Category Archives: Research & Reflection

Final Thoughts on Identity & Place

So here I am. The third module of the degree finished and sent off for assessment, and it is time to review this module and where I plan to go to next.

Identity & Place has taken me nearly two years to complete, and I really struggled over the early assignments. Portrait photography is not my genre of choice, and I doubt I had taken a single deliberate portrait before I started this unit, which was why I signed up for it. However, once I had grasped the nettle and pulled, I began to enjoy some, if not all, of the potential for learning that I&P offered. As I was packing my images for posting, it is blindingly obvious that my technical and printing skills have improved significantly, although I would argue that there is still a long way to go, particularly with composition and lighting.

I would say I am happier with the quality of assignments 4 and 5 than the previous ones, and have been thinking about why that is. Assignment 4 had no people in it, being an exploration of a derelict building, while in assignment 5 the figure is only shown in silhouette, and so remains faceless, so neither get up close and personal with their subjects.

Two events were pivotal in stimulating a move forward in my work. The first was a bookmaking course I attended at the SW OCA group, and which was led by OCA tutor Polly Harvey. I have felt much more creative since taking that course, and have expanded my work beyond straight vanilla photographs towards something which explores the physical reality and materiality of the image and how it is presented. The second was the result of a chance post on Facebook that I happened to see, and which led to me to the POZERS Camera Club, a local group of women photographers who meet at a member’s studio and explore the potential of studio photography. Many hours of fun and learning have taken place there, and most of my personal favourite images of 2017. I had never previously considered that I might enjoy studio photography, with its connotations of ‘art nude’ (female, of course) and family portraits. However, this group is full of creativity and we are led by Alley, the studio owner, who has a background as a make-up artist and costume designer, and no end of whacky ideas, and I love it. Together these events have enabled me to step away from straight photography and to explore the medium in a more craft-based way.

Alongside the coursework, I have visited a variety of exhibitions ranging from Grayson Perry at the Arnolfini in Bristol to Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston and Thomas Ruff in London, amongst others. Of particular interest has been those exhibitions such as Perry’s and Jane Corbett’s in Marlborough, which use media other than photography. The overlap of ideas and the potentially different ways in which those ideas can be made into artwork is myriad, and very inspiring.

At the end of the module,  I feel much more comfortable about finding my voice. That voice is almost certainly going to come from exploring the ways in which the image can be manipulated physically and digitally, and how different art forms can be brought together to make objects that have elements of each, and crucially, which are unique, as in one-off. Producing something material that is not easily replicable is the almost inevitable result of mixing photography with bookmaking, sewing, knitting, patchwork etc. and it seems to provide a fairly clear pathway forward for me, especially when womens’ arts and feminism are added to the mix. The other area I would like to explore further is the archive, and how it can be set up to provide a pool of primary research material into which I can dip a toe here and there to consider why we make photographs. So the obvious next module for me to do is Digital Image and Culture, which I will be starting very shortly. The new blog can be found here: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/ .

In the meantime, I am involved in two OCA related collaborative projects:-

  • the Thames Valley group exhibition on the theme of Time, which will be shown in February 2019
  • a notebooks project to provide ideas and inspiration with the South West OCA group

I have also contributed to MA student Mathew Arnold’s project Grey Matters and forged some interesting links with local artists through the Marlborough open Studios event. Overall, I am very pleased with how much I have progressed during this module and look forward to seeing where the next one will take me.

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A few thoughts about the family archive

This is more of a place holder than anything, as it is something I want to consider during my next module. I have been charged with sorting out my Father-in-Law’s many, many photo albums, and whittling them down to a size which might actually be appreciated as a memento for the family. He was a keen photographer in his middle years, although not particularly artistic in his composition and framing, nor technique. Having gone through about ten albums now, a definite theme is appearing. He liked taking photographs of the places he visited on holiday and also the flowers and trees around where he lived (he still does live there, but is now staying in a care home). However, looking at them from the point of view of either his children or a friend, the number of images that have any value is extremely limited. I have pulled out hundreds of photos of various holiday destinations in the UK and Europe, and am concentrating on keeping the ones with family and friends in them, and also images of the local area which might be of historic interest outside the immediate family.

It has made me think again about why we take the photographs we do, and how many of my 50,000 odd images my own family might be interested in keeping. Probably not very many, and if they are anything like me, the ones which they will want to keep are the images of loved ones. And after a couple of generations, even these will be of only passing interest as records of the facial appearance of our ancestors. Not a very happy thought.

