Research notes – Elina Brotherus

The following comments are made after looking at the work of Elina Brotherus in her website: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/

The first series I looked at was Carpe Fucking Diem (1).  This series was done partly in parallel with Annontiation (see below), and both series are related to the theme of the photographer’s frustration at not being able to have a family with children of her own.

In her notes, at the side of the series, Brotherus mentions that “…I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger. Carpe Fucking Diem is also about inventing strange games for the playground of the camera” (1). It seems that part of the artist struggle is not only about how to cope with the frustration of not being able to get what one wants (having children in this case), but also with the pressures from society about the roles we are expected to play. Being in a similar position as the artist (ie not having children of my own, albeit voluntarily), I have sometimes also struggled with a degree of social pressure but time seems to be taking care of this. As times go by and we grow older the physical impossibility of having children gradually takes the pressure away.

Many of the images as such are, as the artist has promised, fun camera games. In this category I quite enjoyed the first two images in the series Hurricane (link) and NYC Snow (link), as well as Lamp Head a bit further into the series (link). The photographs seem to be a combination of life experiences, which show us what the artist has gone through or was doing during the time of the series, combined with what appears to be some degree of travel photography intertwined with incongruous images, some of which work well but others appear to be completely unconnected and disrupt the flow. I particularly liked the Frozen Duck image (link) that comes immediately after Liver Biopsy (link), and I think the photographs compliment each other in a macabre way, with the frozen duck shape vaguely resembling the shape of a liver. However, the insertion of images like Night-Time Streetlight (link) or Moon (link) seems too abrupt and unrelated to the rest of the series. All in all, I am not sure this is a series I enjoyed. Perhaps it is too personal, perhaps it is too disperse, but I fail to connect the stated aim of “giving the finger” to normality with the images on show which are not in any way revolutionary and seem to me too superficial.

Following the above, I had a look at Annontiation (2). In contrast with the above, this series follows a very methodical, chronological and congruent sequence. The images in here are all somewhat related and they all speak mostly of pain and despair. I am somewhat surprised that these images, which were supposedly taken over a 5 year period, were taken while the author was going through fertility treatment. She seem very sad in most, if not all of the images and I wonder if she has had edited out the images in which she was hopeful that the treatment would work. Otherwise, why put up with all the pain for so long? It seems to me that while the series is poignant, and is possibly reflecting what the author felt in the end, it seems quite lopsided. The only image that I found slightly optimistic, Annontiation 27 (link), is a bit ambiguous and I struggle to figure out sometimes if the expression in this photograph is that of happiness or pain. As a standalone picture is brilliant, but in the series it looks like a half-hearted glimmer of hope.

I then have a look at the series Les Femmes de la Maison Carré (3). This is a series the photographer did at the only building designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in France, the Maison Louis Carré (4). The title of the series refers to “the women”, but in reality we only see Brotherus, posing with different clothes and props in several of the rooms of the house. Rather than autobiographical, like Annontiation or to a certain extent Carpe Fucking Diem, in this series the photographer seems to be just a model, somebody that could be useful to portray something, but not necessarily a reflection of that person’s life. The series makes extensive use of reflections as a way of getting an alternative perspective of the subject, something that Brotherus explores further in other series (see for instance her work in Artist and her Model, commented below). I particularly enjoyed the subtle effect of the reflection on the wood surface in Salle à manger (link), while the secondary reflection on the bathroom cabinet mirror in Salle de bain d’Olga (link) gives a sinister, eerie look to the image.  Likewise, the very faint, almost imperceptible image of the photographer in Fenêtre (link) provides a subtle hint of humanity on what otherwise would be a cold record shot. What I enjoyed the most about this series is that it starts with interior shots of the house, which looks to be in good state of preservation, but when it moves to the outside, and specially the pool area, one starts to get a feeling of the degree of dilapidation that is going on, and the amount of restoration that seems to be required for the building. It is like a metaphor of life itself, one starts with a clean sheet, but as time goes things start to crumble on the outside while one continues to feel new and fresh on the inside, but eventually we realise the scale of the deterioration. The series ends, inexplicably, with a moon shot (link). Like in the case of Carpe Fucking Diem above, I have no idea why this image has been inserted and it feels both unnecessary and detrimental to the cohesiveness of the series.

