Urban Photo Festival

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Looking back on this year’s Urban Photo Festival (UPF), it appears that the genre known as Street Photography has been given something of a shakeup.  The festival’s packed out and wide-ranging events came to a close at the end of October (including but not limited to numerous London based exhibitions, a two day Tate Britain conference, guided walks, seminars, discussions and photography master classes), with debates about the purpose and potential of the genre resonating with many who attended.  While an expansive, forward looking conception of Street Photography caused a few people some consternation, others found their perceptions positively challenged, leaving them inspired to further reflect on the topic of Urbanism and their own output.  As Paul Halliday (the creative director of UPF) stated, the intention of the festival was to “push the boundaries beyond traditional notions of what counts as ‘street photography’” and “explore how artists, photographers and urbanists might rethink how they approach the street.”

For many the term ‘Street Photography’ conjures up pictures of strangers caught in chance altercations; the spectacle of the busy street with its fleeting joys, frustrations and absurdities.  Nick Turpin is one such photographer adopting this more conventional approach to his work.  His shooting method is instinctive, unplanned and revelatory: “there is no specific subject matter and only the issue of ‘life’ in general” he says.  “[The photographer] does not leave the house in the morning with an agenda and he doesn’t visualise his photographs in advance of taking them.”  However, despite the fascination of the public spectacle and the insights it can provide, it seems that this singular concept of Street Photography now runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.  As Michael Sweet despairs, the practice is now inundated by “hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed images of random strangers”.  The genre, he argues, tends to lack a critical eye, with social media encouraging the notion that each picture taken is a potential piece of art worthy of attention.

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The Bunker © Carlo Navato 2015

Responding to the current challenges facing the practice of Street Photography today, UPF15 was inspired to rigorously investigate and expand its significance beyond a single methodology or philosophy.  The Drift exhibition was one example of such an attempt, located at the Truman Brewery just off busy Brick Lane.  Here a stunning variety of works were on display, all in their different ways responding to the notion of the urban environment; how we shape it, how it shapes us, how it is experienced and represented.  Carlo Navato’s series Spaces of Otherness was mysterious, sparse and beguiling; images at the crossroads of past, present and future.  Engaging with Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘heterotopia’, these places can be described as being ‘neither here nor there’, and of having a psychological as well as a spatial dimension.  Navato describes the series as shot in “a classic ‘edgeland’ – a space outside the confines of town or city, but urban in that man has had a significant hand in its development.”  His photos, rural land with remains of human influence, illustrated in their referents (a road sign, a wind sock, an entrance to an ex-military site) the way spaces change over time; how the rural slowly succeeds to the urban and how sometimes nature gets its sovereignty back.

Beatrice Tura’s series Terra Firma also challenged the conception of the city as a fixed, un-yielding concrete colossus.  Like Navato, she sees the urban environment as transitional, in dialogue with its inhabitants; pavements as altered by the thousands of tramping feet as we are shepherded by its streets.  Tura demonstrates an abstract, unconventional approach to the urban by taking extreme close up shots of anonymous streets; gum and paint marked pavements; the edges of new tarmacked paths rising up against old concrete ones; change, erosion, “the constant movement of the urban soil.”

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© Kevin Fitzgerald 2015

A lot of the work of the festival challenged me to consider that, while it is difficult to think of photography as providing more than a visual experience, urban life itself is not dominated by one single sense.  Remove the plethora of smells from the streetfood stalls and curry houses along Brick Lane, the bustle of the crowds and sounds of street musicians, and you become blind to at least half the experience.  It is this fact that Kevin Fitzgerald seeks to elucidate in his series Audiographies.  As well as questioning our visiocentric society, he encourages the viewer “to not only reconsider the relationship between the aural and visual but the relationship between all the senses.”  Sound, it is easy to forget, helps shape our understanding of what we perceive; informing us further about a thing’s quality or nature.  Photography as a representational tool can imply sound but it cannot embody it.  Fitzgerald highlights the aural by drawing our attention to its absence; abstracting his images from a wider context and de-engaging our visual sense.  His photos ask the viewer to fill in the blanks, “to see with their ears.”  You wonder, looking at his images, where you are, what you are seeing.  He challenges us for example with a close up of the corner of a room; a shot of a window indoors with no view and few discerning features.  Sound, you realise, is the sense missing which would allow you to ‘see’ your environment; filing in the gaps of your awareness vision cannot grasp alone (the sound of cars on the busy street below your window, for example).  It is our metaphorical blindness to the images which forces us to acknowledge this.

Another compelling exhibition over in south London which investigated the effect of the aural sense in urban life was Retention, by artists Anne Zeitz and David Boureau.  This immersive piece was installed at the Old Police Station in Deptford and was a contemporaneous work replicating the soundscape of the Mesnil Amelot 2 detention centre.  Based in Paris just north of the Charles de Gaulle airport, it currently holds hundreds of illegal immigrants.  Using a quadriphonic speaker setup, the soundscape of the detention centre filled the room, consisting of the all-consuming roar of the airplanes that pass daily over the detainees’ heads, interspersed with radio communications between pilots and the control tower.  In a visceral way, it reflected the oppressed state of the immigrants inside the centre.  Not only are they aurally subjugated by the noise of the passing planes, but they are reminded of their lack of physical autonomy as other people pass freely overhead.  Reinforcing their plight was the visual exploration Cartographies of Fear #1, which portrayed the different ways in which migrants interpret and experience their new (often hostile) urban surroundings.

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Graffiti, Harlem, 2015 © Rebecca Locke

Moving on to the 71a Gallery in Shoreditch, the exhibition Streetopolis consisted of a range of work from across the globe, providing examples of the urban from Russia to New York, Copenhagen to Jakarta, and Atlanta to Paris.  The artists’ responses to the idea of “streets of the world” were varied, creative and incisive.  Rather than simply documenting the urban environment, they sought in their different ways to draw out its contradictions and complexities.  Rebecca Locke’s series We Are Paper, We Are Celluloid, We Are Digital, showed her wandering New York City in the guise of Princess Leia, her fantastical appearance contrasting with the banal realities of the city.  With New York being synonymous with film, these images raised questions about how the urban environment helps to shape identity, as well as asking how our media-induced fantasies might isolate us from the real world in front of us.

A number of other artists’ work explored the clash between the natural world and the urban milieu.  Michael Frank’s photographs from his series Tiger Schmiger responded to the rise in sightings of strange beasts and big cats in our increasingly urbanised world.  These sightings, often imaginings, are what Frank believes to be the result of “ecological boredom”; our secret yearning for the wild in our over-developed, insulated modern landscape.  These still night-time shots evoke an apprehension, as if waiting for something to crawl into our city streets at any moment.  Peter Coles riffs on similar themes in Urban Forrest, Paris, with his moody monochrome photos of enclosed lone trees, fenced off and isolated amidst the concrete jungle.  They appear forced into submission by the city, dominated over by the surrounding buildings as if the urban had gained ascendency over the natural world.

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© Michael Frank 2015

The festival rounded off its 6 day photographic odyssey at The Greenwich Gallery, with a private view of Framing Urban Narratives, the last exhibition of the festival.  Showcasing the work of 10 recent graduates from Goldsmiths University, it expounded on contemporary urban topics such as homelessness, regeneration, the environment and community.  The gallery also hosted the closing reception, and everyone was left to toast their collective hard work with drinks and a (stoically optimistic) BBQ.   Having covered an extraordinary breadth of work and engaging with a host of critical approaches, the festival resulted in some challenging and fascinating debate, as well as producing a slew of striking photography.  Deconstructing assumptions about what Street Photography is ‘supposed’ to be, it re-evaluated the practices importance in our changing modern world, as well as suggesting the genre’s potentialities.  Reiterating what was clearly demonstrated in the numerous exhibitions was Paul Halliday’s comment that “people can interpret what the street means to them.  They can come at it from a range of perspectives and approaches.”  Which they indeed did, intelligently and with aplomb.

– Daniel Pateman

INTERVIEW: In conversation with Kate Bush of Media Space

Earlier this month, the first UK solo exhibition of Magnum photographer Alec Soth opened at Media Space, a still relatively new and highly innovative gallery space dedicated to photography and located within the Science Museum, London. The London Photography Diary, in collaboration with Hemera, had an opportunity to get a first glimpse of the exhibition and speak to head of photography Kate Bush about her thoughts on Soth’s work and methods for curating this impressive mid-career survey entitled Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth.

The exhibition forms a dynamic experience, progressing chronologically through lyrical displays of Soth’s four main series to date, Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014, seen here for the first time in a UK show). Photographs in book and newspaper format and those framed and hung in a variety of sizes are in ready dialogue with the array of conceptual materials that informed Soth’s projects. The set-up reflects a combination Kate Bush’s non-invasive but no less creative curatorial approach and Soth’s restless experimentation across the many forms that photography can take, from prints and books to zines and digital media.

