Reflections on Tutor report, the Calendar, Barthes and advertising



In his introductory essay to the Phaidon 55 Joan Fontcuberta issue, Christian Caujolle cites the artist, who had spent some years in Marketing, describing advertisements as “…designed to provoke desire, then the ‘consumption reflex’ in those who look at them…”

The company calendar, that is the output for this assignment, has been synonymous with the development of consumerism since the industrial revolution and the advent of the machine age. The brief requests the photographer not to ‘focus’ on the product and my choice of a ‘support group’ within the auspices on the NHS certainly fitted the bill. The ‘product’, if that is how it might be described, is that of support through difficult periods to both patient and their partner/carers. There are no logo’s for either the Group or the umbrella organization that provides the service. So all in all I realized that I had pulled away from a lot of the assignment requirements as much as I thought I could, and, though I explained it to my tutor I had largely positive remarks in response to it.

I have been working this group for much of the time during this course and my tutor is concerned that this may be affecting my judgment as I seem to be prioritizing it over developing a broader photographic base. I fully accept that view and can sympathize with that perspective, and given only this courses assignments as a view I might well come up with that conclusion. So I will not use my work with the group for the final pieces on the course, despite having a less of a concern in that respect. One of the principal academic areas in this module was the notions of Barthes from Camera Lucida and also Semiotics from Saussure, and whilst I have done quite a bit of research in those areas in Level one and in the other Level two course Documentary, I haven’t detailed any thoughts in this course and my tutor thought it might be a good idea to remedy that by looking, and critiquing some of the images I used in this submission, to see how well I thought they carried the ‘message’ that I wanted to convey. I will come to that.

The ride on public transport is an opportunity for thought and reflection, and sometimes the odd encounter that helps to provoke more thought. Returning to the ‘Park & Ride’ car park on the lower deck of the bus I noticed some reading material on the floor under the seat in front of me. And whilst this isn’t something I think I would normally do I picked it up and started to consider what I found. The front-cover of the magazine was a search for two answers to two questions and it is to this image that I want to first consider, in relation to both the module I have been working on, the assignment brief and response from my tutor and then perhaps to where I have travelled to thus far.

Thinking about the semiotic values of the main image. Maybe half of the image area is taken up with a woman with her arms around a young child, the older woman is looking off to her right whilst the child on her left is looking toward the face of the woman – their eyes do not meet. Behind and to the right of these subjects is a scene of devastation, directly above the girl can be seen crumbling buildings, rubble covers the middle ground between the subjects and the edifice in the distance that still has smoke pouring from it. To their right is what appears to be the burn-out wreck of a car and even closer is, seemingly, bullet ridden metal sheets, perhaps another vehicle, perhaps a shelter, it is difficult to discern. The text is white and emblazoned in white on the dark clothing of the woman, capitalized and sequenced in two sentances: WHY SO MUCH SUFFERING? WHEN WILL IT END? The words ‘suffering’ and ‘end’ are ‘boldened’ as if to amplify their meaning.

What does all this denote? Well we have a woman, whose demeanour  is of a carer, probably a mother to the younger girl, the idiom of ‘Madonna and child’ would be difficult not to connote. The woman isn’t looking at the child; she is perhaps searching for an answer, a solution to their current predicament; again we might connect this to Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ similarly looking distantly to her left. The text is a call for help, the child’s demeanour and expression echoes and amplifies that plaintiff call. The connotation is one of a forlorn hope.

The crumbling and devastated landscape that is in the process of enveloping them is mirrored in their dirty faces, they have survived whatever has befallen the land – at least so far, we might denote that they have with force of character; the will and the luck to be where they are. Can I connote that they have been chosen to be so lucky so far?

Both the subjects aren’t dressed shabbily, their hair is still shiny and clean, they are clearly still healthy and nourished – a little wind blown perhaps – but their faces are full, they appear in most instances to be healthy. We might connote that they could have lost their way? Or perhaps been caught up in something, a natural disaster perhaps, a war zone?

Looking closely around the head of the woman there can be clearly seen a bright ring surrounding her, demarking her from the crumbling of the building to her left and merging with the brighter light of the sky to her right. I wonder whether this might be a fortuitous or purposeful development of the Madonna theme by the photographer either in the framing or perhaps in post processing.

I notice also that it’s a square image, I find that interesting in that not many photographers take a square format camera to either a battle scene or a disaster scene, they are too cumbersome. Digital imagery is important for a number of reasons, the capture quantity is huge when compared to film (of course it could be a digital square format, but they are normally associated with art based or studio based work and this is very definitely in the reportage idiom), the speed of operation is a very distinct advantage, the ‘connectivity’ to the mediums which use this type of image makes it much easier to connect with. So this is tending to suggest that this image has been cropped, most likely to focus the gaze on the woman and child situated in this disaster zone. The picture editor has probably cropped this image, troubling perhaps but not disturbingly so.

The tones of the image are muted, nothing distinguishes this as an exaltant image in any way. It places the narrative of these two surviving females in the context of extant disaster very clearly. Denoting that these two are in some peril, all about them is cataclysm of almost biblical proportions, there appears no rest-bite from our perspective from impending and enveloping jeopardy.

