Browser add-on request

Information hasn’t always been available in the quantity and with the rapidity that the internet provides.  There was a time when finding out about things involved a trip to the library.  If you were lucky it would be a library in a city, otherwise your request for any vaguely esoteric volume would necessitate filling in a form – using a pen on a string – and a considerable delay while the library system pondered your ‘stack call’.  You made the most of those resources and you were generally limited in the number of volumes you could have open at once by the acreage of your desk.

Now there’s the internet and all those helpful constraints are long gone.  There is no limit to the amount of information a student can have at hand and browser tabs can easily cascade to the far edges of the screen, becoming smaller and smaller until the legend is reduced to a single letter, or less.

Track This Mozilla

Information is certainly useful but it takes quite a lot of effort to limit it; there’s a natural inclination ( I’m talking personal here) to add more and more of it until a virtual forest obscures the stripling you originally sought.  Of course the sensible answer to this is the exercise of “self-control” and scholarly restraint.  Hmmm…  That’s a virtue that seems to have eluded me and not just in studenty terms.

Track This Mozilla

So I have a request, which I’m confident will be stumbled upon by one of the multitude of visitors to this site, who is an ace javascript person with time on their hands:  please can I have an AI based browser add-on which moderates my runaway internet use?  I don’t want anything headmaster-ish, I had enough of that after the 11-plus.  Some of the features would include a discreet pop-up (actually, a fade-up, I don’t want to feel guilty) which tells me I might be getting tab-heavy; a suggestion sidebar which offers timely diversions such as ‘now make a cup of tea’ or ‘the window needs your attentive gaze’; and best of all a splash screen announcing ‘you’ve earned fifteen minutes of YouTube time!’ Too much to ask?

Track This MozillaTrack This Mozilla

 

The power of an untaken photograph

In Bristol on 7th June 2020 the statue of Edward Colston was dragged down from its plinth by protesters.  They rolled and dragged it along the road to the harbour and tipped it into the water.

There were many witnesses to this event and lots of them documented it on their phones.  The press were there too, and pictures of the statue’s fate appeared in most of the newspapers and online news sites.

 

 

But there was a picture which couldn’t be taken: the one which showed a circle of Kevlar-clad police in riot gear, backs to the monument, facing off the protesters with batons and shields.  It would have been a photograph with powerful implied meaning.  Taken from waist height by a kneeling stringer, the elements would be arranged in a wide-angle semicircle, protesters to the left and right of frame, riot police in the centre and the Colston effigy rising dark and menacing above them all, reaching right to the upper edge of the frame.  Maybe with some dramatic skies burnt in around it to enhance the effect.

There was no opportunity to take that photograph, but I suspect Avon and Somerset Police could see it all too clearly in their collective mind’s eye.  It would have been a public relations disaster, a metaphor for the role of authority in racial matters which could hit front pages worldwide; at least, that’s how the liaison people would have seen it.

There would have been many operational considerations in planning the police response on that day, but I suspect an awareness of public perception would be one of them.  As a result, the statue had no police protection.  In fact, even close examination of the available pictures of the event does not reveal a single police officer.  The picture that was never taken had a profound influence.

 

 

Against my natural stance I am making a load of assumptions and suppositions here.  I have no knowledge of how police and council strategists work in these circumstances and it may all have been completely unmanaged.  But it is certainly possible that the police, in possession of some advance intelligence, made the tactical decision to stand well back, out of sight, and let the protestors get on with it.

Project One – some observations

Keith Roberts has been researching the archive of Edward Chambré Hardman, a

commercial photographer active in Liverpool 1923 – 1963. He has been

publishing the unseen images from portrait shoots taken up to 80 years ago.

One family got in touch with him after he published shots of their relative Billy

(William) Walker who died in WW2. A single unquestioned image of him had been

in the family archive for seventy years, yet when other poses of the sailor,

including some where he was laughing and smiling, were revealed the family felt

it had to reevaluate its understanding of the previously fixed persona described

by their original portrait.

 

Really…?

