Exercise: Surrealist Style

Brief:

Choose a topic that interests you and produce a small portfolio of five colour images in a surrealist style. Share your portfolio with the OCA communities … and ask fellow students to comment. Before you start this exercise visit Peter Dench’s website … analyse his style.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:62)

Peter Dench

Peter Dench’s work is incredibly similar to that of Martin Parr. Brightly saturated images poke fun at Britain, often depicting the population in a rather disparaging way.  While he makes a lot of use of quirky, strange juxtapositions in his images, he does seem to have a special focus on booze and boobs, which I found rather insulting on behalf of the Brits who don’t behave in such fashions as depicted in his The English Summer Season, or The British Abroad. His England Uncensored body of work is probably the least insulting as it depicts a very broad cross section of the population. Notwithstanding his ridicule of his fellow citizens, I was very intrigued by the way he finds his juxtapositions, and the humour he manages to evoke. I think, though, it is the kind of humour that one takes in small doses as it could become rather stale if viewed en masse.

Exercise

I don’t live in a city any more so this exercise going to prove quite difficult to do. There is just not the same type of quirky material that one finds on the city streets in a rural village/hamlet. However, I have managed to find a few images that I have taken since beginning this module and will go out and see if I can find any more, but I just want to get what I have in place for now and park this exercise. I’m not going to look for a theme or topic as that will limit me even more. So long as they are “surrealism” then I’m fine with that.

Do they fall into the surreal category — I’m not sure. Possibly – Fig. 1 with the juxtaposition of the horses and the picnic table, chairs and campers; Fig. 2 – the juxtaposition of the bird on the blue carpet which is leading down to the water (I have to ask why on this) connotes importance or status and there is, for me at any rate, always something rather surreal when a vehicle is being transported across a body of water on an open structure (Fig. 3).

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

 

Old Surrealist Photos

I’ve uploaded a few old photos here just for illustrative purposes of occurrences that I happened to capture on the city streets.

 

Bibliography

Dench, P. (s.d.) Peter Dench. At: http://www.peterdench.com/ (Accessed  16/10/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Research: Surrealism and colour documentary

At this point in the course we are asked to do a bit of research into photographers using surrealism in their colour photography. I’ve always found surrealism to be a bit of a nebulous concept. In the VCrit resource package that Helen Warburton put together last year she provides the following definitions for surrealism:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.” (Breton 1924, cited in Clayton, 2018:14)

[OCA Virtual Study Visit Resource Package]

I personally think that surrealism is more of a serendipitous moment that occurs, especially if one thinks of events occurring on the street. But can it be staged? I’m thinking of some of Graciela Iturbide’s photographs – the woman with all those iguanas on her head for instance. Looking at it definitely evokes a sense of surrealism in me (even a sense of the sublime), but if it was staged then the photographer’s actions must surely negate this “absence of any control exercised by reason” because the photograph has been very consciously made. I’m thinking here about Ralph Meatyard’s images – very surreal and staged, but on the other hand, definitely not documentary. I think surrealism, and I might be wrong, is like humour. It is in the eye of the beholder. What is strange or funny for me, might be totally boring for someone else.

But perhaps overcoming “the oppressive “reign of logic” by allowing the impossible to seem feasible and the fantastic to appear real … and the prioritization of instinct over logic” (Artspace Editors, 2016), and the fact that they can contain political and philosophical references provides a more understandable explanation and makes me more ready to believe that surrealism can be constructed as well as serendipitous.

Guy Tillim‘s photograph of a boy peeing against a defunct statute of the explorer Henry Stanley sends a very subtle message of the local population’s opinion of colonialism. It is subtle enough that the viewer really has to search for the narrative, but would I regard the image as being surreal? Maybe not. I lived more than half my life in Africa and have seen many little boys peeing in public spaces, but I do get the humour of the image and the subtle message it is conveying.