In Barthesian terms these are all ‘Studiums’ and semiotic responses to the image. Whether contrived (staged/posed) this image impels the viewer to consider the plight of the subjects. Connoting and denoting with visual triggers to what are in the main, sociological conditioned responses.

The ‘lead’ subject is a white woman – much as Lange’s ‘Mother’ was, posing the rhetorical question, would it be less of a ‘story’ if the character was a male, or a dark skinned male or perhaps a hijab wearing middle eastern lady? But then I go back to the image, where it is situated, what the assignment is. It is a photograph on the front cover of a magazine found on an Oxford city bus. It is also an enticement to covet the answer held between the covers.

So what about the ‘Punctum’, that response to an image that Barthes describes as “..that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” That personal response to an image that is probably not seen when first encountering the image, but because the image stirred a ‘Studium’ response meant that the eye dwelt and in doing so discerned a puzzle, posed a question, disturbed the continuity – or however it made itself manifest forcing the arrival of the ‘prick’. Barthes describes it as a personal response, to which of course my ‘Punctum’ is mine alone, no other has trod my path. There are though multiple ‘Punctums’ in this image for me, and most have been situated by the title of the publication, which associated with the text puts this in a very clearly defined place. I am though concerned a trifle with the lighting; above and to the main subject’s left is a large light source, high enough not to register in the eyes beneath a very furrowed brow, but catch her shoulder, open enough to catch the young girl’s nose and forehead and almost rim-lighting her beseeching profile. This divine light is despite the gloom everywhere else; a break in the clouds perhaps to shine a light on these two survivors I suspect this is a staged shot and probably a composite, there is no photographer attribution inside the magazine.

The “Watchtower” is an organ of the Jehova’s Witness and is not for sale, this image was almost all of the front cover – I redacted the banner title. My research into disaster photography has led me to undertake some interviews with charity organisations that specialize in ‘relief’, namely ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Pump-Aid’. Their view was that imagery needs to be sensitively nuanced to elicit attention, to engender compassion for the cause and, as Fontcuberta states provoke the ‘consumption reflex’; to not portray the people as ‘victims’ in a hopeless cause – why would you want to donate to a hopeless cause? How does that relate to a magazine whose sole purpose is the recruit new affiliates to its own cause? By providing answers, the texts within the magazine spell out very clearly that within their bible are the answers to all these problems, I won’t describe or quote from them but rather stay focused on the comprehension of the image. Charities, fund raisers, and religions are all in competition both with each other for funds and across the spectrum. The charities I spoke to are very aware of the competitive nature of their place in the consumer milieu. They appreciate that they need to attract donators who are prepared to give money, that their good-work is more important to the donators than any other good-work-doers. The images that are chosen by those charities are carefully selected under very clearly defined rules, which do not denote ‘victim’, do not denote ‘helpless’, but rather independence under difficult circumstances. The Oxfam person suggested that religious charities tend not to adhere to these sort of notions, that the ‘lost’ are often featured. This image and others that are used in connection with relief from strife and suffering are then advertisements, designed to induce desire (the desire to help), to satiate the viewer’s desire to ‘come to the aid’ of these victims, whether hopeful or however hopeless.

As Barthes deliberated, as much as his ‘Punctum’ is what bruises him, my ‘Punctumis all mine and mine alone; informed by who I am and what critical referencing I have or am bereft of; I denote and connote in a sphere of my own consciousness and a lifetime less interesting than most. But so are others similarly informed, the marketing person isn’t wholly interested in the connotations, the primary motivation is in adherence to the image for however long is needed to implant the seed of desire. The Company Calendar has used many forms to attract itself to it’s market, Pirelli offers this as it’s current ‘cause to desire’. Some might suggest that it is still in the ‘dark-ages’ in it’s approach, however it would not present such a product without the conviction that it will continue to ‘cause the desire’ and the ‘compulsion to consume’. These decisions are base decisions, much as the Jehova’s Witness considers it a straightforward choice to offer redemption and deliverance guided by the depiction of a Madonna in flight from a Sodom and Gomorra landscape to, perhaps an Edenic deliverance. It works because they use its visual narrative, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t. Pirelli still uses passive women in overtly sexual poses for exactly the same reason. Marketing and Sales works. The first rule of the advert is to obtain attention; the second rule is to obtain attention of the target audience. ‘Punctum’ may do the rest. The passive bare breasted, posterior exposing female implores the ‘Studium” response to any who consider themselves in the bracket that Pirelli want to talk to, the audience provides the vernacular response dwelling long enough to want to be associated and remember the ‘brand’ the next time they are in ‘Quick Fit’. Others, who seek ‘answers’, might feel inquisitive enough to satiate that yearning with a visit to a congregation and ‘support’ them there. From an image perspective I see no difference in the two intents, the liminal and subliminal content have the same narrative, their reliances on the Barthesian observations are coincidental as all images have the capacity to provide overt and covert, purposeful and un-purposed narratives, its just that advertisements are all determined constructs designed purposely to invoke reaction, form associations and deliver that desired instinct.

