Harry and Eleanor

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Harry Callahan is one of those ‘people’ in the history of photography, a name synonymous with the art and craft of it all and associated with the development of the medium as an art form. Teaching at the Chicago Institute before moving on to the Rhode Island school he will have met and worked with some the major luminaries of the world of photography. So it was with a sense of excitement that I ventured up to the fourth floor of the Tate Modern to see a display of his work and a sizeable selection of his work at that. This show, extracted from the relatively few images he printed, seemed somewhat eclectic, with no great theme holding them together – though as I went to the Tate primarily to view Richard Hamilton’s huge retrospective, it’s degrees of variation paled by comparison.

The first image I saw: ‘ Vogue Collage’ had me somewhat excited as I saw it as an image of representation, no doubt it was, hundreds of female portraits, culled, I presume, from the the pages of Vogue magazine and collaged for the male gaze, representing not only our (the male’s) traditional view of the other, but also perhaps questioning it; flooding the viewer’s senses with images of ‘beautiful’ women, from an archetypical purveyor of capitalism’s view of women’s own representation of women. These were passive representations of women

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Vogue Collage circa 1956 printed 1990 – 9 printed on aluminium                             Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

and I am there now in the frame as a silent observer. My initial excitement waned considerably though as I moved into the exhibition rooms. This may be in part because of what’s in my mind currently, what it is that I’m concerning myself with, in this course, and that is the representation of women, feminism and photography’s part in it all.

Callahan’s work on the white walls here disappointed me. The prints were, by and large, very beautiful, he was a more than accomplished printer and the influence of Ansel Adams was very clear to see:

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

There were a lot of these passive, flaccid works of nature, skilfully exposed and printed in exquisitely described warm tones of ‘nature’, the ‘great outdoors’ and I had a deal of fun re-toning them to re-present them here in similar tones. That Callahan left almost no notes of his practice or contemporaneous thoughts left me wondering why these images and not others – though what others might be included I’m not sure. I could find no sense of narrative, there seemed to be almost no contextual structuring to the show. And so to Eleanor:

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

There is a room dedicated to his wife, and I suppose muse, Eleanor. The portraits/studies were from a large selection that Callahan made of his wife for over twenty years; nude and clothed, inside and outside (in the world and hidden from it). Eleanor comes as part of the package, to know Harry as a photographer is to know Eleanor, she is there. And what I got from this work is that whilst she was there she was there for him; again skating on what may be the thin ice of comprehension of female representation, I found that all of the images of Eleanor were based on the premise of submissive passivity. Whilst the image above of the light touching her nude form, which spoke to me off my own recent work about light,  Eleanor seemed to be portrayed as an expression of Callahan’s position of dominance, facing away from the lens. The power equation never seemed to balance, Eleanor seemed mute in these images. I couldn’t discern any sense of the person within expressing a sense of their own person through the images. This sense of submission was there even in the fully clothed portraits. I fully accept that my ‘reading’ of these images is a product of my own concerns and prejudices. I watched ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ (was there ever such an attempt to lionise oneself by the deliberate exclusion of a name to present oneself as a name – well not until ‘Rankin’ I suppose) recently about the ‘blockbuster at the NPG where he has a wall of a couple of his wives – ‘it’s good share‘ – was how he described why he would want to display nude studies of his current and previous spouses. As Tom Hunter expressed about the ‘sexist pig’ in an interview with Robert Elms recently – ‘we can’t judge them by today’s moral compass‘. Why not? I wouldn’t bracket Callahan with Bailey as I don’t think Callahan had as many chips on his shoulders as Bailey, but I wasn’t sure about why we needed to see these images, the show was eclectic as it was without Eleanor or perhaps without Eleanor Callahan wasn’t half the person that he was with her and to describe him without her wouldn’t tell half the story.

Portraits

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.

On the Gallery wall

On the wall at the Artscape Gallery in the permanent art space at the Warneford are twelve of my images created as part of the memories project with the Echoes Group. I am very happy and somewhat proud that Artscape has put the work up and I saw them up for the first time today.

John

John

 

Peter and Graham

Peter and Graham

And further good news today is that Helen –  current project artist – and I have agreed to collaborate on an exhibition of the latest project which will likely be a mixed media show and, hopefully, a book of the current project which finishes next week with an exhibition of the work at the History of Science Museum, where it all started about three months ago.

 

 

Two shows: Uncertain States annual exhibition in Whitechapel and the John Goto show at Art Jericho, Oxford.

What connects these twin exhibitions is Goto’s work Lewisham which appears to have had their first outings at these events and that leads me to consider the effect of context, of the artwork in a situation, but I’ll come to that later.

