Out of Focus : a visit to the Saatchi Gallery

“Springs” outside the Saatchi Gallery

Images are snatched from the ether; they are serial, unsequential, layered. They spill out of frames and art turned into objects. Ambiguity is prized.William A Ewing quoted from the catalogue of the Out of Focus exhibition

Another OCA meeting, this time at the Saatchi Gallery where I have never been before although the name Saatchi is famous; I once worked with someone from Saatchi on a project which in the end came to nothing perhaps because people did not seem to like this person in whom they had invested some kind of moral authority that they also wanted to dismiss. Chelsea conjures up not just The King’s Road but some of the artists who once lived around there such as Augustus John who apparently once tried to seduce my mother – he was no longer in his prime then!

Sloane Square and the beginning of The King’s Road, Chelsea

Make the mercifully short walk from Sloane Square Underground to the gallery in pouring rain

It is suggested that we read a review of the exhibition by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian newspaper. It is not very complimentary, describing the exhibition as a big sprawling mess yet it also recognises it as a significant exhibition of contemporary photographic art with a number of key players and obviously it exerts a fascination for O’Hagan. He mentions that the book accompanying the exhibition by William A Ewing is helpful and I have picked out a few quotes such as the following … “I believe that we are missing something essential if we don’t acknowledge that photography covers a much broader field than what is found on museum or gallery walls.” The reviewer from The Times wrote … “I left feeling rather perplexed — the variety is astonishing but it feels uncurated. The catalogue suggests looking at this show through “an appropriate lens — a kaleidoscope”. It made my eyes go a bit funny.”

Entrance to the Saatchi Gallery

The OCA suggest we take one or two photographers whose work we like and look at them as a way to understand a little of what this exhibition is about; it is not easy to restrict oneself but Mitch Epstein interests me while I can not help be attracted by the work of Katy Grannan that features so prominently.

OCA CEO, Gareth Dent, whittles down the list of photographers to see

This exhibition is perhaps not easy to understand for the layman although there is nothing to stop the casual onlooker enjoying it unless they are rigorously stuck in the traditional view of what art should be. Ewing is helpful in deepening one’s view of what it might all be about writing that “the fields of photography overlap and interconnect in dynamic and complex ways” while OCA tutor Clive White echoes Ewing’s comment that photography is “a world, with continents, countries, extremely varied terrain, unsettled lands, over-populated areas, and boundaries that are vigorously contested” while he singles out one of these groups as Amateurs, described as “A savage folk, Amateurs know no history, nor follow any rules.

From left to right, Gareth Dent, Sharon Boothroyd, Clive and Francesca White

I look around the Saatchi Gallery website and come across a page of links to videos of discussions that have taken place there recently. The most recent is entitled “Photography and the art world” (art world is actually spelt Art World, the capitals announcing it’s importance!?). I decide to watch this and end up making notes because the debate is not only lively but also an interesting reflection on contemporary photography and photography as a whole; it also turns out to be a good introduction to the Out of Focus exhibition.

The first speaker is Hannah Starkey, for whom photography gives freedom from the tyranny of words (being a dyslexic she seems to have trouble talking sometimes repeating words until she gets them right) who did a degree course in vocational photography. For her, it is the medium that most succinctly expresses the human condition which is why she loves photography. She works towards making a portrait that both sitter and photographer are happy with and says that consideration and observation are qualities of photography that she respects. She makes allegorical photos with layers of meaning. The following is a statement in her own words about her work which appears in the book Art Photography Now by Susan Bright in the section Narratives … “By carefully constructing my photographs and controlling all elements within the image, I can express to others how I view the world around me. Also, by collaborating with the people that I cast for my characters and working with them, I find out how others view this world … I then use this history, both cultural and personal, as the framework for the work.

The next speaker is Susan Bright, the author of the book in which the above quote appears. As a writer about photography, she is concerned with the medium which she says is dogged with questions not so much about whether it is art or not but more exactly, what is it’s place in art ? In the introduction to her book Art Photography Now, she says … “Photography is constantly changing and hard to define. Its discursive and somewhat promiscuous nature has tended to confuse many people as to its status and value as an art form. The trouble is that it lends itself to many varied uses.” For instance, what is it’s role in auction houses, archives or agencies !? There is confusion about photography and about it’s purpose … “Meanings can slip and slide depending on context, and the fact that photography lacks any kind of unity and seems to have no intrinsic character … “; this is helpful in understanding what the exhibition is about.