I sometimes feel like I’m just too argumentative in my responses to some of the coursework.  Should I just ignore the questions which come to mind when I read this stuff?  Relax a bit more, don’t take it too seriously?  Or is this what it’s all about – stimulating engaged responses and lively discourse?  OK here goes…

I put myself in the place of a Walker family member here,  errant grandson of Billy Walker whose  photograph held an informative if singular place in the family album:

“Sure, we was all proper proud of grandad Billy, he was a real hero in the war, on the Atlantic convoys, it were so cold some blokes couldn’t stand it any more, just jumped off into the sea.  We’ve got this photo of him, just the one, wearing his sailor hat and looking a bit pensive.  Imagine our surprise when we got sent a load more photos of him actually smiling and larkin’ around a bit!! Who’d of thought it?  We always had him down as a bit of a miserable so-and-so, what with the ice and all, but it turns out he could have a laugh and a joke just like an ordinary feller!  Now we can see the true human side to him, it’s such a relief”

(I don’t think the RN did the Atlantic Convoys, probably the merchant lot, but just to make a point…)

Keith Roberts, in his 2016 lecture to the OCA, explains the origins of the Edward Chambre – Harman collection as the accumulation of work by the eponymous photographer, its eventual acquisition by the Liverpool Library and subsequent assignment to the National Trust.  Curatorial, archival and legal difficulties surround the asset, not least because it was never a collection in the first place but the result of many years commercial and enthusiast activity. Well over 100,000 negatives reside in numerous biscuit tins (the rusty antique two-gallon variety) where they would remain were it not for Keith’s determined efforts.  He has catalogued the entire oeuvre along with the meticulous handwritten studio records.

Roberts suggests that a negative should be distinguished from a print because it is different in the sense that it cannot be read without an intermediate process – printing or scanning.  He says that museums consider this a tiresome process and as a result, prints are held to be more curator-friendly.

Roberts stated aim is to ‘raise the profile’ of the commercial portraiture within the collection; negatives tend to languish unseen and he wants their content to be available to the public – as prints.

He is looking for interesting historical trends in the studio records and finds out, among other things, that 35% of the entire portrait work was made in the six years of WW2.  That’s an interesting sociological observation – it would seem that people wanted their portraits made (or those of their relatives) so that they had something to remember them by should they be killed in the war.

Roberts is enraptured by the process of inverting a negative from the collection,calling it a ‘magical moment… Breathing life back into [the sitter]’.  I can see his point – watching the image appear in the tray (or screen) is fascinating.  So far I have seen that the photographs are an intriguing adjunct to local history research but they don’t do much as and of them selves.

One aspect of the work (by Roberts) is the production of ‘chronotypes’ series, where pictures of people who visited the studio on a number of occasions over the years are collated and presented together.  Roberts’ diligent record scrutiny allows him to find these negatives by searching for a single surname.  Of particular interest is the ‘paired’ sets, where the first picture is of, say, a young recruit in uniform taken during the war years and a later picture, taken post-war. In the case of JJW Davies Esq, Roberts isolates the central facial features and notices how feminine they appear.  Unfortunately no further mention is made of this, nor any speculation on its relevance. But he does embark on a speculative assessment of the sitters mood at this point, which may or may not be accurate.  I have no problem with these personal interpretations but I would prefer them to prefixed with “he looks as if…” or “I imagine he’s thinking…”

Roberts considers the changes evident in Davies’s facial features over the six year time gap; he notes that the later picture reveals some skin changes, lines but acknowledges that we ‘cannot be certain what has driven [the] change without the facts” before ignoring his own caution and assigning to Davies a “haunted look”.  My reading is on that particular Saturday morning he was enduring a crippling hangover after a night out with the lads.  Or he had just seen his girlfriend chatting to a man in a cafe when she said she was going to Jenny’s.  Or the absolute certainty in the 2.30 at Haydock turned out to have three legs.

We shoehorn his expression into our own view of people like him, at that time, under those circumstances.  Even though the shell-shocked war hero is a plausible reading, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that his expression was typical of a ‘man having his picture took’ and the archive is full of shots like that; they can’t all have been having a ‘Month in the Country’ moment.  Going to have a portrait photograph taken was not an opportunity to have your ‘inner-self’ revealed, rather a chance to present yourself as you would have others see you. The result should be a ‘good likeness’.  It should depict a well groomed and generally clean shaven individual with a sober and dignified expression.   Smiling for the camera was at least a decade away.

Roberts’ Intermissions exhibition looks thought provoking and I respect his integrity, enthusiasm and commitment to the collection.  His explanation of the considerable curatorial challenges is illuminating.  I’m probably being a bit hard on the photograph-as-mouthpiece stuff, it’s just that I’m a bit preoccupied with that aspect at the moment and it’s increasingly taking the form of a photographic Rorschach blot.

