A visit to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in Bristol

This was the first South West OCA day for sometime. Such events are a little more intimate than other OCA events since we get the chance to relate to each other more in a group. There were ten attendees with one no show; Sharon Boothroyd, OCA tutor, was also present.
We were asked to read the chapter on portraiture from the book “Key concepts in photography” beforehand; this was helpful for understanding what portrait photography is all about. The difference between a mugshot and a portrait!
I took an early train from Taunton and just missed Teresa and Jen who were on the one behind. We met later in Bonapartes cafe on platform 1 in Bristol Temple Meads; they walked on along the waterway to Mshed while I waited for Sharon Boothroyd, our tutor for the day. She arrived soon after and we also walked to the Mshed chatting as we did so.
Sharon is not just an OCA tutor, she is an accomplished photographer, currently working on a project about prayer; this sounds interesting particularly as I am about to photograph a meditation event in Varanasi, India. I talk a little about my fascination with nature photography, the need for technical excellence in the accurate reproduction of fauna yet also the need to present something artistically appealing.
Sharon Boothroyd outside the Mshed

Sharon Boothroyd outside the Mshed

When we arrive at the Mshed shortly before the agreed time of 11.00 a.m., there are already quite a few people present, all busily chatting away. Some people are new and getting to know others; others are greeting each other after years.
I decide to collect the money as soon as possible. Not an easy job but asking those present to also sign a book for Sharon helps. The charge of £15 is towards the tutor and her travel expenses; it covers about half the amount; the student body OCASA will pay the rest.
About 11.30, we go upstairs to see the exhibition, the 2012 Taylor Wessing Prize. Outside, there is a sign that reads that the images are from “around the world, capturing famous faces and intimate moments … “
photograph of Ai Weiwei in the exhibition space

photograph of Ai Weiwei in the exhibition space

The first portrait one is faced by is Ai WeiWei, the Chinese artist; this image has not won the competition but did win the John Kobal Prize which is awarded to a promising young photographer under 30.  Ai WeiWei stands holding a kitten that also looks back at the viewer (it was hard for the photographer to also include the kitten that was not trained to look at the camera). This is a straight forward photograph in it’s portrayal of an icon of the arts and generates much discussion. The colour blue dominates this photograph (it is also the colour of the exhibition wall at this point) and recalls the colour of the boiler suits that citizens were once forced to wear; Ai WeiWei is in fact wearing blue denim, an interesting departure from the norm. The colour red, a necessary inclusion in Chinese icongraphy is not in evidence.
There is an obvious political undertone to this image. When it was made, for a project entitled Top 100 Global Thinkers, Ai WeiWei was getting a lot of publicity as a Chinese dissident;in fact, he was placed under house arrest for 81 days in 2011. I find myself a little wary of this since the demonisation of China often seems contrived particularly over the Tibet issue. Of course, there are major concerns but personally I would like to understand China better rather than condemn it outright, as in the “yellow peril” mentality. Ai WeiWei himself was not an easy subject to capture as he also likes to photograph those who photograph him!
In the background one sees part of a chain that implies the sense of captivity that underlies any reading of the photograph. This monumental portrait has the quality of stillness around it.
OCA students from left ... Teresa, Anna, Jen, John Umney and tutor, Sharon Boothroyd

OCA students from left … Teresa, Anna, Jen, John Umney and tutor, Sharon Boothroyd

