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].
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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.

————————————— ooo —————————————

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].

Assignment 1 – Preliminary ideas / final concept

For this assignment I considered various options before settling on the final theme:

  1. Within the same area of London, take two series pictures including derelict and new buildings. respectively, to create the illusion of either well off / run-down areas (when the reality is neither of).
  2. A second idea, which followed from the first one, was to take alternative pictures of the north and south bank of the Thames showing derelict / new buildings on either side.
  3. The third idea that came to my mind was to identify something that was happening on the street (eg somebody doing road works, or taking a photograph) and then to split the scene into various shots, each showing incomplete information, with a final series including the complete scene. Each of these shots were then going to be part of a separate series, with the intention being that each series would mean something different when considered individually, as opposed to when the final series puts the series all together.

I considered the first two ideas to be too close to what I am normally familiar with my current photographic practice and only was willing to consider them as a last resort, as I wanted to try something new. For the third idea, I did some preliminary tests (see shots below), but quickly came to the realisation that it was going to be quite a challenge to find sufficient suitable situations in the limited amount of time I had available to complete this (about 3 weeks, as I started to work in earnest during the second week of July) and more importantly, I was not convinced I could build sufficiently cohesive sets. In the end, I decided I was risking too much of a departure from the brief, but this is an idea I would like to revisit sometime in the future, possibly as a long-term project (I envisage it will require many months, if not years, to build a cohesive set).

3rd idea tester – Series 1

3rd idea tester – Series 2

3rd idea tester – Series 3 (full scene)

In the end, I decided to do two alternative series about myself. This is quite a departure for my comfort zone, as I only occasionally do portraits as part of my practice and when I do them, they are rarely self-portraits. The idea was to create two separate sets which show me as two different personas, the “city director” and the “photographer”, both of which are loosely based on aspects of my life but that contain elements which are stereotypes of what we expect these respective roles to do or be. Although the personas are clearly different, I wanted to emphasize the point that they may actually coexist, to a certain degree, within the same person and that both may be simultaneously truthful and misleading. This will play an important role in how I will shoot and present the pictures at the end. The whole set was in part inspired by observations made by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay “Inside / Out” (link to my comments on this), and the lack of objectivity that may result from being in an insider position, and the limitations of photography in showing anything but what appears on the surface.

Research notes – Contemporary street photography

The following summary notes are in response to my research into various contemporary street photographers and the points of reflection suggested by the course guide (p 32).

The adoption of colour in street photography brings an additional element of information to the visual impact of images. It is undeniable that colour photographs, by being a more realistic depiction of what we see, are naturally endearing and easier to see and interpret. Because of this extra appeal, the danger I can see is that the use of colour could glamorize or beautify the subjects in a way that may detract from the photographer’s message. This, however, is not necessarily always the case and the opposite may also be true. The series on food by Martin Parr (see for example here and here) required colour in order to have the impact that the photographer wanted). The movement away from black and white has also, in a way, brough a slight shift of aesthetics, from the play with light and contrast that characterised early black and white images (see for instance these images from Louis Stettner here and here, or similar ones by Brassai in here and here), to a more deadpan, straight on look of modern colour street photographs, such as these ones from Joel Meyerowitz (here) or Martin Parr (here), where colour has substituted shape and light as a drag factor.

It is perhaps because of this shift to colour, which is closer to reality, that street photography has become more grounded, more straightforward, and less focused on juxtapositions that evoke a sense of surrealism as a means to escape from daily life, often with humorous undertones (some examples of this from Cartier Bresson (link)(link) and also from some of his contemporaries including Rene Maltete (link)(link)). For sure, the early work of Meyerowitz still included some elements of this, such as his cinema ticket booth attendant picture (link) or Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975 (link), but by the time he moved to his St Louis Arch series just a couple of years after that, he was talking primarily straight shots (see for example, this and this). Paul Graham’s photographs, from early on (he started publishing books in the 1980s), also exhibited this straightforwardness (see for example, this one from his A1 series or this other one from Beyond Caring. It could perhaps be argued that by freeing street photography from the influence of surrealism, contemporary practitioners have been able to focus on juxtaposition for other means, including what could be considered as ironic commentary on western values. While Martin Parr’s early work in West Yorkshire was quite straightforward and had some elements of humorous surrealism, such as this, his subsequent work has veered more and more towards subtle social commentary on contemporary life, including our obsessions with food, sexcultural identity and globalisation, achieved by combining seemingly dispar elements at the right time in a subtle way.

Research notes – Joel Meyerowitz

The following notes come from seeing some of Joel Meyerowitz books and catalogues, in particular, “Cape light” (1) and “The Arch” (2), as well as looking at various websites showing his black and white / colour street photography work (3)(4).