Uncertain States is ‘a lens based, artist led collective Releasing a quarterly newspaper we attempt to expand a critical dialogue and promote visual imagery. The work reflects some key social and political concerns and challenges how perception is formed in a society like ours, on issues as diverse as politics, religion and personal identity.

In a time where the proliferation of imagery is rendering itself insignificant and meaningless, the artists in Uncertain States are concerned with the intention of the work. All the work published is made to be viewed with consideration and concerned with the meaning and reading of the photograph.

Uncertain States aims to showcase both established and emerging artists also through our exhibitions and web based publications. We include work from all photographic genres. Releasing a quarterly newspaper we attempt to expand a critical dialogue and promote visual imagery. The work reflects some key social and political concerns and challenges how perception is formed in a society like ours, on issues as diverse as politics, religion and personal identity.

In a time where the proliferation of imagery is rendering itself insignificant and meaningless, the artists in Uncertain States are concerned with the intention of the work. All the work published is made to be viewed with consideration and concerned with the meaning and reading of the photograph.

Uncertain States aims to showcase both established and emerging artists also through our exhibitions and web based publications. We include work from all photographic genres.’ Website here

The catalogue for the show lists nearly thirty artists with, perhaps notably, Kennard Phillips, Tom Hunter and  Roy Mehta amongst them. Most of the work has a price tag, indicating a selling show. I had arranged this visit with Fiona Yaron-Field with whom I had contacted after visiting the Taylor Wessing 2013 show where she had been selected for her image ‘Becoming Annalie’. Fiona spent some time discussing the work with us, I was joined by two fellow students: Catherine Banks and Keith Greenough and her generosity was very helpful as we discussed the work and the artists behind them.

My overall impression of this ‘Group’ show is how difficult it was for me to comprehend the diversity, the inclusiveness of all the works on show. Spencer Rowell’s physically layered work that used dimensionality as part of it’s aesthetic explored the notion of self portrait from many perspectives, the layers of narrative matched by the application of layers of substance. The context of the work – which also interested me because of its use of text as a vital component – anchored in the written word became cogent only after Fiona provided the circumstance of the work and that opening to the work was extremely important to my comprehension – at least partways. Julian Benjamin’s ‘experiments in social fiction’ interested me in its use of a fictive narrative to develop ideas – in this case – as he says: “These are not pictures of things, these are pictures of ideas. I’m not saying this thing happened, I’m saying this idea happened.

And this is the photograph to prove it.”

But, as Benjamin says in the catalogue, he uses digital manipulation to create fantastic events, the photograph is evidence of it’s own truth and therefore is a self depiction of the real.

Frederica Landi’s examination of the transient marks on the human skin initially made me think of scarification but when I contemplated further I saw that these marks – the crumpling of skin, the marks of hair and the pressing of clothing to the skin’s surface were all transient marks, these marks reminded me of some work I have planned to explore about love and to which I hope to think about about starting soon.

Fiona Yaron-Field’s work continued her exploration of Down’s Syndrome condition.Ophir, her daughter, was born with is and I have written about it previously here and here. This new work looks at women – the 2% of expectant mothers who know they are carrying a child with this condition but who choose, for many different reasons, to carry the baby to term. It maybe the end of the project for this artist, but her discussion surrounding the work, her motivations were very interesting to hear in the context of the gallery.

So to John Goto’s work Lewisham. The artist spent some time in the 1970’s photographing young black people either singularly or as couples in front of a very makeshift backcloth before he left for Paris and a photographic scholarship that resulted in another work called Belleville. The Lewisham series were represented in Whitechapel by three images which were denoted as being printed by Micro piezo printing. Initially I wondered whether this technology was related to Piezography which I used in it’s very early introduction to the UK as a carbon based pigment ink system. It turns out that Goto was using he term as it relates to every inkjet printer and so I now wonder why, what I thought must have been an aesthetic choice that I couldn’t fathom is perhaps instead a simple issue of technical incompetence – which I can’t understand at all. These Lewisham Lover’s Rock series all have colour casts that I found distract from the observation of the subject. It may be that this colour casting is a deliberate ploy to add a tension to the image and in my lack of comprehension I gave up wondering and asked the artist himself. He very kindly provided me with other information but to the question of colour he hasn’t yet responded.