There are so many excellent portraits in this exhibition that it is hard to engage with them all. However, I shall touch upon those that struck me or were pointed out by others.
For instance, the portrait of PC Rathband, one of the first images on show looked somewhat ordinary at first. Closer inspection revealed that one eye of the subject did not seem to be working. Presumably, it was made with a large format camera owing to the shallow depth of field it has, evident from great detail in the eyes but blurred ears and background. Yet the full force of this image only comes to light when one learns from the caption, that this was the police officer who was shot by an escaped convict, Raoul Moat; although the policeman survived this ordeal, he later tragically committed suicide. Knowing this, completely alters one’s perception of the image. Does not the reliance on textual context here subtract from the value of the photographic portrait?
I notice a heroic element to the subjects in this exhibition which is open to those active in the arts and sports people but not politicians !?
An interesting perhaps quirky image, is of a couple of tourists photographing themselves while visiting a museum. The photographer who caught this image is a gardener with a keen interest in art photography who used his mobile phone to capture the fleeting image.
The winner of the competition photographed a Mennonite woman. This has many of the characteristics of a great photographic portrait. The subject is relaxed, looking calmly into the camera while the background is the simple room she is in, thrown out of focus by the lens which does however capture enough detail to give some idea of her situation.
Of course, there are many questions that might be asked in relation to the judging of this exhibition in which, initially, the judges have only 10 seconds to look at an image. I was interested in Sean O’Hagan’s remarks on the judging process.
A number of portraits seem to be included for the status of the person photographed. Hence, we have Gillian Wearing, the artist, posed behind transparent curtains, the sportsman Mo Farah, dark sweaty skin against an even darker background.
One image that appeals to me is of a road worker in Delhi; this is because of my familiarity with Delhi yet also the lighting and originality. In fact, during the talk, this photograph is mentioned and I find myself somewhat incredulous that this is only men filling in holes in the road. Arrogantly, as it turns out, I dispute the fact that these are road workers and instead suggest that they are building the Metro; it is not until the next day when examining the photograph in the catalogue that I see that the caption is presumably correct and my interjection not. This makes me question my studies at the OCA – am I not becoming too knowledgeable? This comes from reading theory that I am unable to digest yet filling myself with the idea that “I know!” It is a topic that sometimes comes up in online discussions amongst college members, the conceptualisation of the learning process in photography. During this visit there is discussion about the lack of proper Photoshop instruction at Level 2.
Following a closer look at the photograph, it appears that these are men laying tarmac (the suggestion that they are filling holes is perhaps misleading). Yet, what they are doing is not really relevant to the portrait, the strength of which comes from the subdued lighting (the scene is at night with only a few street lights) although one senses that flash might have been used if not some other kind of lighting since there is a shadow below the drum to the right of the picture. The road worker is presumably posing, assuming a posture, in which he is not making eye contact with the photographer. What is also striking is the way the road worker is standing on top of a drum. There is also reference  to The Transfiguration of Christ by Raphael; the image has an epic quality to it.
A lot of photographs seem to be of friends rather than professional models. A question that is discussed is the legality of street photography. In the UK, it seems to be acceptable but in France, it has become outlawed.
One photograph I find interesting is of the conservationist and ape specialist Jane Goodall by Sam Faulkner. Photographed in black and white that brings out the lines in her wrinkled face, the angle of the head is unusual, being at an angle to the viewer, the lips almost pursed and the eyes looking into the beyond. It is a striking pose from a striking person. Someone suggests irreverently that she looks almost apelike herself. Don’t we all?
Why do we look at photographs like this, all of which are a bit serious, and discuss them at such length? To learn to look intelligently rather than to gawp!
One image that provokes controversy, interests me because of it’s subtle colours; it might almost be a monochrome image but the lips are red. “Senna” is the name of the portrait by Ineke Schoonheyt and the provocative pose of he child is something I only notice later when it is pointed out to me. Sharon says she thinks this exhibition intends to be controversial and using images like this is an example.
student Dorothy Flint's sketches from the day

student Dorothy Flint’s sketches from the day

I like the portrait of Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won the Booker Prize twice, perhaps because I have seen it before in a newspaper. The photographer Michael Birt has captured his subject by the sea shore on an overcast day; the natural light is probably enhanced by some fill in flash while the subject poses with both hands on the lapels of her coat above which is a large black circular broach.
After looking at the exhibition for over an hour, we gather to hear a talk from Dr.Rowe who has studied some of these images in depth. She is an academic with no interest in technical considerations but a crowd of almost a hundred people have gathered to hear her, squeezing themselves into the narrow space of the exhibition.
She talks about a number of images such as the Ai WeiWei photo which she seems to think is the winner; it is a winner! One photograph she discusses is the upper torso of a nude woman who holds a cup; this is entitled Lynne, Brighton and is by Jennifer Pattison and it came second in the competition. This is a relaxed and captivating portrait different to other nudes, of a woman by a woman, a different kind of female representation devoid of the heterosexual view dominated by what some refer to as the “male gaze.” She looks back at us rather than away from us and she is not lying down in a seductive pose. It has been said that the chip in the cup is what makes this image as references are made to Barthes’ punctum; I am not sure I can follow this argument as for me the image is about the vulnerability and softness of femininity. Of her work, the photographer says … “make the work that excites you and in turn this will excite others.” She spent a whole day in the capturing of this one image.
Another image the academic considers is called “The Ventriloquist” by Alma Haser. Like another image, “The Pastry Chef” a black and white blow-up of a rolling pin wielding chef, this image has been referenced to the sober portraiture of August Sander (German, early twentieth century). It shows two friends whom the photographer met at a party; at first, she tried to photograph them individually but then decided that the two went well together. They are friends although when at school together, one bullied the other. One is posed behind the other as they assume different postures that mirror their relationship. Originally intended as part of a series called “Cosmic Surgery”, “a set of surreal portraits in which her sitter’s faces are obscured by origami shapes”, the photographer was struck by the image and decided to enter it into the competition. She calls it “The Ventriloquist”so the viewer can wonder a little at the meaning of the image.
One student comments that the exhibition is better presented than in London. Here, the images are not grouped together but hung at the same height making the viewing experience “more democratic”.
many gathered for the talk by Dr.Rowe

