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].

 

 

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Assignment 3 – Research and sketching

Having identified what I wanted to reflect upon in the series, I started the research process by combing through the diary again and trying to identify the specific state of mind that I was going through. I kept notes of my secondary thoughts on this on a sketchbook, and started to come up with some rudimentary graphic ideas and preliminary images. Having identified some of the emotions that I experienced, I then decided to explore further these concepts by building mind maps around them, which helped me isolate the ones that I wanted to focus on – which eventually included paranoia, obsessiveness, happiness, euphoria/restlessness, fear, negativity, fatalism, procrastination and violence.

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One of the several mindmaps I completed for this assignment (extract from sketchbook)
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Drawings and comments from my sketchbook for this assignment
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Initial explorations for one of the images included in this assignment (extract from sketchbook)

Following this identification, I started to do both visual and contextual research in some of the topics. The visual research came from experimenting with images taken at various settings, to find the ones that better fitted into the emotions I wanted to portray. In some cases, the association was too indirect to work effectively, and the images were discarded for a particular concept. However, the intersection between some of these discarded images, and some of the techniques I used for this assignment, led to new images that fitted well some of the other ideas I wanted to convey. The contextual research primarily centered around looking into some of the states of mind that I wanted to illustrate and trying to both look at photos available online linked to these ideas, as well as any theoretical background information related to these emotions that could serve as inspiration.

Coming into this assignment, I was partially inspired by some of the aesthetic values of Francesca Woodman’s photographs (research notes), particularly in the blurriness and extreme tonal values of some of her images, which sometimes add a layer of extra impact to the image; as well as the surreal undertones of some of Duane Michals’s series of images (see my notes here). From very early in the process I decided that the images for this series were all going to be black and white. The primary reason was that I did not want the viewer to be distracted by the bright colours in some of the original exterior sequences that I photographed (see further comments here), but additionally I felt that in subtracting colour from the equation I was able to focus more on action within the frame and less on technical aspects of illumination and colour balance, particularly for the indoor shots.

 

 

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.

 

Assignment 2 – Self Assessment

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

Criteria Self-assessment
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills. I believe the images have all been completed to a reasonably good technical standard and that they reflect my initial intention in terms of composition and lighting. It was difficult to work with certain images owing to the different colour temperature of the light sources and as a result I had to re-shot some of the images or adjust colour casts locally in post-processing. Because the shots centred around specific made-up props, it was sometimes difficult to balance the compositions between subject and periphery. In some case, I had to introduce new auxiliary props (like pieces of paper and envelopes, a cassette player, etc) in order to complement the main idea.
Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas. Generally speaking, I am satisfied with the outcome of the project and the way I am suggesting this to be presented. The project evolved rapidly within a relatively short timeframe and its final form was only conceived two days before final submission, after the first photographic session led to a rethink. I believe the images I used in this series can convey the message that I am after, but at the same time I consider this project as work in progress and would like to continue thinking about different ways of portraying similar ideas.
Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention. Like in the sets created for Assignment 1, these images are not what I would normally feel comfortable doing as part of my regular photography and consequently, this assignment was particularly difficult on the creative front, especially because its conception started from a theoretical, non-visual point of view (a series of abstract ideas not directly observable) and transferring those ideas into a visual plane involved a difficult trial and error process where the end results failed to live to my expectations on many occasions . As part of this assignment, I trialled several ideas before settling on the exploration of the passage of time and how we cope with technological advances. While the images came out in the end as I had sketched them, the contents and shape of the props used changed over time as a result of variation of focus in the series and the trialling of various options during the actual shooting sessions.
Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking. The main ideas for this assignment came from reflections, some of which were based on my own personal situation while others were inspired by stimuli around me: a TV show or a newspaper article. Visually speaking, the images are very similar to those produced by me in the first assignment: they are all made up images, mostly taken at home. The inspiration to try to come up with something drawn from my own experience, rather than something overtly abstract and detached came in a way from Duane Michals and his thoughts about photographing what we feel rather than what we see (1), while the idea to come up with quirky montages, with subtlety odd elements was also inspired by some of Michals’s series (some of the ideas I explored with the framed phone photograph image were inspired by his Things are Queer series), and more indirectly, by some of the strange, dreamlike images of Gregory Crewdson.

