seems to only offer salvation or eternal punishment (a binary choice), Buddhism seems to offer the possibility of you trying to improve, eternally if necessary through various lives, until you improve yourself enough to reach Nirvana.

I have now listened to the recording of this conversation, which happened 2 days before I made this entry in my blog. Here are the main differences that I could ascertain from the recording:

  • The comparison made by my friend was more along the lines of the comfort offered by the different religions. She mentioned that if something bad happened to you in life, Christianity gives you the comfort that if you pray enough there could be a miracle that enable you to overcome this. On the other hand, she argued that Buddhism offered no such comfort because adversity was the consequence of our actions. I did not remember the “confort” angle of the conversation.
  • The point my friend made about people of any denomination being able to reach Nirvana was made much later in the discussion, when we were talking about reincarnation and the possibility of improving through our different lives.
  • There is a whole part of the conversation that I did not remember at all, when my friend started to talk about money and prosperity as a symbol of god’s favour, something that certain Christian denominations believe in, whereas in Buddhism reincarnating without money did not have any particular connotations.

—–~~~ooo~~~—–

My account of the conversation was mostly accurate for the points I remember making, but I missed or misinterpreted some of the points made by my friend. I presume it is normal that our perception of things is influenced by our own prejudices or by our own sense of what is important. It seems inevitable that in our recollections, particularly as days pass, we tend to give more importance to our experience and interpretation of the events, than to what actually happened, and inevitably we tend to give more weight to our intervention than what is due. I guess this is the case because we are constantly analysing the information that we perceive and as we try to make sense of this, we attach moral judgements to each of these interpretations, with the end result being mollified by this.

In a way, a reenacted photograph, based on something we have experienced, is likely to be more the product of our own interpretation rather than an accurate depiction. Like in the case of the recorded conversation, there will be elements of the reenacted scene that are incidental to the action and that we will not notice at all in the first place, because our vision, like all our other senses, is conditioned by our prejudices to focus on what we want to see, rather than what is there.

But the question is, does this really matter? As long as nobody is under the illusion that what we are seeing is a record of real events, the reenacted photograph is a necessary fudge of news and the artist’s own input, which is sometimes necessary to add aesthetic pull or even his or her own commentary to the events. To me, perhaps the most interesting part of this exercise was that it highlighted the need for the artist to consider the existence of diverging points of view  – as I am sure the recollection that my friend had of this conversation would be different from mine – and that, when re-enacting a photograph, the experience could be enriched by exploring these alternative perspectives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A world without windows

While reading Iwona Blazwick’s essay “A Modern Story” in Hannah Starkey: Photographs 1997-2007 (1), I came across the following passage, quoted by Blazwick from Carolyn Christov Bakargiev:

‘Iron, electricity, the use of steel and reinforced concrete in construction…and air conditioning, have progressively modified the architecture of the window…the practical and physical functions of the window (light and ventilation) were relegated to a less important position in building design…Extremes became possible…you could build without windows; you could build wall that is structurally solid but that is completely transparent, almost all glass…’ (2)

 

I  work in a modern tall building that was erected less than 10 years ago. In keeping with what seems to be a trend in new office spaces in London, the building features garden terraces every few floors, full of greenery, where tenants can walk and relax for a few minutes to escape the pressure of work. Like all other modern buildings, its external surface is all glass, providing spectacular panoramic views of the city from the higher floors, almost uninterrupted. Until now, I always assumed that these glass surfaces were windows, but the passage quoted above flipped a switch in my mind and I realised that my workspace was not surrounded by windows, as I always thought, but by solid walls. Walls that could not be opened or cracked, their safety glass designed to withstand heavy blows. Of course, the narrative that we work in a space which is a surrounded by windows is indeed more romantic, and less prone to cause anxiety than the reality, which is that we are trapped by solid, impregnable surfaces that do not let anything in or out. It somewhat brought me back to the work of Rafal Milach, which I commented earlier in this blog (link), particularly his installation “Both White” through which he tries to explore the issue of suggestibility and peer pressure, and our inability to see things for what they are because we are trying too hard to conform.

