Part 4 – Exercise 2 – Advertisement

For this exercise, I have chosen to comment on the components of two advertisements appearing in the magazine “Brummell”, Spring 2018 edition (link). Click on the images below to see the full comments on each ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Part 4 – Exercise 1 – Erwitt’s Dogs Image

Exercise 1 is about commenting on Elliot Erwitt’s “New York City, 1974” photograph (link)(1)

You could argue that the subject of this image is the small dog to the right hand side, but on it own this dog would be almost unremarkable, other than for the cuteness of seeing him dressed up for winter, which by now has lost its novelty value. The picture comes alive when we add the Great Dane to the left and the walker / owner of the dog, of which we only see the legs, in the middle. If you take the three elements into consideration, they are quite centrally located within the frame, which is interesting as we are missing the hind legs for the Great Dane (probably cropped out). Had the remaining two legs of the large dog been included it would have unbalanced the composition quite significantly, as the negative space on either side of the subject block helps the viewer focus. By deliberately cropping the image in this way, in which we only get to see the front legs of the large dog, Erwitt creates the illusion that we are looking at a couple walking with their “kid” in the park. The dogs seem to be “humanised” in this picture, with the one on the left being made to look like a person by virtue of hiding its rear legs and chest, and the small dog on the right having a “hat”, something one would not normally expect a dog to wear. Is Erwitt commenting on the transformation of the traditional family model in modern times? Is he making a comment about people choosing not to have children by choice and fulfilling the need for company by taking on pets instead?

The low vantage point of view also transforms the balance (and ultimately the meaning) of the image. If we imagine how this scenario would look from our regular viewpoint, we would have perhaps first take notice of the Great Dane and only later fix our attention on the small dog, probably only because it looks cute with its little hat. The low vantage point alters this completely, making the small dog the primary focal point, where our eyes go first. This also contributes to the overall illusion of the other four legs representing a couple, as we are only seeing a fraction of the visual clues coming from the larger objects.

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(1) Ken Johnson. 2018. Elliott Erwitt’s Photographs – Review – The New York Times. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/10/arts/design/elliott-erwitts-photographs-review.html. [Accessed 20 April 2018].

 

 

Photographs that are not means of expression or communication?

At the beginning of part 4 in the course, we are asked to reflect upon any photographs that are not used as a mean of expression or communication. The only photographs that I can think that may fulfil this role are those taken in an industrial context, mechanically by machines as part of a production process. Or perhaps by a video surveillance system. I also thought about images created in the context of a medical procedure, like x-rays, or as part of a forensic process. There images all fulfil an information gathering process, like evidence, but are not necessarily trying to express or communicate something.

Perhaps what all these images have in common is that they are not the result of a photographer seeking to convey an idea, but rather the use of photography for its intrinsic technical recording capacity, sometimes in a random, or non-discriminatory way. There is no intervention of somebody’s mind in the selection of the correct time to click, and if there is, this selection is either completely detached from the subject, or chosen for a reason that is not connected to either expression or communication, but for another ulterior motive.

That is not to say that this process, in itself, cannot ultimately become something that expresses or communicates something. A completely random series of photographs, taken without knowing in advance what we are going to get, could result in interesting shapes or unexpected situations. They are not expressing anything in particular from the mind of the photographer, but they may nonetheless connect at some level with the viewer, for whom they may mean something.

Exercise 3.4 – Part 3 / Project 3 Summary

I have made separate observations on Shafran’s images in a previous blog entry that can be found here (link). The following comments address specifically the issues touched upon by the course guide in respect to this exercise.