many gathered for the talk by Dr.Rowe

The photograph that the lecturer ends with is called “Edie.” This is of a young naked girl sitting on a chair; she has just had her hair cut. This is one of the more controversial images as it depicts childhood nudity and there has been a complaint to the Mshed over this image. What perhaps is the disturbing element here is the fact that the child is being manipulated and the photographer, her father, was quite calculated about it. However, she was to have her hair cut anyway and her being naked makes it a lot easier. Edie, a six year old, is apparently happy to see her photograph exhibited but will she feel the same way when older? Her expression is a bit grumpy yet natural and the background has not been formally arranged, The almost monochromatic image is not one I noticed and the image does not appeal although it does become the but of much conversation. There is talk of Sally Mann, the American photographer, whose photography of her children has attracted a lot of controversy; she has not however been prosecuted and I personally find her black and white work sensitively executed.
The image of Edie has been described as beautiful and brave. She does not enjoy having her hair cut and one can see this in the clenched foot as well as the upturned smile. The way her hands cover her private parts is a disturbing element of this photograph; it suggests the child is threatened by the photographer rather than being a willing subject. For some, this image will be pornographic.
After the talk we have lunch and then find some tables upstairs outside the gallery that we can sit around as a group. Sharon suggests we discuss images we thought should have won the competition!
group discussion

group discussion photo by John Belcher

 John Umney liked “Becoming Annalie” a photograph of a woman with Down’s syndrome. It has aesthetic beauty and could be hung on a wall.
John Belcher likes an image of a group of younger women, a family from Bosnia who look as though they have nowhere to go.
Jen does not appear to have a favourite but likes many.
Karen F goes for the Ai Weiwei image and its’ multitude of connotations.
Anna Goodchild goes for the portrait of Gillian Wearing who stands behind transparent curtains, waiting to be peeled away. Having been to a Gillian Wearing exhibition, I am also struck by this image.
Karen Woodfield goes for the Delhi street workers that has attracted my somewhat misplaced comment. Karen is struck by the strong sky, the unusual subject who is elevated; the image is not overtly contrived.
Peter chose the “Pastry Chef” which I have mentioned before as it was also a favourite of mine.
Dorothy, an artist, looks at the photos differently and likes narrative. She chooses one of the winning images, this one of the actor Mark Rylance who has recently returned to playing Shakespeare. The posture is classical and the Mona Lisa is mentioned!
My own choice for winner is the winner, a photograph of a young woman in Bolivia who sits awkwardly at a table, the softened background of the room behind her like a supporting womb. Henri Cartier-Bresson said of the portrait that “In a portrait I am looking for the silence in somebody” and this image seems to convey that. The space occupied by the image is feminine, neither rejecting or manipulating the gaze,
Sharon liked the image of Edie, the naked girl, that was much discussed; it is controversial and controversy is an important element of this exhibition. It pushed the limits of what can be done.
It has been an interesting visit to this exhibition and enhanced by hearing other’s views. At school I learnt to appreciate literature, here I am being taught to read and appreciate photographs, to see rather than to gawp, and am made aware of the complexity of photographic images and the rewards of looking at them.
Not long after this exhibition visit, one of the students sent an email to us all …
I heard from a contact who I used to work with that the photo we saw in the exhibition, Senna by Ineke Schoonheyt was removed from display by the police today as they have said it is an indecent image of a child. A bit late in the day especially as the exhibition ends tomorrow and it has been on display for the best part of a year now.
I wondered if this was really the case and decided to make enquiries of my own. eventually I got this reply …

Dear Amano

Thanks for your enquiry. I’m not sure where or how this rumour started, but I can confirm that none of the photographs were removed during the exhibition.

Whilst some of the images contained nudity and images of naked children, the signage at the exhibition advised people of the content of the exhibition and museum staff were happy to respond to enquiries arising from the sensitive nature of some of the images.

Kind regards


Marketing and Communications Officer

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RL

0117 922 4749


Go Away Closer by Dayanita Singh

Go Away Closer

an exhibition of photography by Dayanita Singh
at The Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London

During an interview about this exhibition, Dayanita Singh said “You should be interested in my exhibition because I’ve done something new, because I’ve pushed the boundaries of form. Don’t put me in a box.” I wonder how original she really is; most photographers who look through their archive and put photographs together see new implications in their work. It is good to hear a photographer saying these things though, it might even help photography to be more widely understood as a medium. She says in her Radio 3 interview, that photography has a straight jacket and needs to be liberated!

Although from India and a resident of Delhi, she takes a firm non-Indian stance; it is significant that she was not included in the 2008 Delhi exhibition of Indian photographers called “Click!” Singh says (Privacy p113)”For eight years I worked as a photographer in India catering to western perceptions of what India is.” Aveek Sen writing in the Go Away Closer section of her book called “Dayanita Singh” (Foundacioun Mapfre) says that ” … to work herself away from the deadening stereotype of the “Indian” photographer – and a woman, at that – churning out her repertory of “disasters or the exotic”. It is untrue to say that Indian photographers focus on “disasters or the exotic” though this choice of subject is quite common among foreign photographers in India. Singh says (in a Radio 3 interview) that photography was her ticket to freedom and still is; does not see herself as Indian but very informed by Indian culture particularly Indian classical music.

After a fleeting visit to this exhibition, I returned for a longer contemplation with students and tutors from the Open College of the Arts. Tutor Robert Enoch asks us to consider the collective nature of the work rather than just images while tutor Clive White asks if we can relate it to our own work (I feel I can in her approach to bookmaking and the necessary awareness that requires and of which she openly speaks). I had come across her work a few years before and attended a gallery talk by her in Delhi during 2010. She seemed like a promising artist then and now it appears she is an established one.

