Context and photographs

I read Terry Barrett’s essay Photographs and Context as suggested in the course notes. The concepts were familiar to me as my Foundations tutor had explained them to me as part of my A4 feedback.

Using Taryn Simon’s Contraband series as an example, internal context is limited to what we can see in the photograph. So in her work we might see a plain background and a forensic, highly objective photograph of an object.

So far, so bird corpse on an airmail envelope on a plain background. We might guess that it’s an inside environment rather than a bird on a forest floor, but we can’t tell any more for sure. This is where the external context comes in. We can read captions, wall text, or the catalogue if we’re at an exhibition, or the accompanying text if it’s in printed material.  We learn that these photographs were made during a period of five days when Taryn was embedded at JFK Airport photographing objects that were confiscated from incoming passengers and incoming mail. We’re dependent on this external context to give us more information, and we’re dependent on the viewpoint and perspective of this context.  Terry Bartlett illustrates this very well when he documents Gisele Freund’s discussion of the multiple and often contradictory views that a Doisneau image of a couple drinking together was used to illustrate. We already know that we can neither control nor direct how a viewer will interpret our work, so the importance of external context becomes clear in ensuring that the work can be understood.  For me, this will likely take the form of captions where needed.

The third layer of context is not immediately apparent. It’s to do with the background of the photographer, their perspective, the world in which they live. For example, if we look at the Biography page on Taryn Simon’s website we learn that “Taryn Simon (b. 1975) is a multidisciplinary artist working in photography, text, sculpture and performance. Guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification, her practice involves extensive research into the power and structure of secrecy and the precarious nature of survival.” This tells us much more about why she has chosen to make this work, how she has labelled and presented it, and how it fits into her broader work. We can also “zoom out” from this airport work and apply the broader context of the security constraints of our world, and the prevalence of smuggling and illegal trade in plants and animal parts.

So we can see that these three layers of context all add to our understanding of an artist’s work and that a work’s meaning cannot be fully understood in isolation from these contexts.


Charlotte Cotton Photography is Magic


Another big book, another game-changer. I bought this a few months back, but wasn’t really ready for it. It intimidated me slightly, rather like Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now did when I first bought it. The work is such a long way from what a part of me still expects photographs to look like. When I started playing with Polaroids and die-cutting it felt like the right time to take another look. It’s stuffed with work, and a fairly dense introductory essay. I’m going to start with my notes on the essay. These are rough and designed for my own quick reference rather than a formal critique.

Charlotte starts by drawing parallels between close-up magic and photography. Both are multi-sensory triggers that give the viewer the opportunity to construct their own virtual reality. It happens in the viewer’s head, nowhere else.

“Photography is Magic” privileges the potential of ideas over the virtuosity of individual authors or the perfection of techniques and mechanisms”

(p3). This is reassuring for someone who has plenty of ideas but not always the technical skills to realise them fully. The work has an increased awareness of “materiality” – how it’s constructed, how it’s presented, what materials are used to render the ideas.

“a critical mass of artists is widening rather than attempting to isolate the idea of photography”

p5. Yes. This resonated with me. I want my work to be more concrete than the possibilities offered by a bunch of jpgs.

“Ideas repeat and morph over the course of an artist’s practice…. explicitly iterative processes”

Again yes. I find it intriguing to look through my paper log and see the way that polaroids are there almost from day one, the recurrence of the physical and the constant variations on a theme.

Most of the works in Photography is Magic have been made since 2010, less than a decade ago. These works show how advances in digital hardware and software technologies have altered what we make and how we make it. DIgital capture, Photoshop and pigment printing; social media and mobile phone cameras. p8.

“Purposefully destabilised photographic practices are coming into play.”

p9/10/11 This is exciting, the idea of shaking up the processes, that the final result may not be of a “complete object”. The artist gets to make the “agnostic and strategic” choices. There’s some consideration given to the idea of “camouflage” too though I think this is more about perception. Magicians used to wear top hat and tails but now they would do so as a knowing reference to their heritage. We could consider artists who use analogue media and/or black and white in the same way – they are reactivating the medium’s heritage in the present. Long established predictions of digital causing the demise of analogue have not come to pass, at least not yet, and analogue and digital processes continue to cross-fertilise one another.

p13 I like the idea of photographer as sculptor

“renderer of objects – exerting control over images as materials and cultural artifacts”

It often feels to me as if the image is just the start of where I want to go with it, not the end of the creative process.

p14 – the idea of the rhizome – a non-hierarchical flattened structure that allows us to link and organise concepts in our own way. Also – comparison of photography with early 20th century art concepts such as the “readymade” (eg Duchamp’s Fountain) and Cubist collages.

