Barthes on photography as art

The final chapter of Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” starts by stating …

Society is concerned to tame the Photograph.”

Such a statement sounds forthright. Barthes continues by saying that the first way society tries to tame photography is by “making photography into an art, for no art is mad.”

It seems that almost everyone is trying to laud photography as an art and make it acceptable as such yet Barthes is someone who does not go along with this train of thought; he is an original thinker.

Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

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Tom Hunter, photographer, talking to OCA graduate students

Tom Hunter is a photographer I have been aware of since seeing his seeing his photograph “Woman Reading a Possession order” which is an overt reference to a painting by Vermeer, part of the Dutch School. The chance to hear him talking seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so early one morning, I left at dawn to catch a train to London. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Bootstrap Gallery, a 3 month old project a short walk away from Dalston Overground station.

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The converted building where the workshop was held

The OCA crowd were already in evidence and Sharon Boothroyd, a tutor from the OCA let me in through the security doors. I needed to visit the Gents and following a sign went up to the top of the building in search of one. At the top was a door which lead onto a landscaped garden rooftop; from another building nearby I heard the whistle of a Mynah bird. This was obviously a wrong turning but it was an interesting spectacle.

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the rooftop of the building in which the exhibition was held

Sharon, OCA tutor for the day, has written the following on her Photoparley blog about Tom Hunter …

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Not long after I found myself in a studio waiting for Tom Hunter to appear. There were a couple of dozen of OCA students. When Tom Hunter started his talk, he asked if we were “A” level students and it was left for me to pipe up, “No, undergraduates!” though it was difficult to notice many if any people under 40. Three cheers for adult education!

Tom started by saying that as a child, his father had a darkroom in the garden, and it was here he experienced the magic moment of seeing a photograph he had taken of his sister materialise before his eyes. It was however not until he was 23 that he picked up a camera and start taking photographs again. Initially, he took pictures of people coming to his stall in a part of Hackney where he lived; usually, markets are not easy to make photographs in but since he was sitting and snapping people who were coming to him, it worked well and encouraged him to do a course at LCP (London College of Printing).

As he photographed his surroundings, he became interested in local issues at a time when Hackney was a very different place to the one it is now; he found it a warm and welcoming place, a vibrant community. It was considered to be almost a ghetto at the time (with ruins of Second World War bombing) yet for Tom it was a “living” place with a recognisable community even if many people were living in squats. He made a model of his house into which he inserted 5by4 transparency photographs and this was appreciated not just by friends but officially and the piece now belongs to The Museum of London. The area has experienced massive regeneration since those days of the late 80’s and a house that was once offered by the council for £5000 recently went for £2.4 million; Tom does not consider himself as a successful businessman since he might have cashed in on this!

The acceptance of his work lead him to make the career decision to be an artist and he began to photograph his friends and neighbours many of whom were considered at the time to be anti-social elements of society, dispossessed people.

His studies brought him into contact with such work as Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother’, a Madonna and Child image, that speaks of the poverty that existed in the U.S. during the Depression era of the 1930’s. He also came across artists such as Vermeer of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. At that time, Holland was defending itself from the Spanish and so while the map in one Vermeer painting might appear an interesting but tame reference, at the time such maps were illegal owing to the Spanish influence which claimed Holland as it’s own so this image was actually provocative. Yet what inspired Tom about Vermeer was the way he elevated the status of common and ordinary people. He has been doing the same thing through his own work. A work by Vermeer called The Art of Painting, has been transformed by Tom into a contemporary “The Art of Squatting”.

Another of his recreations has been of John Everett Millias’ “Ophelia” (1852) which is apparently the most popular art print in the UK. His own photograph is made in similar circumstances in Hackney – his Ophelia is a prone figure lying in the water surrounded by weeds while an industrial landscape looms in the background.

Some photographs he made of friends on old industrial estates ended up being exhibited by the MOMA in New York! Mimicking fine art paintings often provides inspiration for this kind of work.

Thomas Hardy has been a source of inspiration and fascination. Hardy’s heart wrenching stories of life in Dorset, the county where he grew up, encouraged him to do as Hardy did and collect local real-life stories from local newspapers. From these he constructed photographs. Tom is quite open about staging photographs in which he seeks to embody the issues of the day. He wants to seduce his audience and change people’s perceptions.

He has faced opposition from gallery owners who find his imaging too real, grotesque even and that it is morally wrong to make beautiful works of art out of a tragedy. Tom points out that they are no worse that many of the scenes portrayed in classic works of art.

One of body work came about when he visited Dublin in Ireland and is based on some lines of Ulysses by James Joyce; he photographed old Victorian bathing stations that were dotted around Dublin Bay. For this he used a specially fashioned 5by4 pinhole camera.

Another of his projects is of places of worship in East London and documents the different kinds of faith that exist in the area.

FIne Art works often help to give a narrative.

Recent work includes making a film of his locality from old people’s stories and memories of the area.

After he has finished speaking, we have a chance to put questions to Tom and I am the first to jump in with a question that concerns me about his work and which is partly provoked by his reference to fine art (often not obvious to the viewer) in a medium that often seeks to go beyond the limitations of the past; he sounds me out almost immediately and makes me aware of the kind of the preconceptions I have started to build up around photography. The following is from an interview with Katy Barron on Photomonitor …

For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.

