Much has been said during the week about a photograph’s relationship to reality, and what it ‘says’ about the world, whether and how what is said might be ‘trusted’ or ‘authentic’ and how a photograph’s iconicism or indexicality might shift over time.
My own current work is largely autobiographical and involves feelings and happenings that I acknowledge I might never fully understand. So the indexical nature of my photography is problematic. Yes, my early childhood experiences happened and have a causal relationship with the images I am currently taking. But the photography taking place here is of an adult seeking to make sense of the past and draw lines of relevance between that past and the present (and the work itself).
My tutor Colin raised a crucial issue this week for me:
It might be that there is too much going on in there, and visual impacts get lost and confused in the multiple dissonances. Perhaps a simplification of the story (for me you and your son in the woods would be say[ing] enough…)…Colin Pantall
My intention in the James Bond image above was to allow for a straight visual reading of it as ‘man-dressed-as-James-Bond-in-the-woods-with-son’, while also enabling a further resonance for anybody familiar with Bourgeois’ work.
Sometimes the works of other artists resonate so strongly with me and help make sense of my compulsions to communicate that they become part of my practise itself (ironically, this is not too dissimilar from the absorption of characters depicted in Becomings!).
So the lighting of Ana Casas Broda became essential to the wombification of Becomings, the maternal border within which the performances are played out in the ten images within.
The distancing and stillness of Elina Brotherus likewise resonated so strongly with me that it too was absorbed because she, I felt, had provided the visual language to say, in my own work, what I was desperately trying to say and in the way I needed to say it. Any closer, and the viewer (and myself as me, rather than character) becomes part of the scene. Any further away and I felt the performances were at risk of melting towards memory rather than the fixed presence with historical baggage I was trying to convey.
Colin suggests that perhaps I am trying to include too much, and that what visual power there is here might be diminished through overcomplication. And he might be right. Just last week I headlined a piece “Keep it simple, stupid”… It is something I will continue to mull over in the coming weeks.
My slightly defensive initial response is that I have no issue with visual complexity if it is revelatory and purposeful. Rather like the novelist Richard Ford, sometimes the reader has to put the effort in to get the nectar! The challenge then is to provide said nectar.
So the key questions I need to tackle now are:
- What exactly am I trying to say with my current work?
- Is it actually worth saying at all? And if so why? To whom might it matter?
- How might that be best and most economically said?
- What mode might be best suited for saying it?
And how will I evaluate my own work (or that of others)?
I find Terry Barrett’s argument that considering “photographs as if they were language statements: descriptive, explanatory, interpretative, ethically evaluative, aesthetically evaluative and theoretical” convincing. Barrett’s case is that by deciding which category/ies a photograph is best placed in, helps us both to interpret that image and to evaluate it according to “how it is about what it is about.”
Barrett’s critical approach differs from previous interpretative approaches such as those put forward by the likes of Minor White (who used classifications like documentary, pictorial, informational and equivalent”.
I would suggest most photographs fall into multiple categories but to varying degrees, and would, as Barrett proposes, interpret a photograph according to which category it fits most.
My own work, I think, falls more into the theoretical than other categories.
Barrett also points out that it is useful “to see all photographs as more or less metaphorical in that all photographs show us x as y, and attempt to have us see x as y”.
By this, he means a photograph of a person shows us that person as something. “A man as a labourer, a bureaucrat, or as a father, and attempt to persuade to see him as such.”
Much has been said this week about the iconic, indexical and symbolic relationships between photographs and the real world.
Yet what I find at least as interesting (and artistically motivating) are how these various semiotic relationships play out between photographs, both within a single artist’s sequence of photographs within a single project and between photographs of different photographers/artists.
For example, in my project Becomings I was trying to deal with something that Sol Worth says it well nigh impossible – “to show what is not”.
And this takes me full loop back to the image above.
In this instance the image (left) shows me with my son Tom doing something we do, spending time together in our local woods. The performative aspect is me being dressed up as James Bond, who I was very strongly influenced by as a young lad (the project was intended to explore my disintegrated personality compared with Tom’s integrated sense of self).
This image is preceded by an image of Tom cooking and me fiddling with sunglasses in the guise of Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice and succeeded by an image of Tom as Tom and me as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The project as a whole is a response to the childhood trauma of my disappeared mother, who absence sits over this work. How to show this? Throughout the project I tried to create wombs of light to hint at the visual presence of an absent mother. But with this particular image I chose this exact spot because of its canny resemblance to Louise Bourgeois’ Mother sculpture.
My hope was that the series would convey its intended meaning and questions without knowledge of Bourgeois’ work.
But I hoped it would compound meaning for those who were.
Was that a conceit? Pushing things too far? More thinking is needed.
Barrett, T. and Company, M. (n.d.). . [online] . Available at: http://www1.udel.edu/art/rmarquez/416/barrett_criticizing_art.pdf.
Hulick, D.E. and Barrett, T. (1992). Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26(2), p.109.