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.

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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:

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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. 
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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. 
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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.
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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. 
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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

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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].