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Category: Exhibitions and books

Performing for the Camera – Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera, is a Tate Modern exhibition visited in June. It is broad in its range, including 500 photographs, covering the relationship between photo and performance – from historical photographs to the contemporary.

No photography was permitted, which diminishes the effectiveness of this write-up. However, the Tate website, Performing for the Camera, provides some visuals and videos. The exhibition is separated into rooms covering the following aspects:

  • Documenting performance. This included Yves Klein’s leap and live paint brushes – the documentation of performance. It was noted that photos are often the only remaining evidence of an ephemeral work and how it can be challenging to photograph the unpredictable whilst making creative decisions.
    Source: www.stedelijk.nl
    Source: www.stedelijk.nl, Shunk and Kender

    For some of the work, one perhaps needed to be present at the event to truly appreciate the photograph – there was more interest in the photograph as a memento of performance art rather than as piece of photographic art itself. Heavily featured photographers were Harry Shunk (1924–2006) and Janos Kender (1938–2009).

  • Staging / collaborations purely to be photographed. Many images were featured from the Paul Nadar studio, the premises inherited from his father. Paul Nadar (1856 – 1939) was the son of the celebrated photographer Nadar. Various staged images were featured.
  • Photographic actions – included artists photographing their own creative processes eg Warhol with Grace Jones body painting, Ai Wai dropping a 2000 year old vase and Erwin Wurm’s one minute sculptures. The work of Francesca Woodman was also featured in this section – interestingly the prints were small in size; not appreciated through online viewing of work.
  • Performing Icons Cindy Sherman’s famous untitled film stills featured here; it was great to see these captivating images in print. David Wojnarowicz’s- series of
    Source: www.americanphotomag.com/
    Source: www.americanphotomag.com, David Wojnarowicz

    collaged faces, Rimbaud in New York,  stood out; the same face place in various scenes by its superimposition over original photographs. David Lamelas’s work, Rock Star, dealing with the conventions of rock photography provided inspiration for assignment 5 of this course (see here). The concept of Yasumasa Mormura’s requiem to Yves Klein through a recreation of the Leaping Man caught my attention – the idea of a photograph as a requiem!

  • Public relations  covered mass media techniques.
  • Self-portrait
  • Performing real life references recent social media projects.

I’ve ordered the catalogue of the exhibition from Wordery, strangely at an £8 discount to the exhibition price, as it will make useful reference and serve to fill in the gaps that are missing by not being able take photos during the extensive exhibition.


Getty [website]. Harry Shunk and Shunk-Kender Archive. Available from: http://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/shunk_kender.html [accessed 3.7.16]

Getty [website]. Paul Nadar. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1586/paul-nadar-french-1856-1939/ [accessed 3.7.16]

Searle A (2016). The Guardian [online]. Performing for the Camera review – pain, passport photos and genital panic (15 February). Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/15/performing-for-the-camera-review-tate-modern-exhibition  [accessed 3.6.16]

Tate Modern [website]. Performing for the Camera. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera [accessed 3.6.16]


Paul Strand at the V&A

I visited the V&A (29 May) to see the exhibition, Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century. Unfortunately no photography was allowed, so I have no personal visual record of the exhibition space.

Source: vam.ac.uk
Source: vam.ac.uk

However, the V&A’s website features some images of the exhibition space. The website says this of the exhibition:

[Strand] was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th century whose images have defined the way fine art and documentary photography is understood and practiced today.

The exhibition presents around 200 objects spanning Strand’s entire career, including his breakthrough trials in abstraction and candid street portraits, close-ups of natural and machine forms, and extended explorations of the American Southwest, Mexico, New England, France, Italy, Scotland, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, and Romania.

Strand (1890-1976) was a one-time protegé of Alfred Stieglitz (see EYV blog post here), who we hear (from Georgia O’Keefe)  in the documentary Paul Strand: Under the Darkcloth, pushed Strand to find something new to the pictorialist style that was popular at the end of the 19th Century. This perhaps, pushed him to make the breakthrough work mentioned by the V&A.