The last series I looked at from Brotherus website was Artist and Her Model (5). This shows the artist, sometimes alone some other times with a male model (presumably her partner, although we are not told) at various landscape locations. What I find attractive about this series is Brotherus use of alternative perspective. Many of the pictures show the models from the back and the front side by side, and the change in point of view transforms the images completely, to the point that in some cases is hard to believe the images were taken on the same location (see for instance here). I can clearly make the connection with this and various interesting concepts, including that one should not be quick to judge the situation by looking at just one side of it. Like in the case of Les Femmes de la Maison Carré, Brotherus use of her persona in this series feels more like a model (hence the title), rather than just being any sort of personal reflection.

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(1) Elina Brotherus. 2017. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/carpe-fucking-diem/. [Accessed 10 December 2017].

(2) Elina Brotherus. 2017. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/annonciation/. [Accessed 10 December 2017].

(3) Elina Brotherus. 2017. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre/. [Accessed 10 December 2017].

(4) https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maison_Louis_Carr%C3%A9

(5) Elina Brotherus. 2017. Photography — Elina Brotherus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://elina-brotherus.squarespace.com/photography/#/artist-and-her-model/. [Accessed 10 December 2017].

 

 

 

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Assignment 2 – Initial idea 7: Time

There are many subjects around the idea of time. The passage of time, realising one is no longer young, is an interesting topic in itself. It is manifested in many ways. We tend to focus on the physical ones: grey hair, loss of muscle flexibility, tiredness, wrinkles; but usually the non-physical signs are the more interesting. Knowing first hand a historical moment that others have just learned by reference is one example of this. The generational gap in customs and culture. Looking at people dressing in a certain way for the second time around when most of them are dressing like that for the first time.

Another topic that I have been thinking a lot about in recent days is the usage of time. We tend to leave busy lives and many of us are working and studying at the same time. We also need to dedicate time to our families and friends, to a myriad of social activities outside work, and to manage all this is quite complex. But we are also spending a lot of time on things that may not necessarily bring us any joy. Where I work we have television screens blasting news continuously, albeit without sound (only images). Although I tend to ignore them most of the time, there is always something that captures our attention. And then, without thinking we end up checking the news in our phones or tablets. When we travel home, or when we get there, we are always looking at the Internet for news or entertainment. I guess this topic is somewhat related to the previous one, because I do remember the time when the internet was not as widespread and there were no tablets or smartphones and we used our spare time for other things, such as meeting each other or reading a book. I sometimes long these times and wish I could go back, but it is difficult, because there have been many benefits that have been brought by the new technologies (such as access to vast amounts of information in real-time: mails, the weather, train times, bus times, most of which help us save time or prepare for what was previously unexpected), but these benefits have come at the cost of great distractions (mindless video games, social media, invasive advertisement). The convenience of everything being now connected and readily available everywhere in real time also comes at the cost of relinquishing our privacy. But the worst aspect of this, the one I dislike the most, is that I think most of the time I spend in the Internet is just a waste or my time, that I could be using it to learn something new or to do something that I enjoy more. Or spend more time with real family and friends.

How do we connect these two topics photographically? I guess one way of looking at this would be to imagine doing all the new things we do today with the Internet, and that were not customarily done in the past, and try to recreate them with old technology. Likewise, it may be interesting to see what it would be like to do things that we used to do differently in the past with the aid of new technology.

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 6: The details

We live in what could be described as a “curated” world, surrounded by experts that are all the time explaining us complex things in a simple way. If you watch television this comes up very often, sometimes as a manifestation of pop culture. I was watching the BBC today and they were showing the forensic reconstruction of some person that was a famous prisoner in Scotland centuries ago. They were showing some interesting CGI but there was no discussion of how the technology works or what is used for. We only see the end results as some sort of novelty, something to capture our attention for a few seconds. The world is just too complex for us to understand anything but our own area of interest or expertise, if we have any, but if we were to see all the information, all the knowledge, instead of this curated view, we would end up with a huge headache or would quickly lose our minds. Perhaps the curated view of the world is necessary to preserve our own existence, but not being aware that our interaction with most everybody else is somewhat abridged could also have dangerous consequences. Without this awareness we would soon believe that we are qualified to pass judgement on matters that we have no knowledge of, and when this becomes endemic we could have the wholesale rejection of expertise.

I wanted to develop a series of photographs to illustrate the concept of the knowledge that lies beneath the surface of what we perceive. This knowledge, which I call the “details” for the purpose of this exercise, is something that is there but we cannot perceive or comprehend. The first idea that came to my mind when trying to illustrate this point was to take a series of images of high-resolution landscapes and then look at the images later in my computer, at 100% magnification and look for things that I have not noted when I first took the image, be it objects or patterns. These details were supposed to be images on a standalone basis, but I also thought about mixing the cropped images with their original sources, in random order, and allow the viewer to try to make sense of where the cropped images were coming from. This was intended as a way of illustrating the frustration that we often feel when there is something beyond our understanding.

