The Prix Pictet at the Saatchi Gallery 20th October 2012

An OCA study day visit.

Despite and not because the Prix Pictet is a competition, whose rules I have no idea about, I found a lot to be inspired about on this study day. A moment though on competitions. I can assume there may be several reasons to have a photo’ competition, they being – marketing , marketing and marketing. Marketing the gallery who mounts the prints. Marketing the sponsor of the event – if it isn’t the gallery. Marketing the photographer (and probably in that order). The role of marketing in a professional practice is, undoubtedly important – but how can one picture be described as better than another? And the selection at the Saatchi exemplifies this dilemma; the prints were varied in medium, varied in size and varied in context. The answer for me is that it can’t, though it does provide the opportunity for the three M’s and for students to look at some varied work in a contextual framework that wouldn’t normally occur.

Thematically the competition was about power – as I have mentioned I had no conception of the rules of the competition, so I am assuming the entrants might interpret the word in anyway they think fit – certainly when I looked for “power” I found almost as many plays on the word as there were artists who were in the hanging space dedicated to the exhibition. My scribbled comments are attached where in the margin I noted what I thought the power reference was.

I have commented on the works of entrants Beltra and Tillman before An imaginary assignment (and a real study visit) In the case of Beltra, there were references by a couple of the students present to how Beltra’s work lacks the references to the environmental issues he tackled with this series in a wider presentation. My feeling was that the beauty of the images subverted the message it was trying to explore. Gareth was keen to ask how we felt about how the images were presented and in particular the Sternfeld quartet. Gareth has the book where these images stem from and it is ‘about A5 size’ yet these images were about a meter square. For my part it was about being in a gallery – and a competition. The prints were excellent in their presentation and rendition; the subtext provided by the artist was about anxiety and urgency and some of the students didn’t find those emotions in a set entitled “When it changed”. My view was not when the world changed to take on board the effects of climate change – after all nothing has been done and the majority of the American population still believes that it’s a conspiracy. I looked at the portraits and saw another change, perhaps when the politicians realized that power was finally usurped and taken by the corporations that could now be controlling our lives in a real way where politicians have been exposed as the “paper tigers’ told to us by Mao in the sixties.

An-My Lê’s Series 29:Palms was for the strongest set of images. Asked during the coffee break where we congregated to discuss our experiences of the visit, I mentioned how I came, unusually, to the artist statement before I got to the images and the following words – see image – Vietnam American 1960 which caught both my eyes and imagination. Those words in themselves coalesce a narrative that was part of my youth. Born, as she was, in 1960 when Vietnam was already at war since the mid’ fifties. I was struck by how she had gained access to military operations in California and referenced work by Fenton and Brady – I have written about these in this blog entry Social documentary which in its turn references earlier thoughts OCA web discussion and Blog. Both Brady and Fenton were notorious for the constructions, for how they rearranged the scenery at the “scene of war” whereas Lê has the scene constructed before her. Lê  decided to use a Large Format camera, similar then to that used by both Fenton and Brady, and in contrast to the cameras that were used bu the war photographers in the Vietnam conflict – perhaps the last war to be photographed by photographers without censorship – well at least the censorship that exists today as a result of the Vietnam conflict – where the televised images helped to turn the minds of the people who saw those pictures by McCullin et al

Lê’s photographs are of training operations, there are personnel in costumes – dressed in ‘typical’ Middle Eastern – which again talks to how the US military view the ‘enemy’. I found this set very moving, that this artist found her expression in exorcising the ghosts of her past using militaristic  imagery was painful.

I thought the Adams work was interesting from how, again, beautiful the work was – the smallest images in the exhibition – and how they seemed completely out of kilter in this exhibition, I wonder what Gareth thought about that? Clive White, OCA tutor, wondered whether there was a prize for the power of nostalgia, so understated were these images that harked back to a time when ‘real- photographers’ roamed the landscape, these images would have found an entrance to the F64 club.


Of Riis and Hine

Social Documentary

The notes started with Fenton and Brady – both notorious for arranging the landscape to fit the narrative they wanted to deliver. There are issues, as I guess there are with all documentary photographers, with meddling with the scenery, but taking the narrative and it’s effect both at the time and it’s consequential evocation of the prevalent conditions is always worth considering. Fenton was commissioned by none other than Prince Albert – who knew of Fenton’s work as a landscapist, which beggars all sorts of questions…. Brady though, whilst he started off as a photographer became more of a business man and contracted other photographers to “do the work” – issues again… Brady’s work, for me, whether by him or by one of his associates, is a stronger body of work – deeper, wider and more revealing. Fenton, I think, managed the peripherality of the Crimean conflict – much inn the same way “war photographers” are these days – from a distance! Brady’s archive is in amongst it, the battlefield, the hospital, the carnage, the dereliction, the “war” of it all.

