Landscapes by Edward Chambre-Hardman

Open Eye Gallery - Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery – Liverpool

After coffee, we went back to the Open Eye gallery to see another exhibition upstairs in the Archive Gallery. this time, another OCA tutor, Keith W Roberts, introduced the work to us since he is presently working on a Ph D about Hardman, focusing not on his landscape work visible in the gallery but the thousands upon thousands of portraits that Hardman made.

Keith gave us a brief introduction to Hardman, a photographer who worked in Liverpool during the middle of the twentieth century, and whose house in Rodney Street is preserved as a working studio by the National Trust; the Trust’s information says … “Explore the contrasting sides of this house: the neat, professional, spacious business rooms and the cluttered, cramped living quarters of the renowned portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret. They lived and worked here for 40 years, keeping everything and changing nothing. The business focused on professional studio portraits but their real love was for vivid landscape images. Some of their huge collection of photographs is on display in the house, along with the equipment they used to take and develop the iconic images.”

Hardman seems to have been quite an astute individual and was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; Keith hands us a copy of a talk delivered by Hardman about obtaining “Exhibition Quality” prints which seems a bit ironic since I am not the only one to find the prints on show as somewhat lacklustre; there are no bright highlights for instance rather a certain dullness pervades. Hardman recognised Alvin Langford Coburn as an influence and there is a similarity in style but at the time Hardman was working the technology of photography had increased in quality allowing Ansel Adams to make prints of much better quality. In his article, Hardman quotes a photographer called Ward Muir who encouraged photographers to “make your photographs sing!” and although the compositions of these images are pleasant, the photographs do not personally inspire me.

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

In his article, Hardman writes about pictorialism and points out that “Some critics – those belong to the world of journalism – would have you believe that it is almost a crime to produce a pictorial photograph. The highest praise goes to semi-documentary photographs showing life and action – often a very slummy kind of life. One could sum it up as a glorification of the instantaneous moment. Composition, balance, lighting, tone rendering, definition and all the other things which we pictorialists strive after, do not seem to matter in the least. In fact, the photographer’s personality must not intrude. It is subject-interest only which counts.” (from The Photographic Journal, Volume XCV, 1955)

Peter Haveland talks to us about this exhibition. He considers the subject matter as unrepresentative of the age in which the photographs were made. Hardman photographs not what was there rather certain views that he wants to make a picture of. For instance, a hay rick is included as what would appear to be the subject of the photograph yet apparently Hardman made the image because of the cloud formation in the sky behind; there is a similar image of a copse on a hill where clouds engulf the small wood and spiral up into the sky. To emphasise his point, Peter remarks that these images were not made of the 1950’s but of another time, they are not honest representations.

20130209-Liverpool-_MG_8545-Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Peter addresses OCA students in the archive gallery – Keith, bottom left

At this point, a woman storms through our group towards the exit exclaiming, “You don’t know what you are talking about! I knew Hardman, he was a friend, and I can assure you all his images were made by him in his time!” I call after her, suggesting she might like to join the debate but she replies that she has an appointment. She has misunderstood Peter by taking his remarks literally which is surely a mistake – if I took Peter that seriously, I would no longer be studying at the OCA but would have “exploded” and gone off on my own way. Peter has a reputation for challenging people!

For instance, Peter makes a reference to the Ansel Adams School of Anal Retentiveness which is amusing but not an easy pill to swallow. Personally, I feel I learnt a lot from the basics of the Zone System since it gives a grounding in the understanding of the photograph which many critics of the medium seem to lack. I can’t help that Hardman’s work would be a lot more appealing if he had understood Ansel Adams a bit more. However, we live in an age where the screen is taking over from the print and although the latter is not redundant, most photographs are viewed on screens.

The fact is though that we all photograph things to which we are attracted since photography is a selective process. Hence, the view expressed through our images is bound to be slanted and can never be total.

There is a good review of Hardman’s work to be found on the internet that was published in The Independent while a blog called That’s How the Light Gets In has accounts not just of this exhibition but also other work of Harman such as his book, Life through a lens.

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.

Visit to the Ffotogallery, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales

Turner House, home to the Ffotogallery

The Ffotogallery is in Penarth, a small town to the west of Cardiff and a short walk from the train station though it seems we all came via road.The easiest way to visit is of course online … http://www.ffotogallery.org/

We had a friendly welcome, being given tea or coffee and greeted by Helen who explained to us what the gallery does. It is an impressive place for the quality of the work it shows, the bookcase full of books it has published and the programme of events it organises. For instance, there is a forthcoming exhibition of Daniel Meadow’s work with an artist’s talk.