As a photographic artist the desire to invoke reaction is perhaps only concerned with developing the notion of a constructed ‘Studium’, the composure, the narrative structure, the contextual referencing which are left within the frame to develop the discourse between creator and spectator. Forming a basis for intercourse between those two parties have different bases from which to launch any conversation. Brent Stirton’s continual drive to ‘go one better’ in the presentation of images to win prizes is part of that capitalist drive that is no different in moral turpitude than that of Pirelli or the Watchtower, they all want us to part with cash, or perhaps cash is the driving force behind the click of the shutter release. To review one’s own work from a disinterested perspective, to attempt to derive the ‘Punctum’ from the frame is, I would venture to suggest, difficult for as an artist, the content of the frame is a construct. What is it that drives the need for this level of subtlety in this sort of image from Stirton? And the direct connection from all the base desires on display in this frame collide with mine, and that is of course cash. The detritus surrounding the supplier and receiver in Stirton’s image situates them in the fringes, the ‘Edgelands’, of Kiev and of a society coming to terms with both capitalism and political upheaval. Cash is the stimulus and the encumbrance of these two and also the ‘Punctum’ that binds them together.

From session one

From session one

But to attempt the task bidden by my tutor it is the nails that I didn’t notice in the girl tenderly nurturing the ‘nest’ that she is constructing that might provide the ‘Punctive’ element; I didn’t notice it when I asked her to pose in that way, the ‘Studium’ was an attempt to deliver that nurturing element, both as a means by which the spectator might connote that this child had a depth to her despite her difficulties. That it finds her in this group, but also reflecting that the group is a nurturing facility to its users; a mirror to her place in the group/society. Those few nails that have the sense of toil, of exertion, of struggle perhaps.

From session two

From session two

And equally in this image of a boy masking himself which offers both the ‘Studium’ as the means by which to engage the viewer, the careful handling of the clay, and then as the ‘Punctum’ by the masking of the boy to anonymise him in a society that has less and less regard for individuals who can’t, for whatever reason, contribute and conform to those norms that Pirelli would feel easier in.

This chap who is full of joy at the surface level, enjoying the pieces and interaction with others in the group, whilst the subliminal question might be to ask why, what has led him, this apparently healthy and alert person to be with this group? I might ask the question, its joyous facade for me is pregnant with association as I have a knowledge, not a complete knowledge but a vested comprehension of what underpins his activity and presence. The viewer will denote I am fairly hopeful of his rapture, but maybe not any sense of grace.

These generations huddled in consideration of a common subject, in a common place with a common cause, we denote those characteristics of the image, we might also denote the inclusiveness of the group based on gender, race and age – all subjects equally valued in the frame and respected as such. We might also connote the active participants are the two on the left of the image, both with writing implements, both expressing are in active control, whilst the elder two are more reflective and receptive in this instant of capture.

Fontcuberta’s posit regarding advertising is one that I have a great deal of sympathy for. The notion of action/reaction is a visual paradigm going back to the dawn of the industrial age, the means by which the image could be replicated as embedded into the capitalist construct. My images in this ‘calendar’ were never intended to solicit emotive responses similar in intent to those of the Watchtower/Pirelli or Stirton. In the images my intent was to inform, to add to the discussion about the value of existence for those in the group, not to have judgment made about whom was a clinical user or a volunteer or clinical professional.

And finally, I fully appreciate that the descriptive potency of these words has permitted a transformation of interpretive comprehension on all of the images from a disinterested spectator. I hope that I haven’t extinguished whatever value I had vested in these portraits, but I know I have changed them forever.



This series has been a long time coming. In the end it was a close thing whether I asked for their participation, but these portraits come quite close to what I wanted to achieve. None of the photographs are named, they are all users – though not all the users who attended on this day agreed to be photographed, but all those who did were happy to agree to pose. I had two portraits in mind, the one above that I have chosen and another square on to the camera. I felt I needed to keep the image creation time short, the sensitivity of the process was apparent in my mind, though I am quite prepared to be told that I have overplayed that sensitivity, had these not been users of the Group, then I would have encroached on more of their time. This portrait had the subject looking out of a large window that provided soft light, even in summer this window has that property, so I had envisioned the space. I wanted them to be looking to the light, I wanted them to not be smiling, a couple of the subjects had difficulty in not smiling, and this was to do with them providing a contemplative pose in an attempt to equalise them, to bring them to a similar place before the lens – to not differentiate them as either clinically needy or otherwise. The alternate pose had too much variety in the poses and the sense of artificiality seemed to me to be too evident. The users all work on ‘art’ projects and this portrait session was slotted as and when they/we completed the final piece of the current project, a large communal print:

The final print

The final print

I have been working at the centre now for most of this year. I have had some ups and downs, but mostly ups. I usually have a sense of inspiration after attending these sessions, and whilst I have a strong feeling that I am benefitting significantly from working with this group, the various artists that attend – which is allowing me to build a new network – I am very mindful that I don’t want to appear to be using them. I hope I am now trusted within the group, that I contribute from more than just another pair of hands perspective, that I bring to the group something that benefits both parties and that this final print is a signifier of that spirit of the group; all the users, including me, contributed a piece to the print and we all worked on bringing the piece to a conclusion.