She is particularly attracted by the work of Cindy Sherman about whom she writes “exclusively photographing herself and using the formulaic appearance of certain types of photographs, from the publicity shot to pornography, Sherman has continuously questioned the construction of feminity in contemporary society.” She was however, inspired initially by Ansel Adams, on seeing one of his “3 dimensional prints“. She mentions his “stylistic elegance” but does not include him in her book since he is no longer contemporary. Nevertheless, she talks about him in her introduction to the landscape section since along with Edward Weston, he “took American landscape photography to its formal conclusions.” Adams was a modernist who self-consciously and self-assuredly declared his work as art … “They dazzle and seduce with technical and sensual qualities that aesthetically idealise the landscape.

Susan Bright chose photography as a medium to study and write about partly because it has a short history but actually she found it to have a very complex one; photography is many things … trade, value, intention !! There are so many photographers trying to make a living through art photography; one needs to learn the language of photography to be a photographer. It is no longer correct to say “We are all photographers now!”

Bright thinks we should celebrate the confusion surrounding photography, that the art world does not really get photography. There is a lot of freedom at the moment since what photography is has not been established … photography going through an identity crisis – a good practice would be to enjoy the confusion, it can allow one to do things one might not be otherwise able to. Of the confusion, she writes in her book that “in the acceptance of photography, new areas of confusion are emerging. Just as we think we are beginning to recognise the medium, or at least to characterise it, important technical changes see certainties slip through our fingers once again.” This however is not sounding the death knell of the medium but indicative of “vital elements that are important to its existence.” Photography has always confused people and probably will continue to do so.

It is an oversimplified idea that Black and White equals photography; colour equals art.

One might consider how many photographs one sees in a day !

The next speaker, some of whose work appears in the exhibition Out of Focus, is Mitch Epstein whose book American Power won the Pictet photo book award; he has worked as a photographer for 40 years. ALthough he does not appear in Susan Bright’s book Art Photography Now perhaps because of his somewhat modernist rather than post-modernist stance, he does exhibit regularly in galleries.

OCA student Ariadne, makes notes in front of an Epstein photograph

Epstein is not trying to defend photography since it does not need to be defended; he does however, talk at length about the position of photography in the art world where he says it tends to get short shrift since it is not fully understood being quite a young medium. There is a lot of written reflection on painting, centuries worth in fact, yet not merely so much on photography. Starting out as a photographer, he was helped by Szarkowski’s pioneering ideas on the unique nature of photography and its elusive meaning.

The art world sometimes denigrates representational photography believing it not to be imaginative and inventive enough since it is apparently just showing the real world as we already know it. However, it helps us discover things we would otherwise miss and to see the familiar anew, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary as in the work of Atget, beloved by the Surrealists. Photography as art accomplishes a convergence of mythmaking and memesis that is impossible in any other medium.

To see our actual world in a photograph, tricks us into recasting that world into something more meaningful and shocking; a subtle and deep effect! It is easy to overlook masters of straight photography particularly in the internet age which values speed. Furthermore, it is easier to see art in a constructed work such as painting, conceptual photography or where the artist’s imagination can be seen to have created something rather than in a representational photograph where the imagination of the artist is embedded. It is hard to see the art in a representational photograph because the artist has chosen to embed his imagination in an uninvented subject matter; the photograph itself is the invention! The art world forgets that an imaginative concept does not have to be overt in order to be an animating force in a work of art; art not a matter of flaunting the imagination rather imbedding it in the world one is describing.

Mitch Epstein mentions the silly definitions people make in order to divide and conquer. The opposite of straight photography is conceptual photography but one can not really separate the two; all photography is both straight and conceptual.The photographer should not need to shout loudly anymore than a playwright should do !!

Epstein considers his equipment as a painter might his brushes and paint; spends a lot of time composing, getting the cameras into exactly the right position for the light etc The photograph isn’t made until one brings something to it, something of one’s life experience. The picture is made when something inexplicable enters in. No photographer simply wanders around just snapping the world around him – need to set every mechanic and compositional element – still not made until one brings something to it while something of the inexplicable is also required. There is the vantage of light and frame, a need for research.

Art is the convergence of the right mechanical tools and the artist’s practiced intuition; it requires athleticism, resourcefulness, psychological resilience, the extra element that we can not control, what Walker-Evans called “an unapproachable thing”. It can’t really be named but the artist needs to be aware of it and ready to receive it; a fleeting thing!

Takes a lot of effort to make a fine so called straight photograph, something that art critics can miss all together. Would one consider someone like Lewis Baltz as just a snapper? He has been described as thus by one critic.

Epstein ends by saying there is no difference between old art and modern art just between good art and bad art !! Unfortunately, it seems “we humans can’t handle so much reality!?” is this the problem photography has !?

