Exercise: “Seeing is Believing”

The Brief

Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’. Read all the replies to it then write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure you visit all the links on the blog post. Base your opinions on solid arguments and, if you can, refer to other contributors to the blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 78)

I’m the 77th respondent to this exercise, some 8.5 years later and it is quite difficult to find something fresh to say after all these years. I’ve read through the comments and clicked on the links (dare I say – thankfully not all of them work!) and I’ll watch the Slavoj Žižek video later – I did have a quick look at the first few minutes, but didn’t want to get distracted from all the comments waiting for me.

Although I tend to agree with Obama’s decision not to publish the photo because of  fear of  retaliation or propaganda, not to mention the risk of creating a cult-hero status among Al Quada and other radical groups similar to what was created by Che Guevara’s death (commodification – just take a walk in Havana, Cuba to see how marketable Guevara has become), one does have to wonder if that was the real reason for suppressing the image(s) or ordering the destruction of them. The CNN video on this page – https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/11/politics/e-mail-photos-destroyed-osama-bin-laden/index.html – offers some interesting food for thought, reporting that it may have been a violation of the law to have destroyed those images. Compare the public’s need to see the evidence of Bin Laden’s death to the photographic evidence provided of Elvis’s death.  Forty-two years after Elvis’s death and there are still people claiming that he is alive (https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/weirdest-elvis-presley-sightings-conspiracy-2125270-2125270). This ties in with Stan’s notion that “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. The viewer will believe what he/she wants to believe whether he/she sees it or not – each person’s “crap detector” is different.

Since Jose first posted this article, the media rhetoric has gone ballistic. Fake news abounds on the internet and in social media. How do we discern who to trust? Do we trust the well known news corporations like BBC, NBC, CNN, CBC, Fox? Are the narratives they broadcast not governed by their owners’ corporate agendas and infused by their politics? (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/04/18/jeff-bezos-amazon-washington-post-217994). I won’t even go down the route of politicians’ agendas 🙂 !

Peter’s statement/question that “truth may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one – even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?” is something that I’ve been struggling with in this section of the course work. In reading Joan Fontcuberta’s essay in Truth & Fictions (Pedro Meyer) he references Picasso’s painting of Guernica. Picasso was not an eyewitness to the bombing and he questions how Picasso came by his information about the event. Picasso’s painting has today become a symbol of modern warfare. Is this Cubist painting any less of a documentary value than a photograph of the event? I don’t believe so. Fontcuberta poses a couple of questions that I think are key to understanding this dichotomy: “what matters in a document – the intention that originated it or the effect it elicits? What is important – its aesthetic status as evidence or the social function that is assigned to it? (Meyer, 1995:8).

In this media-frenzied society we find ourselves today with a 24/7 news culture it really is a question of each (wo)man for him/herself to use our discernment and question the evidence around us if we don’t want to be manipulated by images.

 

Bibliography

Lesser, C. (2017) What Makes Guernica Picasso’s Most Influential Painting – Artsy. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-guernica-picassos-influential-painting (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Meyer, P. (1995) Truths & Fictions | a journey from documentary to digital photography. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Mylrea, H. (2019) The weirdest Elvis Presley sightings and conspiracy theories. At: https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/weirdest-elvis-presley-sightings-conspiracy-2125270-2125270 (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Navarro, J. (2011) Seeing is Believing | The Open College of the Arts. At: https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/seeing-is-believing/ (Accessed  26/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual. (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Schafer, J. (2018) What Does Jeff Bezos Want? – POLITICO Magazine. At: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/04/18/jeff-bezos-amazon-washington-post-217994 (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Research Point: Hannah Starkey and Charley Murrell

Charley Murrell’s work revolves around the negative impact the role of advertising has on our youth and the perceptions they have of themselves. Murrell created this series as her final project in university and used her bedroom as her studio as well as shooting in the children’s homes. Her Constructed Childhoods is simultaneously poignant and also rather chilling and most definitely thought provoking. The children in her photos act out their adult roles before her camera, but it is her use of signifieds in each image that causes the viewer to do a double take and come in for a closer examination.

In Fig. 1 we see a little girl sitting before a dressing table, putting on make up. Her actions are not those of a little girl playing dress up, but rather resemble those of her mother if we look at the angle that the head is held and the upward lift of the chin as she gazes into the mirror. But it is her returned gaze that stops us in our tracks. The overly large (Photoshopped) eyes are dead, expressionless – as if she has been exposed to more than she should have been at that age. There is no innocence reflected back at us. Very chilling!