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(1) Blazwick, I., 2007. Hannah Starkey: Photographs 1997-2007. 1st ed. Gottingen: Steidl. Pp i-v

(2) Idem, p ii

Research notes – Deutsche Borse Foundation Photographic Prize 2018

The following comments are made after attending the exhibition for the shortlisted artists in the Deutsche Borse Foundation Photographic Prize 2018, as presented in the Photographer’s Gallery, London between 23/Feb/2018 and 03/Jun/2018.

The four shortlisted artists were Mathieu Asselin, Rafal Milach, Batia Suter and Luke Willis Thompson, with the latter being the winner. The first thing that struck me is how secondary was photographic practice to many of the works as exhibited. The winning entry was a silent film projection and paradoxically, this was the entry that more closely resonated with photography, in my opinion.

French artist Mathieu Asselin (b. 1973) was shortlisted for his publication Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation. The material exhibited, and the way this was presented reminded me of the way Sophie Calle’s work is normally exhibited (coincidentally, she was one of the shortlisted artists in the 2017 edition of the prize – see my comments on this here), where photographs felt more like ancillary documents supporting a written narrative, rather than documents standing on their own. The case presented by Asselin is quite compelling, and I particularly liked that he included within his book facsimile reproductions of Monsanto’s advertisement campaigns and the Technology / Stewardship Agreement that farmers using their genetically modified seeds need to sign. The advertisements included are quite shocking in the cynical ways in which the company tried to shift public views on chemicals, particularly in the context of food additives (see for example this one). The photographs on show were primarily ambient portraits of farmers that have been affected by Monsanto’s corporate practices (see for example here). The book that was the basis for his nomination was also on display and this looked to me as more compelling photographically than what was presented in the gallery, which confirms the idea that it is not always straightforward to move work across various display platforms and achieve the same impact.

Polish artist Rafal Milach (b. 1978) was shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal originally shown in the Atlas Sztuki Gallery in Lodz, Poland. The show is supposed to expose “the mechanism of post-soviet propaganda in architecture, urban projects and objects through a consideration of sociotechnical systems of governmental controls and ideological manipulations of belief and consciousness” (1). The pieces on display included videos, sculptures, drawings and some photographs, but again the latter did not feel like they were playing a prominent role, but were just one of many media used by the artist. Many of the exhibits were related to mind manipulation or propaganda, but how much of that is specific to post-soviet culture, as opposed to endemic in many other parts of the world in current times, is debatable. In any case, and perhaps as an unfortunate consequence of the world in which we currently live, I was not particularly moved by any of the pieces on show, with perhaps the only one which I found quite intriguing being the video entitled “Both White”, which was excepted from a Soviet documentary movie “Me and Others” by Felix Sobolev (2), exploring the suggestibility of the mind. It is hard to understand what is going on from the short video shown, but the main character of the video (link to still from the video) seems to be suggested by group pressure into saying that two paper pyramids, one white and one black, are both white. The lost expression of the man in the video and the fact that he was saying something that probably is not convinced about is intriguing, and I ended up watching this for a long time (as it was in a look).

Swiss artist Batia Suter (b. 1967) was nominated for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia II. Perhaps the least interesting of the works on display, Suter’s book is a thick volume of black and white found photographs, extracted from thousand illustrated publications collected by the artists, and include images of animal, plants, industrial products, astronomical phenomena and many other fields of human knowledge, all mixed together in a seemingly unrelated fashion. Images taken from the book were enlarged significantly (each image was printed in what looks like A2 paper,  and hanged frameless next to each other in disparate ways. The images, coming from small printed materials originally, did not lend themselves to significant enlargement and the end result is jarring and unpleasant. The idea behind her work is to “…demonstrate how much of our understanding of the world, its history, cultures and geography are affected by their context” (1). I presume the artist expected that by extracting these images from their original context, and placing them together, new meanings would be derived. This is indeed an interesting concept, but in this case I could not get pass the fact that these images were too aesthetically unpleasant to look at them long enough to derive any new meanings.