Tom started to reference fine art by happenstance rather than intentionally. He was photographing inside using a large format camera which resulted in long exposures, all of which resulted in softer images and light that were reminiscent of the Dutch School paintings. He considers photography a bit disingenuous in the way it claims to be divorced from art when in fact everything from cave painting to sculpture and painting is part of it’s DNA.

Another point he makes is that if an artist such as Caravaggio was at work today, he would not be painting but more likely to be doing something like video.

Tom is a picture maker. He does not have great technical virtuosity and prefers simple equipment such as a pinhole camera. He thinks that digital photography has robbed photography of much of it’s innocence.

He has to work hard to hold down his job in photography. He finds himself concerned about whether new work will actually be accepted.

Coming from a later generation of photographers than Martin Parr, Tom has rebelled against what he considers to be “smash and grab” photography; he takes his time, communicates with his subjects. He does not answer to the “in your face” photographer stereotype or the techie. Like Art, photography needs to develop from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to communicate with people if one wants to gain access to places. Need to be direct, straightforward and honest, able to explain oneself and what one is doing. When he gets refused, he sees it as an invitation to a discussion.

Tom Hunter's photographs on show

Tom Hunter’s photographs on show

He wants to involve people, the whole of society, in a debate in issues that are of importance. This has lead to him being dismissed as political (by Saatchi for instance who did however later take him on) as a kind of Billy Bragg of photography.

In fact, he is searching for a voice through photography.

Where many see ugliness, he sees beauty; he is attracted to beauty like the PreRaphaelites were but does not think it has conform to certain conditions.

The relationship between photography and reality fascinates him. As he says in an interview on Photoparley …

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

After the talk, we went to a cafe next door and chatted awhile. It takes time though for something like this to sink in and it was later in the day that I wrote it up in the cafe of The Photographers Gallery.

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

OThe OCA blog of the event by Sharon is here while the pre-event blog is here

Other students blogs are by Shelley Holland John Umney

Laura Letinsky @ The Photographer’s Gallery


Robert Enoch talks to an OCA group about the Laura Letinsky exhibition

“The series title Ill Form and Void Full continues Letinsky’s interest in playing with representations of space and time, but departs from the narrative potential of the still life. It focuses on the relation between positive and negative space, and a more muted depiction of a subject where two and three dimensional forms from different sources co-exist uneasily.” From The Photographer’s Gallery website

While looking at the photographs of Laura Letinsky which were on show at the Photographer’s Gallery, Robert Enoch suggested it would help to consider the meaning of the objects within the photographs, the way they have been juxtaposed and the overall effect this creates. Letinsky’s work can be considered still life; it is conceptual and experimental with a very meticulous approach. Not about narrative rather about dimensionality, different representations that question the nature of photography. It plays with time and space.

Listening to Robert, I am certainly more able to appreciate photography that could be dismissed because it does not conform to ideas of what a photograph should be. This is particularly true in relation to spatial dimension which in these works of Letinsky is not as three dimensional as one might expect. The use of collage (small cut photographs included in the main photograph) is one example of the way she achieves this effect but it is emphasised by symmetry and a short plane of focus that suggests the use of a large format camera which tends to have a small depth of field and is able to distort perspective. One starts to see shapes rather than objects!

The picturing of both fresh and rotting food introduces the notion of time passing.

One is aware of a layered effect in Letinsky’s images owing to different planes of focus. There is a lot of light (the pictures contain a lot of off-white) while the images overall have a somewhat pale glow to them.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky's work in-depth.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, explains Letinsky’s work in-depth.

One photograph has a bent paper cup at the centre and I can not help but recall rather literally the “punctum” of Roland Barthes; it forms a focal point that draws the eye while the background is very much “schema” (another Barthes reference) which is the warp and woof of the image.

Letinsky clearly adopts the approach of an artist. What is real and what is unreal in these images? Letinsky makes us question the nature of photographic reality. Although the images are largely monotone there is also an exquisite sense of colour.

The objects are life size. They are carefully placed even though they may appear to be at random.

Amusingly, someone thinks that one of the photos has been damaged as he notices some dirty fluid drops on the paper; it does look very realistic but one sees them on another and realises that they are part of the photo and not a result of English rain! Such is the realism of Letinsky’s abstractions which draw one into their realm!

Downstairs in the bookshop, I come across a book of Letinsky’s photographs. They are interesting still life images but the body of work on show upstairs is quite different as a result of it’s “unfocused” appearance.

In a nearby cafe, we talk on into the late afternoon. I have not done much still life preferring instead to see the world outside and try to capture it’s fleeting nature. Robert talks about the constant experimentation involved in this genre, the need to see, to deconstruct – the placing of objects within the frame is not a random process as one considers not just the placement of an object but the way it juxtaposes with others.

One might start a still life by putting a glass down on a table and notice any shadows, employ backdrops and then other objects such as a knife, a fork, a spoon etc

I recall a phrase from William Blake ..

To see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour!

One can see a video of Letinsky … here!

Tutor Robert Enoch reads this blog and comments … “Really good points you’ve made here.  And remember those ‘drips’: questioning the picture surface?  Were they on the (very matte) print or in the photo? Just like the representations of fruit and the real fruit pieces in the photos, there is a questioning about our relation to reality.”

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.

Suburbia by Bill Owens

A book dropped through the letter box today. An updated version of a 1970’s photographic classic, Suburbia by Bill Owens.