Parallels are drawn with other photographers work such as Nan Goldin’s diary-like style and Sophie Call’s social intervention into the worlds of her subjects. There are one or two student comments along the lines of “If I had done that I would have thrown it away!” Not exactly contemptuous rather surprise at seeing such work being worthy of an exhibition.

Not every photographer is an artist. In fact, most probably are not yet Dayanita has a certain approach to her work that is different from the average photographer. For her, photography is a language in which images become texts. Aveek Sen, a writer who has written extensively about Singh, says … “To want to create literature yet wish to be spared the use of words, to address someone yet keep that gesture silent, to crave the power of words yet want to elude them, to arouse the mind but feed the eye is to live out the paradox of a photographer who keeps moving beyond the making of pictures towards the making of books.”

My interest in the work of Dayanita is kindled partly by the fact she is from India, a country I visit often and have done so for over 30 years now. The fact that Dayanita Singh is a woman is interesting not from a sexist point of view but because in India women have a difficult time getting anywhere owing to traditional ideas of womanhood. A list of her favourite reads is available in the book shop and I note a few down such as Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (one of those books one should read about the country if one wants to see it in a contemporary perspective although it by no means the only one), a book of poems by Vikram Seth, well known author of A Suitable Boy, as well as books by Geoff Dyer who has written extensively about her work and photography in general.

I am also intrigued by the fact that Dayanita Singh says she is a bookmaker; her book-making extends to exhibition making! The way she exhibits her photographs, particularly in the Museum exhibits, overturns conventions of displaying and looking at photographs. These exhibits which fill one of the 4 galleries this exhibition extends to, are at least six foot high wooden constructions consisting of frames in which Dayanita’s photographs are inserted. Dayanita’s images do not require captions, one is left to contemplate them at will, yet a few of the images do contain inserted text to herald a different series of images amidst the different bodies of Dayanita’s work.

Dayanita does not want to tell the whole story and likes to leave the meaning of her images as secrets; this requires an active kind of looking that engages the mind as much as the eye. As Dayanita says, “I do not want to tell the whole story because there is no complete story.” Aveek Sen also writes in a rather complex manner the following … “From it’s beginnings Dayanita’s art risks situating itself at the threshold of a universe whose pleasures and fulfilment (Sen uses this word in the plural sense as fufilments) always appear to lie beyond the limits of the photographic medium. The worlds of eye and ear and those of the mind and the imagination exist alongside, or intertwined with, one another. But gazing across and beyond their borders also makes one confront the gulfs between them, and this constitutes the exhilaration and the peril of letting one’s sensibility be irredeemably promiscuous. But that soon becomes the only way to be, making photography the vehicle as well as potentially the victim of such compulsions.” The key phrase in this exhortation of her work is ” … beyond the limits of the photographic medium”; her work seems to extend beyond the boundaries of the frame.

One gallery is devoted to her various books and shows a selection of enlarged prints from them. Her first was about the classical musician Zakir Hussain published in 1986. This body of work had started while she was still a student at The School of Design in Ahmdebad with one of her photographs appearing in The Times of London. It seems she had some idea then that she would be a famous photographer since she told Zakir Hussain that she would be. The images from this series show private moments between musicians and hence indicate the heart felt nature of the music they play. Like many other kind of artists that Dayanita comes into contact with, they teach her and make her own art possible.

An important part of Dayanita’s life has been her friendship with a eunuch called Mona Ahmed which resulted in another body of work. This started as a photojournalistic assignment which has continued and more recently resulted in a “moving still image – not video, not still photography, but something else” called Mona and Myself (2013). Three images from this series appear in colour, a triptych that suggests femininity; the overall tone is a burnished red and in the central image, one sees a narrow lane leading off into the distance. There is also a group of other images, large black and white prints with white wooden frames.

Most of Dayanita’s work is made in the black and white medium.

Other bodies of work include “Privacy” (2003) an examination of the private lives of the wealthier people of India; there is in fact no word for privacy in Hindi and this work covers a section of society that has not really been seen publicly before. This work it seems came about partly as a reaction to her being labelled a photojournalist. I find it a fascinating documentary on contemporary Indian life that seems to have caught the past before the present time of great change. She is photographing friends and friends of friends and the informality of all this makes this more intimate even more real and certainly convincing. OCA tutor Clive White discusses this work with me. He wonders whether it is not rather nostalgic since so many of the interiors look as though they might be from the early twentieth century; it may be that time has tended to stand still in some respects since the British left India in the mid-twentieth century. A number of these interiors appear to hark back to that time. Yet there is something ancient about India even in modern cities like the capital Delhi where British buildings are still used and Mughal remains are prominent.

“Go Away Closer” the ambiguous title of the exhibition contains 4 books of which Dream Villas is another work. Dayanita uses colour for Dream Villas as she does for a few other images but her use of colour is rather limiting and for effect; her black and white work is a more sensitive rendering, more intimate, in which finer details can be contemplated. “Go Away Closer” contains some subtle images, elusive pictures in which meaning is not clear but suggested.