Helen welcomes us to the exhibition space

The current exhibition we have come to see about the Falkand Islands is exceptionally good largely because of an audio-video piece; it is not just about a a particular conflict but war in general. Called Voices of the South Atlantic, the photographer Adriana Groisman, an American, has taken 8 years to complete the work which looks at both sides of the conflict. There are recordings not just of British survivors but also Argentinians talking about the sufferings they went through during the conflict. The audio-visual presentation is let down somewhat by poorly processed images that do not reveal the quality inherent in their printed versions, a few of which are hung around the gallery; Elgar sounding music accompany this audio-visual gives it a lift.

Here is the gallery’s blurb about the exhibition …

“Timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas war, Voices of the South Atlantic examines issues of war and its consequences. Rooted in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict, it includes the voices of people who fought on both sides, as well as civilians who were directly affected. Colour photographs of landscapes of the islands and black and white seascapes of the South Atlantic, act as visual metaphors that allude to feelings of menace, courage and fear, at the same time showing physical traces of war. Through juxtaposing photographs of scarred landscapes with testimonies from British and Argentine veterans and Falkland Islanders, a dialogue is established between the time needed for the terrain to heal and the period the men themselves need to recover.”

Helen shows us a large print hanging upstairs

The prints are large; a British officer’s head and shoulders are at one end of the gallery while facing him at the other end is a similar portrait of an Argentinian. It is this presentation of both sides of the conflict that made this work resound for me particularly at a time when public opinion is being polarised by the current Argentinian Prime Minister making representations at the United Nations about the ownership of The Falklands being rightfully Argentinian while the British are saying that the Falkland Islands have a right to determine their own rule.

Eddy shows his images on a laptop as others offer comments

After seeing the exhibition, we get down to looking at each other’s photographs with Jesse offering comments from an Open College of the Arts perspective. Eddy starts showing photographs that are from an assignment that he is struggling with in which he is meant to be recording an event. Jesse’s comments are kind and I say something positive about the use of flash which Eddy has bounced off the ceiling.

In our general discussion, Robert Adams is mentioned. The beauty of photography is in the truth it conveys.

Eddie outside the Deli

We go out to get some lunch from a nearby Deli where I grab a greasy Samosa which is however, pleasantly spicy. The afternoon starts with me showing some prints of the Taj Mahal from a project that has come out of my studies at the Open College of the Arts. This is the first time I have shown the work to another group of photographers or even assembled the photographs as a group and a body of work. Jesse asks me a few questions and offers a little advice which I question a little perhaps because I am not good at taking criticism yet also because I want to discuss the work and not come to any definite idea about it at this stage. As Jesse suggests, I need to add context via historical or at least some kind of pertinent information. He is surprised that I have not done any classic, recognisable shots of the Taj Mahal; in fact, I have but they are not shown here since they were submitted digitally rather than in print form. Apart from doing some more reading about the Taj Mahal, I have decided to start a blog for the project.

discussion continues

After my 30 minutes or so of relative fame, we see work by another student who I have not met before but has done some very nice flower photos as well as work by Stephanie who has made a series of images of her mother walking with a dog as Stephanie follows behind, framing her mother’s legs, handbag and dog in blurry images. We look at the work and try to decide which effects work best.

There is a need to engage with subject matter, issues that arise as well as ideas; photography is not just a matter of technique although this can not be avoided. One needs to communicate, consider one’s potential audience rather than merely do what one thinks as this might be self-indulgent even narcissistic. The question of why we photograph comes up. Are we megalomaniacs? Personally, I want to do as good a job as possible, to make photographs that are not dead rather say something of the moment.

At the end of the day, talk turns to Open College of the Arts study matters. The day seems to have been a success.

View down from the upper gallery to the entrance area and lower gallery

Beyond Documentary – a lecture by Liz Wells

The first talk to be given at the recently refurbished Photographer’s Gallery in London is by Liz Wells. I have read her encyclopaedic “A Critical Introduction to Photography” in which various authors write about the main genres of photography and have just started her “A Photography Reader” which is a series of essays about photography by modern critics.

