Something and Nothing: reflections on an exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work and his book “The Nature of Photographs”

Reflections on an exhibition by Stephen Shore

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

window of the Spruth Magers gallery

It was by a chance scanning of photographic exhibitions in London that I came across this exhibition of Stephen Shore’s work at a private gallery in Central London. I wonder why the Open College of the Arts had not seized on it and made a study day of the occasion; it seems the college are more focused on photography as art rather than “photography for photography’s sake!” yet Shore is recognized as a seminal photographer. At the beginning of his book “The Nature of Photographs”, James L.Enyeart writes in the introduction that Shore can be considered in the same light as John Berger, Roland Barthes and John Szarkowski, all distinguished commentators on photography. Barthes and Berger wrote as critics of the medium while Szarkowski wrote with greater empathy for his subjects, promoting photography as art. What Shore has done is present photography and in particular the photograph from the point of view of a photographer or the “operator” as Barthes refers to the maker of photographs at the beginning of Camera Lucida.

Stephen Shore was born in 1947 in New York. He started taking pictures aged 6, had sold prints to the MOMA by the age of 14 and at 17 became a regular at Andy Warhol’s factory where he began to experiment with fine art techniques. In 1971, he switched to making colour photographs and started travelling around the USA photographing the diversity of the suburban landscape and producing the series American Surfaces and Uncommon Places; he started teaching photography at Bard College in New York in 1982.

Looking at the image on the Internet that advertises this exhibition, I wonder what makes it so remarkable. One sees the torso of a woman, her firm breasts filling the bra she wears while behind there is an interesting gold and black wall paper design. She does not seem to be an incredibly beautiful woman or particularly sexy neither is she a recognizable celebrity; what made the photographer take this image and put it in a gallery? The reason for it being put on the net is probably because the gallery thought that a loosely clad female would immediately attract attention particularly that of males, still the dominant force in society.

Paddington Station

Paddington Station

I made the 2-hour journey by train to London to see this exhibition before it closed, reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” as I did so. He is interested not so much in the technicalities of image making but the substance of the photograph. The book written in the 1990’s is perhaps a little dated (it has since been updated) as Shore writes about “all photographs made with a camera and printed directly from the negative” hence revealing he is primarily concerned with the pre-digital photograph. However, his consideration of photography as photography rather than under the vaguer term of art is welcome. These days, the majority of photographs are viewed electronically yet his description of “an image, an illusion of a window onto the world. It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content” is still as relevant today as when it was written possibly more so.

Prints still do function in the world of photography since they are the mainstay of the gallery though screen viewed images are increasingly popular. A print created through electronic rather than chemical means still possesses many of the characteristics Shore mentions such as the physicality of flatness, the frame, hue and tonal range, texture of the base, the effect of dyes and pigments. Still of interest is “the way shadows, mid tones, and highlights are described by the print; they determine how many shades of gray the print contains and whether these tones are compressed or separated.”

The text refers to prints that were viewed in an exhibition and hence the book falls rather short of accurately conveying what Shore is talking about although the series of images reproduced give an excellent insight into the photographic medium and many of its protagonists. In his own words, Shore writes, “The context in which a photograph is seen affects the meanings a viewer draws from it.” A book or screen can never reflect the carefully produced image of the individual print, a fact that is often lost in the contemporary electronic proliferation of images.

A photograph “depicts” aspects of the world and “are the means by which photographers express their sense of the world, give structure to their perceptions and articulation to their meanings.” The three dimensional is transmuted into the two dimensional and yet photographs can present spatial depth and their monocular vision although apparently limited does give a unique view of the world as it “creates juxtaposition of lines and shapes within the image, edges create relationships between these lines and shapes and the frame. The relationships that the edges create are both visual and ‘contextual”. New visual relationships emerge from within the frame and the photographer needs to respond to these.

What the photographer includes or excludes is another important consideration. Visual relationships exist not just between elements within the frame but also in regard to the frame itself. The active effect of the frame varies between images.

Time also plays an important part in the still photograph since it is frozen. As Shore says, “A photograph is static, but the world flows in time. As this flow is interrupted by the photograph, a new meaning, a photographic meaning, is delineated.” What Szarkowski called “a discrete parcel of time” is effected by what Shore identifies as “the duration of the exposure and the static nature of the print and film.”

Focus and the way in which it is employed by a photographer is another important feature of the photograph as it can effect the reading of the image; it can also effect the way the eye adjusts to seeing the image when different planes of focus might upset the predictable movement of the eye. There is a mental focus as “your eyes don’t actually refocus (since you are only looking at a flat page). It is your mind that changes focus within your mental image of the picture …” There can be a marked difference between the space depicted in a photograph and the way the eye understands that space. “The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.”

When making rather than taking a photograph, a photographer makes decisions relating to vantage point, framing, timing and focus so that “The quality and intention of a photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph”. Such decisions can be “conscious, intuitive, and automatic” according to Shore and are part of the way a photographer mentally arranges a picture. “When photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds, models that are the result of the proddings of insight, conditioning, and comprehension of the world.” There are basic models that allow “only sunsets to pass through” while “At the other extreme, the model is supple and fluid, readily accommodating and adjusting to new perceptions.” Shore makes the point that if the photographer is conscious of this process it can bring “the mental level of the photograph under control.”

There is depictive and realized space not only within the photograph but also between the photograph and its viewer. A landscape might cover a large area but not require the mental eye while a close up of a confined space might make the eye move between different elements.

The making of photographs “is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.” There are different levels to the photograph that is ultimately ‘a piece of paper … a seductive illusion … a moment of truth and beauty.”