There’s still a lot here that I’m not in a position to understand so I will be returning to this blog post. The next step is spending some time with the >80 artists’ work and their artist statements through a phone-book sized book. I want to build my background knowledge without explicitly steering my A5 work, rather I wish to build the contextual knowledge within which I work.

Photography is Magic, Charlotte Cotton, Aperture 2015.





“Through the Looking Brain”

A Swiss Collection of Conceptual Photography by Stephan Berg, Konrad Bitterli, David Campany, Stefan Gronert, Dora Imhof.

WP_20170412_18_53_25_Pro (3)

This is a huge hard-backed book that was heavily discounted at the Fox Talbot Museum shop. It was the display copy and has various marks to the cover and a ladybird pressed inside. It has 240 pages and 743 illustrations, nearly all of which are in colour. It is hard to imagine a collection on such a scale and I’m grateful for this book. Scanning down the artists (selection) list on the back cover I pick out the Bechers, Tacita Dean, Fischli & Weiss, Andreas Gursky, Roni Horn, Thomas Ruff, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, ROman Signer, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall… and that’s only a selection of the selection. Some of Gursky’s images really came to life to me, helped by the relatively large scale of double-page spreads in the book.

There are several essays at the front of the book and it’s one of these that stopped me in my tracks. My tutor has talked to me about Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura in the photographs, so I was starting to become aware of his writing. This book includes some consideration to “the tension between the photograph as trace and the photograph as picture, that is to say between the photograph as document and the photograph as artwork” (Berg, 2011 p 10). It goes on to list thirteen constructs assembled as pairs by Walter Benjamin. It was #VIII that stood out for me:

“In the artwork, subject matter is a ballast, jettisoned during contemplation.

The more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows.”

This was resonant for me because I am starting to work on A5 using instant prints, and I was unsure exactly how important a cohesive subject actually was. On one hand, the prints will be embossed, cut, inverted, deconstructed and I anticipate that what was actually in each picture (what the picture is OF) will become less apparent and more obscure and the format itself will become the theme. On the other hand, it seems a shame not to have a cohesive subject for the set, even though that layer of meaning may well be subdued by the altered format. Plus of course A5 is about ten photographs of the same subject. This quote seems to give permission for a subject to be designated, recognised, acknowledged and then “jettisoned” as the viewer and author consider other aspects of the work.

Having blogged that, my plan is to look through the images and then return to the essays, at which point I will update this blog post.

Project 2 notes on light and named photographers

Light intrigues me. I know that when I go to the deserted village of Imber on Salisbury Plain the light is inevitably harsh and my skies blow out readily, even sometimes when it’s drizzling. I know that Lacock Abbey gives a gloriously soft and honeyed light in the ruins and a dark, somehow 1920s fictional subdued light in the corridors and a nasty synthetic darkness that’s of the wrong time in one of the set rooms. One of my favourite things about dark evenings is the way that the single glass fire door at the local supermarket spotlights and showcases the evening shoppers, who can’t see me gawping from the carpark because of their reflections in the glass. I love the way that the local cinema lobby is brighter than life, and the combination of gleaming white ceramic basins and reflective tiled surfaces bouncing around the world’s cleanest light in the ladies toilets. I know when the dates are when the sun rises at one end of the Caenhill flight of canal locks and sets at the opposite end. On the Foundation course I learned how to use a tiny Maglite in the dark to light paint rich colours into a portrait, I learn still how to balance light, time and motion. I wonder at how the light in Cornwall where I grew up is somehow clearer than the light here in Wiltshire. It’s all so very personal though, it feels odd to be looking at how other photographers see and use light.

Eugene Atget, routinely documenting Paris as the Bechers would later document water towers, worked in noon-day light to minimise shadows. I’ve never really had much joy with this light, though since I upgraded my normal lens I get less blown out highlights. His approach here is matter-of-factual – the light is there simply to illuminate, not to add mood or atmosphere (as the course notes point out). Later on in his life he used light as a more of a player in its own right.