Fangfei Chen:
Could you please introduce your role as the head of photography for the Science Museum Group? Why did you choose to exhibit Alec Soth’s work in this museum specifically?

Kate Bush:
I serve as head of photography at the Science Museum Group and I work across the museums in the group – so I have a role at the National Media Museum in Bradford, in addition to my responsibility for the programming at these beautiful new galleries called Media Space on the second floor of the Science Museum.

The intention behind Media Space is to create a new destination for national and international visitors, lovers of photography, and we’re going to do that in two ways. Firstly, we are going to work to bring to public attention the fantastic, incredible collection that belongs to the Science Museum. It’s one of the best collections in the world, particularly in the early period of photography and from the beginnings of photography up to the First World War, an absolutely exceptional collection.

We also have a very strong British documentary collection – but the idea behind the Media Space programme is that we are both profiling and allowing people to share this marvellous collection alongside exhibitions that are being made by international photographers, living and dead. So we have two gallery spaces and the idea is to continually juxtapose historical projects with contemporary projects.

We’re pleased at present to be opening a major new exhibition by Alec Soth, who is one of the most significant mid-career photographers in America working today.

Elizabeth Breiner:
Soth speaks about not being a big believer in documentary truth, and in his work explicitly tries to experiment with this as a concept, test its limits, even undermine it… As with the Fontcuberta exhibition earlier this year, it seems as though the Science Museum has a particular interest in toying with or even revealing the fallacy of the idea of any real documentary truth, and I wondered if you think there’s a deliberate irony in displaying these types of work within a science museum or if it says something about the unconventional nature of the space itself?

KB:
I don’t think we’re intending to be ironic in the programming at Media Space – what we want to do is represent the breadth of photographic practice. Sometimes those projects will have particular emphasis on science and technology, but equally they may not, and I think it’s sort of a question of creating an identity for a new photography programme that is located in a science museum but isn’t necessarily just about science.

And of course, at the heart of photography there’s always been this historical mixed identity, or double identity if you like, whereby it’s always been a form of technology; and, indeed, when it was collected by the Science Museum it was treated as chemistry. So it is a technology but it’s also become an art form.

Next door, we have a display by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the incredibly influential pioneers who really worked to establish photography as an expressive art form in its own right. So I’d say we’re not programmatically going down a particular route, I think the intention is really to represent the photographic medium today in as wide and varied a form as it takes.

FC:
Where does the exhibition’s title Gathered Leaves come from? The idea of gathering leaves is interesting – in a sense, like the process of preparing a book and gathering materials page by page. How does this idea relate to Soth’s photographic practice?

KB:
The title of the exhibition is Gathered Leaves, and that title came from Alec at an early point in the process when we were working out how to give the show its very particular identity. And one of the early ideas, which we express in this show, is the relationship to the books, the books that Alec is very well known for, and the printed photograph in a framed form, in an exhibition form. In every room we create a conversation between the project in printed form and as a framed print on the wall.

So in one sense Gathered Leaves simply means the gathering up together of sheets of paper, which essentially is what photography is – apart from when it’s in a digital format, of course. At the same time it’s a direct reference, a quote from Walt Whitman’s American epic poem ‘Song of Myself’, which he wrote in 1855 as America was on the eve of civil war. In that poem, Walt Whitman wanders through the nation and notes many different facets of people in society and so on. There’s also a very important idea in that poem about the relationship of the self with the world and the cosmos.

I don’t think Alec would want to compare himself to Walt Whitman because he’s far too unpretentious to do that, but I think it’s sort of a guiding theme that evokes a little bit of what I think he’s setting out to do. I think this is a photographer who is making a very big body of work, it’s an epic body of work, and it’s a body of work in which he himself is very much part of the thought process of it – sometimes he appears literally in the work – but I think he’s always very conscious of his subjectivity in the world when he’s photographing, in the way that Walt Whitman was with that poem.

FC:
Was the publication for Gathered Leaves created in conjunction with the curatorial process?

KB:
The publication for Gathered Leaves is not a traditional exhibition catalogue by any means, and in fact it was a project that Alec and Michael Mack, his publisher, embarked on in tandem, but also, in a way, to complement this exhibition. Basically, in the show we are doing a mid-career survey, even though we’re not calling it that, because we’re showing the four major bodies of work that Alec has made over the last ten years – and essentially, the Gathered Leaves book does the same thing. It does it, I think, in a really joyous and generous way.

What they’ve done, rather miraculously, is to shrink the four books. Only one of those, Songbook, is still in print, and it’s very, very difficult to get Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara, and Broken Manual was only ever published in a very, very small edition, so what Michael and Alec have done is create miniature versions of each of the four books; and they arrive in a box, rather like a beautiful box of chocolates that you open, and you can literally read everything and see everything that was in the original books. So it’s like a kind of mini survey in a box, just as an exhibition is a type of survey in a box.

FC:
During the artist tour [given by Soth during the press view of the exhibition], Soth suggests that the three-dimensional exhibition space creates certain challenges for interpreting and presenting his work. How have you taken advantage of this exhibition space – this three-dimensional format – to alter and enhance the relationship between the audience and these photographs?

KB:
I think one of the things to me that is very tricky about photography is the different forms and formats in which it exists, and the different relationships you have with it as a viewer. So whereas a painting is really only experienced in a gallery, where you are physically in front of it, a photograph can live in many places – and principally, of course, the book is the format that most great photographers want to work in.

And what we try to get at in this show is that all these different methods or media are valid in different ways. So in this exhibition, we’ve tried to dramatise the difference between a large framed print on the wall and the relationship you have with a book or a periodical or a zine. Obviously they are related, but still different, and I think you have a quite different physical relationship with a large, beautifully printed photograph that’s lit perfectly, that’s luminous on the wall, than you do with a book when you’re sitting down and experiencing a sequence and a narrative that the photographer intended. So they are different but related media, I would say.

EB:
To piggyback off these ideas you’ve mentioned about the viewer’s relation to the work, Soth has expressed often this interest in creating actual distance between himself and his subjects – especially in Broken Manual, where he deliberately elongated that distance between photographer and subject – and I wondered where you think the viewer comes into that dynamic, and if this disconnect between photographer and subject is something that you feel comes across, especially in a physical space such as this.

KB:
Well I think in a sense, the viewer is always the photographer’s proxy. I mean, you’re always in the position in relation to the image that the photographer has taken in relationship to that image. And I think Alec worked very carefully to create particular underlying structures and associative mechanisms to catalyse the kind of empathy or feeling that he had for the subject in front of him. And you can see him do that in all sorts of interesting ways. You know, in Songbook it’s about extrapolating lyrics from these very famous popular songs so that when you read that, it’ll trigger a memory or associative response.

In Niagara, there’s often a very repeated motif that sometimes you can barely see or only notice if it is pointed out, but there are hearts, that sort of swim through those pictures in different places. And I think Alec is very conscious of the way that he works with his subjects… he says of the men in Broken Manual that he felt great tenderness towards them, because he can identify in a way with this desire to withdraw and this desire to find a very intense introspective space. As an artist, I think he identifies very strongly with that.

But then there’s another moment in Songbook that he’s very much in the world like a photojournalist going after that story, and he’s photographing it in a slightly more objective register, so you’re not quite as aware of his emotions in front of that subject. But nevertheless, I think there is always a movement between something that is joyful and full of humanity and something that is more of a romantic or sort of despairing or introspective position in the world. And that’s what I enjoy about his work, I think it has a very wide emotional range to it.


Exhibition information:

6 October 2015 – 28 March 2016, Media Space, Science Museum, London
Admission £8, Seniors £7, Concessions £6 (prices include donation)
22 April – 26 June 2016, National Media Museum, Bradford

Supported by: People’s Postcode Lottery
Principal Founding Sponsor: Virgin Media
Principal Founding Donor: Michael and Jane Wilson
Founding Donor: Dana and Albert R Broccoli Foundation
More info


Interview conducted by Fangfei Chen of Hemera and Elizabeth Breiner of London Photography Diary.

 

REVIEW: We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century @ TPG

Undoubtedly, prevailing zeitgeist for the last decade has been the development and self-critique of social media.  If the 70s spawned the Me Generation, then surely, the last decade belongs to the We Generation and our collective, incessant sharers of information and images.  Take your pick from Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr or Twitter to date, or previous incarnations.

The need to massage online (and off-line) egos has become an obsessive one, as has the desire for gif-me-quick imagery.  The consumerist aesthetic that ties in with strong brand awareness presents us as discerning self-curators and stylists.