A few of my notes as I viewed the exhibition:

  • Use of different print types has an impact on the feel of the B&W photos: platinum prints with their bronze hue and silver gelatin (which seemed to be predominate in later work), with its cooler feel. Is there a digital equivalent to these tones?
  • I note that Strand used of decoy lens on camera for street photos, feeling that as long as he photographed with integrity, no harm was done to his subjects.
  • From 1919, Strand used 8×10 camera for nature observations. Long exposure to soak up details. ‘Meditative exploration of nature’. This made me think about stopping down with a DSLR and using a tripod to capture details in nature – not something I generally do.
  • Framing – I noticed that Strand’s main subject is always clear in his compositions, but the intrusion of incoherent details in scenes adds to photographic qualities (referring to urban photos).
  • New Mexico 1930 – ‘enjoyed the challenge of making small pictures of big subjects’
  • Fine detail in observational prints draws in the eye. No shallow DOF. Straight photography.
  • Portraits close-cropped.
  • Mentioned wanted works to reach larger audience, but found cost difficult to manage. Later, from 1945 used photo books.
  • I didn’t previously appreciate that Strand lived in France for last 26 years of his life. Continuing to work on meditative studies in his garden until his death.

I found Strand’s work inspirational – the care, skill and craft in making his photos is clear to see. To make art like this, there can be no rushing!

Some bulky photo books of Strand’s work were available in the V&A bookshop (not good for the train journey back to Yorkshire!). I’ve instead ordered a used copy of Paul Strand: Sixty Years of Photographs (Aperture Monograph), from the USA via Amazon (surprisingly less expensive than buying in the UK, even with postage!). I’ll study Strand’s photos in more depth once the book arrives.


Atget Photography [website]. Paul Strand. Available from: http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Paul-Strand.html [accessed 3.6.15]

YouTube [website]. Paul Strand: Under the Darkcloth. Directed by Walker J (1989) Available from: https://youtu.be/dP5YTqqoAqA [accessed 3.6.15]

V&A [website]. Paul Strand an Introduction. Available from: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/paul-strand-an-introduction [accessed 3.6.15]

Wallpaper.com [website]. Photography and Film of the 20th Century. Available from: http://www.wallpaper.com/art/paul-strand-photography-and-film-for-the-20th-century-on-show-at-v-and-a-london [accessed 3.6.15]

Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture

In the feedback on assignment 3 (see here), it was suggested that I look at the work of Douglas Huebler; my tutor made the following observation: ‘the additional images of the head shots from the contact sheets also caught my eye. I wasn’t too sure about the ‘self-torturing’ or ‘hand gestures’ shots at first, but they then reminded me of a piece of work conducted by Douglas Huebler’.

The article by Gordon Hughes, discusses Huebler’s work, Variable Piece #101, which features 10 photos of the famous German photographer Bernd Becher, renowned for his straight images capturing industrial buildings and installations. Hughes unveils Huebler’s complex intentions behind the work, which to me seemed like an elaborate visual piece of irony.

I attempt to summarise briefly. Bechers’ own work was almost scientific in its approach, with categorisation and captioning of the work central to the approach; like an archivist. He was influenced by the work of August Sander, with is physiognomic categorisation of German people. Huebler’s work plays with Becher’s approach:

  • Becher is asked to pose for 10 different images, acting different roles (eg priest, lover, nice guy, criminal). After a period of two months without having shown the images, Huebler sent the photos to Becher and asked him to link each image to the original captions provided for the acting. Becher was unsuccessful – demonstrating that reading and categorising photographs is not necessarily a valid approach, even with ones own image.
  • The photos of Becher appear humorous, as he attempts to act out the roles requested of him. As Hughes explains, more like portraits from the New York school of Arbus et al than the straight photos of Sander, Becher’s inspiration. However, Huebler presents them as Becher’s own work was presented – closely cropped and front-on, like an official image for a passport or identification card. Again, playing with Becher’s serious presentation by including the humorous image in the same sort of format.

The more serious message in Huebler’s work seems to be to show that categorisation and systematic ordering and presentation of images does not necessarily make sense – he appears to seek to undermine the approach.

In terms of my own practice (the contact sheets to which my tutor refers); my intention was to show different emotional states (not particularly successfully with my acting ability!), which is different to a physiognomic approach which Huebler questions, but there are nonetheless the similar potential difficulties in reading the emotional states. There is perhaps an interesting future project in self-portraiture, using a similar approach to Huebler!


Hughes G (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Source: Art Journal, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), pp. 52-69. College Art Association. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20068567 [accessed 16.5.16]


The Memory of Photography

The feedback I received on assignment 3 (see here) recommended that I read the paper by David Bate, The Memory of Photography. Here I note thoughts on the article and my perspective of photography as a mnemonic medium.