The final print is likely to be included in the exhibition of the project that I have documented to date, the exhibition will be a ‘Group’ show. I will make a lot of prints and perhaps a book and we will include work from the users (both prints, and text). The next few weeks will decide on whether the show will go ahead; the exhibition will probably take three months to put together and it might be a project for the group early next year, or a joint project between Helen and myself to be hosted at Fusion Arts, who appear to be positive about the idea.

Advertising – module four

Last week I went to an exhibition, my friend Sue was, amongst a lot of other artists, exhibiting her ‘Cocoon’ summary-cocoon.pdf which I used as part of assignment three. It was an interesting space of artists and craft workers, mainly textile, though some 3D work and paintings were amongst them. I was reminded of this when reading the series of comments and statements on the WeAreOCA blog following the entry on Kessels work that I saw in Arles in July. All this came to mind as I start to investigate the fourth module of this course – Advertising.

The work in Aynho was often quite beautiful, certainly a lot of very pretty work and some work that defied the notion of commerce by being both interesting and not for sale. Sue’s ‘Cocoon’ wasn’t for sale, it is still a work in progress and I have still haven’t plucked up courage to put a secret inside. I went to the show on preview, not just for the drinks and nibbles, but, hopefully, to engage with a few of the exhibitors, to explore what their work was about. I was reminded of this event when I started to read the comments on the WeAreOCA blog about the way some ‘artists’ approach their work, how their work is informed and why it is they do the work they do.

This module is called Advertising, there is some research about advertising, somewhat mixed up with the notion of marketing I feel, but nevertheless it is how the ‘artist’ might generate work that engages with the purposes of capitalism to encourage consumerism and ‘buy stuff’, or ‘invest in stuff’ or be complicitly engaged in the process. One of the exercises is to attempt to place some images with a photo agency Alamy, an interestingly timed venture as Getty has decided to place a lot of it’s images ‘out there’ for free  an action which, I suspect, will further alter the paradigm by which professional photographers will be able to engage commercially. I have decided not to pursue the Alamy route and won’t attempt to get any images ‘on-line’ because, despite having not read Alamy’s terms and conditions, I find them unacceptable. I have no reason to suspect that Alamy is a disreputable organization and it might well be an exemplar in its field for all I know; I wish them well.

It is though this notion of self promotion that I found interesting, clearly an exhibition is a self-promoting exercise; the poster for the show that Sue participated in suggests that whilst entrance is free there are items for sale including refreshments and proceeds will go to Creative Activities for Elderly People, all in a good cause then and noting that not all the work will be for sale, one can denote (there is also a section in this module on Semiotics, which seems to ignore completely the work of Peirce and others and focuses solely on Barthes and Saussure, maybe Barthes because of the work done in deconstructing advertisements….) from the poster/advertisement therefore, that there will be work at the exhibition that is not for sale

One of the main threads in the exhibition I found, was how attractive a lot of the work was, how immediately compelling some of it was. The show had quite a few textile workers who used some gorgeous colours, bringing a lustrous rich quality that drew me to their work, golds, scarlets, sapphire blues, emerald greens. The painters had what Grayson Perry described as – and I paraphrase – the societal norm of acceptable painting; landscapes with some people in the foreground and a lot of blue. Prices ranged quite a lot, from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds for different artists – some of whom have an established clientele and are starting to be collected. I suspect the timing of the show isn’t a completely random choice either, with about eight shopping weeks left for Christmas. I was glad to see that Sue had included some of my most recent photographs of her and her work in a book she had had published recently (not for sale either) to accompany her Cocoon.

A tutor sometime ago informed me that the approach of a ‘jobbing professional’ photographer was to ‘get deep quick, get the work done and get out’ (again, I paraphrase). I can fully comprehend that notion, it seems perfectly reasonable for a student of photography who needs to get the work done, submit it, get paid (marked) and move to the next job. I can also see that doing such would be a great ‘advert’ for the skills of that photographer, that they would more likely get more work from that client again for doing such an exemplary job. We, as students on this course, are often told, ‘read the brief, don’t go beyond it and submit it on time’, my previous Managing Director also echoed that comment by saying to me ‘never do a customer a favour’. There are other tutors who offer a different mantra, about exploring the idea from a personal perspective and developing a reasoned response to it – I wonder though how much they sell of their work!

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

I am reminded again when reading some of the comments on the WeAreOCA blog entry regarding the need to ‘put work out there’. Kessels’ work suggested to me various notions; yes the vacuity of the present day digital world that allows volumes of images to be ‘uploaded’ almost as soon as they are created, perhaps the availability of that capability provides the impetus to do it? And, to one of the commentators on the blog who has suggested, it may have to something to do with ego perhaps, but it might be something about value (or the valueless notion of the image, but I’ll come back to that later). My own personal perspective on this work to an extent agrees with the egotistical relationship mentioned, but I also recognise other perspectives; that of a silent witness perhaps, of a search for a voice in an increasingly mediated world, or that of celebration of love or death, or that of companionship – whether there or searched for – again in a world mediated by social media where discourse is by an avatar and moniker that translates identity to a virtual plane of obscurity and anonymity which often meets with a desire to transcend them to a desired personality from another place, divorced from the responsibility of reality.