It seems Dayanita is something of a photographer’s photographer. She champions the medium not by trumpeting it but by examining it, believing that “photography is not about what one sees but how one sees.” I get the impression she sees the photograph as a means to an end, a piece in a larger patchwork, rather than, as would appear to be the case in much painting, an end in itself.

There is another room set aside for Dayanita’s works and this starts with Sent a Letter to a friend, which is a succession of images stretched concertina-like along one side of the gallery space. One needs time to absorb the meaning inherent in all these images and yet one can delight in their miniature size which adds a certain poignancy to their individual stories.

In another series, “I am as I am” there are larger framed photographs of girls from the Varanasi asram of the twentieth century saint Ma Anandamayee Maa where Dayanita was nearly sent to grow up. There are individual portraits yet give a sense of atmosphere that might exist at this segregated place; other images contain groups of figures or figures making some kind of gesture as in a striking image of a girl looking as if she is hopping. The flat expanse of the Ganges river can be seen in the background. Might these images have been made in colour? The resulting work would have been very different and lacked the effect of black and white and it’s concern with light as well as form.

Three photographs at the end of this room are devoid of people yet their presence is implied. The centre photograph contains a bed and a table while on the wall is what appears to be a photograph of Gandhi, the Mahatma, with one of the nieces with whom he slept towards the end of his life.

The last wall of this gallery shows photographs from Dayanita’s body of work called “Industrial Landscapes” (2005) revealing close ups of industrial life and it’s consequences – one sees detailed views of machines, people and watery spaces.

Outside, in the foyer, is a video playing in which Dayanita talks; one phrase of hers I catch is ” what lies between two photographs?” Elsewhere she is recorded as saying “the play between the real and the fictional is what I am interested in!”

I shall leave the final words of this blog to Aveek Sen and his comment on photography as a whole … “”Now, more than ever when it is possible for everyone to master the craft of photography with little effort and time, photography needs the slow shaping power of thought.”


“Now we can see” by Geoff Dyer from the book “Go Away Closer” (Hayward Publishing) and BJP October 2013

“Dayanita Singh” published by Foundacioun Mapfre

an evening or two with Dayanita Singh

An evening with Dayanita Singh

On the previous evening I had visited an exhibition at Nature Morte Gallery in Delhi called “Dream Villas” by Dayanita Singh with a photographer friend in Delhi, Rakesh Sahai, whose work one is likely to see on arrival at Delhi airport  illuminated and printed large since he has worked there extensively in the airport; Mumta, a photographer-friend of his accompanied us. We all wondered at the exhibition, not knowing what it was exactly about and found ourselves questioning the technical expertise as well as the meaning of the images, all of which were either taken at dawn or dusk. Rakesh joked that he could have done the whole lot in a single night; we did not take the work on show too seriously.

It was to be a few years later that I read in an interview (BJP,October 2013) with Dayanita Singh that these images were made during her “blue period” initiated when she ran out of black and white film on a shoot; she thought that this would not be a problem and she could turn the colour film she used in it’s place into black and white later on. However, she was struck by the beauty of this “spontaneous colour experience” and continued it to make the Dream Villas exhibition. Of this Geoff Dyer wrote, “So what makes a “Dream Villa?” How does Dayanita know she’s found one? The answer, surely, is that she doesn’t, or, more accurately, that the question is the answer. The pictures are all uncaptioned because the places in them don’t exist. Yes, theyr’e out there in the world somewhere, and she photographs them in that interrogative way of photographer’s, but it’s only later, when they’ve stopped being places and become photographs, that it’s possible to see if what was once reality – or a piece of real estate, at any rate – has acquired the ideal and elusive aura of the dream image.

I returned to the exhibition space the following evening, dimly aware that my reading of the images was a little superficial yet also because Dayanita Singh was going to be present and giving a talk. Rakesh and Mumta were otherwise engaged. Perhaps this second visit would enable me to understand her work and see why she is an acclaimed artist. Frankly, a lot of the “Dream Villas” images did not appeal to me; the haunted atmosphere of many of them made it feel more like “Nightmare Villas.” These are personal images and hence evoke a personal response.

For her talk, Dayanita projected images on to a wall. She started with a photo-album kept by her mother, also a keen photographer, and went through all the photobooks she has done, beginning with her first that is about the life of a eunuch. As someone interested in the photo-book as an art form, this was to be a fascinating talk.

Dayanita crafts her images; everything has it’s place. She studied at The National Institute of Design in Ahmdebad, Gujerat and even as a student had works published in The Times of London. This lead to her first book about a eunuch; the eunuchs are a recognizable part of Indian culture. The photographs were accompanied by text.

A turning point in her career if not her life, was when Dayanita went to work with Gerhard Steidl, the acclaimed photography publisher. He introduced her to a completely new way of doing a book that involved a much more contemplative approach. Images can easily be sequenced logically yet if one is to look at them visually and to sequence them as visual objects rather than as images containing more obvious meanings then a different kind of book has the opportunity to arise. One that is not so conceptually based (as I write these notes up into a more comprehensive essay, I wonder to what extent these are my own words rather than those of Dayanita!?).