The final speaker is Geoff Dyer, a writer on photography who starts by bluffing the audience in an attempt to humour them which does work to a certain extent. He delivers a few quotes …

real battle for recognition of pictorial photography is over !” (Camerawork 1906)

Is photography an art?” asked Susan Sontag in 1962 according to her diaries; she also wrote “art is never a photograph!” Logically, one might ask whether art even art !? Nowadays, few question whether photography is an art .. except perhaps some photographers !? Photographers feel excluded as do Jazz musicians yet this is actually one way of trumpeting their achieved status, helpful for them to act so!

Steiglitz on Weston – “if he’d only forget trying to be an artist maybe he’d come close to being one!” Steiglitz according to Walker Evans was “a screaming aesthete who forced art into quotation marks and into unwanted earnestness”.

a photographer in a gallery of photographs

There is a danger now that art can force photographers not into earnestness but into knee jerk irony with a light conceptual gaze, a light conceptual reduction. There are problems with achieved respectability

Joel Sternfield referred to 1970’s colour photography as “the early Christian era of colour photography” ; not much chance of being accepted then if working in colour more likely to be “fed to the lions“! No institutional acceptance! Egglestone’s show at MOMA marked the turning point !

Some of best art has been produced in circumstances where it was largely believed to be anything but art while there is a tendency for artists to be accepted as photographers should they choose to work in that medium. The practice of blowing photographs up very big can be to make them look like art even if they are shit !!

GB Shaw said “He would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ on the cross for just one snapshot!” For GB, thats’ what photography has going for it, a reference often quoted by the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Geoff Dyer finishes his talk by reading out another two quotes. One is from the late MOMA director of photography, John Szarkowski who said that “Walker Evans’ work is rooted in the photography of the earlier past and constitutes affirmation of what has always been photography’s essential sense of purpose and aesthetic, the precise and lucid description of significant fact

It is Lee Freidlander who regards photography as a generous medium since it accepts many different types. This final aside is perhaps a good introduction to the “Out of Focus” exhibition which contains work by some 39 artists from around the world whose work covers many different kinds of genre. The title of the exhibition, Out of Focus, appears to be a reference to this for photography has no homogeneity, no easy definition – it is composed of many continents. Gareth Dent who introduces the day says he can give no simple definition of the work we are going to see because it is too diverse, it presents a very broad view of photography.

The OCA group assemble outside for the study day

Before entering, I acquire a cheap version of the large-sized art catalogue; this contains reproductions of all the images in the exhibition and like the gallery, a distance is kept between caption and photograph so that one can look at the images without trying to project a suggested meaning onto them. This helps because although it is nice to have some kind of reference for the images such as who they are by and what the subject is, looking at the photographs with an open mind helps one to discover meanings that might otherwise go unnoticed.

first gallery in the extensive “Out of Focus” exhibition showing work by Katy Grannan

The first gallery is composed of large portrait photographs by Katy Grannan made of people in the street with their permission. Against plain white often textured backgrounds, the subjects are portrayed graphically with harsh light being used to bring out the details in people’s faces such as wrinkles. How accurate are these photographs as documents? It seems there has been an emphasis not just in detail but colour that appears to have a slight magenta shift. The images seem rather unsympathetic of the subjects and there is the suggestion that the photographer may be ridiculing them; this seems unlikely but there is an obvious attempt on the part of the photographer to show the unglamorous side, the side that people don’t really want to look at. This work could be considered as a reaction to the glamour photography with its’ airbrushed faces that dominates so much of contemporary media and the business of celebrity.

A woman comes up and tells me not to use any photographs of her. I have no idea of who she is but it turns out she is an OCA student and after looking through my photographs later on, I see that she is in some of the group shots often near the centre; it seems that she is unaware that I am using an ultra-wide lens and assumes I must be focusing on her when in fact I am making group shots with her somewhere near the centre; only one of these works as she mostly has her back to me. If I do use it then I can black box out her face or use some other kind of digital trickery. It is always a bit unnerving when people come up for no apparent reason and tell one to stop photographing them; it can make one question what one is doing in a rather negative way. At the end of a day, another woman comes up to ask whether she can acquire copies of the photos and I tell her that they will be mailed to the OCA. Perhaps I whould offer to share them with the group as a whole; something I can do through my Flickr account.

fellow OCA students in the Saatchi Gallery

The second gallery is full of monochromatic landscapes with some slightly cryptic captions such as “Soaring Yellow Morning Breath” of a giant yellowish rocky outcrop and “Ultimate Earth”of a landscape with forest, lake and mountain. This is certainly a far call from Ansel Adams’ landscape photographs though there is a similarity in composition and subject matter. Some are quite pleasant to look at and in the right context, an office or even a home, might prove attractive but altogether in a gallery space they look a bit like what an amateur might produce at a camera club after playing around with cross-processing in an attempt to make something “arty”.