Music performers and their savvy strategists have tapped into this, deploying social media to build lines of communication with fans.  Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are just two stars using Facebook and Twitter to share pictures and videos as a way of creating bonds.  Earlier this year, it was estimated that Perry had almost 64 million Twitter followers – a sure sign that, as a means of building your fan base, social media works.

We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century, an exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, takes a look at how image-makers, musicians and their devotees have, in many cases, formed a strong, mutually beneficial alliance.

The exhibition, neatly divided into two parts, threads a narrative between photographers — who play a significant part in building the fame of musicians — and music fans, whose devotion is pivotal to the success in making them stars.

Jason Evans’ publicity photographs of Radiohead taken between 2001 and 2008 were taken when he spent time on the road with them.  Evans’ subjective images rely more on technique and less on straightforward portraiture to allow for the band’s identity. This, then, is persona-building dependent on specific photographic processes — his startling colour-streaked imagery and ‘bullet-riddled’ contacts adding to the band’s enigma.

Stylists Inez and Vinoodh opt for a completely different approach. In their pictures, Lady Gaga, in a’s reflection of her discrete personalities on YouTube and on Facebook personalities, gazes towards are presented to the camera in  wearing a selection of guises, each more theatrical than the last.

There’s Gaga is captured as a hippy chick, as Goth, and even as a Pre-Raphaelite muse.  In looking at these photographs, you get one is struck with a strong sense that the singer knows exactly what she wants to project and how.  More multi-personas of the singer, in an installation of her pop videos, continue the theme of allure and image construction.

Also included to underline the intention of the music industry’s use of visual stimuli to attract and beguile, some of the most stunning music videos ever produced were included in the exhbiition.  Directed by such luminaries as Jonathan Glazer (Radiohead’s Karma Police), Michel Gondry (Foo Fighters) and Spike Jonze (The Pharcyde’s Drop), these works are profile enhancers as well as promotional tools.

In the second part of We Want More… we see adoration taken to the dizzy heights.  Whereas before, fans wrote to film and music stars and, maybe, if they were lucky, they’d receive a reply, in a series of photographs of Jackson fans, shot by Lorena Turner, the public went to extraordinary lengths to emulate their idol.  Every detail – from Jackson’s glove to his dramatic make-up, and even his nose — is lovingly recreated; appropriation taken to extremes.  In this montage, Turner encapsulates the essence of fan worship – slavish adulation, mimicry and the birds-of-a-feather factor.

We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century takes disparate strands to weave a rich tapestry of the music industry. It’s all here: garage clubbers, as captured by photographer Ewen Spencer, Ryan McGinley’s pictures for The Face magazine and Ryan Enn Hughes’ series of gifs based on Katy Perry’s pop Video: Birthday – his variation on a theme: the memes put online by fans.     

-Frances Green   

REVIEW: Spencer Murphy: The Abyss Gazes Into You @ Photofusion

Death and decay, the precarious fate of humanity, our disregard for the environment; it would be easy (though complacent) to see The Abyss Gazes Into You as an exhibition seeped in cynicism.  It doesn’t help to dissuade this impression that Nietzsche, a philosopher with a notorious reputation as a nihilist, is quoted for the exhibition’s title.  However, while a sense of desolation and existential despair may be a strain running through the work, it’s the wider sweep of existence and how we relate to it that Spencer Murphy is captivated by, and eager to explore.

Greatly influenced by the 18th century Romantic Movement, especially the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, Murphy expresses a similar fascination for the majesty and intangibility of nature.  Like Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817), the exhibition includes a number of photographs in which lone figures look thoughtfully over wild, sprawling landscapes.  In Kurt and Jara, Lighthouse Beach, Tasmania, 2010, a man stands atop his van staring out over the ocean as the sun starts to go down, in an assumed communion with the natural world.  Elevated as such, his diminished aspect contrasts against the vast stretch of sky.  In capturing these contemplative figures reflecting on the natural world, attention is in turn drawn to their significance in the grand scheme of things.  In contemplating the external world, they are forced also to contemplate themselves.

As Murphy explains, nature is both divine and dangerous, “the creator and potential destroyer of man.”  This uneasy relationship is perfectly encapsulated in Dawn, Bewl Water, 2009.  Taken on a winter’s day, four men stand in the middle of a frozen lake, chatting on the body of ice which stretches across the frame.  Their presence in the photo is vaguely incongruous.  Despite the incipient danger, their casual posture and body language suggests young friends hanging out on a street corner.  This photo illustrates the delicate balance between us and the natural world; evoking its beauty but also the possibility that it could collapse under us at any moment.

His work also explores our interdependency with the world and the idea that “although we are a part of the natural world, we see ourselves as separate from it and somehow as higher beings”.  In other words, we see ourselves as inhabitants on earth but not of being “of” the earth.  Our symbiotic relationship with nature is evident in both the photos Fox By a Pile of Tin, 2006 and Tin Mountain.  In the former, human activity is indicated by the pile of rusted metal in the junk yard, a single fox sitting at its edge.  In the later, the populousness of the human race and our wastefulness is suggested by having disused tin fill the frame from side to side, bottom to top, with just a small slither of sky to make clear its towering proportions.  These images highlight that, as much as nature can be vast and destructive, our own actions can be as foreboding and disastrous to the ecology we inhabit.

The work presented here is beguiling, mysterious.  Partly about how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us.  As Murphy himself admits, the essence of the collection is difficult to articulate, “as it’s more about a feeling or emotion that strikes us in those moments [of contemplation].”  It would seem then that the aim of his work is embodying those rare instances of enlightenment when, like a Rubik’s cube finally fitting together, the universe silently whispers its secrets in your ear and everything makes sense, if only for a second.

Daniel Pateman

65913_926032882744_691854252_n (1)Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

Image credits:

Dawn, Bewl Water, 2009. From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy
Memento Mori, 2009.  From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy
Andy at the Abandoned Airfield, 2009.  From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy

REVIEW: Jürgen Klauke: Aesthetic Paranoia @ Annely Juda Fine Art

‘Aesthetic Paranoia’, is a series of nineteen photographs by German artist Jürgen Klauke presented at Annely Juda Fine Art. The large black and white prints of the eponymous series are somewhat of a trademark of the artist, since the 1980’s. Refined and minimalistic, the image sequences depict staged scenarios of an anonymous man in a suit, on a white bed. A mass of long black hair engulfs the subject as an allegorical entity threatening  identity, while also ironically remaining inseparable from it.

Klauke is considered an initiator of performance art. Here, as often done before, the artist uses photography to document an act for the spectator to attend, entering the domain of the inexpressible, one image at a time. Such works explore the notion of system, both in creative approach and psychoanalytic content: it considers the representation of mental process, each sequence providing the spectator with a ‘possibility’ of interpretation, a possible reaction to a confined situation. Referred to as ‘body art’ in photography, the images reveal the conflicts of the self within a disturbing, but quiet setting. Placing his own body at the centre of his work, Jürgen Klauke explores behavioural patterns and psychological states in a figurative manner, questioning socialised gender norms as well as mental and physical identities.

The neutrality of décor, often made of quotidian objects such as chairs, tables or a bed, as well as the single character, construct a surrealistic space and, at times, unsettling tableau of solitary dialogue, as the world echoes on an isolated figure. The series recalls the works of artists Pierre Molinier or Hans Bellmer, and philosopher Georges Bataille, relocating body identity to material in a study of the absurdity of life.. 

More an indication than a definition, the title ‘Aesthetic Paranoia’ offers a particular approach to the series. Projecting the identities of dramatized subjects onto his own body, Klauke investigates the depth of paranoid existence and human perception as the entangled self battles through a frame of boredom – obscured by a wall of hair, or sensually trapped in a net of black locks. In a narration reminiscent of séance, the anonymous persona might appear to be lost or submissive, fighting, or ultimately acceptant and transformed while challenging gender associations and human mutation as the hair becomes a psychological veil – a feminine mane or a hostile mass.

Returning to the notion of aesthetics, the title of the work evokes a sensory judgement. The etymology of ‘aesthetics’ relates to the study of perception, while perception itself relates to paranoia as a form of excessive interpretation.

Indeed, the paranoid self is the one that is devoured by a clouded vision of reality. The work demonstrates an obvious use of both notions.  The ‘Loose Connection’ series doesn’t imply any explicit relationship to the portrait work. Although, looking closer, the hair and animated power cables in this series might suggest the presence of a similar ghostly force. The countless plugs and a negative version of the print could be seen as the inner mind and its multiple possibilities of associated connections..

In a relentless duel, the man seems to embody both the possessed soul and the creator of its demon inspiring its reality himself. Together, the works invite the viewer to consider the real instigator of the scenes, the one actor believing in his own myth, the paranoid self-embracing the surreal presence.