I had not noted the link between the types of images taken by Shafran and his gender until this was mentioned by the course guide. As I mentioned in my original comment, the images taken by Shafran for the Wahing-Up series (link)(1), and other series which I checked in his web-page, including Supermarket checkouts (link)(2), are almost typological in nature, essentially representing a collection of variations of a basic theme. It could be argued that Shafran is hoarding images about similar objects, something I have done in my practice, and various other male artists have done as well (see for instance Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip or his Twentysix Gas Stations) as well. There are scholar articles on psychology arguing that the hoarding of objects, as part of the obsessive disorders, seems to be more prevalent in males than on females (see for instance this article (3)). In that respect, and after due consideration, I am not very surprised to see that these images were taken by a male photographer. However, the point stands that I had not really noted this until it was mentioned in the course guide. I also remain unconvinced that there is a strong connection between differences in artistic treatment and gender. Anna Fox, a female photographer, has made a very interesting series based on repetitive photographs of inanimate cupboard items (My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Wordslink (4)). Putting aside the captions in Fox’s images (Shafran’s do not have captions, at least in his website), the images look thematically similar to those included in Washing-Up. 

In my opinion, the lack of people in works like Washing-Up, Supermarket checkouts and My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words contribute to a feeling of detachment and alienation. The effect varies from series to series, but I have always found it quicker to make an emotional connection when you have a person, or even an animal in a picture. Generally, this is through the emotions we attach to facial expressions or gestures, but in other cases the feelings can also come from the actions that such characters are executing when they were photographed. There is a facility of connection in this case because of commonality: if the action or circumstances portrayed are something we have done in the past, or if we relate to the subject by gender, ethnicity, cultural background or demeanour, there is an instant relationship between ourselves and the image and this helps to convey the photographer’s message.

An equally strong connection can still be created when photographs only (or predominantly) contain inanimate objects, but this is perhaps less directly related to the objects themselves and more to the experience of the viewer, and the chance that such experience matches the intention of the photographer. In the case of Shafran’s images, I could feel such connection in the Supermarket checkout images (5) because I associated such images to something I have experienced myself (playing the game of guessing people’s personality by looking at their shopping), but the Washing-Up images did not move me in the same way and in the end I considered them to be slightly boring. In the end, that personal connection is what determines whether such images, or any other still life image, ends up being interesting or not.

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(1) Washing-up 2000 [2000] : Nigel Shafran. 2018. Washing-up 2000 [2000] : Nigel Shafran. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/. [Accessed 03 February 2018].

(2) Supermarket checkouts [2005] : Nigel Shafran. 2018. Supermarket checkouts [2005] : Nigel Shafran. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nigelshafran.com/category/supermarket-checkouts-2005/. [Accessed 03 February 2018].

(3) Mahajan, N.S.,Chopra, A., and Mahajan, R., 2014. Gender differences in clinical presentation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A Hospital based study. Delhi Psychiatry Journal, Volume 17, Issue 2, 284-290.

(4) My Mother’s Cupboards : Anna Fox. 2018. My Mother’s Cupboards : Anna Fox. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/my-mothers-cupboards/. [Accessed 03 February 2018].

(5) People is sometimes included in some of the images in this series, but in most cases they are marginal / incidental, rather than being the main focus of them.

Exercise 3.3 – A childhood memory

The memory I have chosen to recreate is from the oldest dream I remember. I must have been about 7 years old at that time, and I remember being in the middle of a wide avenue, near the beach, in my home town of Naiguata, Venezuela. The avenue had about 4 car lanes, and being one way only, it did not have a traffic island in the middle. My hometown is a popular resort destination for beachgoers from the capital city, Caracas, which is only 25 miles away, and the infrastructure was built to withstand the masses of people descending upon the town every weekend, sometimes exceeding the town population 4 or 5 times over. However, during weekdays the place was deserted and there were rarely any cars around. I would always be there playing or goofing around after school, but in my dream I was standing in the middle of the road, and the tarmac around me had disappeared, leaving just a black hole, with me standing in a small island in the middle of it. I remember peering at this hole and associating it with death. I also remember feeling like there was no possibility of scape, but there was no fear of harm either. Just no movement. I was there static, standing in the middle doing nothing.