At first glance, it seems a rather cynical view of America emerging after the war. Of course, in western philosophy, cynicism is considered to be a kind of wisdom but when one is using the images of unsuspecting people to make the statement, I am not sure this is so. There is an obvious similarity to the work of Martin Parr who came after Owens and did something similar in the UK by parodying the up and coming classes.

One needs to look a little further though to see what this book is really about and the introductory essay by David Halberstam helps set the context of a post-war America that was experiencing a housing boom. Whatever one might make of the images here, they do stand out as a record of a particular time in the social history of the USA and are unique in that case; the attempt to picture extraordinary events with the camera can lead one to overlook the ordinary that won’t be ordinary for long. Many of Owen’s images are dated but still readable; they have moved on beyond their production dates and now speak of history.

However, the theme of the book which is domesticity and all that comes with it is not of course dated and so the subject of the book keeps its relevance. Halberstam is right it seems when he talks of the photographers “empathy” with his subjects; however much the viewer might find the subject distasteful, it is something that many people were happy if not proud to be part of and something that others are experiencing today in other parts of the world.

Bill Owens did not act condescendingly to his subjects as other critics did towards the members of this new movement, he responded with respect and captured an historical era. This is not a view shared by some members of the press such as The New York Times that said “What we have here is a bourgeois hog heaven”, a view that appears on the back of the book.

An interesting addition to the revised book is a small red “stick on” star that one sees on both front and back covers; this is the kind of item one might expect to see in a supermarket advertising a product, a far cry from this book’s message.

Open College of the Arts week-end seminar at Leeds

If it apprehension I feel about this week-end, it is because it could turn out to be rather academic if not institutional rather than focusing on photography which is surely what we, about 20 students and a small group of tutors, are coming for. The underlying theme may be art rather than photography; of course, one can assume that photography is an art form and question whether there is a difference yet as Barthes writes at the very end of Camera Lucida, art threatens to undermine photography.

The guest speaker is Mishka Henner. He works largely by appropriating the work of others rather than making his own images. Looking at his website is not inspiring yet perhaps his talk might be. Landscape views from Google Earth with photographs of alluring women inserted is an interesting combination of subject matter. Les Americains is a book based on Frank’s The Americans; the original images have been largely erased. What is this new version about? I do not wish to dismiss it but am unable to see what has lead Henner to make this work. Perhaps I shall find out at the conference.

Another work by Henner, Photography Is, is a collection of over 3,000 quotes about photography. Many of these do not seem very insightful and jumbled together in a somewhat meaningless manner; Henner is apparently making some kind of comment if not on the incessant questioning about photography certainly the assumptions that people have about the medium. What I do not like about this book of which I have read a fair amount is that it seems to be suggesting that nothing worthwhile has been written or that what has been written is largely nonsense. For many it seems, Barthes is boring yet for some, he is not so much academic rather poetic.

Mishka Henner is described as an artist; I wonder therefore why he has been chosen as the guest speaker at a photographic seminar. The answer seems to be because there is this assumption that photography is art. Henner seems to be a very clever man; I wonder if I will be able to understand him!

Winning Mentality” is easier to understand. In this 2010 book, prefaced by a quote from Van Gogh, “Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.”, this book shows lots of winners with the same face imposed upon each photograph. Where is the creativity here? The photographs are all appropriated yet well reproduced. Perhaps art is something we don’t need to create; it is already there. A comment about the book is that it “subverts the conventional gestures expected of winners and hints at a deeper malaise in the culture itself.”

I have emailed the other attendees to say I expect to be photographing during the event and will share photos if they want. Jesse Alexander does not want me to do it during the lectures as this would distract people while at the same time appreciating the value of such work! One student also replies to say she does not want photography during the “sessions”. I wonder if there is any point to making photographs since the social occasion is not what it is about. Perhaps a few photographs of the “sessions” might be allowed as long as I do not go on for too long. Perhaps now is the time to purchase a camera without a mirror as this allows almost silent operation but the Canon M is software based in operation rather than physical with knobs so I am not keen to purchase one; I shall stick with my compact.

outside the New Ellington Hotel, Leeds

The hotel have not answered my email about car parking! I get the feeling that it is going to be one of those places where image is more important than actuality as with many business enterprises. It takes two phone calls before the hotel call back to let me know about car parking. On arrival, I am directed towards the hotel car park; it is £14 per night but a secure one! There is some problem with one of the knobs in the bathroom – yet this is fixed.

First meeting with Eileen, Gilly and a Scottish sounding woman whom I have met before. What about the new modules that are being rewritten – are they not a little condescending !? OCA banter begins. Over dinner, I sit opposite “Shaun from Munich” who is on his second Level 2 module; he works for Hewlett Packard. Not surprisingly, he has been influenced by German photographers from the Becher school such as Gurksy and Struth. His work is worth looking at if only because it is one I might be doing; the photographs have been made in Germany and Shaun has been using Canon TSE lenses.

The enthusiatic effort of many tutors is mentioned; they are not paid a lot but they still work hard for us. It seems my role as “pet paparazzi” is more or less established and I make a few images with a compact, an attempt to be more discrete although there are times I like to be a little upfront. In fact, I do not do a lot of photography during the week-end but make a number of key photos and there have been requests fro students to use them on their blogs as well for more formal usage such as with OCASA.