I found the sequencing in Carl de Keyzer’s Zona project about the prison camps in former gulags quite riveting. His series begins with a set of photos that are quite surreal in content – prisoners creating huge life-like ice sculptures; giant murals depicting Russian history and paintings, model tin soldiers, sphinxes and windmills with prisoners going about their daily life in front of them. This surrealism causes a certain degree of confusion as one is not really sure what one is looking at (I first looked at the photographs before reading de Keyzer’s monograph, which is incredibly interesting). As de Keyzer’s states in his monograph, many of the photographs were staged for him by prison officials. An example of this is the photograph of the two prisoners playing tennis (without a ball). Apparently when de Keyzer asked about the tennis court, the prison officials quickly found two prisons to “play tennis”, spent some time looking for racquets and then another hour trying to locate a ball which they couldn’t find. So de Keyser had to take this staged photograph. The photo is quite surreal in that there are three guard towers surrounding this court, but also a large orthodox Russian church. There are just so many strange juxtapositions, in this and other photographs.

I’m not sure I agree with the statement in the course manual that de Keyzer’s ‘depiction of orderly life in Siberian prison camps is dissonant with the idea of the gulag that exists in the popular imagination’ (Open College of the Arts, 2014:61). . As one proceeds through the work, one is slowly exposed to more and more shocking, grim and uninviting reality of these various prison camps. The conditions, especially medical and food leave much to be desired as well.

Charles H. Traub

Charles H. Traub was born in Kentucky in 1945 and was greatly inspired by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Traub documents every day life on the street, finding strange juxtapositions and witty incongruities. Confirming my opinion on serendipity he states: “For me, serendipity, coincidence and chance are more interesting than any preconceived construct of our human encounters” (Smithson, 2018). David Campany describes his work as being “a commentary upon photography as a phenomenon of daily life … meta-photographs” (Smithson, 2018). There is also an element of refreshing humour in most of his images.

Sanne De Wilde

Sanne De Wilde is a Belgian photographer who explores the role genetics play through identity. In 2015 she photographed a community that inhabited the Pacific island of Pingelap. In 1775 a typhoon wiped out all but twenty of the population. This limited genetic pool has resulted in the children being born with congenital achromatopsia – a condition that renders the person unable to perceive colour. She shot her project using an infrared camera to try to rediscover colour while shooting; to reinvent the idea of colour and to metaphorically create an imaginary image of what the world could look like inside a colour blind mind. She also photographed in black and white and encouraged the people to hand-paint over some of the photographs, without receiving any prompting as to ‘correct colour usage’. This allowed her to figure out new ways of seeing.  This use of surrealism, although producing dreamlike images, really does drive home the documentary aspect of her project, creating a far stronger narrative than if it were in a full colour spectrum.

Sanne De Wilde – The Island of the Color Blind (2015)

Sanne De Wilde – The Island of the Color Blind (2015)

I actually struggled with this research as not all surrealist photographers produce work that is documentary in nature. The majority of surrealism work that I found seems to lie in the Photoshop confines – people levitating off surfaces, trick photography and so on.

Bibliography

Artspace Editors (2016) What Was Surrealism?. At: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/book_report/what-was-surrealism-54118?utm_campaign=juice_google&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI2ryl_P6P5QIVKx6tBh3WBgn0EAAYASAAEgItR_D_BwE (Accessed on 9 October 2019)

de Keyzer, C. (2001a) Camp #27, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 2001. At: https://www.carldekeyzer.com/zona-1/93t8f15wzohzwqjmnrjl682uhhptl9 (Accessed on 9 October 2019)

de Keyzer, C. (2001b) Camp #31, Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia, 2001. At: https://www.carldekeyzer.com/zona-1/mu80lbeg17pll8hkvllfpvs9to25ju (Accessed on 9 October 2019)

de Keyzer, C. (2003) Zona. At: https://www.carldekeyzer.com/zona-1 (Accessed on 9 October 2019)

Open College of the Arts (2018) Virtual Study Event Oct/Nov 2018 – Study Event Discussions – OCA Discuss. At: https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/virtual-study-event-oct-nov-2018/8034 (Accessed on 8 October 2019)

Walker, I. (2005) ‘Surrealism and photography’ In: The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. Oxford University Press. At: http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662716.001.0001/acref-9780198662716-e-1503 (Accessed on 8 October 2019)

Smithson, A. (2018) Charles H. Traub: Taradiddle | LENSCRATCH. At: http://lenscratch.com/2018/09/charles-h-traub-taradiddle/ (Accessed  09/10/2019).