Sally Mann’s use of lighting in Southern Lands is far less documentary and far more evocative. The light does the job, but so much more besides. It says as much by what remains in darkness as what remains illuminated. Most of her work seems to be in black and white, the only colour that I saw was an occasional image in Body Farm. Yet the brightest parts are so bright you can barely discern the detail, and the darkest parts require careful scanning to see the detail. There’s something dark and fairy-tale ish about many of the images. Sally uses the light as skilfully in her portraits of children and her observations of decaying bodies in the Body Farm series. It’s an approach with no compromise.

Michael Schmidt uses light functionally, dispassionately, curiously. Somehow the texture in his images shines out, from the crinkled card of an eggbox to the smooth gloss of a strip of sellotape. On reading the article linked to in the article I was interested to read that he often worked in black and white but photographed scenes with no black or white tones present. In fact, on the link given, all bar two of his images are in black and white. His green apple can almost be tasted and smelled, the tiny blemishes on the skin are all very obvious. This made me think of the forthcoming exercise 4.4 to photograph a natural or organic object.

You can see my Pinterest board on this below.

The photograph as contemporary art – Charlotte Cotton

I read this book whilst my Foundation portfolio was at the OCA. I thought it looked interesting, and the slim size meant that it went everywhere with me. I rarely encounter text books that I want to read from cover to cover, but this one did it for me. I appreciated its detailed focus on modern work, other books have left me slightly frustrated at the end, wondering what happened next.

This one is well written and accessible to a relatively new student. Each of the eight sections is full of images and each image is well documented. I only encountered one photographer who had documentation but not image; and that was possibly unsurprising given that the work being discussed was a long exposure of the movements of classified  US military surveillance planes (Trevor Paglen Other Night Sky, 2008). I thought the images worked well within each section and I now have a far more structured understand of contemporary photography and the different genres found therein.

I’ve identified two images/practitioners from each section who I would like to learn more about, they are listed below.

Chapter 1 If This is Art – Philip-Lorca di Corcia “Heads” and Bettina von Zwehi’s 3-part series.

Chapter 2 Once Upon a Time – Yinka Shonibare “Victorian Dandy”, Deborah Mesa-Pelly “Legs”.

Chapter 3 Deadpan – Gursky “Prada 1”, Jacqueline Hassink’s work on business spaces.

Chapter 4 Something and Nothing – Nigel Shafran “Sewing kit on plastic table”, Jennifer Bolande Globe series.

Chapter 5 Intimate Life – Ruth Erdt (portraits of family and friends), Brenda Beban “The Miracle of Death”.

Chapter 6 – Moments in History – Simon Norfolk “Destroyed Radio Installations”, Esko Mannikko rural life in Finland.

Chapter 7 Revived and Remade – Trish Morrissey, Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye “The Fae Richards Photo Archive”

Chapter 8 Physical and Material – Sherrie Levine “After Walker Evans”, Lucas Blalock “Both Chairs in CW’s Living Room”.

Book review – The art of understanding art

Writing about the books I read is probably the weakest part of my Foundations blog and one that should be a quick win to improve upon. I read a lot, I learn a lot from my reading and now I’m going to write about what I learn too.

This book was recommended to me by Rob Townsend when I asked on the OCA L1 Facebook group for suggestions of something to spend a book voucher on. It’s taught me a lot of stuff that I never dreamed existed, or was important, before – an actual context for art. Where it fits in life, how it came to have that place, a way to understand it a bit better. There’s some very interesting information about art in the Orient contrasted to the Western equivalent.

So what did I learn? Well, that in the west we have been long obsessed over the end-product of art without respecting the process of planning and making the art. Our final art products are regarded as sacrosanct, untouchable, whereas Oriental works often acquire appreciative and respectful annotations over their life. I learned that every piece of art has a medium, a message and a marketplace, and that its “value” can rise or fall on aspects that are coincidental rather than integral to it, such as who owned it, or what happened to it at some point in its history. I learned that art can enlighten, and that often the subject matter of a work simply acts as a “welcome mat” to draw the viewer in to its other qualities.

I was surprised by how much this made me think about my photography. I enjoy working with found/shared/public domain images and it’s nice to think that my work is a respectful way of honouring the original, even though I’m not best placed to make that call. It also made me think about the content and the meaning of my photographs – that it is ok to have an accessible “hook” in there, but for it to work as art there has to be something else too.

It’s something of an understated book. I didn’t realise quite how good it was until I had to abandon my next read a couple of chapters in because it just didn’t measure up. My rough notes are attached in the link below.

Moss, H. (2015) The art of understanding art: A new perspective. United Kingdom: Profile Books.

(Moss, 2015)


The art of understanding art a new perspective Moss