Murrell is not averse to using a slight touch of humour to get her point across either. In Fig. 2 we have a little boy posing in front of a mirror, flexing his muscles as if he has just completed a weight lifting session. He proudly pushes his chest out and looks down at his “action figure abs” (again Photoshopped) – the culprit responsible for his body image issues standing in a similar pose on his bedside table. I did have a chuckle when I viewed this image as this is the only image in this set that addresses boys’ body image issues and it has been done in such a way that would deliver the message to children of that age group. But at the same time I was saddened that children should perceive that their toys are representative of the ideal bodies to which they feel they should aspire to achieve.

Hannah Starkey is well known for using light/shadow and mirrors and reflections in her work. She uses actresses or strangers who she asks to pose for her in her work. She often positions her subjects with their backs to the camera which set up an ambiguous dialogue between subject and viewer. What is the person thinking/looking at/doing? As Charlotte Cotton states: “we are not given enough visual information to make characterization the focal point of the image … we make meaning from a dynamic process of connecting interior space and objects …” (Cotton, 2009: 60). Her photography is a staged naturalism that echoes the self-conscious and unconscious (Campany, 2003:187).

It doesn’t seem that Starkey has a website as I had to jump around to find her Untitled series. What I found probably doesn’t come from a particular series per se. Personally I think her work falls more into the art photography category and don’t really quite see the “documentary” side of things in her work. Yes, she photographs women sitting in cafes or restaurants with far away expressions on their faces, often alone, or with their backs to the camera. Yes, her photographs are beautiful tableaux, but do they really convey “the psychological and physical space of an individual in contemporary Western society, during a climate of uncertainty” as Bright states (2011:95)? Perhaps Sean O’Hagan (2018) describes her work best as being “traditional observational documentary … (that is) … deftly choreographed”. I can go along with that – that’s pretty much what Jeff Wall does, except that his work seems to have more narrative attached to it.

In comparing Murrell’s and Starkey’s work, I find that Murrell has a very clear message or narrative that she is trying to get across, and she most assuredly succeeds in doing so. I feel rather ambivalent about Starkey’s narrative, but to be fair, perhaps if the work that we are being asked to critique was located in one place and could be viewed as a series, instead of stand alone images, I may have a different take on things.

The course manual asks me to consider what aspects of their work I might consider adopting in my own practice. If I have to be honest, I don’t think I’d adopt any. I’m not really interested in staging tableaux nor do I have space or the inclination to do studio work.

Bibliography

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Campany, D. (2003) Art and Photography. New York: Phaidon Press Limited.

Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Jobey, L. (2018) Photographer Hannah Starkey on her everyday heroes | Financial Times. At: https://www.ft.com/content/dccde37c-e098-11e8-8e70-5e22a430c1ad (Accessed  25/11/2019).

Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

O’Hagan, S. (2018) ‘Photographer Hannah Starkey: ‘I want to create a space for women without judgment’’ In: The Observer 08/12/2018 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/08/hannah-starkey-photographer-interview-space-for-women-sean-ohagan (Accessed  25/11/2019).

Illustrations

Figure 1. Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed 24 November 2019)

Figure 2. Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed 24 November 2019)

Figure 3. Starkey, H. (2016) Untitled, Paris, September 2016. At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hannah-starkey/untitled-paris-september-2016-a-KanX8fOZB2diX1GqgJepPQ2 (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

Figure 4. Starkey, H. (1998) Untitled – October, 1998. [c-print] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hannah-starkey/untitled-october-Nn_xJTdQkyhd7HsYXPfnRw2 (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

Alma Haser and Jeff Wall

The course manual describes Alma Haser’s work as “(embedding) the true and invested stories she reads or learns of an incorporates them into choreographed and staged scenes” (Open College of the Arts, 2014: 76). Mention is made of her Paper series, but I could not find that on her website. However, it seems that most of her work does involve using paper of some sort. I really cannot make the connection with her work and performative documentary, unless the documentary connotation should come from the process she goes about to make each photograph. Haser herself describes her work as being an expansion of traditional portraiture and uses various origami techniques, collage and mixed media to create layers on her photos, rendering a rather Cubist impression. Her photos go through a 2D -> 3D -> 2D process. Her work is, therefore, constructed portraiture.

When I first looked at her I Always Have to Repeat Myself series I was immediately reminded of Ed Spence’s work. Ed Spence is another Vancouver artist. The manual pixelation of parts of the images is quite similar.