Reading Shore’s book “The Nature of Photographs” I thought might set me up for an exhibition that I might otherwise have difficulty comprehending although its message is probably much simpler than one might imagine from reading a book. It was good to read the book again and again, like last time, in a train! It is full of a certain kind of photographic wisdom as it tightly analyses the elements of the photograph. It did not however relate much to what I was about to see.

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers gallery, London W1

Spruth Magers is a gallery in Central London occupying a corner of Grafton Street tucked away behind the Royal academy of Arts amidst shops named after well known brands such as Burberry’s, Chanel, Cartier, Dior, Gucci and Tiffany’s. On the ground floor of the building, there is an impressive front window in which the exhibition is announced. “Something and Nothing” curated by Todd Levin starts (if indeed it does have a beginning) with a couple of books under a glass case, held in place by a large pebble with the Taoist ying-yang symbol on the top. Text by the composer John Cage is visible behind the glass and begins as follows …

“This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing. About how something and nothing are not opposed to each other but need each other to keep going.”

glass cabinet with John Cage text

glass cabinet with John Cage text

A print out from the gallery also on their website, gives information as to how this exhibition might be understood yet I leave this to read later.

Inquiring at the entry of the building whether photography was permissible and receiving an affirmative, I started by adjusting my camera to the colour temperature of the gallery by photographing a white wall. I could of course have left the colour correction to the eye dropper in a software program yet more elaborate approach seemed a good way to start if only to sustain something of the purity of the photographic process which Shore has obviously used in the making of his images. Another visitor asks me whether I think the photographs are digital or chemical; he points out one image in which the curious nature of digital seems to lurk in distorted foliage. A digital print perhaps possibly even the result of a digital camera? I wonder if this consideration is really relevant to the exhibition and show being more a concern of photographers trying to clumsily eke out the method behind the genius of Shore.

collection of landscape photos

collection of landscape photos

Behind the presentation of the books, is a wall with 4 large landscape photographs with white frames. Like all the photographs in this exhibition there are no titles or captions given, one needs to rely on the image itself to understand it, another example of the photographic purity of Stephen Shore. All four images contain slopes of one kind or another with 3 having texture brought out by rocks and stones and the other by grass. Other than being part of the landscape genre, one wonders what relationship these images have between each other; there seems to be no clear message although one image in the top left of the display surprisingly reveals a town that blends into the image disguised by the building’s similarity with the stones on the slope beneath it.

more photos from the first gallery

more photos from the first gallery

On another wall of this gallery, there is a series of 6 images that indicate a merging between landscape and the urban. In one, a tarmacked road leads towards a large Christian building, half hidden by the vegetation and buildings that surround it. Although in the background, Shore has focused on this building leading to a softening of the foreground detail thereby focusing our attention on the building in question, a technique suggested in his book “The Nature of Photographs.”

A feature of this exhibition is the way images have been grouped together, recognizably joined by subject matter. This was done in preference to presenting a chronological order.

Magritte painting

Magritte painting

Shore's photograph

Shore’s photograph

The other gallery, the one that forms the entry to the exhibition, also has a glass case mounted in the centre of the room. Under this, there is a painting that appears to be a Magritte original. It shows a meticulous and realistic painting of the seaside that perfectly merges with seaside behind it, seen through a window behind the easel on which the painting rests. The easel is inside a room. The motif is characteristic of Magritte and recognisably surrealistic. To the right of Magritte’s painting is a landscape photograph that contains another landscape photograph. As in Magritte’s painting within a painting, Shore’s photograph reflects the landscape yet it is far from a seamless blend showing the view at a different time of year and day as well as from a slightly different viewpoint. Shore seems to be making a point here about the nature of the photograph and the differences between painting and photography. They are different disciplines producing different results might be one message but one might speculate further. The photographed photo for instance is an idealised view, it contains not only a snowy peak yet also a sunset or sunrise, and like so many photographs of that kind remains an idealised view of the world rather than a realistic one as is clear here. I think perhaps this is my favourite image in the exhibition because it contains meanings that interest me and that I understand to some degree; there is also an element of humour in the juxtaposition.

grouping - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9357

The first set of photographs I look at in this room involve people moving through landscapes. There is an image of a man seen from behind, wheeling his bicycle through woods; he is just approaching a divide in the road and one may wonder whether he will continue along the well-worn path that bears left or the overgrown one that leads to the right. The photograph has a subtle tension and is another favourite of mine. In another image alongside this one, a man walks past a long lorry from which an arm drapes out of the passenger window. The man walking towards us looks to one side and carries a bouquet of flowers. In the background there is architecture that looks dated particularly the top of a tower above which a small mobile mast pokes incongruously into the sky; the road is unkempt, the setting rural. Another image shows a woman striding past a building, her shadow falling crisply on a stone wall while behind her is a much larger yet softer shadow of a tree looking almost as if it might ominously be creeping up on her. Other images of people walking through built up areas show different characters most notable a couple of bowler hatted Jews with beards and flowing locks.

grouping 2 - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9348

The next group of framed photographs contain not people but cars in built up areas. As with all the groups of images, some prints are small possibly contact printed from 4 by 5 inch negatives, while others are much larger. In one of the larger images, a woman sits in a car drinking from a bottle, her face partially obscured by shadow and the bottle she drinks from.

grouping corner - main gallery - Shore exhibition-20140108-London-_MG_9349

A group of 4 images is set in one corner of the gallery, indicating both the complex design of buildings that stand alongside each other in towns and cities as well as the array of objects that modern civilisation produces which includes keys and locks, light bulbs, kettles and so on. There is a symmetry to these images that arises out of careful design on the part of the photographer.