 

Politics of Portraiture 22 May 2020

Arpita offered a Zoom lecture on this subject which came at a useful point in Self and Other as I was involved with the ethical discussions signposted in the module.  Some of the points which came up in discussion were

  • The photographer/subject relationship and how it might be imbalanced in respect of the power dynamics
  • The duration of the photography – how a long term series might alter the nature of the work as opposed to a brief involvement
  • How the intended use of the pictures could be important to the subject as well as the photographer, and what happens should new opportunities for different uses might emerge.
  • The importance of transparency in explaining the purpose of the work to the subject
  • Whether a contractual arrangement needs to be established and what form that might take
  • Should the sitter be ‘rewarded’ with a copy of the results.
  • Is any kind of payment appropriate
  • Will any accompanying text influence the reading of the pictures adversely from the sitter’s point of view.
  • Will the subject be allowed any control in selections

We considered work by:

Dawoud Bey – Series: Harlem, USA

Mahtab Hussain – Series: You Get Me

Dana Lixenberg – Series: Imperial courts

Maud Sulter – Series: Zabat

Margaret Mitchell – Series: In This Place

Liz Hingley – Series: Under Gods

Anthony Luvera – Series: Assembly

JR – Series: Inside Out Project

Bieke Depoorter – Series: Agata

Ashfika Rahman – Series: Rape is Political

Sam Ivin – Series: Lingering Ghosts

A number of these photographers use large format film cameras for their projects, including Arpita herself. I have wondered elsewhere how this might affect the picture-making process and whether it is detectable in the final results.  It is a somewhat cumbersome method when compared to a digital camera.  A Wista 5×4 is heftier than a Nikon D810 and might bring more weightiness to the proceedings.  The black cloth, the disappearance of the photographer, the film loading and the exposure have the look of an arcane ritual.  The procedure is slow and methodical.  The subject doesn’t get anything pointed at them as they would when a SLR camera is lifted to the face.  The camera is more like a third party who needs to be appeased and cajoled into making its magic through the joint efforts of subject and photographer. The latent image is carried on a tangible but delicate and sensitive material and needs to undergo a complex transformation before the result is visible.  It requires its own long term commitment, one which demands care, precision and diligence.  Not so the digital picture, which appears instantly without any further effort.  In fact, the subject is quite capable of making their own digital pictures with their phone so there is very little mystery for them.  But the 5×4 camera is secretive, mysterious and unfamiliar.  It guards its secrets closely in a way which deters the subjects curiosity; it is somewhat aloof and terribly serious.

What does the subject make of this?  Well for a start it declares a clear division between them and the photographer, who by virtue of their command of the process might be afforded a degree of trust – and if they can confidently master all the baffling steps required they must be worthy of respect.

The photographer withholds from the subject the picture itself – only they can bring the image to life and they will do it in their own time, privately, out of sight.  In this way the photographer holds sway over both the subject and the picture itself.

But the subject might also detect a certain implied value being placed on their participation;  somebody is making a right old fuss about taking their picture, so it must be rather an important thing.

At the same time, the complexity of the operation – the heavy, alien looking camera and its support paraphernalia, the sturdy tripod required to hold it, the lighting, background and all the other accoutrements – forms an elaborate circus, with the subject firmly in the ring.  Is there an inclination to perform?

You can’t analyse this.  There are no double-blind tests, no evidence, empirical or otherwise.  One might suspect that the whole large-format performance influences the look of the subject, but who could say for sure?  The question lends itself to lengthy academic discussion and the expression of firm opinions but in the end, you just can’t tell.

I rather inarticulately raised the topic of how much actual work a photograph does in series like these. The question occurred to me when I was looking at the work of Mahtab Hussein, not the You Get Me series but another of his, The Commonality of Strangers.  The work is presented online as a slideshow with a block of text for each picture which gives some bio and context for the subjects.  I found that I had got to around picture number twelve before I realised I’d been reading the wrong text every time;  the words are to the left of the picture and I had been reading those to the right.  The odd thing was, it all seemed to make perfect sense, which led me to think about ‘how much actual work’ the pictures do in these presentations.

I had a go at artificially magnifying my error by seeing if I could place any text against any photograph and found that I could, more or less.

But this must be something I was doing myself, so I thought about the viewer / picture / text triad and how information and ideas circulate therein.  It seems that, given a few facts via the text, I was able to process them via my own life experiences and project my interpretations and inferences onto the picture.  It was me who was animating the the subject just as much, maybe more, than the subject themselves.. I was able to do this because I had foreknowledge of the matters referred to in the text: poverty, alienation, and ‘otherness’.  Given those clues I was able to reconcile what I saw before me with my own experience, indirect or otherwise.  It was me that was doing a lot of the work.

That may be the intention of the artist possibly.  Making the viewer provide the information. But it does seem to diminish the autonomy of the sitter if they are largely a blank canvas for the viewer’s projections.