The dream had a profound impact on my for some time, and I remember going back to the avenue and trying to sit down in the middle of it, when traffic was at its calmest. I had an impulse to do that, but I cannot remember anymore why. It was like a dare, but the details of everything else that I though at the time about the dream are a bit blurred now. Only the original dream remains vividly in my mind.

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Sketch recreation of the dream, using pencil, ink and watercolours (snapshot of my sketchbook)

It is difficult to recreate this memory in full for a variety of reasons, so I decided to recreate aspects of it instead. The key element for me is calm in front of the abysm. I tried to sketch various ideas around this, including me standing in front of a precipice or in the middle of the road. Some drawings around these ideas, from my sketchbook, are reproduced below

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Standing in front of darkness – pencil
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Various ideas about standing in the middle of a road (left hand side in a road in Seaford, East Sussex. Right hand side, in Moor lane, City of London) – pencil

I tried to develop some of these ideas into photographs using a variety of techniques, from straight shots to combinations of images to double exposures. My use of multiple exposure / image combinations in post processing came from a desire to give the images a slightly unreal look, in fitting with the memory coming from a dream. Here are some of the preliminary attempts I made:

DSC02348
Image 1: 28mm lens. 1/100s at f4. ISO 50. In camera multiple exposure (two shots). This shot is a variation of the theme of me standing in front of the abysm, with the latter represented instead by the thorny hedges. 
DSC02374
Image 2: 28mm and 85mm lenses. 1/160s at f5.6. ISO 50. In camera multiple exposure (two shots). This is another variation of me standing in front of the abysm, this time represented by the white cliffs at Cuckmere Haven, Sussex. 
DSC02400
Image 3 – 35mm lens. 1/1000s at f5.6. ISO 50. In camera multiple exposure (three shots). A variation from the previous shot, with me trying to climb out of the abysm.
DSCF2673
Image 4 – 21mm equiv. lens. 1/160s at f8. ISO 200. With this, I tried to replicate the effect of standing in the middle of the road, just like in my dream. The road here is also quite wide an unmarked, resembling some of the conditions of the original setting. The road, in an affluent area of Bromley, is in a very poor state of repair and there is virtually no traffic, other than the occasional local car moving very slowly (to avoid the multiple potholes), for which it was safe to take this shot. 
DSCF2637
Image 5 – 41mm equiv. lens. 1/60s at f5.6. ISO 200. This is another attempt at recreating the scene of me standing in the middle of an empty road. I particularly liked this setting because is rather bleak, but the road, connecting Chislehurst with Bromley, is usually very busy and it was not safe for me to stand in the middle here. I tried to manipulate the image in post-processing to move my body to the middle of the road, but did not like the end result. 

My final image for this exercise is shown below. This was achieved by combining multiple exposures of the same scene during post-processing

DSC02344
Image 6 – 28mm lens. 1/400s at f2. ISO 50. Three exposures combined in post-processing.

What I particularly liked about this image, a variation on the theme of me standing in front of the abysm, is the slight sense of danger that the jitter from combining frames creates. It also creates a dream-like, slightly surreal look. The other element I like is the dark part at the top of the image. In reality, it was just a small depression less than a meter deep, but by darkening the shadows significantly here, it gives the impression of being much deeper.

 

Excercise 3.2 – Part 3 / Project 2 summary

I have already made extensive comments on my feelings about Nikki S. Lee’s Projects series in my research notes about her work (link). Just to expand briefly on the comments I made in my original notes, I find that Lee’s work in Projects does is not a commentary on identity itself, but more like a study on performance (more specifically, on Lee’s ability to “perform” as if she was a member of each of the groups she infiltrated). There is no evidence that Lee has made these performances for any other reason other than to show she could do it, just like a method actor could indeed learn how to live like the character being played. Photography as a medium is ill-suited for us to know if parts of Lee’s real identity have permeated the characters she played. Hence, it is hard to imagine this series, in which she “transformed” into things she clearly cannot be (she can never become Hispanic or Japanese for instance), as being an honest exploration of her identity.