It was Ansel Adams who compared the negative to a score of music and the print to it’s performance. There is no set way of doing a book, constructing a series of images, rather a variety of ways that might be interpreted and eventually rendered.

Dayanita talked about what was evidently something of an initiation with Gerhard Steidl. He turned off all the lights in the room and took her to a window; she wondered if he was going to kiss her. In fact, what he wanted to do was instill in her a sense of wonder, a way to approach her work differently.

Looking through the books that Dayanita has done with Steidl, one is aware of the fact that their meaning is left very much to the viewer’s imagination. One is likely to try and read these images, to discover something of what they convey. One may be frustrated in the effort or simply accept that one can never exactly know what they are about. They indicate yet retain a sense of ambiguity if not mystery.

One of her best known images is that of a young girl lying on her bed with her back to the viewer. This would appear to be a young girl in retreat from the world who has thrust herself down on her bed without thinking; she may be sulking or just dreaming childlike thoughts. What makes the image so striking is that her dress is pulled up over her knees exposing the back of her naked legs. Some might consider this erotic and certainly it sparks associations with the sexual abuse of children, yet it is also records a sense of vulnerability.

Being published by Steidl is a photographer’s dream. Dayanita, in spite of her obvious abilities, is lucky to have been chosen; she realizes this and is grateful. Steidl though are a specialist publisher and do not attract popular interest except in the world of art photography; one’s audience is likely to be limited since for many the images will appear problematic and hence of limited interest.

Dayanita leaves me with the sense that I have been in the presence of a great artist; an inspired sense of clarity is my experience and I wonder to what extent this is my projection and to what extent a genuine experience of Dayanita’s work.


Home Truths: photography and motherhood

an exhibition curated by Susan Bright

another kind of motherhood - poster of Dame Edna near to The Photographer's Gallery

another kind of motherhood – poster of Dame Edna near to The Photographer’s Gallery

This exhibition is brought to my attention by the OCA which means a guided tour and talk with tutor Sharon Boothroyd and a chance to see a large exhibition featuring 12 photographers that stretches across two exhibition spaces, The Photographer’s Gallery and The Foundling Museum. I find some of these larger exhibitions can be tiresome since they take a lot of time to absorb. The general subject is not of particular interest; although my mother is still alive in her 90’s, I do not think this kind of motherhood will be represented. My initial understanding of this exhibition that contests traditional views of the mother, is that there is a lack of tenderness in the portrayal of women as mothers but this is a first impression that I expect to have challenged. As Bright says, “Its’ such an emotive subject … people have an image in their heads about motherhood and when anything contradicts that, they get very bothered by it, very quickly.

The curator is Susan Bright who is a recognized art critic, having produced such books as Art  Photography Now. She became concerned about the image of motherhood projected by celebrity gossip and wanted to see what photographers themselves were saying almost as if she was looking for guidance. I wonder what if anything this exhibition might say about mothers who have lost children at birth or soon after (giving children up for abortion does feature apparently) or the suicide of a child, issues that deeply affect mothers; perhaps this would be too extreme a view for the exhibition to consider yet making motherhood out to be some kind of freak show would perhaps be to stigmatise it.

Although I pre-order the exhibition catalogue, it does not arrive before I see the exhibition which means I can visit without too much prior conceptualization. However, I do read an article in the BJP October 2013 that gives me some idea of what it is about.

Sharon Boothroyd’s interview with Susan Bright is on her blog Photoparley. She introduces Susan Bright as “ … showcasing artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium” … I wonder whether this will mean she is more interested in the photography of motherhood rather than motherhood itself and, if so, what way this affect her vision of motherhood projected in the exhibition she has curated. However, it seems her initial interest was sincere in that she was about to become a mother herself; as she says … “much of the literature I read seemed to place impossible demands on a mother in pursuit of perfection.” In fact, she “… wanted to investigate why there seemed to be such a thirst for mothering in the media. So, in the spirit of personal exploration and intellectual contribution I decided to investigate the images I saw and the messages they sent out through pursuing a practice based PhD. in Curating (through Goldsmiths College).

Bright says she“…noticed how little pregnancy is imaged in fine art and how it has become increasingly sexualized in the media” and “I also discovered a genuine anxiety about aging and am curious to find out how representations of mothers fits into this.” She goes on to say that she finds no “coherent critical approach or stance to fully understand the implications of this phenomenon” of motherhood and that psychoanalytical interpretations do not suffice. Neither can she rely on a post-feminist viewpoint. As a curator, she needs to take a neutral yet encompassing view; “The central argument of the exhibition will be the investigation of the complex and demanding experience of motherhood through the transitions that occur to a woman’s identity by becoming or being a mother” and “aims to expand what the term ‘Mother’ can mean and its effects on an artist’s identity”.

fellow OCA students

fellow OCA students

Fellow students gather in the café of The Photographers Gallery. Am pleased to see Siegfried whom I had been wanting to contact about meeting up this week-end, as well as Vicki, Teresa from Torquay, Jan, Eileen and others; more soon start arriving and in the end we number 13 (17 were expected but have made their apologies) as well as tutor Sharon Boothroyd.

outside the Photographer's Gallery

outside the Photographer’s Gallery

The exhibition starts with two floors upstairs in The Photographer’s Gallery where there is some general information about the exhibition. We are told that “A home truth can be simply understood as a fact that is somehow discomforting to acknowledge or may cause embarrassment.” This exhibition does not embarrass me yet I do experience discomfort about which I shall enlarge upon later. That the exhibition aims to “aims to challenge long held stereotypes and sentimental views of motherhood” is expected and welcomed, as is its’ attempt to challenge “reductive cultural assumptions of mothering”.