images of ordinary food

images of ordinary food

The next group of photographs shows close up images of different kinds of mostly prepared food although fruit does feature in one. The food is accompanied by cutlery and hence the idea of consumption is suggested. I cannot help but think of Martin Parrs culinary images although those suggest nauseasness while Shores merely imply a slight distastefulness, for instance, food being kept beneath plastic covers.

photographs of ordinary objects

photographs of ordinary objects

Another group of photographs show a set of interiors within which characteristic objects are found although these are of a dated appearance. There is a TV in a wooden cabinet, a newspaper with Russian script, a book with Jewish script on the cover, medals with Russian inscriptions are placed on a carpet, a telephone with a student ID card lying beside it and an image of a radio. These objects are transitory, the kind of devices that people change on a regular basis and their presence says much here about time.

group of found portraits

group of found portraits

The first of two groups of portraits shows found images; portraits in an official document, a photograph attached to a gravestone and portraits that are part of advertisements.  The second group of portraits reveal more formal yet unstudied portraiture, the subjects appearing in the real life the photographer is documenting. There is a baby (a small print), a young boy asleep against a window, a young woman wearing a head scarf her identity obscured by the fact she is photographed from behind, two small images of glamorous women (one of these is the one being used to advertise the exhibition), an elderly woman who looks up from her pillow with a lined face and eyes that do not meet those of the photographer, another small photo of a man with a naked torso lying on a couch in front of a window while a larger photo reveals a young man seen from the side who wears a small cap on his head. Another reference to Jewishness! Is this a subject Shore is concerned with? These two portrait groups and the former one of people walking through urban areas reveal that Shore likes to include a varied range of subjects.

group of portraits

group of portraits

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

grouping of photographs of suburban houses

The final series of photographs, these are on the right of the entrance to the galleries and so might be intended to be viewed first, shows a series of suburban houses. Again a taxonomic approach is suggested as Shore records houses that range from a mini castle complete with crenelations, a bungalow amidst trees lit by dappled light, a modern looking building with high windows set behind palm trees while there is a two-up, two-down fronted by lush green topiary.

I go to a nearby café for some refreshment; over an hour of seeing the exhibition and making notes starts to tire me. I also want to consider what I have seen, reflect a little on the nature of the images. Their appeal lies partly in the fact that they don’t need captions and can be viewed as entities in their own right.

The lighting in the gallery illuminates the photographs well yet there are many reflections that interfere with the viewing of the images, requiring the viewer to move around rather like a photographer seeking the best angle from where he can make his image.

The use of large format does add a clarity to the images that is admirable and eases the gaze of the viewer. This may just be a technical matter but it does have a considerable effect.

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

cabinet in passage way where Stephen Shores books were kept

In another space, a hallway in which there is also a lift, there is a display of Shore’s books on shelves behind glass. They are not for sale (the poster was but copies were exhausted soon after the exhibition began) but can be ordered through the publisher Phaidon. The fact that Shore has released a project called “A New York Minute” in digital format and is still producing new work is evidence that he is not just a seminal photographer but also a contemporary one.

My lingering perception of Shore’s photographs is that they are well-made, high quality products. This is partly a result of them being made with a large format camera by a skilled operator who knows exactly what he is doing, not as common a occurrence as one might assume, while the content of these images are also thought provoking and informative. There is a kind of photographic purity to Shore’s work that I find refreshing in todays world of mass produced electronic photographic imagery which usually reveals little skill requiring only pointing the device in a certain direction at a given time. Shore’s images are everyday yet they are not mundane rather they transform what might be considered banal into something worthwhile. Shore’s approach is not just referential it is also reverential.

main gallery

main gallery

The A4 print out I read after seeing and reflecting upon the exhibition; it mentions that “the images are organised categorically rather than chronologically” as evidenced by the groupings mentioned in my account of the exhibition. One sentence from this print out reads, “Shore’s photographic eye similarly directs us to markers of time and of change, capturing the quotidian, a sense of locality and signs of cultural and temporal change” and that he pioneers “two of the most important photographic idioms of the past forty years; the diaristic snapshot and the monumentalised landscape”.  My understanding of the exhibition is influenced by the title and introductory text by John Cage though the correspondence is not immediately obvious other than to suggest that this is more than just a collection of favourite images, the result of many years of photographing the social landscape.

Here is a link to Stephen Shore’s Book of Books, a collection of his life’s work so far.

Light from the Middle East – new photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum


“You are always on these OCA days!” another student tells me as we wait at the V+A for the OCA visit to start. I certainly find it helpful to meet with other students and in particular tutors – it helps to give perspective on what one is doing and distance learning can leave one feeling isolated. For some people, attending an OCA day has kept them on track; they have been about to drop a course and attended an OCA day as a last ditch attempt and it has worked.

I share a coffee downstairs in the V+A cafe with a few other students. One complains about his tutor and enthuses about his camera; I wonder if the two are not connected – the OCA photography course is not about the best equipment or about how to use it as this knowledge can be freely obtained elsewhere rather it is concerned with understanding the medium and learning how to use it as an expressive tool.