Smyth, D. (2017) ‘The Island of the Colour Blind’ In: British Journal of Photography September 2017 (7863) pp.52–67.

The Island of the Color Blind | Sanne de Wilde | TEDxAmsterdam (2017) Directed by TedX Talks. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXZH-b5008U (Accessed  15/10/2019).

Exercise: Eight ways to Change the World

UN Millennium Goals set in 2000

I thought that before I take a look at two bodies of work from Panos Pictures Eight Ways to Change the World, which is based on the goals set by the UN Millennium Summit in September, 2000, I had better find out what the goals were so that I can better comment on the work of the photographers. The goals are listed to the left.

I have chosen to look at Chris de Bode and Adam Hinton’s work more closely. Chris de Bode’s photos are for the most part, quite intimate. He has photographed for goal #2 – primary education. His set of images are from Chimbiri, Ethiopia. He engages well with the children he photographs, featuring many close ups of the children. He employs a rather cinematic colour palette to his set of images – lots of teals and oranges and other earthy tones. He tends to photograph the children at their level, which creates more of an engagement with the viewer. He also photographs extremely low, which focuses the viewer’s eyes on details that one normally pass over and this focuses the viewer’s attention on the minutiae that is either lacking or in sad need.  In his series, he intersperses photos of pupils and classroom details. The captions accompanying the photos of the children are very personal, identifying the children by name, age and what they want to be when they grow up as well as a direct quote from each child. The photos of the children come across as hopeful and quite endearing. But it is the detail photos that really drive home the schooling conditions or lack of them. Writing on the black boards reveal the teacher’s own lack of education (poor spelling), very tatty textbooks, probably so out of date, are recycled for each class, lack of desks and other facilities, overcrowded classes. This juxtaposition of intimate portraits of the pupils and their very sparse learning environment and carefully worded captions carry a message of hope or positivity for the future in spite of all the adversity these children encounter.

Fig. 1. Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands – Chris de Bode, 06/2005
Sintayhu Shewatatik, 9, wants to be a trader when she grows up. “I want to be a trader because it’s a good profession, I can earn money. I want to sell biscuits, chocolate and sugar.” Sintayhu lives 20 minutes from school with her brother, two sisters and mother and father who are both farmers. In her village there are no shops and her inspiration comes from the shops in the main village of Chimbiri.

 

Fig. 2. Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands – Chris de Bode
Stationery cupboard in Chimbiri school. The onions on the bench are grown at the school by the teachers and sold in the local village to generate money for the school. Text books and posters for all the classes are borrowed and returned after each lesson.

Adam Hinton also photographed around primary education (goal #2), but unlike de Bode’s work, Hinton’s photos are more like environmental portraits. We see mothers and daughters standing or sitting in various scenarios inside or outside their homes. Although Hinton also uses a cinematic colour palette in his images, they are more subdued than those of de Bode’s. Hinton uses very lengthy captions to relay his message. The captions comprise quotes from mother and daughter which are only separated out by their first name. I found this quite confusing and found I had to reread the captions a few times. Perhaps this was the intention. Unlike de Bode, he doesn’t give any indication of the location of the photos. It was only after looking through and reading all the captions on his website that I noticed a sidebar indicating that they were taken in Guatemala. The Panos document provided by OCA has no such reference. I felt that Hinton’s images sans the captions could easily pass as tourist travel photographs. The narrative about people’s dreams and hopes for the future does not come through as clearly as it does in de Bode’s work.