Now, whilst I am perplexed about the Lewisham series, which have a notion of Sidibe’s work about them his other work Belleville is another aesthetic altogether. These are moderately sized images one achieves a 20” x 16” size, but most are smaller, printed on Agfa Record Rapid with Neutol WA, these are works of beauty in and of themselves. Their consistency of tonal structure is at great odds with the digital prints, their stillness as images are though very similar. What I found myself thinking about is how now through a perspective of nearly forty years hence both sets of images are about memory. The instant generation of memory by the recording of these youngsters in Lewisham and the old architectural studies of Paris which were already steeped in memory as they were photographed.

The Belleville studies were of shop windows, old streets and doorways, old pictures in dilapidated condition, these images were layered in patina after patina of echoing and aching memory, marked by the presence of the jetsam of life and, as in a few images, the depiction of peoples long forgotten in old photographs. These images were still, marking the passing of a time and now, printed as they are in a process and on a paper that no linger exists they are images of something that is no more, just as much as the fleeting capture of the Lewisham Lovers Rock portraits are of a people and a place no longer there – though the genre of Lovers Rock is making something of a comeback – perhaps that is why these images turned up at the gallery in Whitechapel and not the ones that had been selected by the artist originally?

Which leaves me considering the way in which these prints were created. The wider expansive digital prints, from scanned negatives with clear and apparent digital artefacts about them and the gorgeously toned lustrous warm tine, moderately sized prints, printed to express the images in the best possible light. I am confused. Goto kindly provided a link to a Photomonitor article where he suggested I might find the answers to the questions I posed to him earlier today. I’ve read it a couple of times and this question of aesthetic still eludes me.

Reflections on Tutor report Assignment three

Resource for Assignment 4

Resource for Assignment 4

In summary, I think you have worked well on this assignment. You have produced good quality images of each sitter, images that provide a unique insight into their character and convey an interesting aspect of your own interpretation of them as artists. That there are differences between you and the individual’s assessment of the best image to portray the sitter serves to underline the quality of your work and uncovers aspects of and a depth in portraiture that demonstrate your developing voice as a photographer.”

The tutor report I received was quite comprehensive, offering a lot of advice and suggestions some of which I will address here, though interestingly, it was suggested that I didn’t write enough about the work, my intentions, my responses to the work which I found interesting as I’m sometimes concerned that I write too much!

One of the areas it was suggested that I could enlarge on was the conceptual aspects of the series: I had stated in the submission document that I wanted “…the art to be sublimated in the portraits, I wanted the creations [of the artists] to have primacy in the photographs”.

To expand on this: I believe that identity is a mutable construct that is both controllable and uncontrolled by the subject as well as the spectator, and what I wanted to explore with this work was how “an” identity – in this case, that of an ‘artist’ could be shown to have primacy rather than having the viewer look for ‘clues’ in the face of the sitter. I decided to remove the normal portrait signifiers from the frame so as to deny both the subject and the viewer the ability to construct an identity. This device of course didn’t remove the aspect of body form from the frame, comments have been made about how at least one viewer to the work tried to construct a view: “With no conventional portrait to go on I find myself searching for what body language in the portrait and artist images tells me about them. Dirk for example is a large guy but his posture is modest – his hands appear to be clasped in front of him. He looks at his work face to face. Sue on the other hand looks up at her work – it almost seems to overwhelm her. We are very dependent on the face and facial expressions to ‘read’ character into portraits. Your work denies us this. So I find myself looking for other clues.” Keith Greenough

The artist was only presented to the viewer in one of the three portraits and then standing with their back to the camera and viewing their work compositionally connected to the work they were considering. I asked the artists to pose in this position to show that connection and I also asked them to provide a piece of work that best summed up their representation in their work – piece that best described them as an artist – which I pictured as a separate image.

Behind these artifices was an intent to have the work that the artists create be ‘an’ identity; an identity other than as a business person – Julie and Dirk, a Therapist – Sue or a retired person – Denise. These ‘other’ descriptions are as singularly one-dimensional as suggesting that they are ‘artists’.

The ‘projection’ of an identity, in this case that of an artist, was what I wanted to portray, to allow for that element of their personality/character to be ascendant. The inclusion of their statements was also key to that process, knowing that the text would anchor the images and provide very strong direction to the viewer.

I did discuss the work with the artists before the shoots, in fact there were several communications back and forth to explain what it was that I wanted. And whilst each sitting was an informed collaborative event, part of the difficulty was to negotiate between them a common framework for the poses. To explain why I didn’t want to see their faces in the frames, why I wanted them to face their work but be also connected compositionally and to also capture their ‘workspace’. This last element was interesting both from a project and technical perspective. Each artist studio has very different characteristics: large and wide, to small and narrow and to extent reflect their user’s artistry. Sue’s studio is very large echoing her large expansive landscapes, whilst Denise does very precise and moderately sized water colours in the smallest studio space. Sue, on the other hand is surrounded by textiles in a converted bedroom with space enough to work on the very detailed aspects of her 3D work, which can be quite large. I think there would a lot more to explore in this comprehension of artist space, but it wasn’t really addressed in this piece.