I have also made notes on Trish Morrisey’s work separately (link), including my views on her series Front and The Failed Realist. If I were approached by Morrisey to participate in Front, I would probably decline. Many times throughout our lives we have been approached by people telling us stories to obtain something from us in return. Some of them are true, others are just a con. While our default position is to trust, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell one from the other. Our views of others are hardening, perhaps because our perceptions of the world surrounding us are also hardening, many times without reason. It is a sad indictment, but I think it would be too much to ask a total stranger to swap clothes, even for the sake of good art.

 

Exercise 3.1 – Part 3 / Project 1 summary

The following notes summarise my feelings about the works explored in Project 1 of part 3 of the course, and in particular the works of Brotherus, Wearing and Woodman. I have made separate reflections on each of these in previous entries to the blog.

Many of the images I have explored use the photographer’s body (or parts of it) as a means of expression, but the feelings elicited vary widely. In some cases, and particularly in Brotherus’s Annonciation (1)I could feel a connection with the struggles of the artist, and the images all felt very personal and intimate. The images from Woodman, on the other side of the spectrum, felt mostly detached and cold. I could not feel any specific personal reflection in many of those, although there were plenty of self references (specially to her lifestyle), which I believe Woodman used to reflect on aesthetic themes and grander, more generic concepts (such as mortality, purity and our struggle to fit in). While they feel more detached, Woodman images can sometimes be easier to look at, and sometimes also easier to decipher, than those of Brotherus’s Annonciation, or her follow-up series Carpe Fucking Diem (2), where she combines personal shots with landscapes, family images, and photographs of personal objects to create a series which feels more disjointed and perhaps too personal to be able to relate to.  Perhaps in the middle sit the Self-Portrait series by Wearing (3), which draw from something personal but feel sufficiently generic and structured to be approachable.

How deep these images go into the depiction of the artist’s self exploration determine to a large extent how we feel about them. The exploration of one’s mind is as valid topic as anything else, and I do not believe we need to share the artist’s experience in order to empathise with it. I do not relate with Brotherus situation in Annonciation, but the series is successful in creating a feeling of hopelessness which is sufficiently universal for any viewer to relate to, regardless of their circumstances. When she moves to the next stage in her healing process, which led to Carpe Fucking Diem, she resorts to imagery that feel gratuitously disjointed (the series is a medley of landscapes, street photography, still life, portraits, surrealism and snapshots). She does not appear in several of the images here, but it still feels like a personal project where the underlying theme is too personal, too intimate and perhaps too deep to allow the viewer to connect. In that sense, some of the work of Brotherus feels, if not pretentious at least uninteresting. Of the three artists explored here, only Woodman makes use of captions to accompany her photographs, and even this is not particularly frequent. Certainly not as common as with other artists famous for this such as Duane Michals or Karen Knorr. I feel that in some cases captions could have helped (certainly it would have helped in my understanding of Carpe Fucking Diem), but in situations where the taking of a photograph only has a personal significance, text is only going to sustain attention on its own merits. A successful pairing, in my opinion, would require the significance of text and image to bounce off each other. If the meaning of the photograph is too arcane as to elude anybody outside the artist’s circle, this is not going to work.

Nudism is something that features on both the work of Brotherus and Woodman. Some of the nude imagery produced by Brotherous has a passing resemblance to some of Woodman’s images (see for instance here and here), but I have come to the conclusion that the significance of it for each artist is not the same. In the case of Woodman, I believe nudity is sometimes a mechanism for the artist to try to connect with the environment, the surroundings (see here and here, for instance) and I believe this connection is central to some of Woodman’s recurring themes. Clothes in this case are just another barrier to that connection, and Woodman is not afraid to remove it when appropriate (in many other images where this connection is not critical, she appears fully clothed). Woodman has also done a great deal of exploration around surreal themes and in many cases she has used parts of her naked body with a variety of props (mirrors, display cabinets, masks, fish) to create illusions of the mind. In a way, nudity here just feels like another prop available to the artist for achieving a particular aesthetic result. There are no significant sexual connotations or undertones in most of Woodman’s nude images and I do not feel that this was her intent at any point.