Fig. 3. Grandmother Natividad Chub (50), no education, Mother, Olga Beatriz Cucul (29) no education and Daughter, Florencia Coc Cucul, (9), 3rd grade “I send my daughter to school so she can do much better for herself, so she can have a brighter future than me. I didn’t go to school and I don’t know how to read or write.” Olga “I like the fact that I’m able to go to school to learn, and to have the chance to complete my studies. Maybe then I could become a teacher.” Florencia (Adam Hinton, 06/2005)

 

Fig. 4. Mother Lucia Cac (52), 12 children, no education, with her Daughter Cleotilde Cholom Cac, (9), 1st grade “I wanted to go to school but my parents weren’t supportive. Anyway, in the community where I lived there wasn’t a school. As an adult I’ve tried again to get some schooling, but my husband hasn’t wanted me to. I want my daughter to finish her schooling so she can be someone important later on. She might be able to help us have a better life too.” Lucia (Adam Hinton, 07/2005)

 

Bibliography

Adam Hinton | Action Aid (s.d.) At: http://adamhinton.net/project/action-aid/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

de Bode, C. (s.d.) Eight ways to change the world— Chris de Bode. At: http://www.chrisdebode.com/stories#/eight-ways/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

United Nations Conferences, Meetings and Events – Millennium Summit (6-8 September 2000) (s.d.) At: https://www.un.org/en/events/pastevents/millennium_summit.shtml (Accessed on 5 October 2019)

Illustrations

Figure 1. de Bode, C. (2005) Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands – Sintayhu Shewatatik, 9, wants to be a trader when she grows up. “I want to be a trader because it’s a good profession, I can earn money. I want to sell biscuits, chocolate and sugar.” Sintayhu lives 20 minutes from school with her brother, two sisters and mother and father who are both farmers. In her village there are no shops and her inspiration comes from the shops in the main village of Chimbiri. Eight ways to change the world. At: http://www.chrisdebode.com/stories#/eight-ways/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

Figure 2. de Bode, C. (2005) Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands – Stationery cupboard in Chimbiri school. The onions on the bench are grown at the school by the teachers and sold in the local village to generate money for the school. Text books and posters for all the classes are borrowed and returned after each lesson. Eight ways to change the world. At: http://www.chrisdebode.com/stories#/eight-ways/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

Figure 3. Hinton, A. (2005) Grandmother Natividad Chub (50), no education, Mother, Olga Beatriz Cucul (29) no education and Daughter, Florencia Coc Cucul, (9), 3rd grade “I send my daughter to school so she can do much better for herself, so she can have a brighter future than me. I didn’t go to school and I don’t know how to read or write.” Olga “I like the fact that I’m able to go to school to learn, and to have the chance to complete my studies. Maybe then I could become a teacher.” Florencia.  Action Aid At: http://adamhinton.net/project/action-aid/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

Figure 4. Hinton, A. (2005) Mother Lucia Cac (52), 12 children, no education, with her Daughter Cleotilde Cholom Cac, (9), 1st grade “I wanted to go to school but my parents weren’t supportive. Anyway, in the community where I lived there wasn’t a school. As an adult I’ve tried again to get some schooling, but my husband hasn’t wanted me to. I want my daughter to finish her schooling so she can be someone important later on. She might be able to help us have a better life too.” Lucia Action Aid At: http://adamhinton.net/project/action-aid/ (Accessed on 6 October 2019)

Exercise: Seeing and Believing

Max Houghton’s essay was written in 2005 and is about the ethical role that NGO’s (via the media) should play in representing those people they purport to help. The media is frequently accused of misrepresenting “the other” in the media, but the fact is that much of this type of work is commissioned by the NGO’s in the first instance. The NGO’s are “the fixers” on the ground level, organizing the trips the journalists take to the places of interest. In a way the NGO’s are directing the narrative they want the journalists to present.

A code of conduct was drawn up in 1989 providing guidelines to the way prople should be perceived, but it was never formally adopted. A revised version was supposed to be released in 2006. [I am assuming that this has been done as the following link to the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO) site highlights the Code of Ethics].