I did some preliminary testing for these ideas, some of the preliminary images are shown below (including a mix of full images and crops):

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 5: Happiness

What makes us happy? Sometimes we pin our hopes of finding happiness on something or somebody and this turns out not to work the way we expected it. Happiness is an elusive subject, something that we may feel when we least expect and that is not there when we expect it to be. When that happens, we get frustrated. We get angry. The opposite of happiness takes place because, just like an untamed animal, happiness cannot be summoned, cannot be grasped, cannot be controlled and cannot be moved around as we please.

If there is no clear way to find happiness, is there a way of representing it pictorially? One way of tackling this is to think back about moments in which we remember being happy, and then take a picture representing or related to such moment. Another way would be to be on the alert for moments of happiness, and then take a picture of whatever is going on at that time, whatever I feel is associated with the generation of that happiness.

The above can actually end up being highly personal and consequently, impossible to decipher by the viewer. A third approach would be to distil the moment of happiness into its basis emotions and then look for ways in which such emotions could be represented by symbols or signs that could trigger a connection with happiness on the viewer. In order for this to work, the signs would have to have a near universal connection with happiness. A slight variation in this approach would be to try to use signs and symbols that elicit happiness directly in the viewers, rather than just an association with the concept.

But what are the universal symbols of happiness? If we Google happiness, and then look at images, we can see a lot of “smiley” faces:

Happiness

So, smiling seems to be directly associated with happiness. But what actually makes us smile? A smile in itself is just a manifestation of something, the “happiness”, but that has been caused by something else. A few examples could include

  • A joke
  • Receiving praise
  • Being together with someone we love
  • Closing a business opportunity successfully
  • Victory
  • Our football team scoring
  • Reaching the top of a mountain / finishing a race / completing a goal
  • Sunrises
  • Sunsets

There are many other things that can make us smile but which are not necessarily related to happiness. We can force a smile before somebody takes our picture, for instance, because this is a general convention when taking social pictures. The viewer of such picture may conclude that those in the picture were happy at that time, but this may not actually be the case. The limitation of this approach is that the viewer can never know for sure if what is being represented is a derivative of happiness or not, although one could argue that we should not be concerned with such things in any case, for as long as the correct response is elicited (ie if there is an association with happiness or happiness is indeed generated). My concern in connection with this limitation is only in as much as it can generate doubts in the viewer as to whether the symbol is genuine or not (eg is the smile fake?), thus ruining the intention.

Are there other symbols that are specifically related to happiness other than smiley faces? Are there any colours, sounds or objects related to happiness?  Can a colour or object, in itself, cause somebody to be happy? Does happiness require action, a sort of interaction between people or objects, in order to flourish? We can, for instance sometimes associate an object with a prior thought or situation and that can bring us a small degree of satisfaction, like a moment of joy, but again this could be a very personal response.

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 4: Fear

Fear is something that we normally associate with the feeling that something bad is about to happen to us, but its manifestation is sometimes irrational. I am always afraid of watching horror movies even though I know that most of them depict fantastic situations that are unlikely to happen in real life, although from time to time there is the odd one resembling reality too much to keep you thinking about the possibilities. Sometimes we are fearful of change, even when the evidence that something bad may happen is not convincing. Equally, we are afraid of trying something new just because of the uncertainty that entails. I am not generally fearful of the night, but I am very often afraid of being alone in a remote area, particularly if I am taking pictures and need to spend time setting out a tripod. I fear that someone will approach me to ask me what I am doing or attack me. It is quite paradoxical that when I view these images later, they all look peaceful and serene, but I only remember being afraid when taking them. It would be an interesting idea to be able to instil that fear that I was going through when I took the image into the picture itself.

Another angle on the above would be to do a series of images on overcoming fear, and in the particular example of my own personal experience, it could be a series of photographs in which I gradually build confidence to overcome my fears when photographing in public. It occurred to me that this could be done using a prop, something that would be odd to see lying around (eg a white t-shirt) and take a series of picture of it. Perhaps this is something I would consider to do over time, even if I do not have time to develop the idea for this assignment.

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 3: Loneliness

Loneliness is an awkward feeling. One would normally associate it with people who live without company or introverts; but I have known many lively people who are always surrounded by others yet they feel the just as lonely as if they knew nobody else. Loneliness is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I have just recently finished reading I served the king of England by Czech writer Buhomil Hrabal (1), where the main character lives worried about being accepted and appreciated by others and was only able to make peace with himself towards the end of his life when he was almost completely alone, in the company of a few domestic animals, and had the time to reflect and write his memories. However, while we all need our moments of solitude and self-reflection, too much of it risks us becoming completely detached from life; with us losing interest in everything else, and everybody else giving up on us.