 

Ed Spence, Careful! You’re Falling Inside Yourself Again, 2015
Unique archival pigment print with glue

On the other hand Jeff Wall’s photography resemble historical tableaux. He does, after all hold a Ph.D. in art history. He presents his images in huge lightboxes, printing his work out on transparency film and allowing the light to shine through from the rear, achieving a cinematographic effect.  Much of Wall’s work is inspired by master painters like Delacroix, Manet and even from literature (Ralph Ellison – The Invisible Man). His work consists of many images which are stitched together, created almost in a similar manner as a master painter would have created a tableau.

Wall very often recreates scenes that he observes while out walking. He uses large format cameras and this allows him to capture an incredible amount of detail in his work. This creates a certain tension when viewed in a gallery – the viewer often interacting with his work by standing back to take in the entire scene and then moving in closer to observe the minutiae. Much of Wall’s work is suggestive of various social issues: racial tension, class, gender or conflict. He classifies this work as ‘near-documentary’ (Jeff Wall | Gagosian, s.d.).

By depicting incidents that he witnesses but does not attempt to photograph in the moment, he opens up formal and dramatic possibilities for pictures that, he has said, “contemplate the effects and meanings of documentary photographs.”

(Jeff Wall | Gagosian, s.d.)

Below is a video of Wall talking about his process for ‘near-documentary’ photography. Wall’s work is always performative as he hires actors to work with him to recreate the photographs he sees.  I recall seeing a video on the way Wall works a while ago on TV where he was shooting Boy falls from a tree. There was film footage of his day’s shoot where a boy of about eleven years old would climb up into the tree and fall down (onto a thick mattress), trying all sorts of poses according to Wall’s memory of when he actually fell from a tree in his youth.

I really can’t see a similarity between Alma Haser’s work and Jeff Wall’s. Now if the comparison had been between Gregory Crewdson and Wall – entirely different matter …

 

Bibliography

Eugène Delacroix (1827) The Death of Sardanapalus. H. 3.92 m; W. 4.96 m.: Louvre. At: https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/death-sardanapalus (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Haser, A. (s.d.) Alma Haser. At: http://www.haser.org/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Hokusai, K. (s.d.) Ejiri in Suruga Province (Sunshū Ejiri), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) | Japan | Edo period (1615–1868) | The Met. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/55735 (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Interview: Alma Haser | Photoworks (s.d.) At: https://photoworks.org.uk/ideas-series-interview-alma-haser/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Jeff Wall | Gagosian (s.d.) At: https://gagosian.com/artists/jeff-wall/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Jeff Wall: ‘I begin by not photographing’ (2010) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yG2k4C4zrU (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Krieger, D. (s.d.) Alma Haser Brings a Handcrafted Surrealism to Photography — Humble Arts Foundation. At: http://hafny.org/blog/2017/7/alma-haser-brings-a-handcrafted-surrealism-to-photography (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Manet, E. (1882) A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. At: https://www.manet.org/a-bar-at-the-folies-bergere.jsp (Accessed  24/11/2019).

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

Photographer Jeff Wall & A sudden gust of wind (s.d.) At: https://publicdelivery.org/jeff-wall-gust-of-wind/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Stallabrass, J. (2010) ‘Julian Stallabrass, Museum Photography and Museum Prose, NLR 65, September–October 2010’ In: New Left Review Sept/Oct (65) pp.93–125.

The Destroyed Room | NGV (s.d.) At: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/multimedia/the-destroyed-room/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Wall, J. (1979) Picture for Women. [Transparency in lightbox  Cinematographic photograph] 1425 x 2045 mm. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/jeff-wall/jeff-wall-room-guide/jeff-wall-room-guide-room-1 (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Exercise: Hasan and Husain Essop

The Brief

View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition Figures and Fictions and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log or blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 76)

So this is where I find the documentary lines becoming quite blurred. The underlying premises of documentary photography is to make the viewer an eyewitness to an event, and furthermore to inform or educate said viewer. Although John Grierson in Franklin, 2016:6 states that documentary is ‘a creative treatment of reality’ just how far can one really stretch the limits? David Bate states “A spectator can participate by seeing ‘with their own eyes’ what the photographer has seen” (Bate, 2009:59) and this further implies a trust agreement between photographer and spectator.

Although the Essop brothers photograph conflicting aspects of their identity as Muslims and their place in a Western society, notwithstanding that their work is highly creative, I would really not go so far as to classify their work as documentary for a few reasons. Firstly they as photographers have not “seen” the event. They have collectively imagined it: “we are creating works in our mind and conversing and debating about it until we both have an agreement” (Video: Figures & Fictions: Hasan and Husein Essop – Victoria and Albert Museum, s.d.). Secondly, the work consists of digitally stitching many photographs of themselves acting out a part together to create one image. They photograph themselves as means of working around certain religious restrictions. This method is explained in this posting.