Bate’s paper is concerned with the relationship between photography, memory and history and covers 16 pages of heavily referenced material, drawing on the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida and other frequently referenced sources including Barthes and Benjamin. Here, I attempt to focus on the thoughts of Bate himself:

  • Bate mentions that photo-archiving programs have given momentum to the question of ‘how to archive photographic images and what to do with them once deposited’. In fact something I am still struggling with for my own images – the administration involved in archiving images effectively seems to be something beyond my available time, yet I’m painfully aware that not doing this habitually will only end in chaos.
  • At some length Bate discusses how photography can be a device for remembering, the imperfections on human memory itself, and the imperfections of photos as mnemonic devices, with their selective framing of fractions of time and place. We should not 100% trust our own memories, nor should we trust photographs as reliable mnemonic devices. But I am unsure how many people would treat their memories as factually accurate, with expressions like ‘off the top of my head’ being common place and signifying cultural acceptance that memory is fallible.
  • Bate discusses how the invention of devices to aid memory has extended human ability, … ‘invention of writing, for example, is a collective form of “artificial memory” to accumulate what has already been thought, said or done, thus leaving space for other fresh thinking.’ He considers other types of memory devices and their history, including photography, saying, ‘It is a history that once humans embark upon seems to set them on a path of problems of accumulation’. There is only so much data we can process or is desirable for us to spend time processing (at the expense of acting in the world).
  • There is an exploration of how ‘photography is so crucially important [to memory], with a large caveat that the point of view of archives is not neutral. Perhaps very little, if any, information is neutral – there is always some personal or cultural perspective at play or omission of alternative perspectives. Objectivity itself is a fallacy. The description that archives ‘establish “the truth of social remembrance”, the “remembrance of events worthy of presentation” seems a good way of describing their role.
  • I quote at length here, a point that seems central to the position of photographs within memory:

Photographs are one of the most important technological inventions … photography is the machine that industrializes visual memory. The photo-graphic image is not just another memory device … but a machine for what I would call a meta-archive … The photograph has a capacity to incorporate and absorb many other already existing visual memory devices [monuments, statues etc] within photographic re-presentation … [photography’s]  capacity to store and reproduce other objects as a visual image.

  • Bate’s conclusion, offers some wise words, ‘As composite formations, photographs, like childhood memories, have a sharpness and innocence that belie meanings that have far more potential significance than is often attributed to them, which means that in terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie. ‘ Beware of the confusion caused in the mind through the indexicality of the photograph!

Bate D (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257. PDF available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609 [accessed 14.5.16]

Family Frames by Marianne Hirsch

In the feedback I received on assignment 3 (see here), it was recommended that I read Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames. Here I note thoughts on how the book should influence my current practice.

I first read this book during the EYV course and my review1 concluded, ‘I will be unable to look at family photographs in the cursory way I have often done so in the past. While I found the writing style a little frustrating at times, wishing it was a little more direct, the investment in reading time was worthwhile.’ My review then went on to discuss some of the concepts in the book that I found important: post-memory, the conventions of family photography, ‘masks’ adopted by subjects of photos, the unconscious aspects that can be read into photographs, and the relationships between mothers and children.

On re-reading the book, I unsurprisingly found the writing style even more frustrating as I relived the experience. If I were to comment on one specific aspect, it would be the author’s detailed descriptions of the narrative of the photos she discusses in the book – long on ‘studium’ and short on ‘punctum’; making it a hard read to get to the valuable information within the text.

I will not repeat the detail of my review on my first reading of the book, but highlight here different aspects that struck me as I read:

  1. Hirsch comments (p14), ‘We live in a culture increasingly shaped by photographic images … technologies develop more rapidly than our ability to theorize … how can we explore the moral dimensions of the instruments shaping our personal and cultural memory?’ This is a profound question and reminds me of the power of photography to manipulate memory (either intentionally or accidentally); photos are not reality but our minds can be easily tricked into thinking of them as reality because of their indexical nature.
  2. ‘All photographs are momento mori (Sontag)’ – or literally, ‘remember you must die’ ; reminders of mortality. This is a grim but unescapable fact – how many times when people comment on photos of family and friends do they say, ‘don’t they look young then!’.
  3. ‘The key to the Family of Man’s [Steichen E] appeal lies in the familial gaze it focuses on the global sphere with the aim of revealing points of intersection between familial relation, on the one hand, and cross-racial and cross-national interaction on the other’ (p50). We all share a concept of family (perhaps the traditional human animal breeding unit) and the way that we look at our family, or between our family members, or others look into our family provides a universal similarity. On the other hand, Hirsch goes onto discuss how all the photographs in Family of Man are attributed to European or white-American photographers, so the ‘looking’ is not from multi-cultural perspective. And with poorer subjects, there can be a transactional element of selling their own image as they would sell handicraft to tourists.
  4. ‘The pretence of the family-snapshot photography is maintained through the unvarying perspective and distance of the camera; the figures always face frontally, filling the frame. The poses are deliberate and naive, and the lighting appears natural …’ (p94). This is a comment Hirsch makes when discussing the Meatyard’s Family album of Lucybelle Crater (1974). A photographer staging a work to resemble a family album by using the narrative typically found in family albums. Perhaps a trick for our memory of ‘what was’ in reality. This reminded me of the work of Dita Pepe, and Trish Morrissey’s work, Front (discussed in separate blog post here).
  5. In the final chapter of the book, Past Lives, Hirsch discusses memories preserved in memorial photography books or even reconstructed by images of people and place destroyed through war and conflict. There seems to be a need for people to know where they are from, to know something of their own history, how they fit into the world. This kind of photography helps to fulfil that need, even allowing the creation of memories that were not based on first-hand experience.

So, some fresh or additional perspectives gained from my second reading, which demonstrates the value of this book, despite my frustrations about the writing style. I’ll revisit the ideas noted here in preparation for an upcoming shoot of family portraits of a friend that I am doing in exchange for the family also acting as models for my own work.


1 Fitzgibbon A (2015). Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/family-frames-by-marianne-hirsch/ [accessed 13.5.16]

2 Hirsch M (1967) Family frames, photography narrative and postmemory Harvard University Press, reissued by the author 2012.

Feature Shoot [website] (2014). Dita Pepe. Available from: http://www.featureshoot.com/2014/08/dita-pepe/ [accessed 13.5.16]

Trish Morrissey [website]. Front. Available from: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/workpg-01.html [accessed 13.5.16]


Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance

My tutor encouraged me to do further research into the use of memory in art, as it is an area of interest emerging in my practice. This included reading Joan Gibbons’ book, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance.

The book provides insights into the subject of memory as it appears in contemporary art and also insights into the nature of memory itself. It is an exploration of they way a range of artists have reflected ideas of memory in their work. At first, I was puzzled about the reason for a lengthy book on this subject matter – surely memory permeates all human activity, so it goes without saying that memory plays a part in art, as in everything. Effectively, would the book just become a different way of categorising art?

However, for the most part, I found the book interesting and enlightening – how concepts of memory are reflected and challenged through art. How abstract ideas are translated into art works.

The book is split into the following chapters and within each the work of several artists are used to explain how the memory concepts are interpreted. The chapters (or memory concepts) are:

  • Autobiography (externalising personal memories/experience)
  • Traces (on memory and indexicality)
  • Revisions (reassembling of history – to give different or new perspectives on mainstream telling of history)
  • Postmemory (referencing Marianne Hirsh’s concept of history being interpreted or worked through by people not present at the original events)
  • Enactments and re-enactments
  • The ordering of knowledge (institutional representations and misrepresentations of memory)

The book discusses and interprets the work of artists in some depth. But here, I note some of the ideas that I find of interest for potential application in my own practice:

  • ‘The claims that are made and the stories that are told in the name of memory can alter people’s understanding of the world and, of course, alter the ways in which they act in or upon that world.’ (Location 174) This statement cuts to the root of the importance of story telling and its impact on the world. Art can be visual story-telling.
  • Within self-portrait, Gibbons discusses the work of Rembrandt, ‘Rembrandt may be said to present us with mementos of his ego-ideal … which act both as a conscience and as a counterpoint to the baser realities of his life. By extension, the ‘thinking’ self that Rembrandt portrays can serve as a kind of collective ego-ideal, and, as such, may be a key factor in his undeniable popularity.’ Self-promotion by showing people what they want to see. Perhaps this should not be underestimated in the in-life-time success of an artist. Gibbons uses the example of van Gogh’s self-portraits as a counterpoint to those of his fellow-countryman. Van Gogh painting his own tortured soul, rather than a ‘collective ego-ideal’.
  • The concept of ‘Nachträglichkeit’ is important. Gibbons explains as, ‘a psychical process mentioned many times by Sigmund Freud, whereby an original experience is reconstituted, retranscribed or rearranged in relation to ongoing circumstances’. So selective-memory or memories recalled to suit the perspective of the story-teller.
  • Gibbons suggest that in all autobiography, there is the ‘inescapable issue that applies to all manifestations of autobiography: the relationship of the private to the public, which brings with it the associated issue of the relationship of the personal to the political.’ There is the underlying tension of boundaries of what art artist chooses to share or exploit in their work and the subjectivity in determining what lies either side of the boundary.
  • In the context of indexicality and memory, Gibbons discusses the power of music and how some artists have combined visual and auditory art forms. She says, ‘Here, I would argue that the rhythmic and emotional charge of music and lyrics has a particularly tenacious hold on memory, which, as with photography, is due in a large part to its indexical nature.’ Music provides a trace of what we have heard and the artist making the music; as photography does for the visual. An area I would like to explore in my own work is the combination of photographs and music.
  • The concept of postmemory for me has become associated with traumatic events, notably work relating to the holocaust. Gibbons , explains ‘postmemory carries an obligation to continue that process of working through or over the event or experience and is not yet a process of reply … secondary memory is not just the work of an ‘observer-participant’ but a meeting of the primary participant and the secondary witness, who is better able to do the critical work on primary memory.’ This is very serious work that involves difficult ethical decisions and great sensitivity in dealing with traumatic experiences. Not something easily undertaken as part-time work (note to self).

I will take some of these concepts for my final C&N assignment for a constructed image.


Gibbons, J. (2007).  Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance. I.B.Tauris. Kindle edition

Alec Soth Gathered Leaves

A visit to Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford:

Slide show of my photos of photos and gallery space (Fuji X100T, Classic Chrome).

I enjoyed this so much that I visited twice on the same day and will no doubt visit again before the exhibition is over.

The exhibition is a retrospective, spanning Soth’s career; hence ‘gathered leaves’ [of photo paper]. It tells us the story of Soth and the story of those whose images he captures, full of rich narrative.

The images sit between the dream-like and the realistic, which makes them fascinating and sometimes other-worldly. The compositions and prints are immaculately formed from Soth’s skill, using an 8X10 camera. One senses a deep engagement with his sitters – they look comfortable in front of the camera but do not seem self-conscious, it is as-if we are observing people in their natural state, with no pretence for the sake of the photograph.

In the exhibition are glass cabinets showing documents that inspired each of Soth’s projects and giving an idea of Soth’s level of engagement with his subjects. A nice touch are video displays of turning pages from the original photobooks.

As I walked through Bradford City Park after viewing the exhibition, with the intention of taking some candid street photos, I felt that this approach is somehow no longer enough for my practice. I want direct engagement with my subjects – a kind of interview with a camera.


National Media Museum [website]. Alec Soth Gathered Leaves. Available from: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/planavisit/exhibitions/alecsothgatheredleaves/about [accessed 8.5.16]

O’Hagan S (2015). The Guardian [website]. Alec Soth Gathered Leaves (October). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/06/alec-soth-gathered-leaves-photographer-uk-retrospective [accessed 8.5.16]


A View From The Window: Photography, Recording Family Memories

Debra Livingston and Pam Dyer article provides a brief history of photography in everyday experience and the place of the family album in social and cultural histories. It is a short, 8 page piece and includes some photos to illustrate the points made in the text.

In this post, I focus on aspects of the article of particular interest to me and my current practice:

  • It is discussed how the ‘point and shoot’ camera enabled families to build collections of photographs ‘ … based on memories that describe a window into not only family life, but also insights into their culture, including changes over time’. In a snapshot shown, a glamorous passer-by walks into the frame providing a cultural/class contrast as unexpected narrative. It is also noted how ‘photographs preserve everyday objects, such as the clothes worn, and objects such as vases, chairs, carpets, and wallpaper …’  There is a risk that people cut out this context within the frame in search of carefully designed portraits (in studios, or portable studios), wiping away some of the narrative from images of their histories, diminishing the interest of the images when viewed in the future. It is worth remembering the value of the banal when framing a shot.
  • There is mention that the information photos provide  about the past lacks that of the original senses, but ‘photographs have transcended these inadequacies by stimulating memory and via the support of the written texts.’ The photograph stimulates memory, but is not memory; memories are unique to each of us and our individual perspectives and characters.
  • There is confusion between the photograph and reality – ‘events of the past often seen in family snapshots are reimagined and believed to be real by future viewers’. This relates to the apparent indexicality of photos – it is somehow not always easy to remember that they are not reality, they are easily confused with reality, our brains recognise the similar patterns as reality perhaps. We are tricked while watching 3D films, we are fooled by rollercoaster rides that take place within a room. Perhaps it is only our logic that can protect us from mistaken reality.
  • The article closes by considering the impact of digital, ‘people’s personal and collective memories are now reallocated in the virtual landscapes … what does remain, however, is the desire for the emotive and tactile experience of family memory evoked by treasured photographs’. The photobook, reproduced from the digital images, is identified as the replacement for the family.