Moving to Riis and Hine: I have a copy of “How the other half lives” and it is clear that Riis cared for his subject. Whereas Fenton stood back, whether technologically limited or not, Riis overcame the complexities of the environment where his chosen subject was situated in order to bring light to their plight; to places that hardly saw artificial light let alone sunlight. Riis was therefore able to expose these conditions and he wrote about them eloquently and sometimes controversially. And whilst there are discussions as to whether his book had any immediate widespread effect, it’s second edition in the mid forties certainly did. The original version did have Roosevelt knocking on his door to start the process of change.

Italian mother and baby in New York City, c.1898 (b/w photo)

Riis, Jacob August (1849 – 1914)

Private Collection – Bridgman

Before moving on to Hine, it is interesting to note how the western consciousness is seriously pricked by the conditions of the workman, the downtrodden women – there is a whole chapter in the book on how women are marginalised and exploited with the sex trade as an ever present “temptation” to put food in the mouths of kith and kin – and more especially children. Riis goes on to describe how the conditions of depravity and poor health deny these people to “live” what we in the liberal modern West believe is an appropriate standard of living. And yet, these conditions exist today in conditions that match or worsen those of Riis’ time on the East Side. In Kolkata and Guangdong, in Dhaka and across many of the major conurbations of Asia and Africa there are scenes that wouldn’t surprise Riis though perhaps sadden him that after a century or more these conditions still remain.

Hine though, took to the streets. His purpose was as much intellectual as it was physical. Hine’s purpose was about highlighting the conditions of the working poor across the continent of the USA and bringing it to the attention of the populace. Child Labour, poor working conditions and seeking to help push social change that was lacking behind countries in Europe.

Untitled (two girls in a factory), c.1908-12 (gelatin silver print)

Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874 – 1940)

Private Collection – Bridgman

Spinner (Addie Laird), 1910 (gelatin silver print)

Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874 – 1940)

Private Collection – Bridgman

From a photographic perspective, the technique of Riis was to snatch photographs – it is described how Riis and two assistants would set up the tripod in almost complete darkness, expose the negative in a flash that momentarily transfixed the subjects whose only reflection afterwards was the scampering of feet as Riis and his associates evacuated the vicinity. Hine though was more measured, even after his reputation as an exposer of poor working conditions put him at risk of physical abuse from factory owners that recognised him, he would still bluff his way into factories and pose the children in a way as to complete his view of the wrong that these factory child labourers were undertaking. In this case whilst I think that Riis was as committed as Hine, it was Hine’s overarching sense for the need of the narrative to be spelt out very clearly that makes him, for me at any rate, the more complete documentary photographer. I particulary liked the story that Hine had his clothes calibrated and would ask the children to stand near him so he could accurately measure their height!

Early Social Documentary

I’ve held back from starting the coursework whilst attempting to collate the previous module’s work for assessment, that’s done now. I have looked at the course notes a few times and after wandering around the various assignments I have tried to stay in Assignment One – “Social Documentary”. And I was interested to see various coincidences/references to previous work in the course

It was a curious coincidence that one of the research suggestions was a Youtube “Masters of Photography” video entitled Alfred Steiglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999) . I say coincidence as I had just recently recorded a PBS broadcast of another “Master of Photography” film on Ansel Adams.

It was Steiglitz of course who provide one of Adams’ first one man shows at the “Place”  in New York and the key motivation that Steiglitz provided Adams is another coincidence here. The film on Adams didn’t change my view of him; clearly still a seminal figure in the development of the medium of photography in the early to mid twentieth century, a campaigner for the environment and, when other photographers saw the need to document the plight of the people during the recession, Adams decided to continue photographing the wilderness. Whereas Steiglitz will be remembered for not only his photography, but also for the work in nurturing some key painters and photographers as well as being the first to bring Picasso in a one man show to America. He saw the need to bring credibility and respect for photography as a medium and worked very to do so, and to a large extent he helped form the notion that a photograph could be a work of art.

And then there were the references to some of the pioneers of photography, perhaps more specifically documentary photography and I remembered a debate I had on the WeAreOca site soon after I enrolled see here Reading through the thread again after this time I think the arguments still hold well, from both sides – though I still hold that Fenton still viewed a truth not available to the masses, but then I’m still not sure he was all that interested in them. Both Brady (also mentioned in the early references in the course) and Fenton were acknowledged “shapers” of the landscape, moving the scenery to elicit a stronger narrative pull for the viewer. Only a few months ago I would still have held strong views about the photographers need to record and not to interfere; I now see that as naïve. Naïve in the sense that even a different perspective of the same scene can draw a different response, and to ensure, as best as the photographer can, to communicate either a strong editorial comment or, to leave the viewer in a state of indeterminacy – by design, is now something I feel as quite important. I have written about Fenton here also

And finally there is the mention of another iconic image, that of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Radio 3 had a dramatisation of the taking of this image – the programme is no longer available on download but I have recorded and will enjoy listening to it again.

No doubt these familiar names will surface again.