“…in Islam that it’s not very permissible to put up pictures of people on your wall”.

(Victoria and Albert Museum, s.d.)

Their later work has a rather chilling message as can be seen in this video.  Although they state that they are just trying to show the world not to believe everything that is seen in the media, I do think the topics they have chosen to represent are in extremely poor taste and certain images are quite offensive and I feel they make a mockery of people’s sensibilities, especially if they are putting this series out for “educational purposes”.

So to sum up, I’d regard this type of photography more as performative art photography, or even digital art photography.

Bibliography

Bate, D. (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Constructed perspectives with Hasan & Husain Essop – YouTube (2017) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np4_Yqi2Pag (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Hawkins, L. (s.d.) How To Create Two of the Same Person in One Photograph Using Photoshop. At: https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-create-two-of-the-same-person-in-one-photograph-using-photoshop/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

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

Video: Figures & Fictions: Hasan and Husein Essop – Victoria and Albert Museum (s.d.) Directed by Urdaneta, F. At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/f/figures-and-fictions-hasan-and-husein-essop/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

 

Illustrations

Figure 1. Hasan and Husain Essop. (2009) Fast Twins. At: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/exhibitions/134 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Figure 2. Hasan and Husain Essop. (2009) Blessing Meat. At: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/exhibitions/134 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Exercise: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter’s work explores themes that are relevant to his local neighbourhood. Living in Ellington Road in a squat in Hackney he produced The Ghetto in a response to a news article which described the area as crime-ridden and derelict. The photographs featured his friends and neighbours and was an attempt to save the community from developers.

At college Hunter was heavily influenced by Vermeer’s work and he studied his work in depth. Using a 5 x 4 camera he became totally fascinated by the colour and depth of light that was revealed in these transparencies. While still living in the squat at Ellington Road, Hunter and all his neighbours received eviction notices. The notices were addressed to “Persons Unknown” and Hunter made a series of staged photographs influenced heavily by the work of Vermeer. His intention was to draw attention to this group of people (himself included) who were living in the squats, that they be accorded dignity and acknowledged that they too had voices to be heard. His most well known photograph in this series, Woman Reading a Possession Order which won the John Kobal photographic award in 1998, was inspired by Vermeer’s Girl reading a letter at an open window. Interestingly, there has always been some speculation as to who or what the letter in the painting contained, but recently it has been discovered that the figure of Cupid in Vermeer’s painting was overpainted by a subsequent owner and restorers have now revealed about half of Cupid’s figure which is painted on the wall above the girl. Vermeer used the Cupid motif in a few of his paintings, so a viewer’s interpretation now, upon seeing the representation of love in the original oil painting will be definitely slanted towards the letter being a love letter.

In Hunter’s representation, the woman is also standing in front of a window, the light streaming in to highlight her features. Her pose is the same as Vermeer’s girl, but instead of a spilled basket of fruit on the table as in the original, we see a baby sprawled out looking at its mother. Hunter uses art historical references to lend gravity to his work and uses elements of fiction in his work. Sometimes he just poses his subjects, other times he will stage the whole scene, arguing “that his fictions aren’t necessarily less truthful than straight documentary” (Smyth, 2012).

His Living in Hell and Other Stories series is a recreation of real-life stories/tragedies that happened, pulling captions for the images from local newspaper headlines, allowing the viewer to recreate the historical narrative for himself. Apart from the Dutch masters, he also draws much inspiration from the pre-Raphaelite painters who also passed social commentary in their works of art. Even though his work is staged in this series, it is made on location so it retains a certain degree of veracity.

I have always been a fan of Tom Hunter’s work since first coming across it in the C&N module. The way he draws inspiration from Renaissance painters is quire remarkable and the the way he makes use of the symbolism in art history and blends it with today’s social commentary is brilliant.

 

Bibliography

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Vermeer (2019) At: https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/research/vermeer/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Photographer Spotlight: Tom Hunter (s.d.) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=20&v=BuuMLEAF9Dk&feature=emb_logo (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Smyth, D. (2012) Think Global, Act Local | Tom Hunter. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ (Accessed  16/11/2019).

The Essay – Under the Influence – Tom Hunter – BBC Sounds (2011) Directed by May, J. 31/03/2011. 24 min 4 secs. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00zt7ky (Accessed  18/11/2019).