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(1)See various quotes on this subject here: Art Blart. 2017. Duane Michals This Photograph Is My Proof | Art Blart. [ONLINE] Available at: https://artblart.com/tag/duane-michals-this-photograph-is-my-proof/. [Accessed 19 November 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].

 

 

Research notes – KayLynn Deveney

The following observations have been made after looking at the work The Daily Life of Albert Hastings, by KayLynn Deveney.

The first think that I found interesting about Deveney’s work is that she focuses on seemingly unimportant objects and situations, in the context of home life. I also feel the need to photograph these things, albeit not only in the context of the home, but also in the street (abandoned flowers, leaves, cigarette butts, coffee cups, etc), but why? I have not been able to determine it yet, but I believe Deveney provides a clue when she mentions that she photographs “…experiences not usually considered significant enough to warrant a snapshot” (1). This to me relates to the idea of “invisibility”: those who are left behind or ignored by their acquaintances or by the social system in general. It may also be a response against the general human process of synthesizing and distilling information into what is relevant. I have at times related to these ideas, but some other times I wonder if it just a quest for details that will lead nowhere. I hope the reason is there somewhere for me to eventually find out.

The second aspect of this work that I found intriguing is that it is very much a collaboration with the subject, I would say even a frank dialogue on equal footing. This is different from the collaboration in Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field, which I have discussed elsewhere (link), where the artist was somehow mediating between the “collaborator” and the art work, and perhaps akin to the collaboration seen in Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself (link to my comments), as Calle would tend to somehow insert her own images alongside the input from the various collaborators (eg an allegoric picture), making it appear as complementary to the input. In The Daily Life of Albert Hastings, the subject of the series, Mr Hastings, has a direct input on the work (by way of his captions to Deveney’s images, and his opinions and ideas somehow shaped the which Deveney approached the work. In some occasions, as she would say, the captions “…created a new context…” for the photographs, while “… adding a critical second perspective to this work.” (1).

In the end, because the way it evolved, Deveney’s work does not seem to be simply about chronicling the life of somebody, but more about relationships, and how the best ones are those in which both parts have a chance to contribute and enrich each other.

The images in the series are warm and inviting. Deveney plays with the exposure, with some images being dark on purpose (particularly some of the indoor shots like this one and this other one). These images, rather than being sinister, reinforce a feeling of homeliness which suits the overall theme of the series. I like the way Deveney uses props to frame her subject or convey a feeling. The overall impression I have from looking at these pictures is that of a stable, organized, and even somewhat proud living, but one which is very lonely and just mended together, which I believe is perfectly summed up by the daffodil in a cup picture (link)

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(1) KayLynn Deveney Photographer. 2017. The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings — KayLynn Deveney Photographer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

Reasearch notes – Chantal Akerman

The following observations are made after looking at some excerpts from Akerman’s documentary film D’Est (link to Wikipedia entry) available in YouTube.

The entire documentary, which is just under two hours long, traces Akerman’s trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It includes portraits of people doing ordinary things at home, like eating and listening to music, as well as people walking on the streets and / or relaxing at a social club. The documentary is not available in its entirety in YouTube, so it is hard for me to know how the various vignettes captured by Akerman come together as a whole film and whether there is an overarching narrative on top of them.  My favourite excerpts from the documentary are the following ones:

This excerpt starts with some incidental music on the background (a violin piece) that soon moves away. I do not know if the music was there in ambient or added in post processing, but its sadness fits well with the scene, which is just people in some sort of open field (perhaps a bus station) standing waiting for something or walking. The camera pans the scene slowly and in an irregular pace, slowing down or even stopping for a second in certain places. Most of the people do not mind the presence of the camera and chose to ignore it, sometimes not even looking at it, but others seem to object quite strongly, although it is impossible to know what they are saying and no subtitles are provided. The whole scene, which lasts for about 6 minutes or so, has a very strong feeling of intrusion. The camera is very close to its subjects, and the pace with which it pans gives the sensation that it is scrutinising everybody in the scene. It makes for some uncomfortable watch, and I am surprised people did not object to this more vehemently. At some point I even though that the whole scene had been staged and these people were just extras doing a part, but on second though that seems highly improbable. After the scene in the open, the movie moves to the inside of what appears to be a bus or a train station, packed with people sitting, waiting or talking over pay phones. There is even more people in here, but the camera maintains its close, inquisitive and slow irregular movement, unstoppable and not caring about anything.

