Assignment 3 research – pregnancy tests

My assignment 3 The Decisive Moment is on used pregnancy tests. Research for this assignment is proving bumpy. In a way I am encouraged that there is relatively little out there excepting the stacks of social media and vernacular photography. What I have found, by Elina Brotherus and Nigel Haworth is inspiring and engaging, even if there is not as much as I expected to find. My research field has broadened slightly beyond photography. Writing it up has proved hard too, organising this post by practitioner felt stilted and as if I was missing connections. I think my own personal experience with a negative test shortly before miscarrying my first pregnancy is not making this research any easier. After asking for advice on which approach to take I am rewriting this around themes.

Stating the obvious, perhaps, but one’s attitude to a pregnancy test and one’s depictions of it will depend on the circumstances in which it’s being taken and the desired outcome. Outside of the normal woman doing the test or the woman or man viewing it, the test might be being viewed by a third party with no investment in the result, or it could be a staged photograph. The most detailed work I found was two series made within fertility treatment (Elina Brotherus and Nigel Haworth), both actually heart-breaking to view. Tracey Emin provided a perspective that will be familiar to many who’ve wondered where their period is, even if the odds of a pregnancy are extremely unlikely. Jonathan de Villiers provides more of a glossy, commissioned take on the pregnancy test, and Sophie Calle provides the spectator perspective – interesting and I think along the lines of what I would like to present. Advertisements for pregnancy tests vary between the informative to the sentimentally loaded. St Mary’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand courted vast controversy with its billboard of the Virgin Mary holding a pregnancy test (original image by the agency TBWA/. This image takes a traditional Christian concept and makes it relevant to today. Images and writing about pregnancy tests are defined by the context. Is it an advert? Coursework? A magazine article? A Facebook or Instagram post? A live pregnancy test on You-tube (something I never want to see again…) For my work I want to remove the context, the normal paradigms around tests, and focus solely on the result windows, what we see there and how they change over time (this will be covered in more detail in a separate blog post).

virgin-mary-st-matthew-in-the-city-via-facebook
Image by TBWA/ via St Matthews Church Auckland Facebook page

I think there’s a parallel between pregnancy tests and instant cameras – both involve waiting for a chemical process to complete before viewing the result, and both produce a physical visible result that will be changed and degraded by time (more on this in a later post on how I want to make my images).

In addition to the practitioners mentioned below I also looked at the work of Elinor Carucci, particularly her detailed series Mother. I did not find any images featuring tests however.

Photographic work around themes of infertility

The two substantial photographic series that I found both concentrate on the role of pregnancy and ovulation predictor tests within infertility treatment. Elina Brotherus’ and Nigel Haworth’s series are both inspired by paintings – Elina’s by the tradition of the Italian Annonciation, in which Mary’s pregnancy is announced by  an angel. Of course there is no angel, and the test becomes the physical embodiment of whether or not the “angel” has visited. Her series is vast, taken over five years of treatment, the tableaux are vast with the heartache evident in each image. Sometimes there is nothing else. Most images are set indoors, and you can see that it’s a heartache very close to home, a pain that’s not necessarily known or understood outside those four walls. Equally, these images stretch the idea that home is a place for comfort, for happiness – the wretchedness of her grief is so evident. The inclusion of the remote release gives me an uncomfortably privileged position of viewing her sadness in her own home. The test included in many images is a physical indicator for so many of us – not just of pregnant/not pregnant, but of success/failure, relief/sadness, perhaps both states simultaneously. In most of the images featuring a test, the test is an important part of the image but not the subject in its own right. A test might be discarded, next to a mobile, or simply waiting. Annunciation 21, a sub series of five images is relentless in showing different aspects of grief with the fourth image just showing the test and the fifth the finality of menstrual bleeding. Annunciation 24 shows Elina with a plaster over her belly, in front of a wall with tape on it, and it made me consider the strain of fertility treatment on both the individual and home. Annunciation 9, captioned “..she would go to Anne-Sophie’s school” shows how much hope and thought is invested into each cycle.

The tests are shown whole and lidded in the context of being done and then viewed by the camera in real time.

Nigel Haworth’s work was featured in the OCA Foundation in Photography course notes and I was also guided to his work following a post on the OCA forum. I emailed him requesting permission to include a thumbnail and asking for a link for further information on his Counting Seeds work. I was thrilled to receive both permission and a copy of his commentary on the work.