Her talk is subtitled “currencies of the post-industrial sublime”, a title which reminds one of the complexity of Liz Well’s writing which does however succeed in making the finer points clearer. Without such critics, one would be less able to understand and read a photograph, finding oneself instead rather lost amongst the myriad of photographic images that we constantly come into contact with. Nevertheless, I found her talk which she read from notes, to be difficult to understand even though I made notes.

Her talk was not directly about the Burtinsky exhibition presently showing at The Photographer’s Gallery but it did relate to it’s theme of contemporary landscape; Liz Well’s most recent book is Land Matters that considers the nature of landscape and it’s relation to photography, culture and identity.

She has recently been involved in editing a book about The Antartic entitled Landscapes of Exploration : the role of contemporary art in Antartica through which a sense of the romantic and the sublime are evident; another body of work she has commented on is A Sense of Place : European Landscape Photography which is being exhibited in Bruxelles this year. She also mentions another book Moments Before the Flood by Carl de Keyzer in which photography is being used to capture the disaster before it happens, examining how well Europe is prepared for a probable rise in the sea level.

While these accomplishments help to establish Liz Wells as more than just a compiler of writings suitable for photography graduates, she also talks about the general drift of such work in which the photographer becomes a researcher of place, looks at transformed land as well as toxic landscapes. The viewer may be lured by the beauty of the images into paying some attention to the message inherent in the work which in the case of Burtinsky, is about the massive effect of oil on contemporary civilisation and various issues surrounding it.

There is a sublimity to work such as this and Liz Wells mentions Edmund Burke’s classic work A Philosphical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and that the sublime causes delight; passions act for self-preservation. Wells also mention Immanuel Kant and his systematic reasoning; for Kant sublimity implies incomprehension. Descartes sees a seperation between the mind and the senses. Liz Wells says that the “sublime is threatened by the possibility of nothing else happening”.

Al Gore has said of Burtinsky’s work that it is “beautiful, insightful, thought provoking”; he is responsible for a number of photographic projects such as the Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtse River as well as Quarries from around the world. topographic work can be very beautiful and the scale and colour plays an important part. Burtinsky searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale. He is not a teacher merely an artist.

Liz Wells talks about the work of one of her students, Yan Preston who is Chinese and has been photographing around the Yangtse River.

Landscape photography of the American west corresponded with the expansion into that area; a similar event is happening in the photography of the Antartica.

I have not covered all of what Liz Wells says (there is a little more on my experience of the Burtinsky Oil exhibition) but as Gareth points out, she is careful not to give a personal view. The photographs are stunning but what can the individual do to combat the Oil situation that Burtinsky so graphically covers !?

A video of Liz Wells taking is at …

http://youtu.be/_mqlFxzXOZ8

Photography in London

An easy journey up to London and to New Zealand House, a short walk from Piccadily. The event is organised in conjunction with Globalnet 21 who asked for a fee before the day began which made me look into this event a little closer;  the fee requested was not for the day which was free but for Globalnet 21, an organisation that arranges debate platforms.

The organisation running the day is called Photovoice, a charity that concentrates on the way photography can empower people not just in this country but around the world. Here is their statement …

PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which no one is denied the opportunity to speak out and be heard.

PhotoVoice’s mission is to build skills within disadvantaged and marginalised communities using innovative participatory photography and digital storytelling methods so that they have the opportunity to represent themselves and create tools for advocacy and communications to achieve positive social change.

However, there is a political edge to this event that puts me off wanting to become involved. For instance, this day was advertised as celebrating the opening of The Photographer’s Gallery yet there is no mention of the new gallery in the Photovoice space.

The first talk I attend is about Visual Literacy, in particular reading photographs, and is given by Jenny Matthews. More about this on my blog about a digital photography course that I am doing.

There is also a talk about text and photographs; I feel the need to understand photography as a medium as well as be working in it.

In the afternoon, there is a “keynote” panel debate with a few distinguished people such as the photographer Simon Norfolk who I saw last thursday. He however does not appear and there is no apology or explanation given for this; I was also looking forward to seeing the film about Norfolk and Burke but the time of this was changed and so I missed it. Instead, there was a collection of photographs projected called “Imaginario Coletivo” which presumably came from one of the projects arranged through Photovoice.