And on the latter point, one should not forget that life can sometimes be cruel and does not give many second chances. There are many that fall out of grace at some point and immediately become marginalised. Somehow these people become invisible: no one pays attention to them, no one misses them. If we maintain contact with them is usually brief. Some of them manage to get out of the hole they have fallen into, but the majority of them are not lucky enough. There are obviously visible examples of this in real life, like rough sleepers for instance, but many others are more difficult to spot, as they may appear to be economically well off and may give the impression of being emotionally fully functional, but may in reality be internalizing their feelings.

I have been thinking about how to approach loneliness from a photographic perspective in recent weeks. An obvious way of dealing with this would be to capture “invisible” people, their experience and / or their environment. This is not appealing to me personally for a number of reasons. One of them is that it would require a multi-disciplinary approach in order to identify and properly convey these people’s experience, a project that becomes something more complex than a photographic series and would undoubtedly require more time and preparation. More importantly, this approach is too removed from where I want to go with photography at present, which is not towards the exposé type of documentary work and more into introspection / personal reflection. Consequently, there has to be other ways in which I can reflect upon loneliness in a photographic way. One approach would be to focus on images that evoke the feeling of loneliness and other associated feelings, but another, and perhaps more interesting, approach would be to look into the false positives, those signs that may be incorrectly interpreted as indicating a sociable person. A typical example of this would be an introvert that never leaves home but has thousands of friends in social media, for example, but there are possibly many other examples which are more subtle.

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(1) Hrabal, B., 2017. I Served the King of England. Vintage Books.

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 2: Dissagreement

How do we deal with disagreements? I have been thinking about this a lot in the context of recent political events that have polarised public opinion, including the Brexit referendum and the independence referenda in both Scotland and Catalonia. From a purely observational perspective it seems we more or less follow the same mechanisms when dealing with disagreement: we shout and fight, we get mad with others, we put forward our arguments and most of the time we pretend that we listen to someone else’s. Then we sulk and retreat, in some occasions for a few minutes and some other times forever. The matter that we disagree with seems to be put in the back of our heads, but is it really there?

Perhaps more interesting that the external manifestations is the internal process of dealing with disagreement. What, from inside us, drives our reaction? Why is it that in many cases we are capable of reflecting ex post that the way we have behaved is incorrect but still do it again exactly the same over and over again? Why is it too hard for us to accept other people’s views, or at the very least cope with the fact that they are entitled to their opinion? More importantly, perhaps, how do we move on from the frustration that disagreement may bring, accepting that is a fact of life, rather than allowing it to surface every now and them and make us eternally bitter, with ourselves and with others? It seems, at least for some, that conflict and confrontation are hardwired into our human nature (a discussion about this can be found here), so this may explain our tendencies to disagree, to rebel against others challenging our closely held beliefs. The physical representation of disagreement in imagery has ranged from direct depictions of wars, insurrection and other atrocities, animals looking horns; to indirect representations via symbols of disagreement (eg thumbs ups / thumbs down, signs pointing in different directions, etc). But the process of dealing with conflict internally, and the stages this process goes through, may be harder to depict. One way of trying to make sense of this is to look at Kohlberg’s moral development theory (see link to the relevant Wikipedia page here), which describes various stages of moral reasoning within humans, typically moving up as we age (but in some cases with people being stuck in a particular stage for a very long time, regardless of their age) and which tries to explain the evolution of the motivations behind our reasoning when dealing with moral dilemmas, including conflicts / disagreements. Without going too deep into this, the stages could be summarised as follows:

  1. Obedience / punishment orientation: when actions / decisions are dictated by the need to avoid punishment
  2. Self-interest orientation: when actions are determined purely by a personal gain motivation
  3. Interpersonal accord and conformity: when actions are determined by social customs / norms and the need to conform to social standards.
  4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: when actions derive from a desire to conform to legality and to maintain order / status quo
  5. Social contract orientation: when actions derive from a desire to achieve the greater good for the majority of people, understanding and respecting the opinions of others.
  6. Universal ethical principles: when decisions are driven by abstract reasoning about what is just, rather than on norms and conventions.