Looking at his street work from the 60s and the 70s, both black and white and colour pictures follow more or less the same formula: Meyerowitz is looking for some element of juxtaposition or incongruity in order to make the image attractive to the viewer. There are various examples of this, such as his picture of a cinema ticket clerk in which the face is obscured by the booth’s speak through grill (“New York City, Times Square 1963” – link) or his photograph of a New York’s 5th Avenue with a leaping stuffed tiger (“Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975” – link). There is also an element of surrealism in some of his work, with my favourite example of this being “Pool in Southwest, 1971” (link), where Meyerowitz takes advantage of the similarity of the pool lines and the design of a translucent parasol in front of it to create an eerie effect of continuity. This is a picture that probably relies on uniformity of tonality and shapes to convey its optical effect and is not likely to have worked as a colour picture. Meyerowitz images from this era reflect the peculiarities of urban life, with its crowds and singularities. But does it show something else beyond that? Could it be interpreted in any other way than as a collection of vignettes, some more peculiar than others from their point of view, but none standing out or revealing something about the subject or the photographer? I am somewhat unconvinced about the transcendence of this work.

In “Cape light” Meyerowitz starts to move away from the crowds and starts a journey towards a more intimate, personal form of photography. The pictures here also start to have a sense of space, in some cases negative space (such as in “Duno Grass House, Truro Massachusetts” – link), but in many other, a separation between the elements that harmoniously inhabit his canvas, creating very pleasantly composed images (such as in the gas station shot in Provincetown 1976 – link) which in some cases are either mysterious (such as in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link) and in most other cases melancholic (such as in his swimming pool shot under a stormy, brooding sky, also taken in Provincetown 1976 – link). The pictures with people in this series are a mixture of insider-outsider shots, with some of his beach shots being very similar to those taken in the streets of New York years before, having the effect of being just a slice of life without any particular connotations (such as in “Ballston Beach, Truro” – link), with others being more intimate (such as in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or “Vivian” – link mature content). These images mainly evoke a life which is lived at a different pace from his early city street shots, and this is not only conveyed by the contents of the pictures but also how they are arranged within the frame. The aesthetic values of the image become more prominent in this series, but Meyerowitz remains true to his earlier form and continues to look for incongruous or stand-out elements to draw the viewer into the frame (see for instance the open, seemingly abandoned car in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link, or the girl walking towards the camera while almost everybody else is chatting away in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or the large red car in front of the beach cabin in “Truro, 1976” – link).

The series of images of Saint Louis’s Gateway Arch in “The Arch” seems initially like a continuation of the “Cape light” approach. Meyerowitz is mesmerised by the transcendence of the arch, at some point in the introduction of the book mentioning that

“There were days when, standing beneath it, I felt I kind of knew the power of the pyramids. It was restorative, contemplative. It was more than a technological marvel or a symbol. It was pure form, the beauty of mathematics, a drawing on the heavens, perfect pitch. I came to be in awe of it.”(5).

The resulting set is an urban exploration of Saint Louis with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop, in some cases almost imperceptible (as in his “brains 25c” shot – link), in others quite prominent (as in his yellow road markings shot – link), but always in a style which is more contemplative, more attuned to “aftermath” photography than his street photographs of the 1960s and early 1970s in New York, and increasingly conscious of its aesthetic values. Most of the images here are almost devoid of any human presence. Meyerowitz perhaps achieved that by taking his images early in the morning or late in the evening, when there would be fewer people on the streets, but may have also done it by deliberately using a long shutter speed (or perhaps the combination of both). After all, most of what we get in the frames are still objects: buildings, roads, parked vehicles, shop windows. Almost nothing is moving here. In the few shots in which people are shown, they are dwarfed by the scale of the arch and other structures depicted (such as this picture of Busch Memorial Stadium – link), immobilized not by the action of the shutter but by their insignificance. Meyerowitz obsession with the arch seem to have taken him as far as possible from the crowded, somehow chaotic world of his early street photography work to one in which space and structure are paramount and the only hint of humanity is in the creation of the space, but not in its inhabitation. Perhaps this is all right in the end. After all, it was a series commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum to document the city and this is what we get, a document of the city and its most famous man-made structures. But there are no hints about how St Louisans live or whether they are any different in their life habits from New Yorkers. In focusing too much on the arch, Meyerowitz seems to have compiled a series which is too one-sided and lacks the personal, slightly warmer approach of his “Cape light” and early street work.

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(1) Meyerowitz, J., MacDonald, B. and Ackley, C. (1981). Cape light. Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts [u.a.].

(2) Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V. (1988). The Arch. Boston: Little, Brown.

(3) Chasing Light. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | Black & White Work – Chasing Light. [ONLINE] Available at: http://blog.ricecracker.net/2013/04/06/joel-meyerowitz-black-white-work/. [Accessed 16 July 2017]

(4) in-public.com. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | in-public.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://in-public.com/masters/joel-meyerowitz/. [Accessed 16 July 2017].

(5) Quoted from the article “Saint Louis and the Arch”, by Joel Meyerowitz, in Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V., op cit.