What is so striking about Jürgen Klauke’s work is its clinical beauty. While nothing in the image should be specifically referred to as a beautiful object or person, the whole vision firstly moves us by its singular coherence. The artist seems to photograph with what could be considered a dictatorial composition. Under a perfect angle, the image unfolds in a most orderly way, as even the black hair unrealistically follows the contour of the bed.

The beauty of it all may reside in our conflicting selves, and here such confrontation is subtly portrayed in its bare situation, empty from each previous viewer’s personal projection.

Celine Bodin

BODIN_CVCéline Bodin is a French photographer. After studying literature and architecture, she graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris. In 2013 she completed a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, her personal practice explores themes of identity, gender, and the metaphysical frustration of the medium in representation.

Shirley Baker: Women, Children, and Loitering Men

Shirley Baker was one of the most compelling yet unsung heroes of British Documentary photography. Born in Kersal, Greater Manchester in 1932, she showed an interest in photography from an early age, attending Manchester College of Technology to study the subject. It was in the 1960s, while teaching at Salford College of Art, that she began to photograph the slums of Greater Manchester. These inner-city areas were barely inhabitable; examples of poorly conceived and rushed construction – a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. For many years these areas had been designated for demolition, but the gears of change were slow.

This exhibition focuses on the 15 year period during the 1960s and 1970s when Baker recorded the lives of ordinary working people in the urban areas of Hulme, Salford and Manchester. The scope of her work relfects the protracted changes these environments underwent. Through her work we can trace the cramped, dilapidated rows of dank buildings giving way to streets of half-demolished houses, as newly constructed apartment blocks gradually rise up in the background.

The majority of Baker’s photography, strikingly detailed in black and white, evokes an antiquated world, at odds with the notion of England as a developed country. Some of her images are Dickensian; dirt smeared children playing in muddy cobbled streets. Others suggest a World War 2 era landscape; devastated buildings and debris strewn play areas, children sporting gas masks.

Evident in much of the exhibition is the infamous squalor referred to in The City of Manchester Plan of 1945, which condemned “the drab streets, the dilapidated shops […] the sulphurous and sunless atmosphere” of Manchester’s inner-city areas. The industry polluted skies and monochromatic surroundings only increase the disparity of time and place depicted by Baker; one at odds with the collective memory of the sixties as one of ‘flower power’ and colourful psychedelia.

Her work is refreshing, especially in the context of our ‘selfy obsessed ‘ times, because it shows people truly engaging with their environment and with each other. She affectionately observes people in the streets: in one shot a young boy mimics his father who leans against a wall, his work colleagues looking on amused drinking tea. In another, two boys reach into an open drainpipe to retrieve something (“Health and Safety”, who?).

What shines through this series of photographs strongest is the sense of community, of people coming together.  As the narrator says in the documentary The Changing Face of Salford 1967-1970, “though it is an accepted fact that the new housing conditions are beyond comparison with the old, there is one sad loss; the sense of communal life so strong in these slum areas”.  Community is the glue of these neighbourhoods and of Baker’s work.  While these pictures document a world of dissolution and poverty, they are not mired in misery.  The dirty streets are their meeting places and playgrounds. Men seek solace together outside abandoned buildings. Groups of women smile and chat on their doorsteps. Children rummage among the rubble with friends, seemingly unburdened by their surroundings.  Adults work, children play: people endure

Shirley Baker: Women, Children, and Loitering Men runs at The Photographers’ Gallery until September 20th

imagesDaniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications.  He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.

Image credits:
 Shirley Baker, Manchester 1968 © Shirley Baker Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery
 Shirley Baker, Manchester, 1967 © Shirley Baker Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery
                    

REVIEW: Tomoko Yoneda @ Grimaldi Gavin

Beyond Memory is a photography exhibition by Japanese born, London based artist Tomoko Yoneda. Co-curated by Paul Wombell, the works on display embody the core concern of her artistic output; the intrusion of past historical traumas and political turmoil into the present day.

On first encountering her work it appears that there is nothing more to the image than the image itself. The exhibition contains numerous pictures of lush landscapes and desolate spaces. Despite the attractive scenes, there is a lingering sense of absence in the places on display, something ghostly beneath the surface gleam. The pictures seem abstracted, as if their context existed beyond the edges of the frame.

It turns out that this is quite literally the case. The key to accessing the greater significance and meaning in these images is found in their captions. A photo from Yoneda’s series Scene 01 taken at face value appears to be one of the most abstract in the exhibit; an experiment in colour and composition. A still sky disturbed by white amorphous lines across the picture’s centre. Consisting of different hues of blue almost blending into one another it seems to resist interpretation, reveling in the purely aesthetic.

However, its caption and those in the exhibition encourage the viewer to uncover multiple layers of meaning, and provides the depth that initially seems absent, the socio-historical context. On reading the caption Seascape – location where Dr Mengele Drowned, Bertigo, Brazil, 2001 our perception of the picture changes. A little research into the historical background indicates that Dr Josef Mengele was a German SS Officer and physician at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II. He experimented on inmates, especially twins, and carried out genetic research on his subjects with utter indifference to their health and safety. In addition to this, he helped the SS pick between the infirm, whose fate was the gas chamber, and those fit enough for work, who were sent to the labour camps. When the war ended and the reality of the Holocaust was revealed, Dr Mengele fled Germany, managing to evade capture for the rest of his life. He died in 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming with friends off the coast of Brazil.

This socio-historical understanding is like raising the dead. The interplay of context and image changes our attitude and approach to what we initially perceived as an inoffensive and tranquil scene. Traces of trauma and violence from the past leave their mark and reverberate in the present, there to see if only we look close enough. With a more informed eye, we might even consider the rising waves in the middle ground of this picture as suggestive of some secret history that isn’t quite at rest.

Yoneda’s work simultaneously expresses the notion that, despite catastrophic events in human history, nature remains indifferent to our own upheavals. While humanity and its fate are inextricably intertwined with our environment, the artist’s photos underscore our relative insignificance in contrast to nature’s powerful empire.

In fact, the majority of the displayed works are largely Biocentric – they minimise humanity’s (self) importance. In her shots people are either obscured, implied, or viewed at a distance. Another image in the collection, ostensibly of a tranquil landscape with a path leading through some foliage, hides its own grisly history. The caption is quite self-explanatory: Path – path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landing of WWII, Saipan, Japan, 2003 (below). The nature of the photo, and nature itself, seem to conceal human suffering and political strife, essentially denying it in the image. It is for the viewer to exhume the mark left by history.

The exhibition runs at Grimaldi Gavin Gallery until 7 August. More info

Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University for his degree and continues to have an abiding interest in the arts. He has also enjoyed creative writing since a young age and currently keeps a blog of his poetry and prose entitled The End of Fiction. He is now looking to forge a new career in the creative industries, preferably as a writer or a film maker.

Image credits:
Seascape – location where Dr Mengele Drowned, Bertigo, Brazil, 2001 ©Tomoko Yoneda
Path – path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landing of WWII, Saipan, Japan, 2003 ©Tomoko Yoneda

 

Analyzing the Concept of Photographic Communities through the Projects of Nan Goldin and Zhe Chen

Differing definitions of communities, ranging from nations to the smallest of subcultures, have been recorded and elucidated with the camera lens. The American art historian Louis Kaplan has suggested that the medium of photography is a means of communicating and connecting within space, and that these communal qualities raise questions about “our living and being with others, about community and about being-in-common”.[1] The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy introduced the idea of “being singular plural” as the essential relationship within a society or community. “Being singular plural” shows the main feature of the existence of human being. It is “the irreducible plurality of a coexistence that never becomes the same in the first place”.[2] Being is always “being-with”, due to the coexistence between singular and plural. Although this notion is developed from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Nancy emphasized that the relation of interest to him is not a relation between substances existing independently of, and prior to, relations, but being as relation.[3] Referring to Nancy, “No one…has radically thematised the ‘with’ as the essential trait of Being and as its proper plural singular co-essence”.[4] Nancy uses “expose” to describe the relations within the community. The community of “being singular plural” is based on the relations of being; relying on exposure, rather than the similarity or difference between the members within the community. In other words, the relation, or experience, of sharing and dividing is “being singular plural”. The community is actually being-in-common. Thus, community is not a fixed or closed idea and it could not follow the classic logic regarding a fixed or closed identity that is shared by every member of the community.[5] This is because the essence of community is not an accumulable individual. There is no “same” or “other”. The idea of forcing an ‘other’ to be ‘same’, should not exist anymore, because “its participants have nothing in common; they are in-common”.[6]

 