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude; to his right, tutors Robert Enoch and Simon Barber

As with most OCA days, it starts with a tutor, in this case Gareth Dent the CEO of the OCA, telling us what the day is about. One is to gain a personal perspective of the work on show (I try to pepper my personal perspective with as many other views as I can) and seeing photography in the gallery, a completely different experience to seeing it on screen or in a book. Gareth also asks us to question what is going on in the exhibition such as the way it has been hung and where images have been placed in relation to each other; he considers the three fold segmentation of the work into sections called “Recording, Reframing, Resisting” as somewhat arbitrary pointing out for instance, that Abbas does not merely record he also reframes. Certainly the work of Abbas, a Magnum photographer, is very skilled producing technically proficient images that print well but also creating compositions that both interest and inform the viewer. The images on show are about the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Mullahs and come from the end of the 1970’s when the Shah was overthrown and sent into exile. I am familiar with Abbas from his images of Islam and one can see he is getting closer enough to his subjects to make the pictures worthwhile; the grim spectacle of four generals in the morgue not only allowed Abbas to make a great document, it also probably helped the ruling party to show the populace that the generals were really dead.

What I like about this exhibition is that it is concerned with photography rather than attempting to make an artistic statement through the use of photography although the latter is present. The catalogue published by Steidl, currently one of the very best publishers of photographic books, also contains a helpful introductory essay by Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at The Victoria and Albert Museum, in which she mentions all the images on show and gives a brief description of what they are about that does enable one to understand photographs that might easily be discussed. She also makes pertinent remarks about photography in general. For instance, she starts by saying … “The immediacy, universality and accessibility of photography makes it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East” which nicely contextualises the subject of the exhibition; she continues … “For many of them, photography is not just a documentary tool. Rather, it is a ubiquitous yet powerful creative medium to be exploited and interrogated.

She also has more general statements to make about the medium of photography saying “A photograph may be regarded as simply a window onto the world, as a picture of something. A photograph however, is not just an image, but an object, and the choice of how photographs use the medium and its techniques can be as important as what they choose to picture.” Weiss even suggests ways to look at the photographs with the following questions … “How has the maker exploited or challenged the medium? What is expressed by using photography in a particular way? Why was photography the medium of choice? To what extent does the work acknowledge pre-existing photographs that relate to the Middle-East?

Of course, Gareth is right to challenge Weiss’ decision to compartmentalise the work. Of the first section, Weiss writes that “the photographers … exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” a statement which can surely be applied to photographs from other parts of the exhibition. Yet one can hardly deny her statement that “photography is a powerful tool for documenting people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or bear witness to historic moments” while she goes on to qualify this by stating “Despite their apparent authority, photographs can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher; they can trick or disorient. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning.

If one wants a detailed account of this exhibition, one might read Weiss’s introduction. Here, I am just going to note down images that evoked a response from me at the time of viewing. For instance, Abbas Kowsari has made an interesting close up of a soldier”s tea shirt showing a Western male below which are the weapons he carries. Black and white photographs made over the course of 10 years showing a Sufi festival are striking since they show the practice of people gorging knives into themselves although this does seem rather sensationalist coverage. Another photograph of a bridge cracked and covered in graffiti does need an explanation since as an image it tends to say little – the bridge had collapsed sometime earlier to the photograph being made killing many people and so the photographer had made it into a monument.

The image of a square magnet surrounded by upraised iron filings might be read as a satirical comment on worshippers at the Qaaba in Mecca of which it is an obvious reference; however, one might also see it as an insight into the cosmic dimensions of this particular Isalmic practice suggesting that there is something deeply natural to the practice. The image used by the OCA to announce this study day visit is of a woman, one sees only her eyes and forehead since she holds a small blackboard over the lower part of her face as if it were a Burkha covering her; the woman is in fact a lecturer in English Literature at a university.

How honest a picture of the Middle East does this exhibition present? There is a political edge to it that might be expected in documentary photography yet is this representative of photography as a whole in the Middle East? Might not the exhibition be a response to our preconceptions of the Middle East? I do not know enough to answer these questions and yet there is another photographic book, Arab Photography Now that might – it seems highly unlikely that all the photographers reprinted here would be found in the other book and vice the versa? In fact, a review of this other book states … “All the leading arab photographers are ignored. Where is Walid Raad, Fouad El Khoury, Hrair Sirkassian, Adel Abidin, Ziad Antar, Akram Zaatari, Zineb Sedira, Meriem Bouberdala, … ?

Another image that I found meaningful was a large panorama by Mitra Tabrizian in which a couple of Mullah’s gaze down from a billboard onto a group of people; these people are staged models and their poises look strained. I can not help but see here the powerful control that religion has over people in Middle Eastern countries.

A pile of bricks in a characterless modern housing estate by Yto Barrada is the kind of photograph that makes one scratch one’s head a little. How to see beyond the banality of an apparently meaningless image? There is much to discuss though in terms of the shapes within the image, the slightly squewered verticals, the lack of people and of any character to the place etc

A video installation in a separate room had an eerie feel to it. The sound of American voices at one point could not stop the feeling that one was perhaps seeing some kind of military construction while the whistling wind further enhanced feelings of bleakness and alienation. The image was from the desert where the low sun of dusk and dawn may reveal what is not normally visible.

In the reframing section the artists “look to the photographs of the past for inspiration and as a point of reference … they research, copy and interrogate past pictorial traditions and photographic imagery.

One image that sparks quite a bit of discussion is Raeda Saadeh’s “Who will make me real?” She can hardly be called a Page 3 girl yet perhaps she is satirising this. For Gareth, there is an obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia although Marta Weiss makes the reference to a photograph of a Mohammed woman by Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil; Gareth also writes that “The title: ‘Who will make me real?’ could be a reference to the John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”. Is it the looking at Saadeh that makes her real? Or is it a reference to her status as an Arab with Israeli citizenship – a status frequently ignored in the football team approach to considering and reporting the Palestinian situation ...”

It is really the gaze here that is important and this is similar to the Olympia of Manet.