Ovulation and pregnancy tests play a large role in this work. Like Elina’s work, there are no punches pulled and I gained some idea of the raft of paperwork and medication involved in fertility treatment. The triptych of the embryo, pre-implantation, was hard viewing. When I miscarried I had seen nothing of the embryo that I was carrying. When an assisted embryo fails to implant or is miscarried, you have actually seen the picture of the embryo, and that, combined with the enormity of the process, must make an already awful time even worse.

There was a very lyrical and delicate feel to the work. I thought there was a strong domestic bass line, with OPKs dangling from a kitchen utensil rack amongst utensils, decaying fruit, and implied changes to diet. Origami cranes gave a sense of time flying away as well as their poignant Japanese meaning of hopes and wishes. Two images in particular conveyed the whole rhythm of the process – Metronome and Documentation. The musical inference is clear, with the constant rhythmic cycle from bar to bar, section to section, the paper score and the relentless metronome counting away the time. The tests become the white keys on the piano, part of the music themselves.

Nigel was inspired by the still-life genre, and the work of Jo Whaley, Laura Letinsky, Marian Drew and Joachim Froese. He wanted the work to be “used as self expression, to convey a feeling, mood or idea…” rather than the tradition of classical still life paintings. Like Elina, his work is made in a domestic setting. I was impressed by how he used the tests – they go from literal representations of themselves through to metaphors for aging, for time passing in rhythms, almost as paperclips or pens. I like this idea of a non-standard view of a pregnancy test (we are all familiar with the little windows, the rest is really just a way to do, see, share and handle the result without dripping wee on your hand). None of the tests are shown with the caps on, there’s something very straightforward about that and it doesn’t shy away from the essential nature of these tests which is to sample urine, yet the images remain inviting to the eye. The way the tests become part of the domestic routine during fertility treatment is nicely shown too – a participant in my work told me that she found her positive pregnancy test in a magnetic pot of pens stuck to the fridge door, and absent-mindedly threw it out. You get to the point when they stop looking unusual.

Tracey Emin: 20 Years

Feeling Pregnant II 1999-2002

This work was suggested to me by OCA student Lottie, and couldn’t be more of a contrast. It comprises stream of consciousness writing by Tracey as she considers whether she might be pregnant. There’s that constant lurch between panic and trying to be normal, and the flights of imagination before seeing the result. In her sleepless night alphabetically-bulleted list of things to do, actually doing the test comes in at item J. I quite liked this because it shows how the test is sometimes something of a small-part player compared to the build-up that we can inadvertently create in our minds, regardless of the preferred test result.

“I go to the chemist and buy a pregnancy test and hide it in the kitchen – On the promise that I’ll give the whole situation 24 hours – I spend the day doing what I have to do – with the utmost efficiency – In a very calculated responsible way. But every 10 minutes or so I say to myself – Chill out Trace you can’t be pregnant…

…The sun’s pelting down and I am Happy

In this imagined moment of time –

I look at the pregnancy test – it’s negative

Of course it’s negative

Of course I’m not pregnant – I am relieved-

Relieved to know I’m just a 36 year old

woman with a Fucking

Good Imagination.” (Elliott and Schnabel, 2008)

Commissioned photography

This was a commission for L’Uomo Vogue by Jonathan de Villiers, and shows a young couple in a bathroom. It’s part of a set of called Waiting and you can see it on page 138 of Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now Revised and Expanded Edition (Thames & Hudson 2011). There are Snoopy and Buzz Lightyear figurines on the toilet cistern, and the girl is wearing just an oversized pink jumper as she holds a still-wrapped test and reads the instructions. The boy looks very young, very unsure and slightly overdressed. I think you can tell it’s not an advert for ClearBlue because the models look so unsure. It makes me think though because it’s not the stereotyped pregnancy test image that you would expect to see in newsstand magazines.

Vernacular photography on social media.

bing-bfps
Screen grab from Bing search for BFP

If you search on #bfp (big fat positive, there is also #bfn big fat negative) you will find a raft of phone photos of pregnancy test results. These often include a hand, a smiling face, or there may be a labelled set of tests taken on consecutive days showing how the result has become stronger over time. Some images show how a pregnancy was announced to family or friends, including one of pregnancy test coated in rhinestones. There’s a website that allows viewers to vote on whether uploaded images of tests show a positive or negative result. You-tube and Facebook reveal live pregnancy testing, prank tests available for purchase (altered Clear Blue tests that will always return a positive result), and pregnant women selling freshly made positive tests (no questions asked). I can’t help feeling there’s a whole other assignment there. Interestingly, there are a lot of negative test images up there too, not as many as the positives but still more than I expected. I think the sheer bulk of the internet gives a sense of anonymity.