Informal Group Photograph of OCA students at the beginnng of the week-end

The first session is about Open College of the Arts photographic courses and what to expect from them. Before this gets going, there are introductions, something I had suggested which at first was resisted yet Jesse Alexander was one tutor who was up for it. everyone stood up and briefly introduced themselves; standing before the assembled group of 20 students including myself, I made the above photograph and introduced myself as “a carer” and a “photographer” attempting to juggle the two; I might have said more, something about myself being a sannyasin and a Swami, but doubted anyone would be interested.

The two tutors then proceeded to give an overview of what was expected from OCA students; Peter Haveland introduced himself as head of the curricula, a title that seems to mean nothing, and a fine artist while Jesse Alexander is a working photographer who also teaches. Peter Haveland observes that all the cameras are in the hands of the students and that this is a fact worth reflecting upon; in fact, this is not entirely true as Mark Lomas is photographing from the back of the room on behalf of the OCA of whom he is a staff member. I wonder what Peter was hinting at.

Some students complain later that the week-end has not given them much to go on in regard to progressing to Levels 2 and 3; it seems to me that quite a bit of information is given out but many are still at Level 1 and not ready to progress yet having at least one more Level 1 module to do. Level 1 is more about acquiring basic knowledge, maintaining good habits, developing technical ability; this may be boring although I have not found it to be so. Exploring concepts such as The Bauhaus Contrasts is quite fascinating and exemplary of what made me want to do a degree in photography; others apparently do not see it this way yet for me, learning is about understanding the knowledge one acquires rather than merely the pursuit of knowledge.

Level 2 is about engaging with one’s work critically, putting it into context. The portfolio review later does this for me very well. Feedback from assessments can contradict what the tutor might have said and be hard to understand as I have experienced over the suggestion that I need to be more innovative although what innovation might mean in photography escapes me and no tutor can define it for me either. The assessment might not reflect expectations that are based on tutor’s comments. At Level 2, there is more engagement with the tutor. One needs to engage more with the local art community. Failure is to be welcomed since it is an important part of the learning process.

OCA tutor Peter Haveland

During the following coffee break, I chat with Peter Haveland who, as usual, has something of value to say. We discuss “knowing what one knows”, the acquisition of more books than one can store and the European fascination with Japanese art including photography. For a lot of people, this week-end is going to be about gaining encouragement towards further study; as Yiann, a student, says “I have lost my Mojo and I want my Mojo back!” I feel like popping out to the car to get my guitar and play her the “Mojo boogie” but am not sure I know very much of it. Inspiration can come from radio, films and reading.

Mishka Henner

I have already written a bit about Mishka Henner. Hearing him talk gave one a greater insight into his work which Eileen Rafferty, one of the organisers of the week-end event, described as “inspirational, challenging and thoughtful”. I managed to make a few grab shots of Mishka before being asked not to photograph; it seems that Mishka is going through a transitory period and does not want to go down on record as stating a particular point of view at present. Can not see how this would be effected by a few still photographs but he was not to know that I was not doing video. However, the request did seem a bit incongruous in the light of what Mishka does, the lifting of photographs from Google Earth rather than the making of them. Of course, the criticism he receives for this and the accompanying threats only encourage one to like his work which is brilliantly conceived and executed. Laudits have come from photographers such as Jim Goldberg and Martin Parr which is encouraging yet has done little if anything to promote sales of his books. Conceptual art is not to everyone’s taste and often people miss the point.

To view Mishka Henner’s work, one can view a lot at his website and it is really only for me to make certain points to avoid the reader missing the essence of these works. Work he discussed included his “Photography is” which is certainly worth a look at if you happen to be interested in what people are or have written about photography, a medium that seems to avoid definition. This book is certainly a fascinating resource albeit a rather muddled, incomprehensible one; a review by Joachim Schmid discusses the book in greater detail.

51 U.S. Military Outposts coincided with the Wikileaks revelations and further enlarges upon US military presence around the world. As elsewhere, Mishka has appropriated images from Google Earth and enhanced them to produce an aesthetic record that is both visually appealing and informative as people were largely unaware of these military institutions existing in the countries cited.

Dutch Landcapes is a similar work but centred on Holland which has a carefully controlled landscape since much would disappear under the sea if it was not. Here, very obvious filters have been stuck over sensitive areas which draws attention to the sites rather than obscuring them; these filters have since disappeared.

The question that Mishka’s work raises is one of authorship even ownership; these are questions that have been around for sometime as can be evidenced in the writing of Roland Barthes. Google Earth Pro does make high resolution photographs possible and it is these that Mishka has used to illustrate his work. However, one does wonder at what Mishka is doing since there are restrictions imposed by Google; presumably Mishka has got the necessary permission but he did not discuss this.

No Man’s Land is Google Earth photos made at places where sex workers were or are known to operate; amazingly the Google Earth car has captured the sex workers along with the landscapes. There were enough images to do a second book. There is a certain irony here for though “the pleasure of the gaze” is often discussed in this case the gaze is a purely mechanical one.

While projects can be inspiring, they do take up a lot of energy and considerable time especially when his books sell in small quantities and he makes no money in spite of a lot of interest in his work. He has received death threats and a lot of irrational criticism. There are a lot of issues surrounding copyright with Google since they use one’s images with any copyright being granted. His new work, Feedback Loupe, contains work that deals with some of the vitriolic feedback he has received!