That individuals flood the world with images suggests, amongst other reasons, a cry in the wilderness more than a cry of ‘look at me’; which brings me back to marketing and it’s associative instrument the advertisement. Increasingly, and by dint of it’s own premise, marketing will continue to strive to marginalize, segmenting the audience into smaller and smaller pieces, increasing the size of it’s apparent target to better position it within the frame of its desiredness and therefore to better mirror that allure and improve its chances of success. The Ford motor company first offered the Model T to the world (North America, which to them at the time was about the same thing) with the saying ‘that you could have any colour you wanted as long as it was black’. Now the posit of the ‘Mad Men’ is to be able to refine, by segmentation, the infinite colour proposition to better enable both the admen’s product and consumer’s inevitable resignation of triumph in purchase.

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Kessel’s images come with certain attributes, there are those who are seemingly fixated by volume – there are xxx thousands of images in the building, there were xxx millions of images uploaded in a certain year, Fred Ritchen seems permanently in a state of awe with these numbers in both his books ‘After Photography’ and ‘Bending the Frame” (not wishing to disparage either of these otherwise very stimulating tomes). The record numbers though will be beaten tomorrow; the question as to why will unlikely be answered tomorrow, because there are likely to be too many questions being asked of them. The ‘adman’s nightmare’.

A basket of pasta, a tin of sauce, some tomatoes and other superfluous vegetables and a limited colour palette, suggests, amongst other things, that it is food and it is going to be eaten. Its ‘Italianicity’ is but a part of it’s value to the adman whose desire to entice you to buy would have a lesser value today, our (the market’s) denotating antennae perhaps haven’t changed very much in the last few decades – a post post modernist assumption perhaps? But pasta is no longer a marketing segment anymore, now the need might be for which type of wheat, which side of the hill it was grown, we (the consumer) would probably be interested in the use of fertilizer, of systemic weed-killing (or lack of), of distance travelled to the place of purchase (though not of the distance travelled to purchase by the consumer), sustainability et al, et al. Narrowing the channel of irrigation and introducing those studium opportunities, by an increasingly self proclaimed sophisticated Madman team, leads still to a still simple image though within a more defined market demographic.

That advertising works isn’t in dispute, that the advertisers continue to strive to find better and more efficient ways to ‘drive awareness’ will come as a surprise to no-one, that it has – in the main – moved on from the projections of Sabrina, except as a device of irony, nostalgia or distancing, should also be of no surprise. And so my concern, perhaps my overriding concern at this juncture, in this course, is whether I am being encouraged to consider that to sell my work I need to develop a conversation with an audience for that purpose? Whether I need to understand how my market works, to consider how to engage with it? Refine my approach to it in order to develop that ‘market’ for it? Although I actually think at this stage that the notion that I need to sell my work is being seen as a validation of the course’s effectiveness, rather than whatever sense of self awareness I might have been able to explore and comprehend. If I wanted to construct a ‘landscape with a few animals or people in the foreground; mainly in blue’, which is, according to some research quoted by Grayson Perry in his recent Reith lecture, the most popular art product, then what would I need to attend this course for? I could as a commentator on the Kessel’s blog post simply converse with my customer base and make stuff that appeals to them. To make beautiful work in gold and ruby red (and a lot of sapphire blue) without the least notion of it’s relevance to me other than my wallet. Roll up, roll up!

Postcards from the past

Postcards from the past


This image found on the pile in Arles, presumably by the staff constructing Kessel’s installation holds more fascination to me than the pretty photographs of North America above. I have no notion of the context or narrative that surrounds this found image, but I know all about those beautiful black and white prints rendered so expertly in a continuous tone which, when I used to sell stuff, sold quite well – there are plenty of them on walls in this country and others.

Surrealism and Feminism

In the one course – Gesture and Meaning it is suggested that I study feminist art, and the course notes suggest some texts and workers in that field. In the other course, Documentary, it suggested that I look at Surrealism, similarly there are texts and artists in that field to “go and explore”.

Recently I had the pleasure of discussing feminist art with Lucie Bromfield at a study visit – Judy Chicago – in fact the only discussion I had on the day regarding feminism, which I found curious when the study visit was to a Judy Chicago show. Lucie has shared with me her draft essay “How Has a Feminist Reading of Surrealism Dealt with the Hegemonic Imbalance Found in the Movement?”. This work has sort of stuck with me, and indeed the conversation at the gallery; so I suspect that a good deal of my thoughts written here will have some foundation in Lucie’s thoughts – so acknowledgement is given here.

Invited in the Documentary course to look at Atget’s work about whom Benjamin remarked: “In fact, Atget’s Paris photographs are the forerunners of surrealist photography, advance troops of the broader columns surrealism was able to filed….he began the liberation of the object from the aura – Walter Benjamin, 1931 pp28 “Photography in the Dock” Solomon-Godeau 2009.

Benjamin’s words, written less than a decade after the Surrealist manifesto was coined, open the chapter that discusses Atget’s work from a number of aspects, but the aspect of a feminist perspective is perhaps the one I will dwell upon most. Though, as the text was referred to from the Documentary course, one suspects the aspect of authorship was in the mind of the author of the course. Be that as it may.