 

The next clip takes place in what appears to be a grand ballroom at a restaurant or social club. A live band is playing and people gradually starts to fill the dance floor. Unlike the previous sequence, the camera here is static and located relatively away from the subjects, recording without discrimination everything that comes in front of it, offering a truly fly on the wall experience. The sequence reminds me a little bit of my childhood, watching people at family parties when they had no idea how to dance or were tone-deaf and would simply twist and turn hysterically in the middle of the dance floor. The attitude of some of the characters veers towards ridicule Particularly a character that enters the frame at a later stage and then tries to interact with the musicians in the middle of the song, to finally climb on top of the podium. It is not clear if he finally speaks to the musicians or if they just ignore him. He then proceeds to leave the frame unceremoniously, as if he was slightly ashamed of not having been able to made contact. I like this sequence very much because is an observational piece: the position of the camera and the angle of view allows the action to come to our view, in all its details, and we can choose to focus in whatever captures our imagination, without any prescription and without anybody else editing what we see. Is as close as we can get to actually being there. I am left wondering if it would also be possible to achieve the same sensation with a still. A picture so encompasing, immersing, that makes us feel inside the frame.

Research notes – Sophy Rickett

The following comments have been made after looking at Sophy Rickett’s work “Objects in the Field” (1) and reading the interview included at the end of the course guide (2)

“Objects in the Field” combines photographs and text. The images were printed from negatives taken with a Three Mirror Telescope at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University in the early 1990s. The text includes both fragments of a conversation between Rickett and Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy who had been responsible for the design and operation of the Three Mirror Telescope, as well as personal anecdotes taken from Rickett’s life. When looking at the text for the first time, there is a sense of disconnection between its component segments and in some cases is hard to make the connection back to the images in the series. What was clear to me when I read it the first time around, was that there was a great deal of tension between the artist and Dr Willstrop, particularly observable in the following fragment of the text:

‘What will happen to the negatives eventually?’

‘I will deposit them with the museum archive.’

‘If I print them, will the prints be of scientific interest?’

‘No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearest stars move slightly against the background of the others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four or five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.’ (3)

The first think that came to my mind when I read the above was that Dr Willstrop did not seem to care much for the outcome of Rickett’s work, at least from the perspective that interested him, which was the scientific one. He also does not seem to care much about the value of the negatives themselves, although later in the interview it becomes clear that he at least is grateful for them being digitalized in a way that they are made clearer. This tension between Rickett and Willstrop is mentioned directly by the artist in the interview, but what is interesting in this case is that rather than shying away from this, Rickett has sought to incorporate that tension into the work itself, not only by showing it clearly through the text, but also by her choice of treatment of the source material in the final prints, some of which are brightly coloured (see here, for instance), perhaps as an attempt to aestheticise the subject for the purposes of removing it as far as possible from its scientific origins.

The other two elements of the text, a short passage describing Rickett’s experience when going for an eye test as a youngster, and another one about two boys waiving at a train on which she was travelling, are more difficult to associate with the series (although in the case of the former passage, there is a faint link between the spectacles and opticians mentioned in the text, and the process whereby the Three Mirror Telescope negatives were obtained), but Rickett makes clear in the interview that these passages are all related to the original context of the series (4). They reflect how the artist felt at that time about aspects of her work process, and how this contrasted with the original work process used by Dr Willstrop in the designing and building of the telescope, and the production of the negatives. They also reflect the connection that she felt between the usage of the telescope to see beyond our capacity and her own experience in getting glasses to improve her vision when young. The connection is there, but in some cases is only apparent when the artist explains herself and this makes the text and the images to go their own ways at times, creating un-clearness and confusion. This in itself is also by design, as Rickett makes clear during the interview that with the work she wanted to evoke the idea that her view on the subject, and that of Dr Willstrop, were not always compatible with each other, that there is contradiction in the interpretation of that subject.

Overall, I find Rickett’s work to go beyond what I would normally expect of photography and to transcend into more conceptual levels. Maybe my expectations of photography in itself may need to be recalibrated, but other than in the work of other conceptual artists that have used photography as a medium, such as Sophie Calle or the early work of Keith Arnatt, I have not seen such a level of detailed reflection as in Rickett’s work in here. What I like the most about her work in “Objects in the Field” is that in the end, it seems all to be about finding a connection. It is not only the objects themselves, be them stars or their photographs, but is the actual connection between the artist and its subject, and in this particular case, the subject is not just limited to the old negatives produced by the Three Mirror Telescope, and how these could become works of art, but also to the way in which those negatives were obtained in the first place, who obtained them, and how all of that connects with both the personal experience of the photographer and the way he uses those connections and that experience to shape the artistic output, which in this case is not only the photographs but the actual text accompanying them.