Tutor Robert Enoch writes … “The reference to Manet’s Olympia is resonant because that is a painting of a prostitute. Saadeh is at the same time appropriating/using as she experiences being used/appropriated. It is a strange act of defiance. It also brings up the question of ‘who creates identity/history/reality?’ The newspapers over her body suggests more than oppression, but a sort of pressure from outside that both conceals and shapes the perception of self.

There seem to be different layers of meaning to this image; I question the assertion that “Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” I can’t read the newspaper because I don’t know Arabic so this statement sounds a bit over the top. The newspaper prevents us from see her nudity just as often newspapers stop us from seeing the facts and the truth they suggest because of a particular slant that the newspaper adopts. Furthermore, the newspaper prevents us from seeing her sensuality by it’s physical nature not it’s content!

Another photograph from this section, a group of photographs in fact that were modelled on the style of the Becher’s project of photographing disappearing industrial buildings, was Taysir Batnaji’s Watchtowers, West Bank / Palestine (2008). I found this one of the more powerful pieces. The fact that the artist had to get someone else to make the photographs is a reminder of the ominousness of these buildings which loom out at one with much more drama than those of the Bechers. Batniji to whom these photos are attributed, is a Gaza-born Palestinian and therefore not able to travel to the West Bank. Should a Palestinian who wants to make an artistic statement about Israel be denied doing so? Tutor Peter Haveland commented … “I really don’t see why contracting out the taking of the images makes any difference to the work. This is an art work not a photography course exercise after all and the reference to the Bechers work brings a sense of irony and a historic reference to the piece. Much work is being made with found images, Mishka Henner for example, under the broad umbrella of ‘photography’ and no one is concerned if an image is printed by someone else and so often the shutter is pressed by an assistant anyway, so where is the difference?

Batniji comments on the photographs that …  “They are out of focus, clumsily framed, and imperfectly lit. In this territory one can not install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait for the ideal conditions.”

There are a group of sepia coloured photographs by Shadi Ghadirian which look very much like antique prints until one sees reminders of modernity such as a bicycle, a pair of sunglasses and other contemporary objects in them. We jokingly wonder if she would pass the first assignment of the OCA module, The Art of Photography; the contrasts in this work do not relate to form however but to concept.

The final section is called Resisting where the photographers “resist the authority of the photograph: scratching out or digitally removing faces, inserting figures into new back-grounds, even burning the print itself.

Abiq Rahim for instance, has resorted to old technology in his making of small soft focus black and white prints of his native Kabul which he returned to after 18 years away. Joana Hadjithomas and Khali Joreige have used old postcards of Beirut which have been damaged to illustrate the way the city itself has suffered since the original photographs were made. There is also an interesting work by Sukran Moral in which a group of men sit in a boat (a black and white photograph) while on their shoulders sit brightly coloured birds (colour photographs) – the image is called “Despair”(2003) and refers to the fate of those who have to migrate.

Other images worth mentioning (actually they all are!) are those by Nermine Hammam whose dreamlike images of soldiers from a series called Upekkha references the Buddhist attitude of seeing the world with equanimity.

There was so much to see in this exhibition and consider and this blog only touches on it.

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

jogging across Hyde Park

jogging across Hyde Park



I like to visit an exhibition more than once since if it is a good exhibition, one is bound to deepen one’s perspective of it. Immediately, I think of the photographs that I liked first time that I did not spend time discussing because it seemed almost politically incorrect to do so since beauty was the mainstay of their appeal although there is much more to them than this – these are sepia toned images of a Arabian woman in traditional clothing yet what appear to be classical images are punctured by objects from the contemporary world … such as a soft drink can or a bicycle. The artist-photographer’s name is Shadi Ghadirian.

Much has been written on beauty over the centuries so it is not easy to define – my own perception of it here is certainly in part that of the male gaze! Recently, the OCA discussed the matter of beauty quoting from Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” … this deserves a blog of it’s own!



Lecture Upon a Shadow

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Before considering this exhibition, it seems appropriate to quote the poem by John Donne from which it takes it’s name …

by John Donne

STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now ’tis not so.

That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.

Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O ! love’s day is short, if love decay.

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool that is holding the UK exhibition (it has also been seen in Shanghai, China) describes it thus …

“A Lecture Upon The Shadow brings together new work by six artists from the North West and Shanghai. Using different approaches, the artists play with light, shadow and form to re-imagine familiar situations, exploring photography’s relationship to illusion and the everyday.”

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

entrance to the Open Eye Gallery

The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is a modern angular building in black that looms over the docks. It is free to visitors and contains a small shop. We, a group of students from the OCA along with a couple of tutors, meet near the entrance around 11 a.m. and Peter Haveland, senior lecturer in photography at the OCA, gives us a chat about the exhibition, explaining the context; the fact that it is a collaboration between Liverpool and Shanghai is of interest as is the title of the exhibition “Lecture Upon a Shadow.” I wonder whether the title of the exhibition was something that the photographers consciously responded to or whether the curators looked for work that conveyed the subject of Donne’s poem. Perhaps the poem was used later as a way to cobble the works together! Peter is interested by my question but unable to answer it.

It is worth considering the input of the curators for they do have considerable effect upon the exhibition. For instance, David Penny’s images were actually chosen by Patrick Henry, the director of Open Eye Gallery who writes that Penny “makes absorbing, provocative still life photographs. It’s not easy to do this. Photographs are bound up with our desire to know something about the world out there – their lifeblood is contingency. The canon of photography (as art) is dominated by the documentary tradition. The further still life photography gets from the language of documentary, the more it swims against the tide. Still life at worst circumscribes an airless space, cut off from the world, accessible only by the obscure, absolute desire of the photographer.

