Barbara Kruger, Sarah Sense and abstract layers of meaning

You know how it is – when something new and specific comes into your mind, then suddenly evidence of that thing seems to be everywhere. I recall that feeling when I was pregnant the first time, and evidence of pregnancy and babies that I had not noticed before suddenly came into sharp focus. I am having the same experience with the idea of Text and Images at present. It’s as if suddenly my eyes have been opened to the significance of something I’ve never thought about before.

The course text refers us to Barbara Kruger, as a photographer who uses advertising conventions to subvert their messages. Her work is political in nature and asks us to question prevailing thinking. Her images fit in well with the current zeitgeist and I notice that she has been using Trump in her work recently, reflecting the so-called “Fake Media” view of him. Her work fits in well with the low-level trolling and poking fun at the new American President which is aimed at needling him into making a fool of himself. (Go, Barbara! I’m right behind you. The man is a menace.)

For example, this image below is brilliant – funny, scathingly truthful and covertly taking a swipe at Trump and his alt-right fans.

Barbara Kruger 2

© Barbara Kruger

There are reminders of the work of other political photographers, such as Peter Kennard, whom I heard lecture back during TAOP. Both use collage and iconic images to make their points in clever, easy to grasp ways.

The interesting thing about Kruger’s work is that she takes a piece of text and pastes it over a seemingly entirely unconnected image, and the result is a space where the viewer has to work to fit the two messages together. The photographer provides clues, but the viewer has to join the dots, as it were. In the image above, we have the following elements:

  • an image of a person, who we assume is Hitler because of the moustache and uniform, although his eyes are covered.
  • two bits of text (well, three really, but the upper two are connected)
  • a message about mind control
  • another message about not believing internet trolls
  • a third message, which sits in the notional gap between text and image (not the physical gap) about Hitler’s use of psychological warfare and disinformation during WW2, and
  • a fourth message (also within the gap) warning people to beware of current re-use of those techniques to direct the population’s thinking via the internet. i.e. don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and attempts to direct our thinking may well be organised and coordinated. The small type point of the “If” at the beginning of the text also implies that the default position is that our minds are controlled, and only clear-thinking people can see above this to the wider point.

All this in one image. It is a very powerful way of making a point quickly that is much more complex to explain in words.

Our coursework text argues that there are three ways an image and some text can be related:

directional – the words are explanatory of the image. One thinks of basic reportage in this category, where the pictures are an illustration of the words, such as this below from today’s BBC website.         Directional text
The image illustrates the words and the words explain the image. I very much doubt whether anyone was commissioned to make the image. It was simply lifted from a stock photo library of happy, smiling girls. (Why is it always girls?)

orientational – the words give some general information about the image, such as the place it was taken, such as this image below, taken from the Landscape Photographer of the Year website. The text explains the location of the image and who it was by.

John Gibbs

complementary – the text and the image together produce a space into which a third idea is placed. Each of the elements has value on its own, but together they produce another idea altogether. That idea relies on the viewer taking enough time to work it out for his/herself, and it is a concept that is currently very popular in Art Photography.

Which brings me to Sarah Sense. I found her work while I was doing research for assignment 3 of Context & Narrative, and was struck by her method of deconstructing and reconstructing images to say something about her mixed heritage roots and in particular some of the symbolism used in basket-weaving by different groups. Yesterday, I returned to it, in relation to my post on Thomas Kellner, and discovered that she has move on since I last looked at her site. An example of her recent work is shown below, and it combines both the physical re-weaving of the image she is known for, but also integrated and external text. It is part of a series called Remember, which along with its predecessor Chocktaw Irish Relation, takes the words of her grandmother’s memoirs and reproduces them both within the image and as accompanying text, both handwritten. (Both can be viewed on her website here). The result gives a sense of her relationship with her grandmother, and their shared heritage through what are on first sight fairly straightforward landscape images. But like the Barbara Kruger image above, once can unpeel the ideas of the image like an onion, to find others beneath them which are more abstract.

Sarah Sense-Remembering

© Sarah Sense, 2016

From a personal standpoint, I am intrigued by the idea that one can use physical layers to produce abstract layers of meaning, and would like to try it out in some of my own work.

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11 thoughts on “Barbara Kruger, Sarah Sense and abstract layers of meaning

  1. Catherine

    I’m very interested in capturing layers of meaning and so it’s been really helpful to be reminded of Barbara Kruger and also read more on Sarah Sense. I know you’ve experimented before with weaving photographs together so look forward to seeing you to more. I’ve also bought the book on ‘The Subversive Stitch’ . You’re leading me astray you are!

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  2. Stefan J Schaffeld

    like you concluding insight of physical layers referring to abstract conception and meaning. Very much to core of painting as I see it. Ekphrasis is at times used to use text to figure essence of an image. I like the in betweenness, is there more than an image or a text can convey without being illustrative? Where would you see current practices of advertisement residing (current = 21th century ads) and compared to the current art photography practice? Love your thought provoking post – why always girls? good question – who is the audience.

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    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      Hi, Stefan, your comments are so insightful. I hadn’t come across the word Ekphrasis before, but it exactly describes what I am trying to do. Thank you. About an image and text saying more than being simply illustrative – absolutely, yes! That is what this course section is about. About the positioning of current advertising with regard to art photography, I am inclined to say that it has moved away from being blatantly obvious in its message, at least in the UK, but every so often I see an advert that is so abstruse that it is incomprehensible. I suppose with all adverts, the message needs to be clear or it has failed.

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      1. Stefan J Schaffeld

        Yes , I find current ads at times too absurd – perhaps too ‘subversive thought’ from the makers. Was wondering about continuation of modern practices till today of some crossing between ads and art

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