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(1) I have explored this work through an entry in Photographer’s Gallery Blog: BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017], as well as an entry in the Little Toller Books website: Little Toller Books. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – Little Toller Books. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017].

(2) Boothroyd, S., 2017. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 4th ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts, p.p. 130-137

(3) Photographer’s Gallery Blog: BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017]

(4) For a discussion of original context, please see Terry Barrett’s article on this, which is available in his website (http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Barrett-1986-Photographs-Contexts.pdf)

 

Exhibition notes – Benedict Drew at the Whitechapel Gallery

The following notes are written after visiting the exhibition by Benedict Drew entitled The Trickle-Down Syndrome, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. The show comprises various installations spread across 5 separate spaces and according to the exhibition notes, these continue “…the artist’s exploration into materiality, where the physical and digital meet” (1).

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The first installation, welcoming the visitor into the first gallery, comprises a single flat screen TV set fixed to the wall. From the back of this screen emerge a series of hand painted thick lines, like a web, going in all directions: the floor, the ceiling and the adjacent walls. The lines immediately and effectively draw the attention of the viewer into the TV set, which contains a continuation of these lines, leading to a throbbing undefined item, resembling nothing I am familiar with. Sounds come out of the TV set, complementing the lines in grabbing my attention. I am somewhat looking at this strange shape, in the middle of the screen, for a good minute or so, like hypnotised, without really understanding much about what is going on. And then it came to me that this may be the entire point of this installation, to highlight how easily we are grabbed by the senses into a situation, object or person, almost unconsciously and without rationalizing why we are doing it or whether it does make sense to do this. I can relate that to many things I do in life these days, including taking pictures of objects that grab my attention but then mean nothing much.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

On the corner of one of the rooms, the artist has placed piles of newspapers, some of them neatly folded and arranged one on top of the other, but other scattered around the place, either crumbled or simply displaced from the neat pile. People is invited to pick up a copy of the newspaper, and inevitably they all pick one from the neat pile. In the process, they may create a further mess, by displacing other copies. Eventually, if the exhibits goes for sufficiently long, I expect the neat pile to disappear and people will then have to grab a crumbled one, if they really wanted it, or just leave it there and pass. I, like many others, was attracted to the opportunity of grabbing a new copy of the newspaper, as a memento of the exhibit, but my reaction would have been different if there were only crumbled or used ones left. We are attracted to what is new and shiny, but sometimes pass on or deliberately avoid the unattractive aspects of life. Maybe there is merit in looking for those, and documenting them, even if only to be reminded that they also shape what we are.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

Inside a very small room there is an audiovisual installation comprising three TV sets and a pair of speakers. The room is not bigger than about 30 ~ 40 square feet and comprises three walls and an opening covered with a plastic strip curtain rather than a door. There are no windows. A TV set is placed against each of the walls, with the pair of speakers being arranged on each side of the TV set opposite the room entrance. In the main set, we have two hands, with palms up, on which some sort of computer-generated animation has been placed. The cartoon comprises two rods placed on top of rectangular sheets about the size of the palms. The rods move together with the hands, while sounds come out blasting from the speakers. I spend a good time looking at this and nothing particularly came to my mind, other than to make the connection with the point made by Paul Seawright, in a video referenced in the course guide (link)(2), about the fine balance in art between giving too much meaning away to the viewer and being obscure. After looking at Drew installation it occurred to me that for some artist being deliberately obscure may be a valid strategy, particularly if the point that he or she may be trying to convey is the confusion created by the rapidly changing paradigms of human interaction in our age, which I believe is part of what Drew’s work is about. In the presentation to the exhibit, the Artist provided the following statement

The work contains a sense of the handmade, idiosyncratic, provisional and fantastical. I am interested in the feeling of submersion in social and environmental despair, being overwhelmed by images, confused by the shifting status of objects, disoriented by layers of history, trying to generate a state of being where you can escape, and seeing escape as a potent form of resistance, ecstatic protest.