The keynote discussion is entitled, “What role does truth play in photography for social change!?” I am a little wary of discussions with political intentions but thought it would probably be worth listening to. It might have been but I left near the beginning when one of the speakers started talking, saying that she was in the habit of appropriating other people’s photographs to make her own composites. A photograph was also shown of Tony Blair using a mobile phone to photograph himself in front of fire and billowing smoke; this is an interesting photoshopped image but I think it is incorrect to view Blair as someone who got enjoyment out of sending people to war. Photoshop is being used to enforce a prejudiced point of view rather than truth although there might be some psychological justification for this.

One visitor felt he was mislead and commented, “The quality of the photographs at the various stalls was incredibly amateurish. It doesn’t matter how well meaning or radical you are in your outlook, if the quality of your photos is this bad than it is all meaningless. It was embarrassing. The organizers should hang their heads in shame but somehow I feel that these talentless deluded individuals will regard it as a great success.”

Leaving the Photovoice event early means that I have time to visit The Photographer’s Gallery which is staging it’s opening and what actually attracted me to London on this day. It is not a long walk and I find myself entering the gallery through a new door while in front of me is a digital wall showing large animated GIFFs. A staircase leads downstairs to an excellent bookshop while next to this is the print room.

Taking the new lift upstairs, I visit the present exhibition “Oil” by Burtinsky; more of this later. I look forward to seeing more of the new gallery especially the Camera Obscura room.

Roger Ballen – Shadowlands – a retrospective exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery UK

My pre-blog of this event, giving an account of background research and links, is at …

https://amanostudy.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/roger-ballen-exhibition/

Is it really worth making the long journey north to Manchester, both time consuming and expensive? I decide I feel like an excursion and that the OCA meeting will be worth it. After a night in a local hotel, just outside the city centre in Salford, I trudge my way to the gallery (a lot longer walk than that suggested by the hotel) and arrive to see Gareth greeting everyone and Peter appearing in search of coffee which he was denied in the early morning train ride over from Wales.

Roger Ballen comes from a well established documentary photography badkground yet he has gone beyond the limitations of that tradition to crate his own work that has resulted in controversy, not just because of a departure in style but also because of subject matter. “Shadow Lands” is his first major UK exhibition.

There is also video to watch in this exhibition notably a music video; of this more later but I was amused to see members of the gallery staff dancing to this when it came on. The relaxed atmosphere of the gallery was also reflected in one being free to photograph both in and outside the exhibition space although video was forbidden.

Roger Ballen says all his photographs are self-portraits; to him the question “Who am I!?” can be found only in his images. I find this rationale rather phoney since the koan, the “Who am I?” question can only be truly directed inwards, and photographs are external objects. Ballen’s photographs are about what he is.

There are disturbing elements to Ballen’s work and for me, the treatment of live animals is one. For instance, a goldfish flaps in a bowl of soup and a pig is hung up with a rope around the neck although an image such as Brian with Pet Pig 1998 (from Outland) is much more compassionate in view. One might be better though questioning the status of the people in the photograph.

The lay out of the gallery is interesting since it contains a series of rooms in one big room, each one showing a particular body of work. Nevertheless, it is a bit overpowering to see so much work altogether and the result is an exhibition that is more about Roger Ballen and who he is rather than the subjects he is exploring; surely it is the subjective nature of the work that is worth looking at rather than the photographer. However, the photographs do look a lot better as prints on a gallery wall than rather soft, low contrast images in a book which have presumably been made without the photographer’s co-operation. There is a good balance of tones within the gallery prints so that a balanced chiarusco effect helps emphasise the subject matter. Overall, the exhibition is not so shocking and senseless as the images can suggest.

Diane Arbus is mentioned as an influence. This seems likely though the freakiness did not come till later. Much of Ballen’s early work is quite straightforward although the portraits are usually taken unposed and from a different angle; his first book was called “Boyhood” and is a series of portraits of boys. These earlier images were not however in the exhibition which really focuses on the work that started in South Africa.

The tendency we have to name things is perhaps a desire to control them but through documentation, we are better able to understand them. Similarly, we can apply theory to images yet our theorisation may not be supported by the images we interrogate. Peter Haveland, OCA head tutor for photography and visual culture, mentions John Tagg and Victor Burgin who describe this kind of way of looking at photographs. Peter is bowled over by the work and thinks he may take up knitting instead of photography! I can not help but think these images are of elements “knitted” together as well as containing a few “nits”.

Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, mentions two things to consider; firstly, the use of animals in the photographs (have already discussed my concerns over this but obviously they are not exhaustive since they do not address the significance of such imagery) and secondly, images within the images as there are quite a few of these and they reflect upon the meaning of the photographs as a whole.

One of the first images the group looks at is called “Dressie and Casie, twins, Western Transvaal, 1993” which is striking since the twins are evidently not normal. Seen in a book they can be held at a distance but on the gallery wall almost life size, they loom out at us. This is one of Ballen’s best known images and probably accounts for his work being compared with Diane Arbus although it seems that Kertesz who Ballen knew when much younger was probably a stronger influence. Who had made the decision to print this image larger than the others? The photographer or the curator? It may have been an agreement between both of them as in the exhibition there are a number of photographs made bigger and these are largely ones with a clearer or more obvious meaning. Positioned by this image is the much smaller one of a retired soldier; he looks much smaller now than he might have considered himself and the centre of interest is the expression on his worn face rather than his social stature.

There was not really the time to consider each photograph in depth but I mention a few that struck me. For instance, a smiling woman clutches three puppies; it is a nice image but what really strikes one is the caption that states she is the wife of an abattoir worker. In what way is this relevant to the image? Her husband is an abattoir employee … stating this fact seems rather as if a certain way of looking at the photographs is expected of one.

A disturbing image is “Elias coming out from under John’s bed” since it may simply be the harmless play of a child although he has more likely been told what to do by the photographer, an older male but probably not as old as the man lying on the bed. The presence of younger boys amidst older rather strange looking men is apparent in a number of the photographs and one can not help but think of sexual abuse of youngsters by older males since it is so often in the news these days. Ballen has done a whole book on boys some of whom are rather scantily clad so what is going on in the background to these photographs? It is no longer illegal to be homosexual but to have sex with minors definitely is. Perhaps Ballen is deliberately playing on our senses but alongside the maltreatment of animals, I find this somewhat disturbing.

Another photograph that stands out is called “Tommy, Samson and a mask, 2000 from Outland” (older man and boy again) partly for it’s meaning which is uncertain yet present. Like much of Ballen’s work, there seems to be no meaning that one can grasp hold of. Like all of Ballen’s works, the photograph is carefully constructed, nothing is left to chance as the people represented become actors. Ballen studied psychology and later geology since his photographer mother never wanted him to become a photographer having seen the hardship other photographer’s had suffered in pursuit of his art. His photographic work reflects his interests and references the work of Freud (in particular the fetish) and Jung (the concept of the darker side to the self) might be made from his work. One might draw further parallels such as with Herman Hesse and his book, Daimion.

A touching image, found on the front of his award winning photo book called Outlands, is of a small dog looking as if it has only just been born, peering out between the feet of an unidentified figure who is lying in bed. There is a sensitivity here which Ballen captures.

Peter talks a little more, saying that there is ultimately no such thing as documentary photography as every photograph is part fictional; photographs do not really have the power to say what reality is. Reality … is there such a thing? is it not really a notional concept? This is something Baudrillard has dwelt upon, the lack of ability in defining what reality is. The hype real is something that never existed. Much documentary photography is heading towards art.

I find Ballen a little threatening and so it is good to hear someone else voicing the same impression which meets with assent among others. His book Outland (2001) however, marks the beginning of a more collaborative approach or possibly more shocking since now the meanings of the images have become more intentional. One needs a lot of confidence to make this kind of work which is beyond the snap shot genre. Yet the images in Outland make one work harder to discover their meaning. Artists no longer put something in front of you as a way to inform you, they create something one needs to decipher. Documentary photography appeals because it’s meaning is self-evident and one does not have to think too much.

One image which I do not particularly like, called Twisted Wire it reveals a mass of twisted wire under which a half shrouded figure lurks, is one that resonates with others yet not myself. One can see an illusion is being made but it is one of angst and not a natural state of mind (Ballen says he is contacting the real or at least attempting to.)

Sliced (2007) is another image in which injury appears to have been done to an animal. In this case, a lizard has had it’s tail cut off.

Ballen is said to have made himself unpopular not by his outrageous imagery but because he is presenting a view of South Africa that most people do not want to think about, that of an impoverished white community.