Brotherus uses nudism less frequently than Woodman, and I feel that her use of it is perhaps more formal, more contextual than in the case of Woodman. In the series Artist and Her Model (4) some of the nudity resembles representations of classical paintings (see for instance Nudo Fiorentino), while in Artist at Work (5), nudism has a straight raison d’être as Brotherus plays the role of a model for portraiture. In other instances, Brotherous nudism feels like an attempt to signify intimacy, innocence or purity (see for instance here and here), but unlike Woodman, which nudism felt very natural and uncontrived, Brotherus seems at places awkward with it and in many of the images she is just facing in the other direction, as if she was trying to scape from a situation she created herself, from her own trap.

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(1) Elina Brotherus. 2018. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/annonciation/. [Accessed 27 January 2018].

(2) Elina Brotherus. 2018. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/carpe-fucking-diem/. [Accessed 27 January 2018].

(3) The Guardian. 2018. Gillian Wearing takeover: behind the mask – the Self Portraits | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask. [Accessed 27 January 2018].

(4) Elina Brotherus. 2018. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/artist-and-her-model/. [Accessed 28 January 2018].

(5) Elina Brotherus. 2018. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/artists-at-work/. [Accessed 28 January 2018].

 

Research notes – Gregory Crewdson

I initially came across Gregory Crewdson when flicking through an American photography magazine. One of his famous tableaux images (link) was featured as part of an advertisement from a well-known print manufacturer. I remember looking into him at that time and noticing that, like Jeff Wall, whose pictures I had seen before, Crewdson primarily works with carefully staged scenarios. Unlike Wall’s, Crewdson’s images have a distinct quality that make them immediately obvious as to being staged (see this, for example), but at the same time intriguing enough for one to stop and ask why has this been set up and what is the photographer trying to tell me.

I decided to look at Crewdson images again for this part of the course because for one of the exercises as well as for assignment 2, I was going to rely heavily in props and made up situations, and I wanted to try to understand how these images work at a general level, without any pretensions as to being able to produce anything near that quality, at least for the time being.

The image referenced in the first paragraph is part of Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses” and this was my starting point. The book covering this (1) is generously sized but does not do justice to some of the images, which are printed to very large formats (about 1.5 by 2.2 meters). Crewdson’s subjects can sometimes occupy a very small part within the frame, and looking at the original size print would have helped to look at the details of this. Many of the images share common visual elements, and in some cases I found that there were pictures that were too similar and I started to question whether it was necessary to include all these images in the book. I presume not all these pictures are shown together in a show, so it may just be a case of the photographer trying to give us the full set of images produced for the series, like a full body of work, rather than a condensed, curated view.

In “Beneath the Roses”, Crewdson presents us with dark, eerie view of suburban life. The images were mostly taken at night or during the twilights. Artificial light plays and important role in the images, in some cases being the only source of light – some of the images were taken inside a soundstage – but even in the outdoor pictures artificial light is used to emphasise the location of the subject (see this, for example, where the car at the junction is illuminated from the inside). I also like how Crewdson mixes light sources, with many pictures having a mix of both warm and cold light that emphasizes the vivacity of the images. Most of the indoor images are contrasty but have a slight HDR quality to them, probably created by the lighting effects employed during production. This emphasizes the sense of staging that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Crewdson’s subjects are rarely doing something in the pictures. Most of the time they are static, motionless – standing or sitting – or just walking, seemingly aimlessly. There is almost no interaction between subjects in the frame and this also adds to the oddness of the images. Some of them look like taken from a dream, like the image of a man digging out suitcases and moving boxes in the middle of the forest (link). In others, the action of people make no sense, like in the image of a lady, who has presumably just got off a taxi and is standing in the middle of the road barefoot, pensive, with people remaining in the taxi looking to the front, away from her, oblivious to the fact that she left the taxi door open (link). I looks like rather than showing the decisive moment, Crewdson images are taken moments before or after that, capturing instead an odd moment. All in all, the people in these images look lonely and the overall impression one gets from the images is that of sadness and self-absorption.