The third party pregnancy test

I was having a had time finding credible research, and in frustration thought “I’m sure Sophie Calle must have done something”. Well she did, although not directly. One on-line search and one skim through Double Game later, I found that on Sunday March 1st at 10:45, after pilfering a chocolate from a hotel guest’s drawer, she found a used pregnancy test in the bathroom bin.

“In the wastebasket I find a pregnancy test which I am unable to decipher”.

And that’s it, the pregnancy test, of which we don’t know the result, is simply added to the litany of things that we know/don’t know about the woman with the thick wool sweaters and the man who may or may not look like a convict who stayed in that room that weekend. Much as I doubt I could ever work that way, I really like the idea of a pregnancy test stripped from its context. In this case everything has been stripped, even the result.

13/12 Adding in one film that was posted by Holly Woodward on the OCA L1 Facebook group. The film is titled 160 characters and was made by Victoria Mapplebeck in 2015. This film creates a visual backdrop to love affair documented in text messages, found on an old Nokia in a kitchen drawer. At the risk of a massive spoiler, it features a pregnancy test, with the development of the result digitally added.

And finally, just because I like it, the test scene from Juno, where she goes back to the grocery store because the plus on the first test looked more like a division sign. How right she was…

Bibliography and links

Elliott, P. and Schnabel, J. (2008) Tracey Emin: 20 years. Edited by Patrick Elliot. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland.

Bright, S. (2011) Art photography now. 2nd edn. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

Calle, S. and Auster, P. (2007) Sophie Calle: Double game. London: Violette Editions.

http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/#/annonciation/

http://www.nigeljhaworth.com/counting-seeds.html

http://elinorcarucci.com/mother.php

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7 thoughts on “Assignment 3 research – pregnancy tests

  1. Catherine December 1, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    A very good overview. There’s something quite cold about that comment of Sophie Calle.

    Like

    • Kate December 1, 2016 / 5:52 pm

      Thank you Catherine. Yes, she is very detached in all her observations. I suppose you would have to have a level of detachment and coolness to systematically go through peoples’ belongings, but it did surprise me that the discovery barely merited a sentence.

      Like

  2. Stephanie Dh. December 3, 2016 / 3:19 pm

    There is something about pregnancy tests which can be as much about total happiness, longing, dread, or horror whatever the result. Whether the result is positive or not, in the end, it does not say that much about how it is received by the person.

    But somebody unhappy about a pregnancy is not going to put it on social media. This absence is interesting too.

    Interesting work Kate, as usual!

    Like

    • Kate December 3, 2016 / 5:10 pm

      Thanks for commenting Stephanie. I wondered about negative tests on social media too, but there are a surprising number up there. I suppose that somewhere as vast as Instagram can actually feel private, in a bizarre way.

      As you say, the actual test result tells us surprisingly little without the context and background of the individuals involved. One of the challenges that appeals to me is making the work just about the test; about the result and how it has changed with time (all tests were, after all, regarded as important enough to keep), and giving the idea of that one decisive moment when someone looked at the result on that actual test. I think it’s going to be interesting, I am about half way through shooting now and I have another research post to write about the practitioners who have inspired the way I want to make this work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Simon Chirgwin December 8, 2016 / 1:41 pm

    A couple of thoughts on this (apart from the one of what a cracking idea for a series, Kate): first, I assume that Elina Brotherus set out to document herself getting pregnant and that it only became truly what it is now at the point when she decided to stop UVF – until then there must have been the assumption that it would conclude with an annunciation; and second, I’d have thought that the reason there is so little postive test result stuff up on social media is because by the time people have passed the three month, it’s-ok-to-tell-people point, they have other less urine-soaked signifiers of pregnancy like a scan…

    Like

    • Kate December 8, 2016 / 1:58 pm

      Hi Simon, thank you for the follow and your interesting comment. I agree with you on the Annunciation, she would have had the hope of an annunciation. I think the thing is now is that the work is always presented in the context of an unsuccessful journey, so for me at least, I knew the ending before I looked at the series. On your second point, I need to edit my post because there is a lot of positive test imagery on social media. I thought there would be fewer negative tests, and there are, but still more than I expected. It’s interesting that so many tests have been kept – I wonder if they get shared via social media rather than showing family and friends the actual “urine-soaked signififier” ( 🙂 )

      Like

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