John Umney looking at work be David Penny

John Umney looking at work by David Penny

Penny has found some unusual ways to breathe life into this space. He creates simple, meticulous compositions, photographing single objects against plain backgrounds, populating his frame with undecided objects – objects that pose questions and engage the imagination. His approach is tentative and interrogative – it makes us look again at what surrounds us and where it has come from. It’s photography from first principles – innocent photography, strangely reminiscent of the earliest experiments in photographic picture-making by Niepce, Talbot and others.”

Penny’s images entitled “Dutch Painting” is as Denis Joe writes “a series of images of small detailed sculptures, behind coloured glass is an interesting work. Penny takes a reproduction of a painting from an art book he found in a charity shop. The picture is cut then bent into a shape, held erect by wire. As Penny states: “There is a movement from the original painting, to the book as an object, to the torn out single page, which in turn becomes a sculpture, and then is photographed, framed and exhibited as object.”

This is the kind of work that deserves reflection. What are they about? What are they saying?

Curators of exhibitions do make decisions that effect the way an exhibition is perceived; for instance, the method of attaching the images to the walls (many in this exhibition were unframed and simply stuck on the wall) as well as laying out bodies of work in a particular way.

I first heard of the exhibition from the Open College of the Arts website where it was discussed by Dewald Botha, an OCA photography student from South Africa. He had “mixed feelings” about it.

Accompanied with notes from his tutor, he initially “had a walk through, to try and find or feel a connection between the work of all the artists, and made notes on images that pulled (or pushed) me more than others, to return and work out why.”

In regards to connecting images, he noted “The six separate wall spaces for each artist didn’t connect to each other as much as I’d somehow expected, and this disappointed me a little, but I can only put it down to not really having looked at group exhibitions before, to know what to expect in terms of ‘connected-ness.”

Eldon Grove - Tabitha Jussa

Eldon Grove – Tabitha Jussa

He proceeded to then turn his gaze to particular images and artists who were Jussa, Fan and Man. Tabitha Jussa’s image “Eldon Grove” from the UK of an “abandoned utopian social housing development” is striking and Dewald could relate to it partly through the work he has been doing yet also because “Like most of the prints in the exhibition, Tabitha’s print was nailed neatly to the wall, unframed. The print quality was beautiful, sharp and colours rendered beautifully, to bring across the gray drab British weather, but also, this allowed her to show minute detail. Her image seriously demands a first glance, followed by a second much closer analysis, because at first view it’s a beautiful place, seemingly (possibly) under paused construction, but is in fact the opposite – a slowly deteriorating once-idyllic ideal.” Personally, I found this image striking by it’s subject matter of what looked like an attractive housing estate that had gone to rack and ruin; one sees dilapidated buildings with slates missing from roofs and an overgrown area of waste ground in front of it. The fact that this image was cobbled together from a lot of digital photos is not noticeable.

The Memory of Water - Man Yi

The Memory of Water – Man Yi

Another of his choices is Man Yi’s “Memory of water” which is a collection of black and white prints. Again, it is because he can relate to the way the photographer is working as a result of his own practice, that he is attracted while also “his exploration around the element of water, and the near impossible-to-detect details, creating a strange unease … ” further intrigues Dewald as does the feeling that he is almost intruding upon the photographers personal vision. There are only 10 images in the exhibition which makes it easier to understand than the plethora of images on the website.

viewing work by Fan Shisan

“The Two of Us” – viewing work by Fan Shisan

However, it was the work of Fan Shisan that really struck him and I likewise find it the most absorbing body of work. Entitled “The Two of us” this body of work explores the one-child policy of the Chinese government. Of it she writes … ”

I started “Two of Us” in 2009. I photograph people who grew up as an only child in China. They are the result of the strict 30 years of One-Child Policy.The One-child Policy in China restricts the number of children a married urban couple can have to one. In fact, nearly every Chinese born after 1980 in urban, including myself, is only child with no siblings. The policy is enforced at provincial level through fines and other punishments, leaving a result of over 100 million only child in China.Beside the Rusticated Youth of China, and the Culture Revolution, the only child generation was the nation’s most turmoil in post-Mao China, but it is more personal and internal. To me, the imaginary of “Two of Us” is much true than today’s reality, the progress of shooting “Two of Us” is a ceremony, to record the tragedy history of One-Child into memories. ”

Dewald wonders whether such work will be understood in the West since it relates to a kind of politics with which we are unfamiliar; I find myself a passive supporter of the one-child policy as it addresses probably the number one problem humanity faces (too many people) and one which Western governments completely ignore preferring to believe in the Christian ethic of “Go forth and multiply”. As Denis Joe writes, “In the West one finds much criticism of China, mainly from environmentalists, and those who fear the country’s rapid economic growth. But there is one policy that some sections of the environmentalist movement and Malthusians such as the Optimum Population Trust, are delighted with and that is China’s one child policy for urban families.” He continues, “It is this that Fan Shi Sanʼs work is criticising. But this is a very measured outrage. The quality of the images captures an existential crisis. The individuals within the image do not cry out to us; in fact they appear to be empty of emotion and Two of Us does not demand our sympathy but, perhaps, our outrage.”