However, just to make use of some of the discarded ones, I am keeping them and in due course will use them for collage pieces, possibly in the style of Joe Rudko, who treats old photos as the raw materials for beautiful patchwork style collages. In the same way that women in the past kept old clothes to make patchwork quilts, I will use the old photos to make something new. It seems fitting, bearing in mind all the work and expense my FIL went to in making his records.

Some different ways of using an Archive – Photo Oxford, part 2

Val Williams On The Practice of Reconceptualising Photographic Archives

The afternoon was set out as a series of presentations on different ways in which the Archive has been utilised by curators/photographer, etc. First up was Val Williams, a writer, curator and academic. She showed a series which she had found on the internet, called the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow, which is wildly eccentric and very funny. It is a band, who write songs to accompany offbeat holiday slides from the 1970s which they project onto a wall while they are playing. Her point was that these songs and images embodied the idea of loss through the archive, while manipulating and making stories about what we see, with no direct link to the intentions of the original photographers. She also talked about the role of the archivist – to protect and collect – and how as time goes on the archive tends to take on some of the identity of the collector. With reference to how it can be used, she argued that one needed to use common sense and morality when making decisions about how the Archive is used, and in particular what is an acceptable appropriation and reinterpretation.

She finished by asking the audience to think about their own family archives, and what elements of family history they wanted to keep for posterity. Leaving stuff behind (after death) is a dangerous concept, as anyone could use the images for their own purposes. She also asked us to consider whether it matters if an archive is real or invented.

References she mentioned included:

In Conversation: Taco Hidde Bakker discusses Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor with artist Mariken Wessels

This project was a collaboration between Wessels, the photographer and Bakkeras, the background researcher and marketer. Wessels explained that she had previously been an actress and used this ability to create a person onstage in her obsession with Henry; she used what was available but also made bits up herself if what she wanted was not there. The main part of the archive came as a pack of images and stories from a friend, who was next door neighbour to Henry and his wife Martha in the 1980s. the 5000+ images were taken by Henry of Martha in various states of undress, and the sheer number of them, his accompanying notes about her poses and the relatively short period of time they covered indicate that Henry was completely obsessed with his project. Wessels was interested in both this obsession, but also Martha’s ordinariness, and the record of what started as a bit of fun, but over time became a drag and then a loathed requirement of Martha’s marriage. Wessels makes up a story about Martha finally throwing all the photographs out of the window and running away, thus taking back control. There are many layers to consider in this work, including Henry as the neighbour you see but do know, the use of private material without explicit permission for a public exhibition (nobody knows where either Henry or Martha a re now to ask them) the suffocating nature of the installation experience, in which the images are crowded together on all the walls, and the difficulty in assessing what is real about the archive and what was fabricated. In fact, I have a niggling doubt about whether any of it was original, and whether the whole project was made up by Wessels.

In Conversation: Curators Tim Clark and Greg Hobson discuss the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive with its owners, FUEL (Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell)

This was a fascinating talk. Murray & Sorrell had first heard about the tattoos via drawings made by a prison guard in St. Petersburg prison. Then they came across another archive by a policeman and newspaper photographer Sergey Vasilev, who had encouraged prisoners to sit for him in exchange for a print, in the late 1980s. Quite apart from the aesthetics of the images, the tattoos themselves are a language, which Vasilev uncovered while trying to understand what motivated the prisoners to do them. He discovered that they were symbolic at a number of different levels. Some tattoos were mementos of stays in various prisons and some were gang related, but he also discovered that the more complex the tattoo, the higher the status of the inmate within the prison hierarchy, and its location on the body meant different things depending on where it was. They were applied (all illegally) as decoration, but also as punishment (a form of bodily abuse). Common themes included churches (the number of domes indicated the prisoner’s incarcerations), the Madonna and child and SS symbols, but the meanings were not the same was we think of them.  At the end of the communist movement, the concept faded out and so this archive is a piece of Russian alternative history as well as a series of typological portraits. The speakers also pointed ou that the tattoos and their language eclipsed both nudity (prisoners were happy to display their tattoos in private parts of their body) and also their individuality (the tattoos said more about who they were than how they fitted into the prison hierarchy than they did themselves.