Most of the stages shown above are observable at some point of individual and social development, except perhaps for the last one which appears to be theoretical (Kohlberg believed it existed but could not find any examples of it)(1). While this theoretical framework about our moral motivations may be disputed by many (2), it does provide a basis for the graphic exploration of the different ways in which we deal with conflict / disagreement, perhaps by looking at ways of illustrating the behaviours associated with these stages, or by depicting signs/situations that may evoke feelings associated with such stages: punishment, greed, social conformity, law and order, respect for others and justice/fairness.  Another approach would be to emphasise, within the photo essay, only a few stages over the rest, by way of commentary on what one feels about the lack of evolution of our moral compass as a society and how the system seems to operate at one stage on paper (eg social contract) while many individuals seem to operate under a moral compass seemingly motivated mostly by self-interest or fear of authority / social order.

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  1. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. 2017. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
  2. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. 2017. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html. [Accessed 07 November 2017].

Assignment 2 – Initial idea 1: The moment of death

I have been thinking about the concept of death for some time, not only in the usual sense of the end of life as we know it, but in the more cartomancical interpretation of death as change, particularly permanent and irreversible one. There are potentially many of these changes throughout life, and sometimes it becomes clear when they happen, but in many other occasions we are not paying enough attention to notice, or we simply do not have the foresight to see them, only manifesting themselves many years later. The worst cases are those in which we refuse to admit change, even though it is painfully obvious, or when we are too pessimistic and believe there is inevitable, fateful change when there is still hope.

It is quite interesting then, that I have recently come across, as part of my research into Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, a video (see link below) in which towards the end Calle talks about another work titled Pas Pu Saisir La Mort (Impossible to catch death), which consists of 11 minutes of video showing the last moments in the life of Calle’s mother.

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She mentions in the interview that it was not possible for her to “…know if she was alive or dead. That moment that I have caught, where you don’t know, you could put your finger, like on the last book, the last mile, the last phrase, the last words, but the last second, the last breath was impossible to catch”(1). While I am not particularly concerned about the moment of physical death, I share her view that is quite hard to capture the precise moment when “death”, as a metaphor for irreversible change, takes place. In the case of Pas Pu Saisir La Mort, this was shown as successive persons putting their fingers in front of Calle mother’s nose and mouth, trying to ascertain if she was still breathing. In this work, the materialization of the concept is made clear by the context (somebody lying on their death-bed, people trying to ascertain), but in a more ideal sense, when we are dealing with circumstances that are less tangible, like broken relationships, falling out of grace with a mentor, leaving the village we were born into to seek a new life, it is hard to sense when permanent change happens.

I have been thinking for some time about how to represent this irreversible change in photography. In video, as seen in Calle’s work referenced above, the moment of change can be broken down to fractions of a second or slowed down to allow the viewer to digest and understand the moment. In literature, a moment can also be stretched over several paragraphs, freezing time even more effectively than movies. Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga was a master of this, particularly in his short stories such as Wild Honey (translation available here), Adrift (translation available here) and The Dead Man (original Spanish here, summarised in English here). A photograph, on the contrary, seems to contract rather than stretch time, showing just a frozen moment, fractions of a second. Unless that moment is followed and preceded by other moments, like in a sequence, it is hard for an image to capture the essence of a concept in just a moment. As a best approximation, one could imagine, for instance, that a carefully selected still from Calle’s Pas Pu Saisir La Mort could successfully convey the idea that we are in front of somebody who has just died. But that in itself does not fully evoke the feeling of uncertainty, the anguish or the resignation that change brings, particularly when one realises that the change has happened. Furthermore, those feelings may be fully interiorised by the affected subject, which further complicates their graphic representation.

My first attempts at trying to capture these feeling was through photographing temporary objects: bags, leaves, cigarette buts. These objects may degrade and change over time, some faster than others, but I was primarily concerned about their permanence among us, which is even shorter. A leave or a plastic bag do not stay still on a windy day, and many of these objects are swept on a daily basis. We see them today, and maybe again tomorrow, but then they disappear from our lives for ever, never to be seen again. That is the essence of change, expressed through objects to which we have no attachment and consequently, incapable of generating any concern or anguish to us, but change nonetheless.

Another possibility, which is one I could explore in this assignment, is to look for signifiers of permanent change, items that evoke the idea rather than the idea itself. There are many of these that are universal, others are more local and yet some others are quite personal, and sometimes it is hard to perceive which is which. An additional challenge with this approach is that some of these signifiers may be temporary in themselves, part of a change which we perceive as permanent but that with sufficient time, mainly beyond our lifetime, may actually turn temporary. At some point, it becomes debatable if a change is permanent or not and I think it would be interesting to see how my selection of signifiers tallies up against the opinion of the viewers.
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(1) Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. 2017. Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/venice-biennale-sophie-calle. [Accessed 21 October 2017].

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.

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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].