Dewald sees loneliness in these images. OCA tutor Jose Navarro had also apparently seen “The Two of Us” and commented that the “Two of Us is a powerful body of documentary work. Moving in the no-mans-land between real and imaginary, the photographs convey a strong message and the photographer’s intention. In fact, it is the photographer’s point of view that comes across in the images, rather than the sitters’. It is the photographer’s feelings about the one-child policy that clearly transpire in the photographs.Subjective, performative documentary at its best I would say. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions re. the feelings of the people photographed. The only conclusion we can come to is how the photographer feels about the one-child policy. And that’s precisely why I like it so much. No claims of objectivity in Two of Us. The photographer felt strongly about something and let us know in his own personal, artistic way.” Looking at these images for myself on the internet and in the gallery space, I can not help but feel this is something much more than a portrayal of the one-child policy rather it reflects on the inner self, playing with the idea of the “double” and self. This metaphysical aspect is the first reference I find to the work of John Donne whose poem is full of meaning and not easy to identify in any particular way.

Dewald’s explained the nature of his  “mixed feelings”; “I’ve come to the realization that I personally find work which creates and questions, invites and includes me in a conversation, much more interesting than something where I can find the answer (too easily), or even where no communication is elicited.”

I have mentioned Dewald’s views because it was he who alerted me to the exhibition as well as the fact that he is one of the most promising of OCA photographic students and more advanced along the course than I am. Following his post, I communicated with him about this exhibition; my text was “I would like to see this exhibition in Liverpool partly because I think one does need to see photography from around the world. It may not be the best example of Chinese photography but it is at least relevant.” The desire to see “Chinese photography” is perhaps a superficial reason for seeing this exhibition but it is not the only one – it is clearly accomplished work and apparently different to what one might expect to see in a UK gallery. In fact, some students do not see anything in the work by the Chinese photographers preferring that of the UK ones; this is perhaps a result of their cultural conditioning suggests Peter. Like Dewald, I also consider this body of work the strongest; I may not be aware  of the side effects of being a lonely child but this work is obviously about more than just that. One can so easily project one’s own emotions onto work like this and it is surely a mistake to read too much into any body of work.

At the beginning of this blog, I quoted from a review by Georgina Wright (a writer based in Liverpool) who describes what the exhibition is about. She concludes by saying, “Overall this exhibition unites the work of all six artists in a captivating and sequential manner, provoking both analysis and sheer visual delight.” I am still left wondering though about the cohesion between these different bodies of work – where does the John Donne poem come in? As Peter points out, the metaphysical poets were philosophical and produced meanings that are hard to identify; my own experience of them is that since my teenage years when I first came into contact with their verse, the words have been echoing inside me like Zen koans, their essential meaning apparently beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. For Peter, photographs are themselves metaphysical in their very nature by the way they construct and deconstruct; the fact that this exhibition does not seem to hang together is itself metaphysical. John Umney suggests that there are a lot of crossovers within the exhibition such as between the old and the new, between east and west and so on.

Peter goes on to talk about the state of art at the present time asking us what we think characterises the present day climate of change. I suggest a shifting attitude in our perception of death! For Peter, art is at a transition point and no one can see where it is going (could they ever?) in a world experiencing unconstrained growth and globalisation. In a post-modern world, there is no truth only truths. The discussion is not heated rather it draws us in and other students start to make comments.

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities

was this the image by David Jacques that offended the Chinese authorities !?

There is also a review by Denis Joe that is more extensive and reflective; he also interestingly mentions the fact that the Chinese authorities took exception to the piece by David Jacques. The work of David Jacques entitled Corpus Mercatorium is interesting perhaps because of it being banned by the Chinese authorities when the exhibition was shown in Shanghai. Was this just an authority trying to be seen to be doing something or was it reacting to satire that might be considered too outrageous for Chinese tastes or did perhaps the element of demonology evident in the work and admitted by the photographer play on the sensibilities of the Chinese who have quite a strong tradition of spirituality in spite of communism? On looking closely, one can see one of the little photo-montages in which characters that look like high ranking military personnel yet are in fact corporate heads are pictured; there is a Chinese face stuck onto the body of what appears to be a yak while a western military man rides the beast – Tibet is always a touchy subject with the Chinese but this domination by a westerner and the bovine status of a Chinaman can hardly have pleased the Chinese authorities. It is only after reading Denis Joe’s review that I come to understand that the faces in this work are actually of the CEOs of international companies; this knowledge helps to further understand the context of the work.

Is it preferable to look at the photographs in an exhibition before one researches them or vice the versa? No direct answer to this! I question the practice of reading reviews of an exhibition before actually visiting it; this practice can help one get more out of one’s visit since one is prepared yet it may also prejudice one’s view as other people’s ideas crowd in upon one’s own. My question is the extent to which this exhibition covers the brief of John Donne’s poem. Did the entrants make work in response to John Donne or was his poem used as a way to consider the work on show? Peter does not consider this very important – it is the show that matters on it’s own merits rather than the way it responds to a particular brief.

The important point is that when looking at photographs in a gallery, is one needs to be aware of the environment they are in – the way they have been hung may be of interest (David Penny’s wooden frames and coloured flexiglass are of interest and an important aspect of his work which he sees as a blending of artistic disciplines) while the positioning of the photographs in the gallery space might be making a point. John Umney, OCASA secretary, admits to perhaps being a little cynical when he says that he thinks the prettiest photos have been hung where there is the most light; however, I am not sure this is true since some of the ugliest pictures, the demonological photo-montages of David Jacques, are in one of the brightest parts of the gallery – there is not much evidence of any sequencing of the work but decisions might have been made in regard to light reflecting possibly refracting off some of the works. The four images by David Penny for instance are covered in perspex.

Talking about photography

Talking about photography

One worthwhile aspect of OCA study days is that one gets to meet the tutors and chat with them, not about the weather but photography in general. Peter asks a question in his inimitable way … does one need to understand more than one sees in a photograph? Does one need to understand it? Perhaps confusion might be the artist’s intention! Furthermore, different people see different meanings.

