Category Archives: Part 5 – Removing the figure

Assignment 5 – performance photography

Marina Abramovic

As part of the tutor feedback for Assignment 5, my tutor suggested that I look at the work of some women photographers who specialise in performance photography, and provided some suggestions. From these, I decided to focus on the work of Marina Abramovic and Juno Calypso, both of whose work features women’s figures to make points about their feminist ideals.
I’d come across Abramovic before, when she did The Artist is Present, a piece where she sat for days at MoMA looking at whoever was willing to spend a length of time (which was up to them) sitting in a chair opposite her. It was a huge success, with people queuing for hours to take part, and Abramovic says that it had profoundly moved her. She works with the idea of identity, but not just her personal identity but how others see her, and how observers interact with the performance. Thinking it through, I presume that she must be as interested in the observer’s view of her as they are interested in what she is doing. Performance art, by its nature is difficult to copy for the archive and much of her work has either been photographed as still or as videos. Which brings me to her influence on my work. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of images of her in various costumes and poses, all with her trademark use of single colour, high fashion clothing, mostly black and red. Here are a few examples below.

It’s interesting to consider Abramovic’s relationship to these images. Clearly she is subject, but there is also a strong sense of directorship as well. I don’t think they can be described as self-portraits, but they seem to fall in the gap between that and standard portraiture, where the image is taken by someone else. And one must not forget the observer’s contribution to the situation. Abramovic appears to be the very embodiment of Barthes Death of the Author, with the photographer, the subject and the audience all being essential elements in her performance. At the same time, one gets a sense of Abramovic as someone who craves attention, and who is willing to go to extreme lengths in order to court it, but who is also strong in her sense of self. A very complex person, whose performances can be unpicked to consider the idea of identity and who forms it – the artist/subject or the audience.

Juno Calypso

Juno Calypso is more a photographer in the convention sense. Again, I had come across her work, as a past winner of the International Photography Award. She works in self portraiture, but with her face concealed either by the camera angle, her hair or a prop such as a mask. Again there is a strong sense of female empowerment, but the content of Calypso’s work belies this; she presents herself as Anywoman in situations with which women are familiar – the gynae couch, getting out of the bath, preparing to go out, etc. All are shot in a vivid and slightly queasy 1950s colour palette of pinks and blues, and they are as striking for their composition as for their content.

As she writes on her website:
Secretly photographing herself at her grandmothers house or in bedrooms rented online. Joyce was used to reenact the private life of a woman (her own construct) consumed by the labour of constructed femininity, carried out to the point of ritualised absurdity. (Calypso, 2017)

Here we are looking at the rituals and performance that being a ‘proper’ woman requires – bathing, staring at oneself in the mirror, blow drying her hair. It’s all so normal, but it’s not. The character is not real, and her story isn’t either. The whole thing is a performance, and a comment on how women were portrayed in the 20th century. The odd thing is that what she is doing should be normal, but instead it is extreme and ridiculous and it makes us feel uncomfortable.

So how does the work of these two women relate to my own assignment? Abromovic’s work is about the performance first and foremost, and the use of ritualistic poses to make arresting images. She is also investigating how other people see her. Calypso’s work is almost the opposite. She appears to be alone in her images, in a separate world of studied perfection. Some of her images are very posed, while others pretend to be more documentary, but all of them are about the gilded cage of being the perfect woman, preparing to stand on her pedestal, ready to be admired. Of the two I prefer the work of Calypso – it tells the story of make-believe and female rituals undertaken in our private spaces which resonates with the work I have been doing. Her images also make me want to set up a counter narrative of the reality of bathroom rituals in the average family home, surrounded by empty shampoo bottles, flannels and children’s bath toys. And I like how her work makes me think about new ideas of my own.

Abramovic, Marina (2017) [online] At: (Accessed on 29.01.18)
Calypso, Juno (2017) [online] At: (Accessed on 29.01.18)
MoMA (2010) Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present [online] At: (Accessed on 29.01.18)


Exercise 5.1 – Traces and still life

During April 2017, I made a three week journey to Australia and for this exercise I have chosen to use a series of transient sculptures which were on display when I visited the Scenic World Park in the Blue Mountains. Part of the offer there is a 4km walkway through the rainforest, which has changed little since the Jurassic Period. The way the company has made the forest accessible (even to wheelchair users) while keeping intervention to an absolute minimum is by the placing of a raised walkway on stilts. And I was lucky enough to encounter this exhibition of outdoor sculpture while I was there.

The sculptures used either rubbish or found materials on the whole, but I was particularly struck by this series, which uses mirrors, rope, string and light to produce delicate, ephemeral marks on the landscape, which could easily be removed when the exhibition finished without leaving a trace.

The instructions for this exercise are ‘Create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people‘ and the expectation appears to be that we are expected to use our homes and everyday items to make our still life images. However, I very much like the organised yet thoughtful way that the artists have used the landscape as both a backdrop and as part of their installations, making use of it to present their beautiful objects and also to comment on the way that we humans invade and take over wherever we go.