Despite Berenice Abbott’s intent on bring Atget’s work to the fore in 1928/29, it wasn’t until Szarkowski in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s did Atget gain the notoriety that he, Szarkowski, determined that he deserved. Indeed Abbott’s determined refusal to find a path in the surrealist genre – despite being introduced to Atget by Man Ray – may have contributed to her decision to sell the work in order to live. “Whatever the nature of the social, professional, and artistic positions Abbott occupied in relation to the surrealist milieu, the fact that she was a woman artist (and not a wife, mistress, or model) could only have been anomalous in the boys’-club (not to say misogynous) ambience of surrealism. Abbott’s embrace of Atget in 1928 must be understood as expressing a multiple refusal – a simultaneous refusal of surrealism, of art photography, and perhaps even of expatriatism (Abbott returned permanently [from France] to America in 1929). Ibid pp 35.

It was Abbott that brought Atget’s work to the attention of the American market, though it was Szarkowski who iconized the Frenchman’s work:

“What also became apparent from this feminist reading of Surrealism was that two further poles were to evolve; one that was to reject psychoanalysis and Freudianism; the second, that psychoanalysis was needed in order to more fully understand the roles assigned to women in society and art, because, as Juliet Mitchell would point out, “psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but rather an analysis of one.” (Mitchell, 2000, back cover)” Lucie Bromfield, unpublished from: How Has a Feminist Reading of Surrealism Dealt with the Hegemonic Imbalance Found in the Movement?”.

Bromfield goes on to discuss these twin streams, also how female artists work ‘alongside’ the surrealists, but as for their collective importance to the origin of the movement, Bromfield goes on to cite Chadwick:

“The meeting in 1928 by male members of the Surrealists which lead to the 11th issue of this publication [La Revolution Surrealiste] was with the aim to conduct a “formal enquiry into sexuality”. The fact that there were no women present in the meeting was only commented upon by Louis Aragon “who apparently felt inhibited about discussing woman’s sexuality in her absence” (Chadwick, 1985, p.103). Along with their rejection of bestiality they also excluded homosexuality, though there was a paradoxical tolerance towards lesbianism.” Ibid Bromfield.

The inception od Surrealism then was guided by the absence of women, which is something that Solomon-Godeau goes on to discuss: “In making what might seem to be an ad feminin reference to a sexual division of labor along the lines of scholarship and stewardship, I mean to enforce, once again, the connection between canons, fathers, authority, and patriarchy. One of the the conspicuous features of virtually all canons in the field of cultural production is the relative absence of women and, needless to say, all other Others.” pp39 Solomon-Godeau

What I suggest here, is that, even if Atget was the forerunner of Surrealism that Benjamin suggests – a contention not without it’s detractors, but not discussed here – the movement was critically flawed by it’s singularity of exclusion to any Other representation. That Szarkowski, by his position of King maker at the MoMA, had iconized the relatively unknown French photographer from his position as the patriarchal head of a gender biased organization and art culture as much for his own determined position that he himself couldn’t. As Solomon-Godeau says “What distinguishes a photographi arbiter like Szarkowski from the other curators and critics has to do, first with the power of the position (not for nothing has Marth Rosler dubbed MoMA “the Kremlin of Modernism”) and, second, with his having produced a critical framework to justify, promote, and pedigree his preferences”. pp 39 Solomon-Godeau.

And whilst I find difficulty in not conflating the gender biased curation, including the exclusion to some extent of Abbott’s work to foster the worth of Atget and the opening of an art movement deliberately starved of any Other representation; I am well aware that there will be many attempts, in fact have been, to rewrite the history from other aspects. But I wonder how another archive might spin the orbit of Atget’s contribution to both the Documentarist tradition and the Surrealist with the post-Szarkowski discovery of the work of Vivian Maier. An archive of greater proportion, perhaps therefore greater significance through greater exploration of singular narratives over time. An archive whose existence has produced an exigency unparalleled with even Atget’s oeuvre, the majority of which lies within the French art establishment. That ‘Surrealism’ is a term often appended to ‘quirky’ images, odd juxtapositions and ‘clever’ framing denies the origin of it’s creation as an art movement. But those terms are as readily in the frame in Maier’s work as they ever were in Atges’, that they were taken by a woman recalls to mind, as Solomon-Godeau does when discussing the effect of the authorship of Szarkowski in relation to Atget’s work, this quotation from T.S. Eliot.

“You cannot value [the poet] alone: you must set him [sic], for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he should cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which proceeded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them… whoever has this idea of order… will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” T.S.Eliot. “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in selected prose of T.S.Eliot, ed, Frank Kermode (New York:Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975) 109

Gillanders and Stirton

David Gillanders and Brent Stirton

The course notes towards the end of each section provide a list of photographers who, I assume, are active in the field/genre of the area of study coming to a completion and in this case Documentary. I’ve decided to focus this post on ways in which a similar subject has been covered by both the aforementioned photographers. The object isn’t to say which photographer did a better job, more compelling, worth more, just to compare the different approaches in both aesthetics of production and what ‘I’ sense as the underlying contextual narrative. Both have looked at the effect of poverty, AIDS and the misuse of drugs in the Ukraine. Their approaches, both visually and physically, have been very different from each other, but both sets provide compelling imagery that brings awareness to these western eyes.