The Ballad of Sexual Dependecy (TBSD) is the first photo-book by the American photographer Nan Goldin, published in 1986. At first glance, many of these photographs appear to have been taken in close proximity, with flash used to lighten areas of darkness. These dark spaces are those normally kept private, away from public view: such as bedrooms or bathrooms. People, therefore, are shown to partake in events that take place only in such privacy, such as sexual intercourse and drug abuse, but they do so freely in front of the camera. According to the first page of the book, “[TBSD] is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family and lovers–collectively described by Goldin as her ‘‘tribe’.”[7] As Kaplan suggests, these photographs grew out of the relationships between Goldin and those photographed; Goldin does not look for subjects, but they find, or are linked with, her directly. It is possible to claim that Goldin’s social circle is a sub-culture group, which is, in other words, a featured community. Chris Townsend claims that Goldin’s photographs are valuable in authentically interpreting sub-culture groups: “what we have…is not the originary ‘Ballad’ but rather a version of that narrative read through a century and a half of thought about what the bohemian life should look like. ” [8] The photographs may or may not serve as research or evidence for Goldin’s particular sub-culture, but to do so, or to speak the truth about this community’s identity is not their essential quality. Rather, they produce a self-referent space for the memory of Goldin’s bohemian life; the people photographed together embody the notion of a bohemian lifestyle, which is divided from mainstream culture and society. We assume the opposite is true of the audience: the mainstream looking in on a bohemian lifestyle as if it is authentic; the photographs are developed from an established community, of which the photographer is one of its members. A comparison can be made here with Zhe Chen, who offers a visually similar, but also very different idea of community with her photographs.

 

The Chinese photographer Zhe Chen published her first photo-book, Bees, in 2011, after an exhibition of the project awarded Chen the Inge Morath Foundation award from the Magnum Foundation. There are 57 photographs, within which approximately 15 people are seen to be conducting self harm in varying degrees: from piercing their own ears, to participating in more serious bodily modification. The title of the photo-book comes from Virgil’s commentary on bees: “they left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.”[9] Bee, then, became the name of those Chen has documented, indicating a level of understanding between Chen herself and those that commit self- harm. This brings a sense of intimacy to the photographs and their subjects, as they are treated on such a personal level. Before this work by Chen, a Japanese photographer, Kosuke Okahara, took photographs of those that commit self-harm. The difference between Okahara and Chen is that Chen, like Goldin, can relate as a member of the community she depicts. Chen’s bio-photographic project The Bearable comprised of a photographic diary of Chen committing self- harm.[10] Zhe Chen is, then, also a bee.

 

Goldin often shares specific details of her photographs in the captions, such as the names of people shown, the location of the shoot and the year taken. She designed her photo-book to follow central themes and composition choices, and she uses repetition of characters, identifying and labeling their names, to familiarize the audience with the people. There seem to be no secrets between Goldin and those in her photographs, or between Goldin and the people who look at the photographs. As the curator Elisabeth Sussman claimed, Goldin simply records those around her.[11] However, Zhe Chen very much protects the privacy of the people she documents. There are no captions, neither on the walls of her exhibitions, nor in her photo-book. Captions are used only occasionally and even then they only reference code numbers (e.g. 048-01), which are shown under the photographs on her personal website. Even in the acknowledgements of the last pages in the photo-book, Chen names the people who joined her photographic projects only in abbreviations.

 

Chen approaches each individual in her photographs separately, therefore each of the photographs represents a single, individual connection between photographer and the photographed subject. The photographs try to show an intimacy between the photographer and the individual subject, rather than between the photographers and a larger group of people. According to Chen, Bees is the counter fire to the stereotype of this [self-harm] group, rather than a illustration of the stereotype: he[or she] is a individual, not a type of person; he[or she] can’t be replaced by the formulation of society.”[12] Chen’s intention was not to represent a unified image of a group. She took photographs of the bees from different angles, juxtaposed with photographs of insects, animals and plants in The Bees, and the blank pages in the photo-book cut and form individual narratives. According to Chen, she talks with and poses the individuals in her photographs, and considers them a “cathartic” experience, which is shared by both herself and the people in front of her camera. Chen showed the photographs from The Bearable project, and her own scars, to those in her Bees project. Although they were complete strangers, the scars and the photographs acted as a passport, so to speak, to let known a shared experience, to photograph the real bees.[13] Photography places Chen in an equal position with those people in front of her camera. Taking photography itself, especially in the contemporary period, is considered a shared experience; it is a negotiating between the photographer and the subject.[14] Chen’s photographs not only mark the relations between the isolated individuals, but provide Chen and the documented people a chance of “being with” the people who understand and experience similar feelings. In return, the photographic project provides Chen a new way to walk out from her closed world.

None of the people who appear in the photographs by Chen had met each other before the photographic project. The actual communication between the photographer and the documented people starts with the contact between the photographer and her subjects, often made near to the time the photographs were shot. Photography is important for both the photographer and subject in this community, as it is a way of communicating with each other, both physically and through the photographs themselves. Although the act of self-harm could be considered as the “in-common” part to secure a certain kind of connection between them, rather than a social or political background or a period of time lived together, the communication and connections made with the community are consolidated by photography, and developed throughout the taking of photography and the photographic exhibition. It is Chen who reveals the self-harm community, and introduces the members to each other through her photographs.

 

The private and intimate spaces, such as bathroom and bedroom, appear in their photographs frequently. The camera has been placed close to the floor, looking up, in order to take a photograph, such as in Bees 048-01. The wooden floor covers nearly one third of the photograph, which shows a half-naked girl dressed in blood red, looking at herself in the mirror. The half-naked body is purposely exhibited to us as she reveals herself for the camera rather than the mirror, which is being used for make-up. The view of this photograph, then, is the result of careful consideration of natural lighting and composition. In comparison with some of Goldin’s photographs, such as the blurred (like a snapshot) Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, which is taken from eye-level with the use of flash, the subtleties of the Chen’s image’s circumstance is clear. ©

 

Tate Modern held the exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera in 2010. Nan Goldin and her TBSD was included. As the curator Sandra Phillips illustrated in her interview, “[from] the word ‘voyeur’ comes the word ‘to see’”.[15] Often in photography, evidence of a superior-subordinate relationship is often present, such as a dominated male gaze, which turns the female in the photographs into a product of fetishism and male appeal.[16] In Freudian psychoanalysis, “voyeurism (subjecting women to a controlling and unreturned gaze) and…fetishism (the displacement or substitution of the anxiety onto a re-assuring object which comes to stand in from the missing penis)…are both inscribed on the photographic arrangement.”[17]It is possible to understand as voyeurism the act of looking without actually understanding the situation depicted, at people documented who are personally unknown to the viewer, wuch as in the work of Chen and Goldin. The considerably enclosed community, of either artist, has attracted worldwide attention continuously from a variety of public viewers. If such intimacy can be shared by these photographers, can public viewers join these communities and avoid being voyeurs?

The word community “signifies those elements that are held in common among people”.[18] Because a community is identified by the individuals within it, these individuals usually share similarities with other members of their community. A community is not only recognised by the accumulated experiences shared by its members, but it also puts them into opposite positions from those outside the community; the people who share similarities inside the community are the “same”, while the people who are outside of the community are recognized as “other”.[19] This dual position of “same” and “other” is essential in the theory of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, who are leading thinkers of ethics in continental philosophy. In considering the relationships regarding the use of the ‘other’, one key ethical problem is that to totalise the other is “to speak on behalf of the other in a reductive, essentialising way that made it the other of the same”.[20]

 

Based on the philosophical theory by Nancy, Kaplan focuses on the photographs depicting the relations between people, which he called the “community-exposed photography”. On the one hand, he believes taking photographs is “an act of sharing in which we are exposed to one another, and to being-in-common when we are exposed to the camera lens”.[21] On the other hand, Kaplan points out that “photographic exposure allows us to become available as communication and open to communicability.”[22] The exposed photography forms the community. First of all, the term “us” indicates the photographer and the subjects, as well as the viewers. The photographic communication for Kaplan, taking photography, could equal to the “being-in-common” for everyone, especially for the spectators of photography. Therefore, through photography, the viewers of photography, even voyeurs, could join in the photographic communication. In the concept of “community-exposed photography”, the idea of “same” or “other” does not exist in the photographic exposure. Secondly, the photographic communication is “to share and to divide” simultaneously.[23] Through photography one can identify their imagined community. Therefore, the exposed photography is the medium to communicate and connect the imagined “moral truth” to everyone who connects with the community.[24] The imagined moral truth could be agreed by both those inside, and those originally outside of the community.