The aim of the Code of Ethics document was to reinforce the fact that NGO’s should be scrutinized and held accountable in much the same manner as political powers are.

Paul Lowe, photojournalist and lecturer, favoured the notion of having more local indigenous photographers to represent their own country and situations so that local points of view could be obtained – not just Western points of view.

Adrian Evans of Panos Pictures is of the opinion that NGO’s have a responsibility to encourage the teaching of photojournalism at the local level. Photography is “an essential tool that can be used for cultural reconstruction” (Houghton, 2005: 36).

It is essential to document the inequalities in the world, but the way the images are used needs careful consideration.

 

Bibliography

Houghton, M. (2005) ‘Seeing and Believing’ In: Ei8ht Photojournalism 4 (3) December 2005 pp.34–37.

WANGO (s.d.) World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations – Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs. At: https://www.wango.org/codeofethics.aspx?page=2 (Accessed on 5 October 2019)

William Eggleston

I have never quite understood the fuss about Eggleston’s work, apart from the fact that he is purported to be a pioneer in colour photography, although colour photography had been around for about 100 years prior to Eggleston’s MOMA exhibition. I find John Szarkowski’s “eureka-like” statement about photographers working as if colour was not a problem to be resolved in isolation, “but rather as though the world itself existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing” quite gobsmackable (to put it one way). How pedantic can one be? Did he think that the human race was devoid of photoreceptors in their retinas before Eggleston came along, that we only had scotopic vision and that our photopic vision was non existent? OK – rant over, I just had to vent on that.

To put it into better context, Szarkowski explains in his Introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide that photographers really did not know how to handle or interpret colour as they were so used to B&W processing. Early colour photography had received a bad rap being likened to Abstract Expressionist paintings and was only reluctantly used to pay the bills (advertising work). Just as languages change – word usage becomes archaic and new words come into common use, so has the language of colour photography evolved. It no longer resembles the pretty chocolate box image, but is filled with experience. It is presenting a new way of seeing the banal. Eggleston’s photos are public, yet they represent his own private way of viewing the world.

Eggleston’s subjects are all centrally placed. He claims to base his compositions on the Confererate flag.  After looking William Christenberry’s work, I think I have a better appreciation of Eggleston’s work now. Strange how looking at one photographer’s work can change one’s perspective of another. Perhaps Mark Holborn (1984) best sums up Eggleston’s work:  “The absence of event creates the drama. The implications of a narrative proceed around the pictures. The title makes the drama explicit”.

In looking at some of Eggleston’s Graceland images one can see that he focuses on including revealing details in his photographs – details which constitute the persona (in this case of Elvis Presley). From a interesting documentary perspective, I came across two versions of this photo of Elvis’s lounge. It seems that some staging or rearranging had taken place. On the photo on the right, one can see a pot plant and a photo of Presley’s parents on the sideboard alongside a clock. We see that these have been removed and replaced with a book about John F. Kennedy that features the stars and stripes on the cover and another stack of blue and white books next to that (I wish I could see the titles of the books, as I’m sure they were not randomly chosen). By switching out the parental photo and common household pot plant with the books, Eggleston has immediately imbued Presley with a national hero status (icon). He is no longer a son loved by a mother and father, but someone who was loved nationally (and internationally).

Bibliography

Holborn, M. (1984) ‘Color Codes’ In: Aperture 96 (Fall) pp.8–15.

Rods & Cones (s.d.) At: https://www.cis.rit.edu/people/faculty/montag/vandplite/pages/chap_9/ch9p1.html (Accessed on 5 October 2019)

Szarkowski, J. (s.d.) WILLIAM EGGLESTON – William Eggleston’s Guide (Intro). At: http://www.egglestontrust.com/guide_intro.html (Accessed on 5 October 2019)

William Eggleston – William Eggleston’s Guide. (2018) Directed by Rudakov. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VduWBg87Elw (Accessed on 5 October 2019)