Another image that seems to refer to the weirder side is called Confinement (2003) but might just as well be called Bondage since it sees a prone individual chained to the floor with other chains placed nearby.

Looking at these images, one needs to forget that Ballen is a photographer since he is obviousy so much more, namely a playwright as well as a painter since he actually makes inscriptions on the walls and paints them too. He refers to his work as imaginary realism.

Peter agrees with me when I suggest that one’s response to the images are likely to be determined by one’s conditioning and mental constructs that one has formed.

It is the last image in the show that does mean something to me and I am glad I see it and don’t hurry out as the OCA group make their way to the coffee bar for further discussion.  Called “Deathbed” (2010) it shows what looks like the skeleton of a child covered in sackcloth on a bed with an apparently mummified hand where the feet might be; hieroglyphics can be seen on the wall the bed stands by in the bare room. The uplifting part of this picture is the body of a white dove perched on the skull; one might interpret the bird in different ways such as taking to to be the soul or a symbol of redemption and hope but what it seems to be saying is that amidst all the detritus that Ballen has revealed to us during the exhibition, there is something that transcends it. The bird suggests a kind of freedom, a relief from the confinement implicit in most of the other images. There is light amidst all this darkness since our knowledge of darkness could not exist without light.

The images in the exhibition are often difficult to engage with owing to their subject. Another man’s vomit?

We are asked to see the video and this certainly brings Ballen’s work to life. Initially, his contact with the group called Die Antwerwood was because they were appropriating his images but when they began to work together something quite unique came of it. I find the dance movements very intriguing while the music is good too. One becomes aware of a certain sense of humour to Ballen’s work, an element of celebration.

Ballen does not advise people to do photography unless they are really driven to. Does this mean one has to become an obsessive as he admits to being?

One reason the exhibition is the way it is might be because the gallery has a new director who wants to make an impression and so shows work that is controversial and somewhat in your face. One goes to see art to experience a change in oneself as much art is about self-exploration although to say that art will help one find oneself is probably going a little too far.

To appreciate photography, one needs to stop thinking too much like a photographer by confining oneself to concerns about equipment, grain within the image, film type used etc as this can so easily detract from the actual meaning of photography which is likely to be on a more psychological level.

Are any of these images photoshopped? Apparently not. Photoshop has just been used in the making of high quality prints though.

Poet as Painter : a visit to the Magritte Museum

MUSEE MAGRITTE : a look at the art and thought of Rene Magritte

Finding myself in Bruxelles for a week-end, I decided to visit the museum set up in 2009 tthat shows the work of the artist Rene Magritte; on the whole, I am more interested in photography rather than painting but the approach of Magritte to his work is fascinating and does seem relevant to myself as a photographer. The photograph can be considered a surrealist object and it is no coincidence that Magritte was himself interested in photography.

As we approach the Musee Magritte, Palyang mentions that Magritte worked a lot with contrasts; I wonder what she means as Magritte was not from the Bauhaus school in which a series of “contrasts” played an important role. I also do not associate contrast with his work. She mentioned day and night as being one of the contrasts. Of course, one can not ignore the concept of contrast as so much art draws on this with the Bauhaus school recognising this fact. It is perhaps in the meanings of his images that Magritte plays with contrast.

It was not surprising to learn that photography was prevented in the museum but to be told that I was not even allowed to make notes was discomforting; the Magritte museum website also contains text that can not be copied and pasted unless one does a screen grab. Does this shock have any relation to the surprise that many of Magritte’s paintings evoke? I was trying to see positively.

An early inspiration of Magritte’s was Giorgio de Chirico who wrote a poem called The Song of Love; Magritte’s words on de Chirico are about “making a painting speak about something other than the painting itself.” In other words, the painting is an expression of a thought.

Magritte “realised that, ultimately, aesthetics are merely accessory to the artwork: the idea is the only thing that counts.” Quote from the museum website – http://www.musee-magritte-museum.be/Typo3/index.php?id=89&L=0. Also “Art is first and foremost a way of knowing man and the world, and the painter has a role to play in revealing what the world is, or rather the mystery that it contains.”

Magritte - next to The Barbarian, London

It may not be correct to call Magritte a surrealist (he also experimented with Cubism and the naive) but it is undeniable that he was greatly influenced by the Surrealist group as a younger artist and writes of surrealism, “Surrealism is immediate knowledge of the real: the real is absolute, alien to all the different ways of interpreting it.”