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(1) Crewdson, G., 2008. Beneath the Roses. 1st ed. New York: Abrams.

Exercise 2.4

The following comments are made after reading the relevant entries in the course guide and looking at the work of Peter Mansell, Dewald Botha and Jodie Taylor.

In first instance, I felt quite a lot of affinity with Peter Mansell’s work and his way of approaching photography. Like him, I am also trying to transition from a photography where aesthetic considerations come first to creating images that come from somewhere more personal and reflective, that have more meaning than beauty. Mansell does not talk about the journey much, and this is the part in which I wish I could have more information from his experience, because it does feel quite confusing at the moment for me. He does talk, though, about the great relief he felt when he started being able to tell his story in visual terms, as he seemed to have difficulties in communicating his frustrations to other people via words:

I learned as a disabled person to hide, ignore and push through the manifold irritants and barriers to getting on and not share them with anyone.

As I progressed I found that I was being drawn to use photography more and more as a form of expression. The process of creation often saw me though pain and anguish while the end product acted as a visual statement about my existence and that experience. In a way it sort of objectified my situation or experience and by so doing released me emotionally.

Mansell has found a personal subject that has allowed him to release that experience that he struggled so much to put in words to others. I am also looking for that, but for me the biggest obstacle seems to be fear. Not fear of failure because in many ways I have already been there, but is more a fear of rejection and isolation. If I were to use photography as a way of conveying my personal experience and feelings, as a means of communicating with others, I fear that I cannot either be brave enough to do that with honesty, or that if I do that, I would end up burning too many bridges. I am already burning bridges in any case by trying to move away from a purely aesthetic perspective in photography to a more reflective one. For people, it is hard to find interesting pictures of mundane objects and I feel that I have not develop the narrative yet to sustain this. I fear that if I go all out on this, I would end up burning all my bridges without building anything else durable. That fear, I must continue to fight in order to move forward.

Mansell also talks about the differences between photography and the likeness of its subject, which is one of the aspects of the medium that fascinates me the most. Because photography is a way of reproducing reality with great detail, it is often confused with it and this is possibly a mistake. Mansell makes reference to this when he mentions that “photography offers the appearance of transparency while simultaneously offering a distinct, coded transcription of the real” (1). I personally think that the “coding” is the area of photography where I would like to focus for the following months: how I interpret my reality or somebody elses reality and how the end product reflects that interpretation, hopefully in a way that is distinguishable from other forms of interpreting that reality.

While I related quite a lot at first with Mansell’s way of looking at photography, I was visually captivated by Botha’s Ring Road series (2). In the brief text accompanying his work, Botha makes various references to displacement and disconnection, which from the background provided in the course guide, possibly comes from the feeling of being an outsider as a South African living in China. I like the fact that Botha started the project as a mere physical exploration of the ring road and gradually transitioned to a personal reflection on “displacement and survival” (3),  how he coped away from his home country. The images in the series all have a feeling of sadness, of starkness that comes from the absence of people and general emptiness of the roads themselves. At the same time, the physical structure of the road seems to encapsulate and limit the field of view in the images, sometimes acting as a barrier that prevent us from seeing what is going on. This was particularly the case in this image, where the concrete walls of the road prevent us from seeing the houses at the back with some clarity. This effect goes well with the multiple mentions that Botha makes in the accompanying text of what he calls “invisible limitations”, which, based on my interpretation of the accompanying text, is likely to be more about our self-erected barriers to connection, and the quest to bring some barriers down, perhaps by recalibrating our expectations. This, like Mansell’s words in the interview quoted in the course guide, also resonate with my current struggle to find that inner motivation to recalibrate my photography into something I am proud off and can reach out to others.