New Zealander Luke Willis Thompson (b. 1988) was nominated, and won, for his exhibition autoportrait (23 Jun – 27 Aug 2017, Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK). When I read the title of the work, I was expecting a series of self-portraits like the ones done by Martin Parr and published in his book with the same title (link).  However, this work actually consists of the projection of a silent black and white film movie in a loop. The movie itself is about Diamond Reynolds, who broadcasted live on Facebook the moments after her partner Philando Castile was fatally shot by police (3). Reynolds appears in two poses in the film, moving very little on each one, sometimes moving her lips. Aesthetically, the movie does look like a portrait. Reynold’s movement is so subtle so as to give the impression that we are looking at a series of stills. One of the poses is a close up, with the frame being almost entirely filed by her head, which is slightly tilted downwards, eyes down (link to still image). In the second pose, she appears further back from the camera, with the upper half of her torso now visible (link to still image). In this pose, Reynolds appears a bit more assertive, her eyes looking slightly higher than in the previous pose. In both cases she is illuminated primarily from the lower left hand side, casting a very harsh light on the right hand side of the face. The movie, which was shot in 35mm black and white stock, is projected through a mask that makes the final image look almost square. The projecting machine used is very large, very loud. At first, this comes across as annoying, but the film is silent, and Reynolds appears to be speaking at some point. Of course, we cannot hear her. All we can hear is the humming of the projector, the tormenting mechanical sound of the cogs as they pull the film in front of the lamp. It is a continuous noise that comes to symbolise our inability to listen what others are saying when we can only listen to our fears, playing in a loop inside our brains, something that was at the heart of the Philando Castile case.

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(1) Excerpted from exhibition notes from The Photographers’ Gallery, 2018. Diary Feb-Jun 2018. 1st ed. London: The Photographers’ Gallery

(2) YouTube. 2018. Me and Others 1971 USSR documentary (eng subs). Я и другие. – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuIXiXqv978. [Accessed 03 June 2018].

(3) Shooting of Philando Castile – Wikipedia. 2018. Shooting of Philando Castile – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Philando_Castile. [Accessed 03 June 2018].

Part 5 – Exercise 2: Question for seller

Question for Seller (1) is the work of artist Nicky Bird, who purchased lots of vintage, unwanted family images in eBay in auctions where there was no other bidder other than herself. At the moment of acquiring the lot, Bird posed the same question to each of the sellers: How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them? Some of the answers were quite terse, providing no indication about the origin or nature of the images, while others engaged with the artist and were happy to find a new home for these old photographs.

  • Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

I do not think the images themselves have achieved a higher status by being shown in a gallery, but their significance has been altered by being part of Bird’s conceptual experiment, part of an installation. Unfortunately, in Bird’s website one can only see the captions accompanying each lot, but not he photographs that were part of the lots themselves. It would have been nice to see the images alongside the captions to see if there was a connection, something that could be triggered by experiencing the original old pictures alongside the reaction of the seller. As it is, this could only have been experienced by those attending the shows in the gallery. It is this “exclusivity” perhaps, the fact that you could only experience Bird’s work in full at the gallery, that elevated the status of the photographs.

  • Where does their meaning derive from?

The original significance of the photographs has now been long gone. They were primarily taken for the enjoyment of their original owners, perhaps the same people who appear in the pictures themselves, but their meaning has shifted as they exchanged hands. For many of the sellers for instance, it seems the images are meaningless, totally disconnected from their own background or interests, and have simply become a mercantile transaction. For others they had a historical significance, a record of eras long gone but somewhat connected to the seller by the feelings of nostalgia that they evoke. For Bird, it seems that the meaning derives precisely from this displacement of meaning: it seems that what caught her attention in the first place to these photographs was the fact that they seemed to be “unwanted”, not only by the sellers, who were trying to offload them, but also by the world at large, as nobody was bidding for these lots until Bird came along and bought them. As for the spectators the meaning likely derives from the experience they had, looking at the images alongside the captions prepared by Bird, when they were exhibited.

  • When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

Yes, by being added to Bird’s installation, the images become part of something that transcends their intrinsic / original value (which is probably quite limited on its own) and consequently become more attractive to those touched by what they have just experienced. It also seems that Bird’s installation somehow included the auctioning of the photographs as part of the show itself, which adds an additional element of attraction to the images, as the auction ceases to be merely about the objects, even after they are transformed into “art”, to become art in itself.

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  1. Question for Seller – Nicky Bird. 2018. Question for Seller – Nicky Bird. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nickybird.com/projects/question-for-seller/. [Accessed 06 June 2018].