Much of the material being shown by the museum is about the personal life of Magritte. There are many photographs of him with his friends and he seems to be detached from the moody torture driven artist who seems so popular in western art; Van Gogh who cut off his ear and eventually committed suicide is a classic example, Lucien Freud who got into physical fights with people on the street a later one perhaps.

Magritte was not just a highly skilled painter (perhaps only Dali and Ernst were his superiors in craftsmanship), he saw the painting in itself as a dead end; he was also a poet and expressed his insights through painting. This is where I find a bond with Magritte since the photograph can also be limiting and when one has finally reached a point where one can make a technically proficient photograph (this is not as simple as one might assume) one might find one reaches a point where one wants the photograph to say something more than it usually does. The idea that a photograph like a painting, can make a statement, gives the photograph much greater potential as an art object and possibly liberates it’s creator from the “tyranny” of the image.

At one time, Magritte included words within his paintings not as a way to affirm their subject rather as a way to question their meaning and one of Magritte’s most well known paintings is of a pipe beside which is written in childlike script, “This is not a pipe!” Magritte reminds us that what we see represented is not actually the object portrayed; a blindingly obvious statement but one we tend not to be fully aware of. Magritte is using text to “introduce doubt, to question the link, which he considered arbitrary, between the naming of a thing and the thing itself: between image and language” Quote from the Musee Magritte – http://www.musee-magritte-museum.be/Typo3/index.php?id=89&L=0

One can explore the “This is not a pipe!” painting of a pipe further in Michel Foucault’s essay “This is not a Pipe” written shortly after the death of Magritte in 1967 almost at the age of “three score and ten.” The understanding of this painting is surely relevant to the understanding of visual culture as a whole.

Some of Magritte’s sayings are written on the wall of the museum in both french and dutch but not english. This is rather disappointing as his thought is obviously an important part of his work and lost on the many like myself, who do not know French and Dutch well enough to grasp Magritte’s meaning. Again I am struck by the secretive nature of the museum; Magritte was apparently initially weary of the museum and not in a hurry to give them access to his archive so perhaps he could see his work might be appropriated. In the first year, the Museum had over half a million visitors and with most paying several euros each, the museum must have netted a large income. They are starting an online research centre for the museum so perhaps all the profit gleaned from preventing easy access to a posthumous Magritte will reap rewards that will benefit everyone.

As I see the exhibition, I get an idea for my own work, to explore Magritte further through making photographic representations of his work – perhaps I shall learn something worthwhile from this! Already, I am encouraged to make photographic representations of my own ideas.

Certainly, for me, this visit to see the work of an artist who although highly skilled still felt the painting to be limited, has been worthwhile because it has presented a way to go beyond the image to the realm of the poetic just as Magritte did. I have always admired his work and now I can see why.

After the exhibition, we visit the shop where Magritte’s work has been reproduced in endless different media from mouse mats to fridge magnets. The full museum guide costs Euro 40 which is rather costly. Another book which contains 400 of his paintings does not have a price on it; I note the details and the publisher and look it up on the net where it is unavailable from the publisher and costs over £300 from Amazon. I need to visit the museum the next day and decide to check on the price; it is only 10 euros which is a good price for such a book. Apparently the museum has bought up all the copies but does at least sell it for a reasonable price; I might even try selling my copy on Amazon at a much reduced price such as £100 to see if I can make a healthy profit.

Apart from the 400 images in the book, The Portable Magritte (published http://www.loudion.be), contains an introductory essay by Robert Hughes. This contains a good description of the artist as “storyteller”; “Modern art was well supplied with myth-makers ..But it had few masters of the narrative impulse … Magritte was its chief fabulist. His images were stories first, formal paintings second, but the stories were not narratives … They were snapshots of the impossible, rendered in the dullest and most literal way, vignettes of language and reality locked in mutual cancellation. As a master of puzzle painting Magritte had no equal … ”

After describing some of Magritte’s paintings, Robert Hughes goes on to write about the deeper concerns of Magritte that “were with language itself, the way that meanings were frustrated by words or symbols.” The classic example of this was the pipe painting (described above) that was also presented as an apple.

In fact, one can say that “Magritte became one of the artists whose work became necessary to an understanding of modernist culture.”

Of the shock or surprise Magritte’s paintings often contain, Hughes writes “their trigger is thought itself!”