It is too easy in the digital age to not get beyond putting photos on to a hard-drive, sharing them to social media, or a digital picture frame, or just printing the occasional image. Pre-digital, images had to be printed in some form to be viewed at all – it was a necessary part of the process. I am not in the habit of printing enough work – it is almost an afterthought, rather than a part of the process. The article is right – there is nothing like the ‘tactile’ experience of a printed photo and this is clearly evident in the pleasure people show when receiving printed work.

Moreover, I should take more care when composing photos to at least sometimes include the banal details that could later trigger precious memories.


Livingston, D. & Dyer, P. (2010). A View From The Window: Photography, Recording Family Memories. In Social Alternatives. Vol 29, No.3, 2010, p20-28. Queensland. University of Queensland Press

This means this this means that

I read Sean Hall’s book on semiotics on the recommendation of other OCA students. It is not on the C&N reading list, but perhaps should be.

Semiotics is about how we make sense of the world through our reading of signs. It is a profound subject as it deals with the working of human perception – decoding our own thinking, looking into our own thoughts. For photographers, it helps us analyse photographs and understand the reasons we may read or feel about photos; understanding that could otherwise remain subconscious. It helps us understand how readers of our own images may see them. It helps us in designing tableaux of constructed images.

Hall’s work is in eight chapters: signs and signing; ways of meaning; conceptual structures; visual structures; textual structures; matters of interpretation; framing meaning; and stories. Each chapter begins with a textual explanation and is then followed by a series of images accompanied by a question. The reader is encouraged to consider the question before reading the author’s interpretation that follows. I found the format engaging and perfect for the subject matter – the reading of signs.

I’ve read some comments on social media that the book is ‘simple’. I would suggest that its presentation is simple and clear but the messages are profound and engaging. A book for my permanent collection that will no doubt be revisited over and over.


Hall Sean (2012). This Means This This Means That – A user’s guide to semiotics (2nd edition). London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Art Photography Now – book review

At the time of reading, Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now is over a decade old – so good for picking up a used copy at a heavy discount (my copy is ex University of the Arts London). The book features the work of 80 artists through 261 pictures.

In the introduction Bright discusses how she arrived at the organisation for her survey of the work; a structure being necessary for her analysis and for the book to form a useful body of reference for the reader. The introduction also includes an overview of the development of photography as an art medium. The organisation of the book is a great success, within genre sections, that allow each chapter to provide a survey of the genre.  Bright also includes and overview or short history of each genre at the beginning of each section. Then, for each artist, a brief introduction the them and their work, followed by an explanation from the artist on a selected piece of their own work.

The sections included are: portrait, landscape, narrative, object, fashion, document and city, all prefaced with Bright’s analysis of the genre. Bright’s analyses as well as the photos and photographers make excellent reference for research related to the genres. Further reading is also referenced in an appendix to the book.

A welcome addition to my collection of books, which will serve me well in future research!


Bright S (2005). Art Photography Now. London. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

William Eggleston’s Guide – Szarkowski’s essay

Source of featured image: guardian.com

I read John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye with interest (blog post here) and had previously looked into the 1976 William Eggleston’s Guide (the Guide) (blog post here) to study Eggleston’s work, but I hadn’t then paid much attention to Szarkowski’s essay in the Guide.

I was interested to read the later essay to understand whether there was any shift in Szarkowski’s approach to analysis, which was firmly rooted in the narrative of the photos and not concerned with context. The essay in the Guide understandably dedicates a good deal of page-space to a discussion of the merits of colour photographs in relation to black and white – it accompanied what was the first exhibition of colour photographs in MoMA. However, I was more interested in the analysis of Eggleston’s work itself.