The assertion that “Much of the work also reflects contemporaneous impulses in photography to photograph everything, however seemingly inappropriate” does seem to be a fair comment on this exhibition, some of which I would find objectionable if it was not being done in the name of art and in the nature of conjecture rather than fact.

Before I start looking around the exhibition, I ask Sharon whether she thinks Bright has managed to follow her original intention of being a future mother enquiring about motherhood or whether she has been diverted into presenting a view of motherhood that is a response to those she has featured rather than an attempt to get at the truth. Sharon wonders what my question is! Perhaps Bright has managed both, a formal view that also answers her personal questions about motherhood.

work by Elina Carucci

work by Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci presents a documentary approach that is up-close, graphic and realistic.

Janine Antoni uses symbolism to convey her message. A large photograph of her suspended in mid-air in a child’s bedroom with a dolls house around her body is not a photo-shopped image but an actual installation that has been photographed.

work by Leigh Ladare

work by Leigh Ladare

Leigh Ladare is a male photographer whose images one may find shocking if not disturbing as the Press have pointed out. What have these got to do with motherhood? The woman he is photographing is his mother, having sex (oral included) with mostly younger men. There is something I find quite nauseous about this and I do not think it is last night’s Indian meal complaining! However, the idea of the mother as Virgin is a myth that does need exploding!

Elina Brotherus is a photographer whose work I have seen before. “Annunciation” (this has Christian meanings I do not understand) is a well-made series of photographs, displayed lined up against a wall of the gallery, being an account of her attempts to conceive a child via IVF treatment. The pictures are quite harrowing as is the story – after 5 years she gives up trying.

Eileen and Sharon looking at work by Ana Casas Broda

Eileen and Sharon looking at work by Ana Casas Broda

Anna Casas Broda shows a tableau of 28 different images depicting different mother-child relationships. These are technically well-executed photographs with a studio-like quality about them. They contain meanings worth considering (the child with milk covering it’s face for instance) and some are light-hearted.

Although touching, they raise questions as they have been made for the camera; this is true of much work in the exhibition that shocks in varying degrees, riding on something of an emotional roller coaster. There is a refreshing honesty to all this yet some may be bothered by it such as the nudity. A sign says that 12 year olds and younger are not allowed to enter and 16’s need parental guidance. It is only later that I realise that photography, usually allowed here, is not permitted probably because of the lurid nature of some images.

warning sign at the entrance to the exhibition

warning sign at the entrance to the exhibition

Hanna Putz presents some rather clinical hence chilling images of motherhood. For some reason, these are used to advertise the exhibition and one features on the front of the BJP. Symbolism of the human forms of mother and child feature here and they are being made not by a mother but by a photographer.

Katie Murray has made a video which one may find humorous but is in fact disturbing when read rather than just looked at. A mother, the photographer, is working on an exercise machine while a demo video plays … flash to a Gazelle running through grassland … (later I learn in the artist’s talk that Gazelle is also the brand name of the exercise machine)  … then a child appears and calls for her mother so mother gets off her running machine and picks up the child and gets back on the machine … flash to the gazelle which is suckling a baby … mother keeps on running with child on her shoulder … now footage of a leopard chasing the gazelle … now another child appears and also wants to be taken care of … more footage of the gazelle being chased now by a couple of leopards who are trying hard to bring it down … the second child is picked up and the woman returns to running on the machine with her two children … more of the gazelle being chased and assaulted by 2 leopards … a man enters the room and can be seen behind the woman and her children on the running machine … now the gazelle is being attacked by three leopards and yet is still fighting … the man in the background, the father figure, leaves the house without a word … the gazelle is fighting off the leopards who must be juveniles … now the children want to get down and so their mother releases them … the gazelle is attacking one of the leopards … the mother continues to run on her machine as before, no longer carrying any children … the gazelle is seen leaping away having thrown off the leopards … !

Although this video is quite amusing to watch, the obvious insinuation that the children and husband are like leopards trying to bring down a gazelle in their relationship with their mother/wife is a rather dark and disturbing humour that does perhaps strike at assumptions about basic family dynamics that children love their mother and that mothers love their children.

Fred Huning, the other male photographer, presents photographs from a trilogy of his books. These are documentary in approach yet there are subjective images such as one of a butterfly flying.