David Gillanders’ approach street children of ukraine is, seemingly, more personal to the subjects. He prefaces the work with this statement

In 2000 I was travelling through Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union developing a project on the transmission of HIV through intravenous drug use. I stumbled upon a group of young kids who were being chased from a McDonalds restaurant by a very aggressive restaurant manager. I intervened to prevent the manager beating the kids on the street. The kids had been removing leftovers from empty tables. This act led me into an underground world where young children live and die in the most squalid and horrible conditions I have ever experienced. Orphans, runaways, wee broken souls fending for themselves in a cruel and unforgiving world.”

The images are ‘clicked” on by the viewer to scroll them through and no other text is provided. The narrative needs to be developed by the viewer using the preface to situate the work and the image narrative to inform it. The first five images aren’t particularly alarming, pictures of boys who have a ‘place’ that is seemingly underground; reached by a manhole cover, dark and gritty images with compressed monochrome tones. It isn’t until the sixth shot that we notice something to concern the viewer. Three boys, one is exhaling and we can’t see what it is; the exhaling boy is in a state, apparently of grace. The next shot is of a boy outside, slightly older, maybe twelve or thirteen, but just a boy. We see him next shot in between – on the right of the photograph some hypodermic syringe paraphernalia and on the left hand side, some phials or bottles of medicinal products. This boy is bare chested and has a bandage or dressing on his arm above the elbow joint. We are now situated in a much darker place than we were when we started the series and the rest of the thirty six or so (a roll of 35mm film?) later gets darker and darker.

Gillanders has found a way to, seemingly, embed himself with these street urchins, who are, we learn later, slowly but defiantly killing themselves. These boys and girls, outside of a society that a generation ago would have had some form of safety net under the socialist regime in place, now find themselves with, apparently, no hope. Gillanders takes us to that intimate place; there are no watchers – we are watching their destruction, witnesses to their predicament, we are being challenged to consider our position

Brent Stirton starts his series Aids, Drugs and Uncertainty: Ukraine with, what one can only assume is a sufferer of AIDS. The series title situates all those inside this body of work as either a sufferer, at risk of suffering, or part of any support system around the condition of AIDS and Drugs. This series, as distinct from Gillanders, is seemingly  slightly detached – but not by much.

Stirton uses colour; beautiful colour, to render these quite awful, tragic, grotesque images transgressively. There are no words to accompany the images. All the depravations associated with the appalling conditions that these sufferers live in, their medical conditions, their sores, their depravity is at the other extreme of the beautiful rendering afforded to each image. The first shot situates the series, the viewer isn’t in for a pleasant ride, the head and shoulders portrait has the subject in a landscape pose, flat on what can be easily discerned as a hospital bed, one eye almost closed the other staring blankly; he could be dead, or at least, as my mother might have said ‘dead to the world’ – trancelike. The images from there on in generally get more explicit in nature, the depravity more grotesquely pictured and by image fifteen we have what we can only assume is a young woman, fellating a customer. That we see the customer from the rear and without any recognizable features and that we see the girl’s face in the act denotes that she doesn’t or cannot afford to care, her need for money overcomes any sense of shame she might have in being depicted as she is, in glorious colour.

These events, and peoples, are a million miles from where I am, their lives, their pitiful lives bare no relation to who or what I am, nor I suspect to the vast majority of the reader’s of these images wherever they appear. I have however an inner belief that this work is of value. I posted this on the student site

“This image by Brent Stirton was a category winner in the world press photo awards this year. The photo information as supplied by the awards is: “Maria, a drug-addicted sex worker, rests between clients in the room she rents in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. The country has the highest incidence of HIV/Aids in Europe and, according to a Unicef report, one in five sex workers is living with HIV. Maria says she remains HIV negative.”

I was concerned about the use of a single image being served up to win a prize – which it did. The general reaction was one that echoed my initial thoughts, but it missed the point of the work, which was the work as a whole. Individualy the single image lacked an abundance that the series carries so much better. In the series there aren’t that many ‘young objectified women’ ‘Maria…’ is one of a couple and the other image in the same pose is far more disturbing for other reasons. If it takes shock to shock the viewer into action then Stirton succeeds, if it doesn’t there is no help for Maria. That her name is Maria in a avowedly orthodox society is perhaps also an interesting choice to use her as opposed to any other image.

I wonder what the contributors to the blog post think now, whether the work as a whole has changed their minds as regards Stirton’s work.

Both Gillanders and Stirton seem to me to have a very clear objective, to bring awareness to some very very difficult issues. Their differing aesthetics and styles work equally well for me. I am hoping that they agree for me to host a few of the images into this post to make the reading easier

Intent and reason


At the meeting of the Thames Valley OCA group it was suggested that I write down the thoughts that I had when I took these photographs, about why I decided to take these photographs and not others and why I decided to treat them as I have, as opposed to leaving them as taken.