 

Eva O’Leary – Spitting Image – Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, Ireland 12th January – 3rd March 2019

 

 

For this series O’Leary has photographed teenage girls in a static setting using the device of a one-way mirror.  The subjects sit on one side of the glass and can see only themselves; O’Leary photographs them from the other side without being observed. She used a large format camera, producing a 10″ x 8″ negative.

 

Confronted by their own reflection instead of the usual combination of camera and photographer, the subjects’ expressions and posture appear to give some indication of the way they feel about their appearance.  O’Leary maintains that their self-confidence or lack thereof may, by this method, be discernible in the pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

She allows some considerable personal involvement in the way that her sitters look; as a teenager herself, she experienced social exclusion and a deep discomfort in her relationships with her peers.

 

It’s a neat idea and it’s easy to think that the process itself will produce the “insightful…honest and direct” pictures that the gallery blurb claims.  That didn’t happen for me so much – as it turned out I skipped right past the wall text and handouts because a large group of ten-year-olds where just beginning their own group visit.  I was straight into the gallery to find a dozen pictures of young girls in big close-up, all square-on and mostly gazing directly to-camera, each set against the same luminous blue background.  A pronounced defocussing effect was apparent, whereby the centre portion of each face was in sharp focus but the further back areas were blurred.

 

Taking that latter feature first, it’s difficult for me to understand the reason for her choice of format (the 10×8 camera);  was it just to achieve the defocussed depth-of-field effect?  Given the disadvantages of the process – film cost, processing, scanning and the cumbersome nature of the equipment – one would expect a digital approach to be preferable.  Certainly there is nothing in the nature of the prints themselves to warrant this.  But perhaps Eva felt that the time spent genuinely fossicking around behind the mirror produced additional anxiety in her subjects which would emerge in the pictures.  Perhaps she felt that the labour- and cost-intensive approach suited the subject context or added kudos to the project.

 

I feel that her choice of background is well made and speaks to the dislocation, the feeling of alienation which is part of the adolescent experience – it’s jarring and looks out-of-place and one can imagine those qualities being a daily experience for her subjects.  But apart from the uncompromising way that the photographs show every tiny detail of complexion and skin blemish I don’t feel that the pictures themselves speak of the kind of anguish Eva recalls from her own youth.

 

Once the gallery blurb is digested and the context is understood it is much easier to assign a range of adolescent angst to the sitters.  Some people consider that this background is an important, even essential part of the work, that the social and emotional context of both the photographer and the subjects is a necessary component and that the pictures need to be interpreted with this in mind.  I feel that the 3-panel video which also features in the exhibition is a more eloquent expression of the teenage girl experience – as I imagine it.

 

 

Mark Duffy is Not In Da House

Mark Duffy was, up until the beginning of December this year, a staff photographer in the House of Commons.  His work was published by much of the mainstream print media on account of his privileged acccess and of course, his undoubted talent.

Mark has political views, like most of the HoC incumbents, and is pretty forthright in expressing them through his chosen medium.  He is anti-Brexit and doesn’t mind saying so:

Image result for derby format festival duffy brexit

Installation at Format Photography Festival, Derby 2019

The HoC authorities took a dim view of him exercising his democratic right and decided that his services were no longer required.  He had ‘brought the house into disrepute’ they said.  Many might take the view that the HoC has shown itself pretty adept at doing that, all on its own.  In spades.

Mark has turned his home into a statement about his political views, although it seems he was already using the walls as gallery space well before his dismissal;  his website is worth a visit https://www.markduffyphotographer.com/parliament-at-the-time-of-brexit

 I wondered what this said about the HoC management, about Duffy and assumptions about photographer influence.  Mark’s views seemed pretty mainstream, chiming in with around half of the population if voting is to be believed. Nothing extreme or controversial. I can only guess that Mark must have broken some condition of employment which required him not to engage in any overt political activity.

Perhaps his employers expected him to remain politically neutral, which would be tricky since most people have a view one way or another.  So maybe it was about expressing the views – along the lines of ‘you can think what you like but you mustn’t say it’.  Would that be because there’s a risk that Mark expressing his views would unduly influence the electorate?  Or perhaps because Mark, in order to do his job correctly, must appear to be neutral?

The former seems unlikely so I’ll dissect the latter.  It implies that the maker of a photograph might unintentionally imbue his work with a political bias.  It’s a shame that I now know about Mark and his work because it would have been interesting to scan a range of his output to see if I could see any bias.  I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t.

Presumably the HoC  Media Relations Team had been content with his photography prior to his transgression in Derby; I wonder if they had noticed any bias?

I think it’s all about ‘keeping up appearances’ in the end, but it’s a great shame that a talented and committed photographer should be treated like this as a result.