I think my thoughts about the images that they chose still hold, but it might be worth investigating further some other time. Why for example did the female workers choose their workspace images but Dirk choose the one of him reflecting on his burgeoning and unfinished, work? It was also commented that I didn’t explain my thought processes enough about each aspect of the work, though whilst I think I did through the various instalments leading up to the submission the submission itself didn’t carry those explanations, and that is a lesson for future assignments. I am particularly pleased with this statement: “In being as creative as you have, it sets up some conflict between the brief and your own exploration of portraiture. This of itself – as I have indicated above – is not a problem as you are fulfilling one of the important elements of level 2 – the development of your own voice.”

The river goes ever on, I have a strong sense of what I want to try and achieve with the next assignment, which will be to build on the work done so far in this course and the Documentary course combined. I wonder if I will realise whether I have a developed a voice of my own…..

Resource for Assignment 4

Resource for Assignment 4

Assignment 4, The Calendar

From session one

From session one

From session two

From session two

I have to be honest, the prospect of creating a calendar using photographs that might be considered as a vehicle for presenting by a company as a means to promote itself didn’t fill me with any enthusiasm. I wrestled for some time to try and work out ways in which I might subvert the whole process and perhaps myself in the process. I have created, and had printed, calendars before; they sold quite well and had lots of pretty pictures in them, in fact six more than the requirement for this assignment!

From session two

From session two

After some considerable thought, which included a web based face to face conversation with my tutor who thought my idea was potentially sound, I have come up with an idea to use the current project with the Echoes Group as a vehicle for both the calendar and the ‘Oral Presentation’.

At the museum

At the museum

From session one

From session one

From session two

From session two

From session one

From session one

From session two

From session two

Leaving aside the ‘Oral Presentation’ for assignment six, I shall try and develop a set of images that describe some of my feelings that have now rooted from my work in Artscape, and in particular the ‘Echoes Group’ that I volunteer for as part of the contract I have with the NHS.

At the museum

At the museum

The brief for the calendar images require seven images, one for the cover and another six that would be set against two monthly periods in the year. I have discussed this with my tutor and have agreed that I won’t be printing the days/dates on my artwork – though I will try and use the Artscape logo which I feel will be very straightforward to obtain and include, though what it will add to the series I’m not sure.

From session one

From session one

At the museum

At the museum

The current project I am working on at the Group is called ‘The Measurers’ and involves three inner city schools as well as the ‘users’ of the Group. The participants have had talks from one of the University museums – The Museum of the history of Science and have visited the museum to gain some inspiration before developing some artwork. The participants were asked to make a piece that illustrates an invention they would like see. I have been asked to ‘document’ the project with an aim to either put on an exhibition sometime in the New Year (the project has been running since early September and will run until the end of the current academic term) or develop a book – and maybe both. So I’m making lots of images, printing them and showing and discussing them with the users and the artist lead who is running the project.

From session one

From session one

A little while after deciding on the subject matter for the calendar it occurred to me that underlying the narrative of ‘The Measurers’ document was another thread about ‘time’. That a calendar is a measure of time seemed to chime very nicely which gave me a renewed confidence that the current project at the Group was an appropriate subject.

My concept at this stage is to place not one, but two images per page as diptychs. The twin images will be contrived to open a dialogue for the viewer to try and maybe interrogate their comprehension of the juxtapositioning of those images. Each diptych will have a ‘user’ and either a piece that has been used as an inspiration (from the Museum or otherwise) or an artwork that has been created in the project. My aim would be for a dialogue to opened by the slight disjuncture of the image, or perhaps by the inclusion of some text. Text was a suggestion from my tutor as I had concerns over the formatting of the twin images – there maybe instance where the coupling might contain a landscape and a portrait pairing which would leave some white space and so, by adding some text (which I think is a real opportunity for me) I can perhaps compensate graphically over the whole of the work.

I am now looking forward to this assignment in a way that I hadn’t expected to.

Assignment Three – submission

For this assignment I had hoped to work with four local artists and some dancers that I know quite well; both projects started quite well, but both were set with some difficulties.