Benedict Drew

If the point of this installation were that there could be so many different interpretations, all of them divergent but equally valid, would that be a valid point? Could the point of art be to obfuscate? These are the ideas that cross my mind when looking at this particular piece.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The final part of the exhibition has what I consider to be giant milk jugs, beautifully decorated on the inside and all of them adapted to work as lamps. The rooms where these are is large and dark and the jugs, which was on the floor as well as hanging from the ceiling, project something that resemble speaking bubbles, like the ones found in comics, but inside these bubbles we see no words, but the shadows of giant cutlery, also hanging from the ceiling.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The installation includes familiar items (the jugs) in an unfamiliar setting creating forms (ie the bubbles), which are also familiar, but are filed with incongruous objects (the cutlery), which are somewhat related to the original idea (ie the milk jugs, like during tea time). This seems to me like a metaphor of our way of thinking and the strange connections that happen in our head and in our interactions with the digital world, when searching for something leads to something else slightly connected and we may end up in a completely different place from where we started.

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(1) Whitechapel Gallery. 2017. Benedict Drew – Whitechapel Gallery . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/benedict-drew/. [Accessed 07 August 2017].

(2) Vimeo. 2017. Catalyst: Paul Seawright on Vimeo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://vimeo.com/76940827. [Accessed 10 July 2017].

Research notes – Country Doctor

The following comments are made after looking at the photo essay Country Doctor, photographed by W. Eugene Smith and first published by LIFE magazine in 1948. The essay, together with accompanying text and additional photographs were found in Time’s website (1)

The essay contains photographs taken by W. Eugene Smith chronicling the life and work of Ernest Ceriani, a country doctor working in a small Colorado town, during a period of 23 days. The photographs, which are all in black and white and were cropped to different sizes (possibly because of the way they originally fitted in the printed magazine), are all accompanied by a descriptive caption. It is not clear if the captions were written by Smith or the editors at LIFE, but they provide first hand information on what is going on at the time each picture was taken. Hence, the photographer must have provided, at least, a description of the situation to the editors. A facsimile reproduction of how the essay looked in the original publication can be found here (2)

As a whole, the images together with the captions provide a coherent account of what is like to be the only doctor in a small town, with a sampler of some of the cases he has to attend to and evidence of how his work affects his personal life. The captions seem to have been slightly romanticized or adapted to fit a certain value narrative that may be attuned to the editorial stance of the magazine or the photographer’s views. The themes of personal sacrifice, devotion to work and stoicism in the face of adversity are repeated throughout the text, alongside more subtle remarks underpinning other traditional Western values such as individualism and freedom. Looking at photograph number 7 in the series (link), for instance, the caption talks about Ceriani making less money as a rural GP than if he had pursued a specialist career in the city, nevertheless this seems to be acceptable to him because, among other things, “he is his own boss”.

The pictures themselves are quite dramatic in terms of angle of view, lighting and composition (see for instance this and this as an example. The latter image was not published by the magazine). W Eugene Smith manages to capture scenes which are quite intimate in a way that looks like he is not there. One of the captions mentions that Smith first accompanied the doctor with film-less cameras in order to allow him and his patient getting used to seeing Smith taking pictures. The result is a higher level of intimacy that we would expect to see from images taken by an outsider in just over three weeks.

As a contemporary observer, I have mixed feelings about this essay. The whole process feels slightly contrived and it is hard to ascertain how much of the final selection, presentation and accompanying text was controlled by the photographer himself, rather than LIFE’s editorial team. Was Smith comfortable about this? Would the end result be any different if he had done the series as a book in which he had more control over the process? My understanding is that he took in the region of 2000 photographs for this assignment, yet only 28 were published by the magazine (less than 2%). Some of the stories (like for instance the one about the patient with the gangrenous leg, images 18-20 in the sequence) are left inconclusive in the magazine article. The captions suggested the patient may be too old or frail to survive the amputation procedure, but an unpublished photograph (number 30 in the sequence) taken after the operation suggest that the patient may have survived the procedure. The selection seems to have been made to maximise impact and suspense, which is probably adequate for a medium like a magazine, but left me wondering if the original material could have been put to better use.

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(1) Time.com. (2017). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 3 Aug. 2017].

(2) W Eugene Smith ‘Country Doctor’ Life magazine-Kremmling Colorado- 1948- Slightly out of Focus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.slightly-out-of-focus.com/W_Eugene_Smith_Doctor.html. [Accessed 04 August 2017].