My initial response was that they look like they do, because that’s how I pre-visualised them – a good Ansel Adams’ trait – the fog on a bleakish landscape, the snow isolating the line of the hedge or grasses emphasizing their presence in the frame; the tone evoking a bygone era of warmth (despite) the cold of the day and subject. I knew it would work, I knew it would be easy. The camera I knew would capture enough detail in the highlights to ensure that nothing would be blown, that I could add tone and contain the view within the frame. It’s been done a billion times before.

line in the snow

That this vista was the first I had ever seen was not something I thought about at the time. I was on a ‘journey’ to record, to document and was looking for detail that I hadn’t noticed before. In the back of my mind was the extensive photo archive that rests with the village history group in the village and that I was potentially adding to it, to inform a future date about how the village was. I had decided to walk a different route in the village, to see if I could ‘see’ different things in a ‘different’ way – here’s a view of Mill Lane from the on-line archive. These two shots below seem more like documentary shots to me, but weren’t viewed at the meeting with the same interest as the pretty pics…..

Mill Lane looking south

Mill Lane looking south

Mill Lane looking North

Mill Lane looking North

I used both a digital and film camera; the digital camera records and displays images immediately, downloaded when connected to a computer and ready to display within seconds, maybe a minute or two of post-production. Easy. The film camera depends on the development of the latent image, scanning, and then post processing; I enjoy this delay, I like the phase lag between capture and revelation; partly I think because of the expectation, partly because the image always seems to be different to how the image displays in my mind prior to its manifestation either on screen or on paper. I have said elsewhere that I seem to able to remember the instance of the photograph when I look at the negative, but not always the digital capture, that I can remember the moment, where I was, what I thought about when looking at the negative and that is something I struggle to with digital files. Maybe it is something to do with the physical presence of creation with the negative and the ephemerality of the digital file, maybe it has to do the ‘preciousness’ of the negative, that it comes with limited capabilities of use, that each frame is a frame and not some millions of 1’ and 0’s in a digital file that has a virtual presence? Not sure.

field edge field edge2

It was a virgin view for me because I went slightly further than I would normally do, maybe twenty yards – not much more – to an opening, a gap in the hedgerow onto a field that I normally skirt around. Virgin also, because of the covering of snow, the view of the land underneath which still awaits. A winter fog resting on the fields absented a good deal of ornamentation, removing situating detail and displacing the panorama to somewhere that seemed ambivalent to its circumstance. The field and its border could have been anywhere, North Oxfordshire or Ostend, looking back now I see the field has look of being lost, no sense of place about it – these images have distant horizons leading the viewer away from the place of ‘here’.

But this is still not explaining why I took the pictures, in this place, comprising of some 22 frames with the digital camera and 4 with film, about the right ratios I suppose. That I ‘knew’ the images would work aesthetically still somehow diminishes them, that I knew that if I hang them, either virtually or physically, then people will, if they say anything, say they are ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’ or somesuch.

field edge5 field edge4 field edge3

It was suggested that these warm toned images are an emotional response to the scene that I saw, but my view of land isn’t generally one of a ‘warm toned’ fine print. When I see land I generally see it as an appropriation or as the bane of life or lives tied to it. I see hedges and walls as marks in the land that have divided the spoils, through, seemingly countless generations that have denied the right of peasants to work their own piece of land. I see how the acts of inclusion have taken the freedom away that was once considered common into private hands. That at one end of the village we have Barton Abbey, in the hands of, apparently the thirteenth richest family in the UK (who measures this stuff and how?) and at the other Lord Wills. That none of the land is open or common, that there are a few public footpaths and bridleways is still frowned upon by those who ‘own’ the land that hosts these freeways. But I don’t think that I’m taking anything back when I take the pictures, I’m not appropriating images in the name of Wat Tyler, I’m conscious that I’m concerned about the injustice of it all, but not to a point of wanting to document the land to illustrate those concerns.

No, the images came because I can do them, years of working monochrome images in silver gelatin prints, concerned as much with the aesthetic of how the tones are represented, researching developers, films, zone system, papers, lenses, cameras, spot meters, chemistry, enlargers, printers, inks and ink systems, places, weather conditions, seasons and more just to produce pictures that exemplify an understanding, the control of, the medium of – what I thought was called – fine art monochrome photographic prints. I think it is a skill that I learned over years/decades of wandering around places that Ansel Adams/ Weston and so many others did in the past. It enabled me to ‘see’ clearly in monochromatic terms of what was in front of me, how it would look as a print. That these views in the field in front of me were, to a large extent, monochrome anyway hardly mattered; I saw pretty images and I knew it would be easy to depict them as such either on the screen or as a print.

When I took the film images I seemed to expect that they would have greater value – at least to me, as I didn’t really expect that many people would want to see them even if I mentioned that I had them, why would they? The value comes from investment I suppose, making an exposure commits the photographer to develop the latent image, having to make choices about developer, about how to re-create the image through a scanner and further work to ‘clean-up’ the image (or not); to then process the image, in a darkroom, with choices of crop, enlargement, paper/developer combination and post fix treatments or in the ‘lightroom’ what editing needs to be done and if printing what size, ink system et al. Each film negative frame has a monetary value, whilst digital frames are free – could that be it? No, I don’t think so, because I have a lot of images that have great value to me that I’ve taken in the post digital revolutionary age.

I’m still not getting to place where I can realistically say what I thought about these scenes when I saw them and at the point that inspired me to capture them and what I was thinking at the time. Only to say that I knew they would be easy to re-present. I didn’t think that I would use the digital images from the ‘journey’ I took the film camera because I wanted to use that as the medium because I knew it would ensure that I took my time, paced the shots, composed them more carefully. Value them.