I also had a look at Jodie Taylor’s work in the series Memories of Childhood (4). While I did not particularly connect with the images, I found intriguing the approach used by the photographer and in particular I quite liked the use of film cameras, 6×4 prints and cheap photo albums as means of evoking the era which the series is trying to remember. It shows the importance of preparation and emphasises the idea that every decision within the creative process has to be justified and when this justification is well thought out, the whole work comes together in a better way. The subject of returning to the place where we were born is in itself quite intriguing. For multiple reasons, I am not able to do that right now, but I have been thinking instead about my earliest memories here in England, when I first arrived 26 years ago, and I wonder if it would be worthwhile relieving some of such memories and visiting some of those places before I forget them forever.

———————————— ooo ————————————

All the three authors mentioned above had made work which is in many ways deeply personal and introspective. Yet, in many cases the aim of the work itself is to reach out. This seems to be particularly the case of Mansell’s work, where he is using images to express himself, but is also subtly perceivable in the work of Taylor and Botha. I feel that if the aim of the work is to reach out, to use it as a mechanism for coping with our personal circumstances, and the work itself is good enough to reflect that, then the artistic experience will be enriched by allowing the viewer to relate to that experience and come to his or her own conclusions, and the work should be sufficiently robust to withstand multiple interpretations without loosing its main character. The problem, of course, is that when the work becomes too personal for an artist, then it is no longer just a piece of art but also part of something intimate, and as such is very hard to leave it to its own devices. I guess part of maturing as an artist is understanding that people come in all sorts of shapes and forms and that the viewer is not always going to relate to the experiences depicted and in many cases will end up being hostile to something they cannot relate to or understand. When the work is about something personal, particularly something we have been struggling with for some time, then it is probably best to be able to let go, to release whatever is it we were dealing with through the pictures, and then leave them in the open for somebody else to deal with it.

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(1) Boothroyd, S., 2015. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 2nd ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts. p 128.

(2) Dewald. 2017. Ring Road – Dewald. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dewaldbotha.net/ring-road.html. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

(3) Boothroyd, op. cit. p 66

(4) WeAreOCA. 2017. Photography and Nostalgia – WeAreOCA. [ONLINE] Available at: https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/photography-and-nostalgia/. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

 

Exercise 2.3

The poem I have selected for this exercise is “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, originally published in 1849:

I.

Hear the sledges with the bells–
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

II.

Hear the mellow wedding bells
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

III.

Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells!
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows ;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!

IV.

Hear the tolling of the bells–
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls ;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
Rolls
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells ;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells :
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells ;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells. (1)

 

The poem is highly onomatopoeic, with the use of many words that evoke sounds, and this is what attracted me to it in the first place. The first time I read it, I had the feeling that the poem was about cycles, going through life’s stages from youth to death, covering innocent joy, hopefulness, despair, resignation and sorrow. These stages were all represented by events or activities where we expect, or traditionally would have expected to hear bells.

The second time I read it, I felt that the association between sound and events was the main idea, and what primarily came to my mind was classic conditioning and learning by association, as if the different ways in which bells can sound predetermined how we react, and the emotions we feel. I also have the impression that the signs are all signals on how to interpret events, rather than a reflection of our own or the author’s direct experience (ie the signs (the bells), rather than being in the middle of the action, evoke a chain of feelings and reactions). It all feels detached and third hand.