Another book that Mishka has done is called Astronomical which is a clever scaled map of the solar system.

Another book, Less Americains, is a skinned down copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans; this is quite an interesting analysis of the book yet there is also a satirical edge as with 50 years since the book was first published, there has been a lot of attention paid to this book with publications such as Looking in: Robert’ Frank’s “The Americans” This work has received an apoplectic response from photographers with some treating him as if he has urinated on the bible such being the status of The Americans by Robert Frank. I can’t help but think Henners’ book provides an insight into the original book but certainly I am in the minority here.

There has been serious consideration of Mishka Henners’ work by writers such as Sean O’Hagan.

The afternoon talk is by OCA tutor, Jesse Alexander, on the subject of Photobooks. The book has a certain uniqueness, it is almost a sacred object. One can mention various things about photobooks …

_ presence or authority
_ a narrative; beginning, middle and end
_ good way to juxtapose photographs (and text if necessary)
_ an intimate experience

There are different kinds of photobooks …

_ monographs (Jesse cites Michael Bodiam’s book on a deserted London department store) Often these are not intended for wide scale publication.
_ exhibition catalogues (Oil by Burtynsky)
_ surveys (Susan Bright – Art Photography Now)

There are also books that are full of photographs but are not really photobooks; this might include my bird books or something more like an encyclopaedia with lots of photographs in to illustrate passages.

Jesse shows us some of the bird books he has done. He works with a professional book binder in Bristol called Bristol Bound to whom he presents prints which, after some discussion, are then bound. Martin Parr has worked with these publishers.

Jesse shows us some of the books he has done. Book designing does require skills and so they are best not used at Level 1 and Level 2 since they might detract from the portfolio. Photobooks are more than just a colllection of photos – they involve highly complex editing skills.

Photobooks do not conform to any particular format (companies like Blurb might give this impression) and they can take many different forms – Auto-portrait by Martin Parr is an example being a small, post card sized book with a soft cover. Photobooks can sometimes be published in collaboration with galleries such as Ffotogallery in Cardiff.

When considering a photobook, one might think of the following …
_ genesis of book
_ the design, typeface, paper used, quality of printing etc
_ how does the book present itself
_ is it self-explanatory?
_ additional material; does it contribute positively?
_ narrative of the book if there is one.

We look at a number of photobooks in small groups and discuss them in detail; some students would have liked more time for this.

I find myself wondering at the end of the day as to what creative photography might be – not sure that conceptual photography is really creative in spite of being ingenious.

Photographs contain a sense of nothingness; there is often no clear meaning or message (“a message without a code” as Barthes has written) other than the image itself.

skylight in the bar at The New Ellington Hotel

My closing thoughts at the end of the first day seem taken up by the first talk on the second day which is given by Peter Haveland. However, this is extremely complex and my notes, such as they are, rather too disjointed to write up. Peter does recommend a text “The Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes about the way we extract meaning from photographs as well as other art forms. A subtitle for this talk was “Neither Levi-Strauss nor Levi-Strauss”, the reference being to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss rather than the make of jeans although jeans also did feature in the talk. I am not going to dwell too long on this talk partly because of the paucity of my notes but also because I question the relevance of semiotics to the understanding of the photograph, a questioning shared by others as the discussion in Photography Theory clearly reveals. I am however reading “The Rhetoric of the Image” in an attempt to better understand the subject! Other Barthes work one might consider is Mythologies and the Death of the Author

Structuralism is about the way we see things. Saussure was a major exponent with his dyadic, two part model, which considered both the “signifier” and the “signified”, the form of the sign and the concept it represents; this can be referred to as “signification”.

Peter analyses a photograph of a group of men wearing jeans. He also mentions the semiotician C.S.Pierce

Other references given are Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

A book on Visual Culture by Howells and Negreiros is also advised.

The next talk is by Jesse Alexander and about developing a major project. He talks about how he came to do his M.A. being inspired by the photographer Thomas Demand and information in the news about underground bunkers. He drew inspiration from a writer called Rosalind Williams who has written about such human imaginings. Another source of literary inspiration was Robert Ryan

Jesse’s portfolio consisted of photographs made in dark places such as underground where exposure in one case was a week long !! He used large format quite a bit as technically, digital DSLRs were not up to the job. He networked with people who aware of dark places that might be photographed.

After a coffee break, we had a talk from Peter Rudge, a visiting speaker from duckrabbit He talked about making photo-films which make great use of still photographs, converting them into a film-like sequence. The emphasis is on digital story telling.

The symbol of Duckrabbit is interesting because it could be either a duck or a rabbit – my first impression was of a duck but when prompted, the rabbit also came into view. This symbol was made more widely known by the philosopher Wittgenstein who commented on it. Duckrabbit want to reach people which is encouraging since OCA “artists” seem to be the kind of people who would put down a photographer like Martin Parr because he is successful ad makes money; real artists don’t care about money one is told. This is of course a Marxist view operating in a capitalist environment.

There is an expanding market for digital video but it does not really interest me as a still photographer though I can see that a video of one’s own work might be good. Peter talks quite a bit about the use of still photographs which he sees as representative of the way the mind works. There is a need though for a strong sense of narrative. In a film, every second counts. One needs to start with an opening that is interesting as well as an interesting title. Short, straight introduction to the story, not deviating from the theme – there is no need for a formal introduction.

portfolio review with Peter Haveleand

The week-end finishes with portfolio reviews. We are given guidelines for presenting our work at the OCA …
_ not glossy prints or matt: best is something between the two e.g. Pearlt
_ protective sleeves whether just plastic or archival
_ need for margins around print (A4+ on A3 about right) but not digital frames
_ framing: no need to make the image fir the paper
_ prints often need to be presented in a particular order i.e. sequenced
_ theme to work
_ photos can fit together in regard to their design
_ for assessment, one can show the way one has thought about the work
_ print quality needs to be good; a reliable street store can suffice
_ might have to leave a choice photo out because it does not fit in with the others
_ black and white work needs to be well printed with a good range of tones!
_ might have to cater for the ego’s of those assessing one’s work
_ if one does go beyond established boundaries, one needs to explain
_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation
_ need to edit work possibly ruthlessly
_ it can be comforting to the viewer of an abstract image if they know something about it
_ chocolate box images !? need to go beyond them
_ dealing with matters that artists have dealt with
_ low-contrast, dark images OK as set but not individually
_ sequencing can bring a collection of images with no apparent meaning into something with definite content
_ visual consistency within portfolio

Eventually, the group attention is turned towards the portfolio of images I have brought along;

Robert and David Crow gardening outside Ford House

The feedback I get from my work is different from most of what I have had before perhaps because it is largely in terms of visual culture. Rather than direct comment on my work perhaps because it is proficient enough in photographic terms. It is the use of saturated colour and choclately boxey look presumably that leads to mention of Martin Parr and <a href=”_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation” target=”_blank”>Peter Dench although my sense of composition does owe quite a bit to Martin Parr. The subject of my images is not chocolate-boxey; the images are very ordinary but there is something beyond the banality. Although they look like home snaps they are much better composed. Images of domesticity and family. A bok is mentioned, Family Snaps by Jo Spence and Pat Holland.

Tessa with her dog Jesse

Although the images might appear banal they are not in fact banal.(One student who does black and white work insists that the images are 90% banal apparently unable to take in what the tutor is saying) I am given encouragement to do a book or make an exhibition by expanding on the number of people and place photos; this is possible but not really the way I think my OCA assignment needs to go. Juxtaposition of style and content is another comment.

The Fox family at The Bungalow

The week-end is finally over. I am not in a hurry to leave but don’t want to reach my next destination too late. Many have left by the time I drive off saying goodbye to the few remaining students. My feelings are mixed about the week-end. My apprehensions about the week-end were not really mistaken but I did not let them get the better of me. I enjoyed some socialising and meeting one or two people such as Penny Watson and Rob with whom I had come into contact via the forums; new student Tim whom I had met in Manchester and Stan, the OCASA chief. I could mention others of course but these are the ones that spring to mind at present.

The week-end has perhaps been a good introduction to Level 2 but it has also made me think about the visual culture bias of the OCA photography course in which photography seems almost compromised.

Contemporary Japanese Photographic Books (display at The Photographer’s Gallery)

view of Ramillies Street and The Photographers Gallery

Contemporary Japanese Photography Books

My rather vague impression of Japanese photography is of the gritty realism of the snapshot mode, of a subversive approach rather than a traditional one which in Japan has produced much  in the way of fine art, Zen temples being an obvious example. An exponent of this photographic approach can be seen in the writing of Ken Domon who exerted considerable influence over post-war photography in Japan. He advocated the “absolutely unstaged snapshot” which he considered has “a fundamental historical and societal value.” This was accepted as a genre as is landscape, portraiture or still life; a realist approach that challenged the more conservative one. Of course, the upstaged snapshot also embraces these other genres. During the 1950s Domon proposed such views in which there is “a direct connection between the camera and the subject”.

Before the war, the Japanese had made contact with the Bauhaus and Ihei Kimura was known for “snapshot spontaneity.” However, modernist associations were to be dropped and as Shomei Tomatsu put it, “I release the shutter in Tokyo or in the provinces for my benefit only, not for someone or something else.”

Another photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki, writes in his text “Photographic Discourse as Strip Show” that to the photographer, “… you must plainly lay yourself bare. That is your duty to the subject. But even without that intention, the person who takes the photograph is exposed.”

The photo book in Japan has been very important in the development of photography because, until more recently, there have not been other outlets for serious photography. Personally, I find the photo book a stimulating form of expression and an inviting means of outputting my work. Photographs while gaining support from words can so easily be swamped by them.

The Wolfson Gallery during the Japanese photobook exhibition

At the Wolfson Gallery, on the second floor of The Photographer’s Gallery in London, there is an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photo books with perhaps as many as 100 placed around the room for one to peruse; one is asked to put on a pair of white gloves to do so, these being supplied by the gallery.

The first book I pick up is called “Dance” and is by Seiji Shibuya.

There is a book about Mount Fuji by Ishikawa; it is in bright colour with a considerable amount of Japanese text. Visually, the view of the place is highly subjective and includes photographs of wood cuts of the mountain. Another, larger format book by Ishikawa is called The Void; there is a verbal statement “One forest is all forests!” which refers to the interconnectedness of all things, the photographer having studied with a local shaman. The photographs are from the northern island of New Zealand being mostly of forest and often the presence of water. At the end of the book, there are a couple of pages of text written by Ito, a Japanese professor of art, who attempts to explain what the book is about, writing “the apparatus of visual perception – the photograph – does not fully capture the presence … must limit itself to directing people’s attention towards the power’s source.” 

looking at photographic books – white gloves supplied

Another book is called “Children of the Rainbow” and is by Juriji Takasago; this is a series of nature photographs in colour. Most feature animals but there are some good landscapes. 

Taigan by Dodo Arati is a visual account of off-beat travels through Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The photographs are in colour and have titles; one can find out more about what is happening in the images from information given at the back of the book.

Another photographer is Murakoshi Toshiya;

Here the photographer is using small prints about 6 by 8 ins in black and white with no words. The title of the book “Until and unless” is not easy to deifier but there is a quality of stillness within the photographs.

The exhibition of photographic books presents about 100 to be viewed, too many to be looked at in detail. Most are highly imaginative if not abstract often with the sense of meaning they might convey being implied by titles only. It is not easy to generalise about these books as a whole although they are true photo books in the sense that most are primarily concerned with the visual effect of the photographs and use few if any words. Text is subordinate of as much importance as the framing of the images perhaps less. Often these books can absorb one for quite sometime as one contemplates their meaning in an attempt to understand what they are actually saying; returning to look at the same book after sometime might produce further insights.


Daniel Meadows

The Ffotogallery Gallery, Turner House, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales

I arrive before the talk at Ffotogallery near Cardiff to have a brief look at the “Daniel Meadows: Early Years” exhibition.

Downstairs, there is an audio-visual room, which is showing short movies about Daniel Meadows and his work. As a student, he hired a studio for several weeks and photographed local people at his own expense while later on, he bought a bus and went around the country photographing people while using the bus as a darkroom, allowing him to photograph people one day and present them with a print soon after. The Arts Council supported him in this.

upstairs at the Ffotogallery

While there are some photographs from Mosside in the 1970’s, upstairs there is a much larger group of photographs largely of people from ordinary walks of life.

coloured photos of Butlins

One section is about Butlins and in colour prints of the time when colour photography was beginning to gain respectability as a form of photographic expression although it’s initial tackiness is perhaps being used by Meadows (also Parr) to comment on a perceived tacky nature of Butlins. Most of the photographs however, are in black and white and made in a straightforward documentary style.

An interesting aspect to this work is the way Daniel Meadows has gone back and found the people he photographed almost a quarter of a century ago; rephotographing them and then putting the old and new photographs side by side does create a fascinating insight into the way people age and the way British society has changed over that period.

I have a booked seat but arrive early since there are people who have come without bookings! Before the talk begins, I go to the toilet but someone pushes past and enters before me; as I wait the photographer Paul Reas (have a copy of his book Can I help?) comes up also wanting the loo and I wonder if I should let him go before me. We say “hello!” and both wait; I decide not to let him go in front as that might be psychophantic!

Val Williams, the curator of the exhibition, is not here tonight; she has however, been very influential in putting it together, choosing the photographs herself. She has a special interest in 1970’s British photography (apart from her book on Meadows, she has also done one on his friend, Martin Parr). Birmingham City?? Gallery are also an interested party. Meadows himself does not understand the “art” gallery world. There was an extensive search to find photographs for this exhibition such as inquiries being made to now defunct regional arts bodies.

Raul Reas and Daniel Meadows (right) seated

Paul Reas interviews and introduces Daniel Meadows; he is himself a documentary photographer but of the next generation to Meadows. Reas has a retrospective in Bradford next year, the town in which he grew up. He cites Meadows as an early influence and studied under him at Newport; he has known him for about 30 years. Along with contemporaries such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Seawright, he not only learnt from Meadows but also challenged his approach.

The late photographer and teacher Bill Jay cited Daniel Meadows in his book Photographers Photographed, describing him as a peripatetic photographer; Meadows had bought his own bus, converted it into a studio and gone around England photographing ordinary people. He is regarded as being part of the development of 1970’s photography in Britain.

Daniel Meadows was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8, a place he hated. The school did once allow the boys to see TV, the programme being the funeral of WInston Churchill. He was aware that the 1960’s was happening outside the confines of his school where cruel treatment was commonplace particularly from other boys. Art was only a possible option when you had failed at everything else. It was on an art trip from school to the Hayward Gallery in London where there was a Bill Brandt exhibition on that Meadows, aged 18, experienced the possibilities of photography as a viable medium. Bill Brandt impressed him by his ability to move through the class system, from workng miners to old boys at their club in London. Women took their clothes off for him, another source of inspiration for an 18 year old!

memorablia from Meadows career posted on a wall of the gallery

A lot of the portraits and following prints Daniel Meadows made in his early days, were given as gifts to the sitters; in turn, they would invite him into their homes and to events that he was happy to photograph. His book “Living Like This” from this era sold as many as 17,000 copies. He deliberately tried to copy the approach of not only Brandt but also Tony Ray Jones and Benjamin Stone. These days photographers are not encouraged to copy but to be more original and different.

He saw much of his personal work, work that came from him rather than work he was paid to do, as not being serious; now it is the more important. There was a time when he had to photograph Margaret Thatcher who was busy with the Lockerbie disaster and so turned up late. While waiting, he asked permission to do a few test exposures and security eventually said that he could; it was not until sometime later that he received a call congratulating him on photographing Mrs.Thatcher’s handbag, something no one else had managed. Photography is full of coincidences.

He started out working with Martin Parr, his contemporary, who has gone on to radically alter the general perspective of photography; Meadows however, has taken a different route and one quality of his documentary style photographs is that they show what people featured are like. He is a story-teller and also used a tape recorder to record audio-diaries.

When he bought his bus and set out to photograph what people were really like, he expected them to be “rotten” but was surprised to find them “fantastic”. His documents are of time and place, slightly melancholic. Meadows himself often felt nervous, seldom had much cash (it took him a year and a half to raise the money for the trip). People sometimes tried to break into his bus and were surprised to find there was someone inside.

Politics does not feature much in Meadow’s work. He has always hated mainstream politics and has a similar disdain for popular TV although he did work for Granada TV for two years – he saw the culture as rubbishy.

It took him a long time to realise he was making his own photographs. Early work in Moss Side, a part of Manchester, was a conscious attempt to record a place that was being destroyed. Some of the photographs made in people’s front rooms could take him and Martin Parr up to 3 months to arrange.

Meadows had to take maths “O” level 6 times before he passed; hence he did not fit in the hold of the photographer who trained to be a professional.

Most photographs that are taken will never be seen yet those that are can have a big effect.

Meadow’s approach is humanitarian; there is greater engagement by the photographer with the subject. Meadows was inspired by Ivan Illich‘s 1973 book, “Tools for conviviality”. We are surrounded by tools and we need to choose and use them carefully.

One of his subjects was Stanley who he met as the man operating Britain’s last steam driven cotton mill. Meadows developed a close relationship that continues to this day. There are 2 videos about Stanley in the audio-visual room accompanying the exhibition.

Meadows spent the second part of his photographic like trying to understand the first part!

His photographs carry stories although these are not made clear in the exhibition. He went back after about a quarter of a century to rephotograph them and this makes a fascinating document part of which is visible on a digital screen at one end of the gallery. Talking to the people he had photographed before bought up interesting memories of the time that are not evident or only hinted at from the images.

Although Meadows has experienced disillusionment, his photographic explorations has helped him discover humanity.

The quality of his work was not always of a professional standard but that did not detract from what he was photographing. He would have liked to have the kind of equipment that exists these days that can make almost anyone into a maker of photographs. His equipment was quite basic in his early years and yet it did the job.

Meadows has had good feedback about his work from people who have gone to see it being able to access views from the internet notably Twitter. There are this who wonder what the wall paper must have looked like in his earlier black and white photos to those who found the images brought back memories of former times for those who had lived through them. Some details found in the images are interesting because of the way things have changed – hence, particular types of jeans or shoes common or fashionable then now are no longer made.

Apart from teaching, Daniel Meadows has worked with the BBC, helping to create digital stories, enableng people to make their own stories. The role of the photographer seems to have changed over the years.

Daniel Meadows signs books after his talk

WHen the talk is over, Daniel Meadows signs books downstairs and I buy one and queue to have him sign it. We do not exchange many words. I might have said how I also suffered years of incarceration in boarding schools while the sixties was raging and furthermore also experienced some kind of release on being taken to The Hayward Gallery though I can not remember what I saw there (it certainly was not photography!). He did sign my book and I left feeling that here was a man who had a sense of humanity and joy which shines through his photographs that appear remarkably ordinary and yet have been staged quite brilliantly.

A few weeks later I am back with a group from the OCA and we are met by Helen Warburton of Ffotogallery who gives us a talk about the exhibition and Daniel Meadows as a whole. Much of this can be found in my record of the evening with Daniel Meadows above.

Helen Warburton from The Ffotogallery

One of the striking things about Daniel Meadows is his ability to engage with his subjects; there is a genuine relationship between photographer and sitter. This was not the case when I photographed him signing books at the end of his talk and yet, as Jesse points out, there is a case for keeping a certain distance. There is discussion about Meadows and his old friend Martin Parr, about their differences rather than their similarities; Meadows laughs with while a more satirical Parr laughs at !? I wonder if Meadows really is a more humanistic photographer though since Parr is often misjudged and misunderstood, apparently possessed of a different kind of humanistic outlook.

visitors to the gallery looking at The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited

One interesting project of Meadows is his re-engagement with earlier work in “The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited” in which he sought out and found people he had photographed about a quarter of a century before. A video presentation shows what these people were like in the past and what they look like now; there is also text about them while before they were nameless. The bus that Meadows used in his travels was later bought as an antique and restored at expense to it’s former condition so what might have proved to have been an even more priceless antique has been lost!

Meadow’s colour negative photographs of Butlins from the early 1970’s

Meadows and Parr spent time together at a Butlins holiday camp. Apart from doing their required photographic work, they also found time to make their own photographs of the place with Parr later going on to make a book called The Last Resort of this kind of touristic culture. Meadows photographs show much of the kind of life that went on at a Butlins. Colour photography at this time was new and only just starting to take off.

layout of Butlins colour negative prints

One of the remarkable things about this exhibition and Meadows too, is the way his archive has been preserved along with a wealth of information relating to it. This is largely thanks to Val Williams who has curated the exhibition which was first shown at Bradford; it was Val Williams who  decided exactly what went into the exhibition which is unusual since it is the photographer who usually does this. However, it is thanks to Val Williams that this valuable archive exists.


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 …

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