John Umney is very informative on Shanghai which he describes as an output of western civilisation rather than a Chinese city. It was around here that the Opium Wars took place. He describes it as “Manhattan on steroids!”

Sometimes photos reveal, sometimes they obscure. They may not be want to convey any particular meaning (ambiguity is a recognised trait of the photograph) and what may be of interest is references contained within the image. Peter considers the exhibition to be of fine art that happens to use photography; he clearly thinks this is true of a lot of art photography exhibitions.

After seeing Lecture Upon a Shadow and having a coffee break with discussion, we went to see an archive exhibition upstairs of landscape photographs by Edward Chambre-Hardman.

Common Sense by Martin Parr

Martin Parr has said of his photobook, Common Sense, that it was was one of his finer achievements that had been somewhat overlooked. As an exhibition, it had been shown worldwide simultaneously at a number of venues.

As a book, it is striking in it’s absence of text. There is no introduction or even the usual publishing notes (these are found on the back cover) merely a photograph which appears to be a close up of some kind of sound equipment containing knobs, one of which says volume and the other tempo; this image replaces what might have been a list of chapters headings and invites us to enjoy the book as a sensory experience.

Looking through the pages of images (each photograph is a close-up and occupies its’ page without any border) one may feel overwhelmed by the banality of the image to the point of nausea. However, if one does continue looking through the pages one might find oneself laughing at the ludicrousness of it all.

If one looks through the book more than once and continues to look at it, one might start to see just how well it is constructed and become aware of the way it has been put together. The images are of commonplace objects (as suggested by the title) and there is the use of diptychs, each double paged spread is composed of one photograph playing off against another; this helps to create a dialogue so that the book starts to speak to one through the imagery.

There are some memorable images in this book such as a cup of tea on a red chequered table cloth, a number of images of painted cakes often containing faces, while the cover shows a map of the world on a metal globe in which a rusty slot can be seen for accepting coins; this idea of the planet as some giant money box is one of the stronger images yet similar puns can be read in the rest of the book.

“Common Sense” is a book that can be looked at and looked at again; in fact, it is a book that can be read almost like a book of poetry although it may not inspire one in the way poetry does.

Would it be presumptous to describe this book as a post-modernist book and Parr as a post-modern photographer?


Technofetishism is a term used to describe an obsessive interest with the technical side of photography. In the early days of photography there was a great deal of concern over technique which is understandable since the medium was more reliant on the technical ability of photographers. These days, photography has become more aestheticised with much thought centring around different ways of understanding the photography.

However, one can not completely ignore the technical side of photography which still progresses, the advent of digital being an advance that has revolutionised photography. Cameras are much more complex than before and to be used properly they need to be examined.

The point is that the camera does not take the photograph alone, it needs the photographer to handle it and the photographer needs not only to know which button to push but also which direction to point the camera in. It may sound a rather a basic operation and it is yet to make photographs that convey something rather than merely represent what happens to be in front of the camera.

Class 2

For the second class of Developing Your Photographic Eye, we blue-tacked our work to the walls of the room and then looked at each other’s work with Claudia leading the discussion. Many of the photographs were taken on mobile phones and although interesting reflections of those who made them did not reveal true photographic quality. I like to see a photograph that has been well printed rather than gouged out of some machine like a photocopier.

In the end, I decided to show my supermarket photos although I was tempted by the car wash images as well as the making porridge photos. The supermarket photos showed a certain consistency as a group! The car wash photos were a bit repetitive while the porridge sequence missed the bowl of porridge which had been taken but not printed!

A lot of the images shown by others were quite interesting in a number of ways. There was an interesting array of rain drops forming a design on what appeared to be a car bonnet but was in fact a man hole photographed under eerie light, the lights of a car shining animal like through a metal grill, a blue sky with a touch of yellow sunrise beyond a silhouette of houses …

The initial comment on my photos was that they were enjoyable and people seemed to respond positively to them though one woman’s remark that they looked like images from an instructional manual on how to use the supermarket made me question their value. Yes, perhaps they could fit into that category yet they were also my experience of shopping there. It may not have been meant as a criticism but it did hurt a little – perhaps I might have made more imaginative images such as close-ups of food and other items yet I wanted to communicate something recognisable to others.

The brief had stressed the need to adopt a different viewpoint and I had done this by crouching so that I was not looking down on the scenes I captured.

Fluorescent setting at night

I stumbled upon this by chance; using the fluorescent setting on one camera’s colour controls at dusk (or dawn) to create a blue sky with a yellow foreground, a good colour contrast (Vermeer used blue and yellow as did many other artists)

The photograph speaks for itself. The quality is not great owing to it being taken through a car window and yet it conveys the atmosphere of the scene.

Going to the supermarket

Another routine has just presented itself to me that of going to the supermarket. Possible photos …

shopping list
outside of supermarket/ entrance
picking up a trolley
reaching for items
other individual shots

While going to the supermarket, I can visit the car wash; this might work well at dusk from the outside but if photographing from the inside then daylight would be better.

Assignment 1

We are asked to make 5 photographs of a particular routine.

Getting up in the morning and going to work is an obvious one but there are others.

I am considering a series of photographs about having my car washed by the car washing machine at the local garage; this is something that Claudia did for awhile owing to the interesting images that could be made of the process.

Other possible routines include …

making porridge

getting breakfast

having a bath

… these are likely to need some planning! Not so easy to photograph something one is doing. One might put the camera on a tripod or hold it with a free hand.

Working close-up seems relevant; this will probably mean using a wide angle lens.