AS a result of all this, I decided to find a proper definition of the archive and came across this explanation What Is An Archives? from the Society of American Archivists, which seems to provide a good explanation, but also asks us to consider how we might want to look at our own family archives as potentially interesting primary sources. Something to pursue in Digital Image and &Culture.

All sorts of stuff relating to the archive

After attending the OCA Photography Hangout last night, which was discussing Allan Sekula’s essay, ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital‘, I looked back at the notes I’d taken at Photo Oxford in September, and realised there was considerable cross-over. So this is a post about both Sekula’s work and the Photo Oxford seminar.

Sekula’s Reading an Archive

Sekula’s essay Reading the Archive can be found as Chapter 42 of Wells (2003) The Photography Reader. It is a densely argued piece, which considers the political aspects of photography in some detail. He argues that all photographs potentially have a political angle which is frequently not acknowledged or even denied either at the time of making, or by later viewers. For example, Leslie Sheddon’s archive of commercial photographs from Cape Breton in the mid 20th century shows different strata of the local society when viewed now, although it might not have been directly considered at the time.

Sekula also considers the Archive, that ‘collection of primary materials waiting for someone to make connections between different elements within it’ (my definition). It cannot ever be complete, because it is amorphous, and constantly open both to new materials, but also to new interpretations of the material. It can never be fully understood.

Archives  constitute a ‘territory of images‘, i.e. those sources which belong to the person or institution who owns them, and who may buy and sell parts of it. However, ownership has little to do with the meaning of the work, which is produced by the researcher who picks and chooses the elements s/he wasn’t to compare, with the aim of telling a particular story (authorship). It is important to note though that the story is entirely dependent on the interpretation imposed by the researcher, and that there are a multiplicity of potential stories, with many different possible meanings, which can be gleaned from the archive. (abstract visual equivalence) This means that the politics and experience of the researcher will inevitably affect the outcome of that research, but also the politics and experience of the final viewer. There is no objectivity here; everything is subjective.

Sekula goes on to discuss how history is often dependent on pictures made at the time (whether they be paintings or photographs), and that these are frequently imbued with an aura of ‘truthfulness’ which when unpacked proves to be illusory. For example, an image of an Edwardian country lady with her family and servants has several potential histories depending on whose point of view you are considering it. What is civilisation to one person is barbarism to the next, always.

Moving on to the discussion we had at the Hangout, the following points came up:

  • once an image is accepted into the Archive, it loses its original meaning
  • we considered how one might research the archive and where to start – chronological, thematic etc.
  • once it has become disconnected from its original home, an image becomes untethered, waiting for a meaning to be imposed upon it.
  • so many old family photos become meaningless when the people within them die, as nobody then knows the stories and whom they describe
  • the Archive is not ‘truth’
  • in theory, photography could be a ‘universal language’ but its context is always affected by cultural assumptions
  • use of photographs as spectacle – an interpretation of history. History is as interpretive as art or photography
  • Moving on to how one uses images after they have been released into the internet, perfectly innocent images can have meanings attached to them that were never originally intended, e.g. the H&M advert. There is  no control by the original maker
  • potential of typologies to be used for nefarious purposes, such as eugenics.

The more I learn about The Archive, the more interesting it becomes. It can be used and interpreted in so many different ways, with the connection to the original maker being very close or wildly different. My next post will look at some of the exhibits at Photo Oxford with this in mind.

References

Sekula, Allan (2003) ‘Reading an archive; Photography Between Labour and Capital’ In Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge. Also available at : https://monoskop.org/images/7/74/Sekula_Allan_1983_2003_Reading_an_Archive.pdf (Accessed on 12.01.2018)

A trip to Bristol

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Yesterday, another OCA student Kate Aston and I went to Bristol to see the Grayson Perry exhibition, The Most Popular Exhibition Ever! I hadn’t really considered Bristol as a hub for art exhibition before, but will definitely be going back. It is much easier and cheaper to get to for me than London, and there is plenty of high quality work on show there, with the Arnolfini, Spike Island, M-Shed, The Lime Tree Gallery showing modern work, alongside the traditional museums, such as the Royal West of England, and of course, Martin Parr’s forthcoming event space.