After about an hour or so of viewing, we meet up in the café. I would like to have spent more time at the exhibition but I will get the catalogue later and be able to reflect further on the images we have seen in the gallery space. For now, I grab the chance to discuss the exhibition with fellow students and the first topic under discussion is about the compulsive desire of so many women to be mothers, what is referred to in German as kinderwunsch. Might not the scope of this exhibition be rather narrow as it relentlessly pursues the subject of motherhood albeit from varying viewpoints? Personally, I do not find it easy to relate to these images since they do not seem to be about my experience of motherhood that is these days about caring for a woman in her nineties.

There are a lot of images of women with no clothes on yet one rather expects this in an exhibition concerned with motherhood. Yet the number of naked women portrayed often intimately, could lead to other readings entirely. The fact that you have to be over the age of 16 to enter unaccompanied is a reminder of this.

Does the exhibition genuinely present the idea of motherhood or is it projecting an idea of it? We all have different experiences of motherhood.

 Sharon Boothroyd points out that this exhibition is about seeing beyond stereo-typical notions of motherhood as promoted by magazines and advertising, in fact, media in general.

It is quite a long walk to the other part of the exhibition at The Foundling Museum. On the way, I chat with Paul Stephenson, a photography student who is coming to the end of his time with the OCA, having almost completed Level 3. He reminds me that post-modernism is over and that there seems to be no other term to describe present developments other than “contemporary”. I have heard the term post-post-modernism!

The next part of the exhibition costs us £5 as students. The first work we see on entry is by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, the name sounds South Indian but she lives and works in the USA as a professor of photography at Rhode Isalnd. This for me is some of the most interesting work on show not just because it relates to my current course assignment, to construct an online slide show, but also because of the way old family photographs have been used to construct genealogies. As images blend into each other, one sees different family members morphing into each other, all based around the matriarchal line. These re-generations form intricate and fascinating family histories.

The slide shows themselves are embedded within large mounts that have golden gilded frames; we do not see the device that makes the constantly moving images interact with each other.

Tierney Gordon’s images are amongst the most disturbing. In one her child is bawling while she wears a skeleton-like mask with an orange face. Putting the camera between oneself and one’s child? This seems to be a form of cruelty in which the end, art, justifies the means, frightening children. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning to these images yet it seems they are there to shock. The work also involves the photographer’s mother, (hence three generations), who suffers from mental illness, the daughter perhaps from callousness.

Miyako Ishiuchi is a Japanese photographer whose interest in motherhood seems centred around objects; for instance, there is a close up of a lip stick holder. There is one slightly vague image of someone who looks like she could be a mother.

Ann Fessler photographs what she refers to as the “gap between recorded history and lived history”. Her work is represented by a black and white video about her rediscovering her mother though we do not see the final outcome. Much of the footage is in slower than real-time and some clips are repeated. Called “Pale Blue River” with an almost continuous voice over from the photographer who relates the narrative, there is an air of mystery.

The exhibition grows on me, its’ meaning starts to penetrate as I contemplate motherhood, usually seen as a happy, loving experience but which can in fact be tinged by hatred as exemplified in the video of Katie Murray whose parallel universe celebrates herself as a gazelle and her two boys and husband as leopards who try unsuccessfully to bring her down.

After seeing the exhibition, some of us attend an artist’s talk where three of the photographers exhibited talk about their work and how they approached the subject of motherhood. The talks that go well beyond the 20 minutes allotted to each photographer, are actually about their careers and intentions so that the exhibition is not really discussed. One fact does come across, the way the photographers seem happy to appropriate their children for the sake of a good photograph. Some people object to photographers imaging their children yet that is not really the topic of discussion here. It is more concerned with the way some children have been left to cry, possibly encouraged to cry, while their mother takes photographs. The camera has come between mother and child and allowed to interfere in an intimate and vital bonding.

When asked about how she would feel if her child grew up to resent her in later life on the grounds that the mother had exploited her, one mother replied that she could live with that and almost expected it. Yet one felt she was ignoring the real issue, the feelings of her child and their manipulation, so that the mother could pursue photographic art practice. Interestingly, Katie Murray who suggests her hatred of children in the video, seems to have quite a loving attitude towards them, as if the awareness that her children are trying to bring her down, allows her to move on and accept them more easily as human beings.

There is something upsetting albeit truthful about this exhibition in the apparent revelation that mothers don’t necessarily love their children. The most striking image is perhaps by Leigh Ladare in which he shows his mother in black negligee underwear, semi-naked with large drooping breasts; the only motherly thing about this image is the fact that it is a son photographing otherwise it is difficult to make any connection with motherhood.

Susan Bright curated this exhibition for her PhD. One presumes she passed with flying colours as it is a varied selection of contemporary approaches towards motherhood. Some of the “Home Truths” though are not easy to take on board and need considering. After all, Katie Murray’s metaphor of leopards trying to bring down a gazelle is in many ways a humorous aside rather than a statement of fact.

The catalogue includes many of the photographs seen in the exhibition along with text by the curator Susan Bright. There are also a number of in-depth essays to help one see this exhibition in context.


Motherhood and Representation by Ann Kaplan

Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood