Photography Matters videos

These five videos were made in Doncaster on 21st May at an OCA photography symposium “Photography Matters”. I watched the videos via links on the OCA forum here. Gareth Dent comments that the “presentations are demanding and not all students will understand them all at the first viewing”. He is absolutely right, and I will be returning to them over time.

Fairness and effecting change – Les Monaghan

This one was very accessible, engaging and left me with a lot to think about. Les asked questions that I think many of us stumble on: is my work fair to the audience? who is my audience? how do I engage the unengaged? how and where do you show work so the people who helped to make it can see it? And the very poignant line “I wanted people to care.”

His project “Desire” was full-length portraits of people, taken at a Doncaster shopping centre, and captioned by each subject’s response to the question “What do you want?” Once again, it’s poignant. The desires are generally simply stated and universal – around health, happiness and peace (there’s a BBC piece about the work here). Then, talking about the display of the work, the poignancy continues. The local gallery where the work is shown is now closed. The show exhibited fewer visitors than the total number of people involved in the project. I liked the idea of showing work in unexpected places too – like the place where you pass from being in the station to being at the shops, or on un-used advertising hoardings visible from the pub.

I think this was so interesting because it wasn’t just about the pictures. It was about building relationships with the subjects (there was a support group and follow-up), and about trying really hard to present the work in a way that would allow it to be widely viewed not just by the normal people who go to galleries. It has made me think.

“Hysterical selfies and disruptive bodies” Dawn Woolley

I have the most notes on this one and the least amount of clue; there was so much information and so many ideas, and it’s all floating tantalisingly just out of mental reach. Dawn considers “the impact of contemporary consumer culture on the identity and body culture of the consumer”, concentrating on selfies, social network sites and adverts. It is interesting to track the path of selfies from their beginnings as a “universal language” to their current use via both macro and micro-celebrities as a sales tool. We relate to taking (and viewing) selfies, so they have acquired the Trojan horse ability to be used as adverts, by-passing our automatic filtering of ads in our social media feeds. It’s impressive how the technique works with both the overt endorsement of celebrities and the covert recommendations of micro-celebrities on social media who don’t always formally disclose their contract with the company, despite requirements to do so. Our social media feeds are generally hand-picked by us, thus the first step of gaining credibility and trust from an audience for an advertiser/product  is already done for them. High-end brands such as Dolce and Gabana are basing entire campaigns around models taking selfies.

I found these concepts interesting and they will go onto my mental back burner. Firstly, the idea of the “attention economy” (Davenport and Beck) which proposed that information consumes the attention of the consumer. More information results in less attention, making it harder for ads to secure our attention especially in the crowded social media arena. They also talk about “industrial intimacy” which I think is a great phrase (and one for my ideas catalogue) – the contrast between the sheer scale of industry and the tiny, closeness and privacy of intimacy. Somehow, I think social media is turning our idea of intimacy inside-out.

“Photographic Archival intervention in the Chambre-Hardman Collection” – Keith Roberts

I was fascinated and inspired by this one. Keith talked about his work with the Hardman archive. Hardman’s archive spanned the 40 years from 1923 -1963. He was better known for his landscape work but sold a huge collection of negatives to Liverpool city council in the 70s. On looking at the 300 tins, each containing 400 negatives they found that they had not bought landscapes but a collection of about 140,000 commercial portraits. I get the impression that not much then happened with the archive until Keith took it on as part of his studies.

The history and bureaucracy around this collection is of as much interest as the images. Due to the age of the negatives special processes had to be used when examining them involving fumation cupboards because of chemical decomposition of the materials. Not all of the negatives were usable and some were missing. No one organisation had complete ownership – the Museum owned the material but the National Trust holds the copyright via a family trust. The negatives, being considered artefacts that needed translation rather than photographic objects that could be instantly read, were considered a burden of non-art objects; not a valuable social, historic and artistic resource. The intervention was planned to return the work to the communities whence it came, like Les Monaghan’s work above.

Keith made three types of creative output from the archive: re-photographing images in the same place where they were first taken, chronotypes (series of individuals who had been photographed by Hardman on multiple occasions) and typologies (sets classified by the job of the sitter). I was fascinated by the idea of the chronotypes; of bringing together images of the same person who were separated by the few metres between the storage boxes but also by decades of time. He made 27 such pairings, each inviting the viewer to consider these images that show so much change (WW2 was an obvious factor here). Some are to be projected on the buildings where they were taken. You can see some of the images and read more here.

Finally, two things that I think could carry entire bodies of study on their own, raised in the final moments of the talk. Firstly, an A0 print showing all 400 negatives from one tin, as a grid. But of course there are gaps – negatives that are missing, negatives that didn’t survive storage. It’s very interesting to consider what these images might have been of, and what happened to them. Secondly, a quote from Allan Sekula about archived images. It’s almost as if you can adopt them and give them new life with new meaning, whilst still honouring their reason for being in the first place. Quote is a screen-clip from the presentation.

sekula archive quote

“The Materiality of Images” – Rachel Smith

This was the third presentation to leave me quietly fizzing with thoughts, looking at my notes I need to watch it again to understand it more. I am quite frustrated by my limits on understanding. The other parts of the title were : exploring Creative Practice, the photograph as matter.

I am intrigued by the idea of the photograph as a physical object in its own right. I like how an image can carry traces of its own past, much as the subject of the image does too. Sometimes it’s those traces that help us to provide the context to the image itself. Rachel talked about her own early days in photography, the camera with the heavy mechanism resulting in wonky images from a small child’s hands, the smell and sound of the slide projector, sitting on her mother’s lap to look at a photo album. I think that given that so many photographs represent a sensory moment, it’s reasonable to feel that the representation should have a sensory quality of its own too. Rachel points out that we are more interested in the marks that process leaves on our images now, the marks that we used to try to eliminate.

Much of the rest I need to re-watch and read around to understand. I do have a list of practitioners and images I would like to learn more about: Harriet Riches’ writing about object-based practice, Gerhard Richter’s over-painted Hybrid images (when does a photograph stop being a photograph?), Wolfgang Tillman’s Photodrop series (I very much liked these), Ann Collier, Glitch art. I think it’s ironic that Glitch art is about reintroducing disruption and anomalie into the relatively perfect digital image. I do have a personal interest in this topic of materiality – I made light-painted Victorian portraits for my Foundation work and really struggled to find a sympathetic and credible physical medium. I wanted something that looked like it had been around for over 100 years, and that was hard in a world that is all about pixel perfection and pristine printing. I had prints in the bottom of my handbag, and I spun some in the salad spinner with keys and coins, but am still looking for a quicker way to simulate time.

“Using Still Images to Represent a Temporal World” – Derek Trillo

The main ideas that I took from this presentation were about the challenges involved in making architectural photographs that aren’t flat and lifeless. As a genre it seems to be cliché-ridden, with no people, no skies that aren’t blue, and no indication of the function of the building and how people can interact with it. Everything is static, even the light, and it seems to be a frozen moment of emptiness rather than a captured moment of activity, of buzz, of people. To look up: Idris Kahn’s layering of images of the same building, Barbiere’s faded buildings. Images can be improved by adding more transient elements such as people and traffic, or exploiting multiple levels of the same space in one shot. Derek talks about how people pass, which is something I find fascinating, especially on a local ridge, there is just that moment when people going one way meet people going the other way and all the organisation disappears into Brownian motion just for a few seconds before everybody regroups and carries on. Things like this make more interesting architecture images. The quote at the end made me think – about how architects would like to see pictures of architecture without the architecture. This would absolutely show you how the building was used, if it was fulfilling its purpose.







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