The last time I went to the Arnolfini was for the Richard Long exhibition, which I reviewed here. Long and Perry have in common their penchant for large scale pieces and the huge rooms of the Arnolfini were an ideal location, giving the works plenty of space to breathe. The exhibition covered all three floors of the building, and it was very well attended, especially for a winter’s midweek morning – Perry is obviously a very popular artist, as per the exhibition title. Having said that, the title is really a play on words, as the exhibition looks at current popular culture of the last few years, and is very rooted in the 2010s, examining subjects like Brexit, the world of the internet and gender fluidity. I do wonder how some of the works will be seen when they become historical, rather than being contemporary. They will certainly say more about what was bothering people than many of the current, more ‘artsy’ stuff.

As we all know Grayson Perry spreads his creativity across a wide variety of media, but most of the work on display here was ceramic pots, tapestries. Most of the works were big, some were huge (see below). The ceramic pots were dotted about the building, with space to view them from all angles, which was essential as every side of the pots were covered in complex layers of colour, texture and a mind-boggling array of ideas. Minimalism is not a concept that appeals to Perry; his work tends more towards the maxim ‘If in doubt, bung it in’.  Perhaps partly for this reason, and also his overt transvestitism, the everyday subject matter and obvious political enthusiasm, he has had difficulty in being accepted by the arts establishment over the years, despite his obvious talent. Looking closely at some of his ceramics, it is hard not to be awed by his facility with colour and glazing techniques, and his riotous use of different ones within the same piece of work. I was particularly struck by the subtle gold transfers which were applied to many of the pots on top of the more obvious layers, for example.

Much has been written about Grayson Perry, and his ideas and methods, so I will not say any more about them. What really fascinated me about the exhibition was the exuberance of the work, his breadth of subject matter and materials, and his playfulness. I cam away feeling that a door had opened to me, away from the straight, unadorned photographic image. Perry lets us know that it is OK to experiment, and the more extreme and wacky, the better. This degree is a journey for me, and I should not feel constrained by current standards of what is considered the ‘right’ way of making images. If I want to embellish, alter or use multi-media alongside and within my images, that is fine. The journey is about exploration and playing with concepts, as much as producing standard images. Providing there is a clear(ish) methodology and contextualisation, anything goes.

It was a breath of fresh air!

PS, while Kate and I were thumbing through some of the books Perry has used as inspiration, we came across one called Lands End, by Ruth Claxton. Claxton’s work includes torn paper and embroidered photographs and is something I need to keep a note of for future work.

I am in love with an app

From I was introduced to the iPhone app Procam yesterday, and I think I am in love. The app itself purports to turn the iPhone into a fully functional RAW camera, and one can alter the f-stop, shutter speed and ISO to suit the conditions. However, the bit that I love is its filters section, and in particular the set of five different kaleidoscope effects. Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by the idea of using the pixels within an image to alter it while retaining the substance of the original, and this app is fantastic for doing that. The number of different patterns is almost infinite, as every slight adjustment one makes alters it completely (a bit like an old-fashioned kaleidoscope). Here are a couple of examples below.

From a tapestry wall hanging at the Bristol Grayson Perry exhibition

 From one of my test images for assignment 5

My plan is to print some of these entirely unique patterns and to use them as book covers for the associated pieces of work. I may also try printing them on fabric to see how they come out, with the possible aim of having fabric book covers as an alternative. My recent purchase of Charlotte Rivers’ (2014) Little Book of Book Making has simple instructions for this, using only household items.

Edited to add.

Further to this idea, I am also investigating ways of making handmade boxes for my assignments, particularly no. 5, which will be delicate and would benefit from some protection in transit to Barnsley. I only mention this here, as I printed out one of my patterns onto washi paper and covered some card with which to make the cover of the box. The end result is too flimsy, but the idea is sound. (I subsequently tried it with packing cardboard, which was too lumpy, and finally settled on using mount board, which has the required strength, as well as being made in several layers, which can be folded if cut correctly.) Anyway, here’s how the paper looked on the first box – not bad, at all, I think.

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References

Rivers, Charlotte (2014) Little Book of Book Making. New York, Random House.

Implied spaces, part 2

The third area of experimentation relates to a more esoteric idea, and uses some of my original understanding of the term, and what the blog I refer to at the beginning is looking at. I would characterise it as implied places – where one might layer an image in a collage effect to say more about the places and their meaning to a person or group.

My Photoshop skills are still fairly slow, so it has taken me all afternoon to produce this collage below. It includes some title deeds for the house, an image I took a couple of years back and also a photo of some of the historical inhabitants, and uses a Photoshop Mask template.

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I am hoping that with more practise, I can achieve a similar effect to that of patchwork, but using images rather than fabric squares. So, this work continues…..