 

To the audience of these photographs, Kaplan claims that “a photographer and a philosopher will relate to use the fundamental acknowledgement that sharing constitutes each of us, that our being- in-the-world is always already a being-with, or what Nancy refers to as out being-in-common.”[25] It is a direct confirmation that photography opens the audience to a wider community. To this extent, Kaplan equals the characteristics of the philosophical theory of community, removing the difference between “same” and “other”, to his photographic theory of community. “Being singular plural”, therefore, is used as evidence that photography could be looked at by the audience, as part of this larger community. The viewers could share similar experiences as the subjects in the photographs, just through looking at them. The photographic community can then be contrasted with the classic analysis of spectatorship that is driven from film and feminist studies. Margaret Olin suggests the term “gaze” is often used in art theory, in discourses of “spectatorship”. Olin addresses, in the most common sense, the effective “looking” that could let the “beholder”, who conducts the “spectatorship”, to obtain both knowledge and pleasure from a work of art.[26] Because the actions, “beholding” and “gazing”, are often influenced by “the issues of power, manipulation, and desire”, art theory rarely agrees with the idea of gaining knowledge from the “gaze” in spectatorship, but rather questions the voyeuristic quality of the gaze.[27] The only way to escape the negative image of “gaze” is to prove its social value, which relies on “the mutual gaze of equality”. 28 The photographer who is coming from the same social or political background as the subjects could not secure a neutral “gaze”, because the aesthetic distinctions turn to aesthetic objects for a galleries’ wall.[28] The achieved ethics is also rarely generated by the enlarged viewer group or the future viewers.[29]

 

If viewers and photographer could be exposed to each other in exhibitions, as suggested by Kaplan, the spectators would communicate and share experiences with both the photographers and their subjects. However, it is difficult to recognize the differences only by looking at photographs. Comparing Tommy in the Garden and Bees 022-03, the photographs appear in one overbearing colour scheme; Tommy in the Garden in yellow, Bees 022-3 in blue. The subjects photographed do not look at the camera, while a trace of the photographer and the camera can be identified in the photographs – Goldin is seen within a shadow and Chen can be seen in the reflection of the glass. The people shown in Goldin and Chen’s photographs belong to different examples of communities. They do not reveal anything of their social communities in these photographs, and look rather similar. Simply looking at these photographs tells us little of their communities. Therefore, the visual similarity between Goldin and Chen becomes evidence to support the idea that through looking at photographs, we cannot share the experience of what actually happened.

Furthermore, even though the photographs open the exposures between the audiences and photographic projects, there are both “limits” and “possibilities” in representing an intimate community of lovers.[30] Although the limitation of sharing in a photographic community is often a comment on the photographer’s capability, Kaplan goes as far to suggests that the photographic project by Goldin “leaves itself open to the charge of voyeurism, even obscenity”.[31] Therefore, Kaplan suggests that looking at the intimate photographs is an ethical choice, even though the audience are essentially voyeurs. Similar to Goldin, photographs by Chen also encourage voyeurism from the audiences. It seems to bring out contradictions to Kaplan’s ethical claim that everyone, including the viewers (the spectators), can communicate and connect with each other.

 

After taking the photographs, they become objects that belong to the photographer. There is no connection or communication between the current viewers and the people in the photographs. Referring to Kaplan, “photographic images have externalized and realized how we imagine community.”[32] This is written for the beholders in the museums, galleries or anyone who is not “being-with”, or connected with the communities. In other words, Kaplan supports the right for spectators to look at these photographs. But the word “imagine” also hints that the viewers of the photographs and the readers of the book could not really understand the relations within the communities shown. Through Kaplan’s book, the readers share and divide their opinions about reading and looking at the community-exposed photographs. The photographic community, even thought the photographers are a part of the sub-culture community, could not fully solve the ethical problems of looking at intimate photographs in public places. The relationship between the viewer and photographed subject, is likely actually only a relationship between the viewer and the photographer. This new community cannot be mixed, or relate, with the communities in the photographs.

 

Fay (1)

Fangfei Chen is a Ph.D candidate of History at the University of Essex, with a primary focus on the research of photographic materials. She is from China and has an MA in Arts Market Appraisal from Kingston University, and an MA from the University of St. Andrews in the History of Photography. She has worked as Assistant Manager in the Beijing Huachen Auction House Photography Department, as well as working for several photographic archives such as in the University of St. Andrews. Her interviews and reviews have been published by Art Gallery, Art Guide and The World of Photography, among other publications. Her interests include the history of Chinese photography, the photographic market, management, and festivals.

 

References:

[1] Louis Kaplan, American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). xv.

[2] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”:51

[3] Christian Fynsk, Foreword to The Inoperative Community, by Jean-Luc Nancy(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): xii

[4] Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000):34

[5] Kaplan, American Exposures, xxii

[6] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”,61

[7] Foreword to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

[8] Townsend, Chris. “Nan Goldin: Bohemian Ballads.” In Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2004): 114

[9] Foreword to Bees

[10] Jean Loh, “Bees in the Body Temple” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 63.

[11] Elisabeth Sussman, “In/of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs” In Nan Goldin: I’ll be your mirror (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996): 26

[12] Xu, ”The Sting: Interview”, 74.

[13] Tingting Xu, ”The Sting: Interview” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 74.

[14] Joanna Lowry, “Negotiating Power” In Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 24

[15] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLkLv1gaXSs

[16] Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish.” October 34 (1985): 81-90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/778490 (accessed

April 24, 2012).

[17] Roberta McGrath, “Re-Reading Edward Weston.” In The photography reader (London: Routledge, 2003):333

[18] Victor E. Taylor, Charles E. Winquist, Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001) s.v. “community.”

[19] Christorpher Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural’.” Paragraph 30, no. 2 (2007): 50

[20] Ibid, 50.

[21] Kaplan, American Exposures. 81

[22] Ibid, 81

[23] Ibid, 82

[24] Ibid, xix

[25] Kaplan, American Exposures, 81

[26] Margaret Olin,”Gaze” In Critical Terms for Art History. 2 ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 319

[27] Olin,”Gaze”, 319
28 Ibid, 327

[28] Mark Durden, “Empathy and Engagement: the Subjective Documentary” in Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 32

[29] Ibid, 30

[30] Kaplan, American Exposures, 82.

[31] Ibid, 82.

[32] Ibid, xv.

Images ©Nan Goldin/Zhe Chen
Nan Goldin, Nan and Bryan in Bed, NYC, 1983
Zhe Chen, Bees 022-03, 2010
Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, 1982

Rob Ball: Dreamlands @ The Photographers’ Gallery

Frances Green reviews Rob Ball’s intimate tintypes of Dreamlands Margate and Coney Island amusement park in New York.

Over the past years there has been a surge in photographers engaging with anachronistic photographic methods — from cyanotypes, to calotype, to daguerreotype, it seems that there’s no type that’s left untested.

British photographer Rob Ball has embraced the tintype process, a technique that was invented in the 1860s and was extremely popular for portrait photographers taking pictures of holiday-makers on the beach. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Ball’s series has taken him to the coast – to Dreamlands Margate and to New York’s Coney Island amusement park.

The images on display at The Photographers’ Gallery depict the derelict sites of the two amusement parks. Yet despite the state of desertion shown in the images, there is a certain majesty in the Margate structures which carry a mood of hope for renovation and rejuvenation. As Ball says: “Our image of Margate is one of repair, rather than renaissance – something that was broken and [now] slowly being put back together again. This, I think, is echoed in my own work where cracks, dust and the materiality of each plate is evident.” So although Ball’s tintypes are imbued with an eerie, silver-tinged beauty, they are still testament to how specific the medium of photography is lending, as it does, a permanence and resolution to each frame.

Ball produced these plates by actually setting up a makeshift darkroom where he “coated, sensitised, exposed and developed” each piece. Tintypes are made by putting a positive image on a cleaned metal plate that has been prepared by spraying with black paint. The plate is then coated with a light-sensitive emulsion before being exposed then developed in a special chemical solution. The results are unpredictable and the pay-off for the photographer’s patience can be surprising yet ethereal images.

What’s interesting to consider is whether Ball’s method of production is a return to a form of instant photography. This was certainly its purpose in the 19 century when portrait photographers working on the beach would produce the tintype on the spot for customers to take away. Can we consider Ball’s work a backward looking take on the Polaroid? Certainly his method of working is evidence of an immediate, hands-on approach to picture-making.

Weirdly, the tintypes are printed in reverse and all lettering is back to front – a result of the image being exposed directly onto the metal surface. This heightens the sense of alienation; the viewer feels almost as if they are reading a foreign language and transported — for a fraction of a second — to a strange country.

These images of a forlorn, yet strangely magnetic Dreamlands, work on another level — that of conjuring the shrieks of excitement, the vanilla ices, the kiss-me-quick hats and the sunshine. These imaginary echoes of laughter are intensified by a display cabinet in the exhibition that contains the ephemera of the original Dreamlands park: a booklet of tickets for rides, a sign that forbids litter-dropping and smoking and, by way of contrast, a beautiful photograph of Margate’s Dreamland in its hey-day.