In the third gallery, one is initially confronted by a couple of Mitch Epstein’s large photographs. These are carefully composed as Mitch described in the discussion that began this particular blog. A new student objects to a certain asymmetry in one image and poor use of light in the other. I can not help but remark that photography is true to life rather than the principles of art! In one of these images, it is industry that dominates and in the other nature; both show the relationship between the two and are part of a larger body of work that won Epstein an environmental award. Other work in this room contains intricately made black and white montages of aerial city centre views by Sohei Nishino, a tableau of nature-landscape images by Matthew Day Jackson and views from the inside of vehicles by Luis Gispert.

looking at a photo-work by Mathew Day Jackson

The fourth gallery shows the work of John Steziker and his schizophrenic poraits (my description) in which a face is portrayed by using two photographs placed together or a photograph placed over a face; the associations seem quite obvious here suggesting the anima and animus or the persona that hides the real. Although striking and suggestive, these photographs do not have a great deal of appeal. I miss the small circular photographs that were covered up by stickers being placed on them by archivists.

In the fifth gallery, I am struck by the work of a South African photographer Michael Subotzky whose images are somewhat outrageous. One is of an operating room where someone is lying prone and a drama is being enacted around them; another shows a dead goat with its insides removed as an offering to the gods.

There is work by Mariah Robertson that looks more like art than photography with garish designs on a long sheet of paper that runs up the wall and along the floor; other images look more like photographs. A group of photographs that run along a part of the gallery wall are by Sara Vanderbeek; I feel drawn to these and intrigued by the design. Am not sure this is an obvious attempt to mirror the work of the artist but quite a lot of work here does seem to be referencing painting such as the portraits of Daniel Gordon whose portraits immediately remind me of some of Picasso’s portraits from his Cubist period and beyond.

“Pornographic” images by A.L.Steiner on view in Gallery 9

In gallery nine, there is a grotesque montage by A.L.Steiner of photographs portraying women with naked breasts. I do not like it very much but it does make me laugh as it seems to be an obvious parody of the kind of big breast images and corresponding psychology that is part of the psychological make up of some men. In fact, this room contains other pornographic images that are shown in a particular way that makes one question the nature of the male gaze. It seems hard to take these images as pornographic in intention though obviously some visitors will see them in this light and perhaps draw their own voyeuristc pleasure from it. I mention to Gareth and other who are discussing it the practice of putting erotic sculptures on the outside of temples not to glorify sex but as a way to say that this belongs to the outer world of desire.

looking at photographs in Gallery 10

There is quite a lot of humour in some images and one is of a woodland scene in which there is a false waterfall made up of polythene sheets that are draped in a way to make them look like flowing water. This is one of a couple of photographs by Noeme Goudal from her Les Amants series and might be seen as a satire on so called “beautiful photography”

The photographs of Hannah Starkey draw my attention since she features in both the debate and Susan Bright’s book. Of her work she says, “Working within the language and medium of photography, including Photoshop, is enough to keep me occupied.”

a member of the gallery explaining work

I find myself pausing to reflect while looking at this exhibition, on the practice of putting photography in a gallery to look at. People come to see what they expect to be art and if photography does not live up to their expectations then they may consider it poor or not worth looking at simply because it does not correspond to preconceived notions of what art should be. There is also the idea that if a work is big then it is art while if it is small it is photography! There is so much to see here that one can not take it all in although some themes do emerge such as Marylyn Monroe (at least a couple of images suggesting her) while coloured monochromatic images also occur more than once.

There is confusion in this exhibition because there not bodies of work rather than fragments; the selection of work seems to be a result of images being cherry picked, as good examples of the artists on show. What made Saatchi collect these particular images? Was it a conscious choice on his part to collect photographs he liked or even loved or was he trying to amass a body of work that contained the best photographers of the time. Perhaps it was an investment decision. I don’t think one has to like the photographs on show or even enjoy them; it is enough to respond to them in one’s own way and according to one’s own taste. One tutor points out that this is the kind of work thet is exemplary – one does not have to aspire to it but is a useful reference for one’s own work. There is no point in making photography fit into a particular framework.. difficult to know what if anything this exhibition is about but it can be considered a comment on the star of photography as a whole, out of focus perhaps because it is not concerned with popular notions of the photographic medium. It is described as a “rag bag of stuff” by one member of our group.

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