The initial discussions with the ‘dancers’ was very positive, I explained what it was that I trying to achieve – that the performance is an adoption of an identity and that I wanted to capture these dancers when they ‘presented’ that identity to an audience or judge. The first session went very well I thought; I went to a rehearsal studio to watch them work and created some images, which whilst they weren’t going to directly contribute to the assignment would provide some creative ammunition. I then created a small studio area and made some images, which I thought went well. I had thought about this concept after considering the work by Marion Gronier whose piece “Les Glorieux” I saw at Arles where the artist worked with circus performers and tried to capture the moment directly after a performance and before they resumed their state of normalcy. My concept was to try and capture the moment of projection, where the performer presented an identity to enforce their apparent submersion into the character. Unfortunately, for reasons I am not aware of, the dancers decided not to carry on with the project for the time being. I hope to come back to this at a later time.

The artist project did complete, though it took much longer than I had anticipated. My idea with the artists was to create portraits of them as ‘artists’ as a specific part of their overall identity, to narrow the view of them as people and focusing on their creative element. None of these artists are full time professional artists; none of them rely on their work for an income stream, though they all have a need to create. The work with these artists isn’t meant to be a comparison on how they work, the work they do or indeed the status of their work within an art historical context. Rather it is an exploration of how their identity as an artist might me expressed with a few images and a singular purpose.

These artists are all known to me; some for many decades some for much less and all were readily agreeable to participate in the project. These artists all have a ‘place’ for their art, a place that separates them from their other lives of partner, business, family and what I noticed about all these spaces is the sense of a quiet space. Light being a fundament to the artist, all of them situated their work area in the place that had the best light available and when I look at the images that I made this light seemed almost designed for purpose. The light into Sue’s work area seemed designed for very intricate dexterous work, whilst the painters all seemed to work in very soft light – ‘north light’ and, again, the painters all have studios with light, or white walls bouncing the light around the studio space.

I talked to the artist about their identity as an artist and agreed with them that they would provide a ‘statement’ of what their art means to them and that I would use that ‘statement’ as an anchor in their portrait as an artist. For the images I tried to keep the range of capture to a minimum set of perspectives. I wanted the art to be sublimated in the portraits, I wanted the creations to have primacy in the photographs which is why, though all the artists agreed to have their portraits taken, that I haven’t used any formal portraits of the artists in this submission. I asked them to allow me to take an image of a piece of work that best summed them up as an artist; this work could be recent or early, finished or work in progress, but it was important to have a piece that the artist felt best described their work. I also wanted to make a photograph that held them reflecting on a piece of their work and another of their workplace and possibly of them at work – in each case the photographs of them working were posed for the series. The work is here:

Julie:

Image selected by Julie

Dirk:

Image selected by Dirk

Image selected by Dirk

Denise:

Image selected by Denise

Image selected by Denise

Sue:

Image selected by Sue

Image selected by Sue

The brief asks that I find out which of the images each of the sitters choose and print it out at A4, which I will do as part of the submission and then make a choice of my own. The brief doesn’t suggest a reason for the choice, so I posed the question thus :’Can you look at the attached and decide which image of the three you most prefer. The preference can be for any reason and I don’t need to know, but if you do tell me than I would be interested.’ I should then choose one for myself, again it isn’t suggested on what basis I should choose, so I have decided to use the reflecting images. I have included their statement as a reflection of the conversation I have had with each of them. The images selected offer an interesting question. The three women have chosen their work spaces, whereas Dirk has chosen the one of him reflecting his work. I wonder if that may be because Dirk is relatively early in his journey as an artist, or whether it is a gender based response? Lots to ponder I think.

Where I think this work works is in a number of areas: the sense of quietude in the work/studio area does provide a sense of ‘place’, an area when these artist can adopt the mantle of artist, by disrobing that of their other lives before entering. And together with the way the images are lit and set out, it provided a strong sense that they are intent on taking their art seriously. Incidentally, when I was discussing the project with Sue, she told me that she had a slight fascination with other artists studios and loaned me a copy of ‘Artist Studios’ which added a dimension of pressure to the process… I certainly enjoyed working with these artists on the project and am very grateful for their participation.

Where I think I could have done more is to have spent more time with the artists in the studio; the work would perhaps have benefitted from spending more time with the artists at work, working with them as they worked. I am mindful that there is in this course a underlying tone that tends to try and push things a long a bit, and in my case preventing a deeper engagement with the subject – though it has to be said that the reason this assignment took so long as one of the artists had some issues that prevented me from getting to their studio for some weeks. However it has to said that I haven’t yet mastered the compromise between involvement in the subject, and my perception of expediency in dealing with the brief.