Frances Green

Visual Analysis: Orogenesis by Kay Watson

Landscapes derived from representations of landscapes, Orogenesis (2002 – 2006), is a series of digitally constructed landscapes created using software designed for scientific and military purposes by Spanish visual artist and academic Joan Fontcuberta. Fontcuberta uses software called Terragen to create photorealistic visualisations of landscapes, but instead of using cartographic data as this software is designed to use, Fontcuberta has replaced it with canonical images of landscapes taken from the history of art. The title, meaning mountain building or formation, derives from a field of physical geography and an early indication of a multidisciplinary practice that borrows from diverse critical disciplines. The series is the manifestation of a complex layering of ideas and concepts, and has at its core, his key creative concerns of: ‘representation, the nature of signs and the relationship of pictures to the real world’. It may even seem tenuous to discuss Joan Fontcuberta’s practice as photographic, as this is a set of images are created using visualisation software – but it is absolutely key to understanding Orogenesis, which is as much about photographic representation as it is the historical construction of assumptions about the subject.

Discourse around the time of the introduction of digital photography in the late 1990s was fearful of the death of the photographic medium; a mirroring of reactions to other changes in photographic culture historically, such as the introduction of colour film. Colour photography was only initially accepted as a commercial or a vernacular type of photography and the digital medium has followed that same path to acceptance. Joan Fontcuberta began his career in advertising, which may explain his willingness to utilise new representational tools. Contemporary assessments are less fearful of ontological change as Sarah Kember points out ‘how can we panic about the loss of the real when we know (tacitly or otherwise) that the real is already lost in the act of representation? Any representation, even a photographic one, only constructs an image idea of the real’.

This represents a sensible shift away from the anxiety of a ‘post-photographic’ discourse that digital photography represents an entirely new medium, and acceptance that any image is never completely truthful. With Orogenesis, Joan Fontcuberta is taking this one step further and posing a challenge to what is now accepted about digital image representation by using visualisation software. The process, though, is still inherently the same in a tradition sense. Like a digital photograph, created with a digital camera, a Terragen image is constructed using data. Rather than it being created through the digitisation of light waves, an image is created through the algorithmic processing of cartographic data; creating impressive photorealistic results through a mimetic process. Fontcuberta has replaced light with code, and the real life subject, made visible through light, is replaced by an artist’s representation of a subject from real life. This forms the basis of Fontcuberta’s strategy and is successful at stimulating discourse on the subject of representation in the digital and information age, while also reflecting on histories of photographic representation.

Through this method, Fontcuberta also reflects on the relationship between the photograph and its original, especially with the use of the art object as the basis of representation. When Orogenesis is presented, whether as a photograph or a book – and both are primary ways of viewing the work, it is always in reference to the image suppling the initial data. This original referent landscape, borrowed from the long history of art and photography – for example Orogenesis Stieglitz (2005), is always shown alongside a small version of the original work. This inclusion could be compared to a thumbnail, a function of computing that assists navigation, and reveals not only how recognisable these canonical source images really are, but creates an accessible route into the meaning of the artwork. The titles of each individual piece, with the inclusion of the creator of the source landscape image, also implies a form of collaboration or collusion with the original and an acceptance of the role of copying and appropriation as a viable visual practice, in agreement with Rosalind Krauss’s critique of modernist ideas of originality; that works of art are never unique as an artist is always influenced by external forces. Therefore, Orogenesis evokes age-old practices of copying from the history of art, as Joan Fontcuberta himself states: ‘just as every image derives from some other image that preceded it, so all histories, too, derive from other histories’.

The work becomes one of repetition with antagonism. Patricia Keller describes the process as ‘perpetuated and disrupted’, between the past and the present. Much like Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans: 2 (1981), where Levine appropriates Walker Evan’s photograph, by including it in the presentation of the work at only a fraction of the size. But rather than re-photographing like Levine, Fontcuberta is re-processing the original and the before and after appear to be different. The original landscape remains indexical to the final computer generated landscape. Even though the result has removed recognisable signs of the original, the traces of its existence remain. That Fontcuberta is using the art object is also significant in this respect, implying a criticism of the value of the art object that also raises concerns associated with authorship and ownership. Fontcuberta relinquishes control of the creative process – the result is placed in the hands of Terragen, and ensures that the authorship of Orogenesis is multiplicitous and ambiguous.

As a representation of art historical ideas, the work is obviously critical of modernist art historical discourse and embodies a postmodern approach. As Geoffrey Batchen states in his essay that accompanies the book Landscapes Without Memory (2005): ‘in Fontcuberta’s hands, photography has become a philosophical activity, not a pictorial one’ which is only emphasised by Fontcuberta’s extensive critical and theoretical writings. While this comment could be seen as a vague generalisation that encompasses the majority of postmodern, even post-war, art practice and potentially undermines visually interrogative techniques, it is correct in the sense that Fontcuberta is heavily relying on textual philosophical ideas through the Orogenesis series. Fontcuberta does accept that aesthetics are not primary within his investigations, ‘a by-product’, yet an essential way of communicating and encouraging critically engagement from the viewer.. This once again stems from Fontcuberta’s experience of advertising and visual rhetoric.

It is clear to see how Fontcuberta is combining ideas associated with language, semiotics and signs, with photographic representation. But any philosophical activity of this particular kind would not exist without the pictorial. Joan Fontcuberta’s critical writings are permeated with the word ‘crisis’ and whether this is a crisis of history, art or our landscape, it reveals a desire to question historically pre-conceived notions within our culture. As he discusses in a ‘virtual roundtable’ as part of Ecotopia, an exhibition of landscape photography and video associated with environmental issues: Postmodernism, the society of the spectacle, the capitalism of fiction, and the age of melancholy have combined to consolidate a philosophy of suspicion, a mistrust of a reality composed of simulations, manifested in an avalanche of seductive, saccharine images – to which it is imperative to be critical. Fontcuberta highlights how the philosophical environment of our time encourages the need to interrogate our general engagement with image representations but with the need to remain constantly critical. This statement also provides some indication why Batchen would associate the virtual landscapes with stock photography with its kitsch, generic-looking imagery. Stock photography represents a blandness of mass-produced images produced for commercial gain bound up in issues of copyright and ownership and resonates with an artist critical of a world homogenised by globalisation and the commodification of the art object.

Both series represent the power of the internet to disseminate information and imagery, as a new platform for the social, as well as artistic practice and criticism. Fontcuberta is also asking the viewer to question whether that information is authentic. Batchen states that the digital distribution of information is ‘the social/political issue of our age’ and becomes even more poignant when Fontcuberta is simultaneously challenging what is considered traditional and safe: landscape. It is now accepted that, as an art historical and critical subject matter, the representation of landscape is not objective but a complex mix of cultural, social and political constructs. This is what Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan in Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (2003) would describe as the ‘geographical imagination’ and a learned, culturally constructed way of seeing, stating that: ‘The taking and viewing of photographs was an integral, active and influential part of engagement with material reality, helping to construct imaginative geographies’. Joan Fontcuberta uses Orogenesis as a vehicle to both highlight and contradict how place exists through time and memory.

The artist uses embedded connotations of power relations (gender, race, class, colonialism) that have preoccuppied photographic discourse by disrupting and attempting to remove them from his landscapes, which highlights just how embedded our historically constructed ways of seeing really are. Orogenesis, or Landscapes Without Memory as it would now be appropriate to use, becomes a series of landscapes without history, without memory and without place. Fontcuberta’s title may reference Landscape and Memory (1995), Simon Schama’s seminal book about the environment and collective memory, as another nod to the critical climate that he is deconstructing. As the original data also comes from the history of art, notions of the ideal landscape, the pastoral idyll or the romantic sublime, are further emphasised, especially as Terragen interferes with that information. By turning an idealised representation of a landscape into another idealised representation, Fontcuberta is bemoaning the loss of our natural environment – another social and political issue of our time. Fontcuberta states that the work ‘can also be understood as samples of those fantasy “other worlds” where we will find shelter when our environment no longer supports life conditions.’

Orogenesis becomes a utopian vision full of contradiction and anxiety as it teeters on the cusp of the real and unreal, familiar and alien. The antagonism of these dualities deconstructs historical and cultural ideals before the eyes of the viewer with great unease. This disquiet goes further when considering the role surveillance and the historical relationship between the photographic and reconnaissance. Consider Carleton E. Watkins heroic and canonical images of the American West, his commissioned photographs could be considered early forms of reconnaissance, a mapping of a new landscape to enable to the spread of capitalism. Also considering the development of reconnaissance photography during the First World War, a specialist skill in the reading of photographs like maps, and a tool of modern warfare. The relevance of reconnaissance to the Orogenesis project is highly significant. Terragen was developed for military and scientific purposes, in order to visualise large areas of potential battlefields with only cartographic data and the high view-point of all of the Orogenesis landscapes only emphasises the surveying nature of the images. Orogenesis was published at the commencement of the post 9/11 era of increasingly virtual and detached methods of modern warfare and the proliferation of drones, and criticality of this as much as of representation can be read through Fontcuberta’s process. Fontcuberta takes on board the anxiety of the information age and contemporary readings of Orogenesis must be influenced by issues relating to internet privacy and political and ideological approaches to data.