As a final note on this series, I was interested in the copyright issues of making images of sculpture in public places. This explanation seems to imply that, in the UK at least, objects in public displays ere ok to photograph, providing it is not for sale or personal gain to the photographer. Indeed, the photographer almost certainly has copyright of their image themselves. Museums and galleries can post signs telling visitors not to photograph anything on display, but it is impractical to enforce in a large unmonitored area. The rules may be different in Australia, however. Until just now, I didn’t know who made each of the sculptures, as I had failed to pick up a catalogue. After a Google search though, I discovered there is an online catalogue, which can be viewed here:


A quick update on photobooks and assignment 5

I’ve been busy over the last few days playing around with book formats. Here are a few images of a photobook I have made using the pocket frame technique. I suspect it is something that is taught in school for framing school photos, but I upped the ante a little by using a variety of bee themed papers and including transparent plastic covers for each of the images. It seems to be a useful addition to my book styles, as it opens totally flat and folds flat easily. The only problem is that I am not sure what images to put into it.

Since then, I have received some very beautiful Japanese papers from Shepherds in London, and selected the combination of paper, book type and methodology for presenting assignment 5. A taster images is shown below. I intend to replace the white thread with a green one and to make a presentation box for it.




Project 1 – reflection point

For this piece of work, we are asked to consider the sentence below, with reference to the work of William Eggleston and Richard Wentworth:

The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art.

We are asked to answer the following questions:

  • Where does that leave the photographer? As story teller or history writer?
  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?
  • How could you blend your approach?
  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

The coursework suggests that, by removing the figure from an image, the viewer is encouraged/forced to make up his/her own story to explain what they are looking at. Hints and clues may be there, but it is the viewer who decides what they mean, not the photographer. The information also looks at William Eggleston’s series Memphis and explains that the lack of figures does not necessarily mean there is no information on the people who inhabit the spaces he photographs. Eggleston uses objects to hint at the people who use them, such as the tricycle shown in the coursework text.

Wentworth’s images of pieces of rubbish wedged into cracks in walls and domestic objects shown in a street context also hint at stories which the viewer must interpret. However, the question I would ask with both photographers is how much input they had into the scene they photograph. Clearly, some of Wentworth’s images are posed, although not all – see below. They utilise very mundane objects and make slightly jokey points about the incongruity of some of the things we see while going about our daily lives.

I am not so sure with Eggleston, although there is a very constructed feel about them. See below.

Both photographers appear to be using observation to collect together a series of images that say something about the place they are photographing and the characters of the people who live there. However, the individual stories are left up to us.

So, returning to the questions we are asked to consider, I would argue that these photographers are a little bit of both story teller and historian, but that these labels don’t really get to the heart of the subject matter. What the images really are is an invitation to think about how the objects got there, who did they belong to, and why, thus making us think outside the frame of the individual image to the place in which it was made. The story teller is really the viewer, not the photographer.

The second question asks whether I by nature tend towards fact or fiction in my photography. I would say probably 70% fact and 30% fiction, thinking about the work I have be making for my various courses. A conceptual element is creeping in nowadays, which probably means a move away from the simply factual. Others might disagree with this assessment though. I do feel that my work is moving away from simple reportage towards trying to visualise ideas, and this is something I intend to continue as the course goes on.

Conversely though, I have a strong aversion to making changes to the environment in which an image was made, in order to “improve” the composition. I prefer to leave things as I found them, and to work with what I see. An example of this is shown below, where nothing was added or taken away (apart from the photographer in the images, of course). The armchair and the panda bear really were exactly as we found them, in the derelict room.


Preparation for assignment 5

Following a suggestion from my tutor that I work with the prints I made for Exercise 4.5, I have been thinking about how I could present them in an organised way. This would mean that they need to be contained and viewable from both sides. After some mulling and a few experiments, I think I have come up with something that will work, using one of the books I made after the SW OCA workshop last month. The Sewn and Tied binding (Golden, 2010, p66) but essentially it consists of pieces of board sandwiched between a folded sheet of paper, and sewn together as individual leaves. The result is a book that lies completely flat and each leaf has weight and thickness.

So what I have done is cut a window in the leaf and then sandwiched my image between two sheets of plastic and presented it in the window. The remaining question I have now is about whether one can do away with the inner board altogether and just have the plastic sandwiched within the folded paper.  This process means the images are both contained and double sided, but an added bonus is that each leaf is made separately, so the chances of ruining the book from one of the leaves is much reduced. (The whole process of gilding and then presenting the work is very fiddly and time-consuming, so this is a real bonus). There are a couple of photos below of my test images below.

My next consideration needs to be about whether to include some of the words that I put around the edge of the version of the work below. I suspect that it will need them.

two side of womanReferences

Goldin, A. (2010) Making handmade books. New York: Lark.