The third time I read the poem I went line by line slowly to try to decipher if there was any additional connection that I missed. It seems to me now that Poe was probably more pessimistic about this poem that I thought at first. There seems to be a connection between the first and last part of the poem which I had not noted as first. In the last part, Poe derides those who take joy on death. He seems to be  specifically referring to people in here, although he deflects his commentary somewhat to attribute the delirium to their “king”, which I would assume is Death, and proceeds to describe it by using some of the same words used in the first part of the poem, which I consider to be about pure, innocent joy. The overriding sensation I had after this third reading is that reality is always different from our idea of it and that what may seem innocent can turn out to be sinister and vice-versa.

Looking at all the things that I have taken out of this poem, I still think that Poe is trying to talk to us about life’s ups and downs, but he may also be telling us to be on the guard because we tend to react to signs, to what we perceive  (the different ringing of the bells) in ways that somehow are predictable, or driven by stereotypes or prejudice, but not necessarily always right or appropriate, and sometimes these signs may mislead us.

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To depict what I took away from the poem, I wanted to make a series of photographs about signs that we could interpret to mean something based on our current experience. These signs will themselves be wrapped around a cycle of life theme, which I have associated to each part of the poem: innocence/enjoyment, growth/success, despair/failure and maturity/death.  In the poem, many of these themes were wrapped by the sounds of the bells, different bells, and these sounds were probably universally understood as signs for what each part of the poem depicted. Everybody at that time knew the sound of bells tolling for death, and the sound of bells on sledges. Nowadays people may no longer know these signs. They may not be able to make such associations, so the signs would need to be updated. What can be a sign that is universally associated with these things?

  • As I said before, the first part of the poem evokes in me a feeling of joy and innocence. It also takes me back to my childhood. I have tried to put in images signs that convey all this: moving swings, toys, laughter
  • Part II of the poem deals with marriage in a literal sense, but I interpret it as encompassing our growth as beings and the potential prosperity that comes with it: becoming educated, taking a profession, earning a living, moving to our own place, starting a family. The signs I have chosen to evoke this include college results, coins, a happy face.
  • Part III of the poem is about a fire in the literal sense, but I have taken it to represent the adversity, despair and failure that we encounter in life so often. The bells used by fire engines in the 19th century have now been replaced by loud sirens and flashing lights, usually in blue. It is also the colour coming from the top of police cars and ambulances. The blue intermittently flashing colour is now associated with emergencies. Blue is also a colour associated with feeling down, depressed and these are feelings associated with despair, loss of hope, which is one of the feelings I have associated with part three. One of the pictures I have taken for this part feature blue light as a sign. Another modern worry, and one that has been in the news quite recently, is excessive debt. One of the images I have taken depicts bills on the post as a sign of this. I also have taken some images here making reference to alcoholism.
  • Part IV of the poem is about death in the literal sense, but to me this is to do with resignation and acceptance of fate. It is about maturity, the twilight years and the inevitable end. The signs I have decided to depict in this part include images of people sleeping, resting hands, medicine. It is also, as I noticed above, indirectly connected with the first part of the poem, not only because the same words are used in both parts, but also in the frantic rhythm that such words evoke. The overarching feelings that both parts evoke are completely different, and yet they are almost the same rhythmically. I have tried to create a connection with the first part by arranging the image of medicine in the same way as I arranged the image of toys in the first part.

8 images were chosen for the final selection, two for each part of the poem. Most of the images I have taken all have an element of deceit or ambiguity: almost all were taken with props or staged. Some of the images selected also try to convey mixed feelings: the third image of a person seemingly happy could also be interpreted as that person being sad or reflective, his facial expression masked by the angle of view. Only a few images were taken straight without interference or modification. This was done in part out of necessity, to implement ideas that came to my mind, but also being conscious of the feeling that I had when reading the poem that not all we see can be trusted and that signs can also be misinterpreted.

The final selection is included below:

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(1) Robert Giordano. 2017. The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe – Poestories.com. [ONLINE] Available at: https://poestories.com/read/bells. [Accessed 11 November 2017].