Bringing these principles of surveying and reconnaissance together under a single blanket heading of mapping, or cartography, Fontcuberta’s virtual landscapes are as much a critical engagement with this discipline as with photography or art history. Landscape photography and mapping are entwined areas of critical thought and cartography comes under the same critical scrutiny as photography with regards to the authenticity of representation. There are significant parallels between not only the properties of maps and photographs but also the history of cartography and that of photography. Mapping, as Denis Cosgrove eloquently describes it, is an act of ‘visualising, conceptualising, recording, representing and creating spaces graphically’ that can be ‘material or immaterial, actual or desired, whole or part, in various ways experienced, remembered or projected’. Cosgrove’s words could just as easily be used to describe photography and when considering Fontcuberta’s own introductory words, that this is ‘art as map’, the disciplines are further entwined. Also consider that both are tangible everyday objects and this can arguably also mean virtual and a further narrative layer of the art object is once again emphasised. Both a photograph and map are instantly recognisable, though it is necessary to decipher the surface in order to grasp its meaning and both involve the creation of some form of boundary or essentially imaginary frame. One must also see maps as agents of political and economic power and social mobility, much like landscapes and their photographic, or creative, representations and are subjected to the same amount of editing, selections, omissions and other subjective processes that are also inherently photographic and create meaning. Interestingly, the terminology used by Christian Jacob is the same as that used by Clement Greenberg when discussing the reality of a photographic image; that maps can be transparent and opaque, and shows how similar the critical discourse is. As Denis Cosgrove stated in the book Mapping (1999), postmodern theory also enveloped cartographic discourse: ‘a widely acknowledged ‘spatial turn’ across arts and sciences corresponds to post-structuralist agnosticism about both naturalistic and universal explanations regarding their single voiced narratives, and to the concomitant recognition that position and context are centrally and inescapably implicated in all constructions of knowledge.’

Denis Cosgrove’s insight is especially relevant to Joan Fontcuberta’s practice and his desire to challenge power, authority and what we know about information sharing. Much like the land and environment artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Fontcuberta disrupts time by applying mapping principles to exacerbate debate about memory and space. One can compare works such as Richard Long’s 1967 piece A Line made by Walking, London (Tate Gallery) to Orogenesis to show how mapping principles, combined with landscape as subject, can assist in deconstruction of time as associated with experience, while also criticising that beacon of realism: the documentary photograph. As Lucy Lippard writes in The Lure of the Local (1997): ‘for most of us the map is a tantalizing symbol of time and space. Even when at their most abstract, maps (especially topographical maps) are catalysts, as much titillating foretastes of future physical experience as they are records of others’ (or our own) past experiences.’ Yet while Long represents notions of experience by documenting performative gestures, Fontcuberta’s visualisations represent a complete obliteration of time and an eradication of experience, through the removal of history, narrative and memory. Any sense of place becomes unfamiliar and dislocated from its reference in time. Patricia Keller suggests that this results in forgetting, the ‘work of art as real map of an non-existent place’ entices the viewer to ‘rethink the paradox inherent in seeing these works as both real and fictional, as both the memory of the artwork and the remapped forgetting of that artwork’.

Time, in Fontcuberta’s work, becomes pivotal to its construction, representation and interpretation and the dissolution of time actively contradicts his consistently historical approach. Time also represents a decisive factor within the history of photographic technological development and has always had an effect on the type of work that is produced. The slow movement of heavy cumbersome plate cameras and long exposures infuse 19th Century exploration images. The desire to travel long distances to document a landscape is also apparent in the work of The New Topographics even though they had access to smaller snapshot cameras. Fontcuberta’s disintegration of time is magnified by the relative ease and speed of the creation of his digital landscapes,. As analogue photography started as an expensive time-consuming pursuit, so did digital photography, and it’s now cheaper and more accessible than ever – even Terragen can be accessed for free. It should be considered that Fontcuberta’s use of mapping creates, or perhaps reverts to, a mythical landscape. The creation of maps to represent social and religious importance rather than of actual place echos the earliest created maps of our surroundings. The viewer should also consider then the impact of the Enlightenment on the capturing of objective factual depictions as much with mapping as with the development and rise of photography that followed.

In Ecotopia, Gregory Volk describes how Fontcuberta’s ‘mythical’ landscapes initially ‘look plausible and enticing’ but because they ‘refer to no place on earth’ they ‘seem vaguely creepy and un-nerving’. This revulsion and anxiety that the viewer feels when attempting to decipher a place-less space teetering between the real and imaginary is that of the uncanny. Matthew Hart comes to a similar conclusion when writing about the work of Layla Curtis that: ‘the cartographic uncanny is the feeling one gets before a map that looks familiar and yet is also a chart of something very different; when the well known map of the well known territory no longer offers a reliable route through new thickets of fact and affect. The cartographic uncanny, then, marks both a failure of mapping and the persistence of cartographic reason under the sign of the failure.’ The failure that Hart describes parallels Fontcuberta’s own language, the ever present ‘crisis’, and resonates with Fontcuberta’s deconstruction of, not only, ideas associated with mapping but its contemporary criticism. The uncanny is an effective way of describing the response to Fontcuberta’s practice of representing critical contradictions that also mirrors the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe a revulsion to images or things that almost look human, or real.

Orogenesis is a work full of antagonism, but perhaps also using humour and chance in response to notions of anxiety and control. Fontcuberta’s process is to trick the software into thinking that photographic representation of landscapes are maps. He is introducing the idea that the surface of an image could be codified in the same way as a map and disrupts an established process at the same time. He claims that this act of trickery represents his mistrust of authority gained from growing up under Franco’s authoritarian regime in Spain. This disruption means that the act of visualisation becomes an unknown, as the artist has cheated the system with little concern for how Terragen will respond except to produce a landscape. This is what Fontcuberta terms the ‘limited vocabulary’ of his chosen medium and it is in this regard that the work has much in common with that of the experimental composer John Cage.

John Cage was an early pioneer of computer-based technology as a way to experiment with randomness in sound. His work challenged everything that was then accepted in western music and composition, and he was a prolific writer. Of particular interest is the work titled, perhaps coincidently, Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951), an improvised performance for 24 musicians and 12 radios – considered the first ever example of electronic music. The creative strategy removes the composer from the final stage of the process but only after a set of creative decisions and limitations have been set, much like Fontcuberta’s strategy with Orogenesis. The limited vocabulary of Cage’s sound corresponds with the limitation of images in Fontcuberta’s work, while both Cage and Fontcuberta experiment the point of deconstruction. Jason Wee points out that Fontcuberta ‘uses one of the oldest scenarios in the conceptualist playbook – submit a plethora of possibilities to a regime of rules and principles, and accept the result’ and shows how Fontcuberta is utilising an established art historical strategy to criticise art history. Interestingly in 1994, Foncuberta was already trying to overlap cartographic data and photography but also sound. In Topophonia: Terrestrial Music, the viewer is asked to manipulate the cartographic data of the mountain of Monserrat to produce images and sound, though it is unclear whether this project was simply a proposal or fully realised either physically or virtually.

It is clear that Joan Fontcuberta’s practice is infused with a desire to question how photographic representation functions in a modern society, and looks to history with the same critical eye. Orogenesis must be seen as a multidisciplinary investigation into the philosophy and politics of, not only, photographic representation but the role of the imaginary and the imagination in all of the disciplines that deal with the representation of space. Patricia Keller when stating that Orogenesis should be read as a way of ‘rethinking the ways in which we read, see, perceive and come into knowledge of the world, offering unique and at times arresting explorations of temporality, history, and perception through art’ as a summary of Fontcuberta’s intentions. But while the work could feel theoretically cumbersome, one must acknowledge how the mischievous spirit of Joan Fontcuberta infiltrates the creative process, responding to dualities and antagonisms with a deadpan humour that ensures that the work is accessible and open to those who view it.

Images ©Joan Fontcuberta

kay

Kay Watson is a researcher, curator and archivist. She currently works in the curatorial department at the Contemporary Art Society and has experience of working on digital and archive projects for The Photographers’ Gallery, Autograph ABP and many private collections. She has specialist knowledge of working with digital and print photographic archives and collections with acquisitions and conservation experience. She has an MA History of Art with Photography (Distinction) from Birkbeck College. Research interests include post-war and contemporary art, photography and digital media practices, institutional histories and representations of gender.

 

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