Szarkowski is quick to dismiss any thoughts of wide discussion of context, ‘it would be convenient if one could claim, or suggest, that this book of photographs answers, or contributes to the answer of , some large social or cultural question … The fact is that Eggleston’s pictures do not seem concerned with large questions of this sort’. Instead, Szarkowski focuses on the aesthetics of the form and content of the photos and the precision with which the two are combined. There is also a discussion of ‘the thing itself’ or the subject matter for the images.

So Szarkowski does not explore the broader context of the work, which I find interesting in itself as he curated the exhibition at MoMA and one would imagine that Eggleston would have been happy to share contextual information, given the auspicious occasion. However, Szarkowski says ‘pictures do not seem concerned with large questions’ as if he has not discussed with Eggleston, or otherwise the notably difficult Eggleston did not cooperate with a response. I find some support for the latter possibility in later interviews with Eggleston, in particular in a discussion with Sean O’Hagan, in which  Eggleston says:

‘A picture is what it is,’ he says when I ask him why he no longer wishes to talk about individual photographs, ‘and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.’

I’ve made a note to myself to not attempt any formal reading of Eggleston’s photographs – researching context could prove to be difficult!


Aitken D (2013). The Source – William Eggleston (video interview). Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/doug-aitken-source-william-eggleston [accessed 28.3.16]

Eggleston W (1976). William Eggleston’s Guide (2002 edition)New York, The Museum of Modern Art.

MoMA Press release (1976). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2016/01/william-eggleston-ny-moma-press-release-1976.html [accessed 28.3.16]

O’Hagan S (2004). The Guardian [online]. Out of the ordinary. Available from: ://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1 [accessed 28.3.16]

Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes

In Roland Barthes’ ( ) essay, The Rhetoric of Image, he explores, ‘How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond?’, through a detailed analysis of a Panzani advertisement (see featured image), which is a French food brand. For his analysis he uses the tools of semiotics, which has its origins in the study of language and, at the same time, argues that this theory of linguistics (‘digital’ information) can equally well be applied to images (‘analogue’ information).

The essay is widely available online (as well as in the book referenced) and my intention is not to summarise it here, but to note the main insights I gained through reading the essay:

  • The essay is an excellent example of semiotics in action – a source of practical reference when seeking to understand the theory. He examines the signifiers (images and text) and the signified (meanings) in the context of the sign (the advertisement).
  • In the advertisement, Barthes finds ‘three messages:a linguistic message,a coded iconic message [connoted – implied or suggested],and a non-coded iconic message [denoted – literal or described]. Iconic refers to the use of a visual icon, as distinct from textual descriptor.
  • The linguistic message is not simply used as a literal description of the product, but also to connote the Italianess of the product through the use of words (although it is a French brand and a French advertisement). I also note the Italian tricolours used to shape the white lettering. So, font as imagery.
  • The coded elements of the visual relate to the power of suggestion, for example the open string basket – home-spun, market  freshness etc, and the echos of still-life, the traditional, in the composition (an ‘aesthetic signified’). Whereas the non-coded relate more to the indexical attributes of the photo – how does the product look, what should I buy.
  • Barthes explains that ‘all images are polysemous [carry multiple meanings at the same time]; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a “floating chain” of signifieds’. This is where textual content comes in, to direct understanding or to place boundaries on interpretation. The purpose of text is to guide us through the two-fold iconic message; Barthes states, ‘[through] anchorage and rely … [it] helps me to choose the correct perception, permits me to focus not simply my gaze but also my understanding… the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others’.

A useful essay!


Barthes R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.


Book review – Snaps by Elliot Erwitt

I love this book. Elliot Erwitt’s (b1928) photos are full of humour and humanity. And, the introductory writing by Murray Sayle and Charles Flowers gives interesting insights on Erwitt as a man and photographer. However, it is unlikely that Erwitt would approve of an art of photography student analysing his work:

Overall, Erwitt believes photography criticism is pretentious and particularly lambasts the idea of photography courses: “A waste of time,” he scoffs. “A visual sense is something you either have or you don’t.” (This is despite studying photography and film himself.) (O’Mahony).

A quotation I took to the OCA student Facebook page for discussion – unanimous disagreement with Erwitt’s statement amongst the biased audience.

Back to the book. It is called ‘snaps’ because it includes Erwitt’s personal rather than commercial work and it is the term he uses for this aspect of his work with his ‘hobby’ camera, a 50mm Leica. There are 200 photos covering 4 decades, organised in pairs to create visual puns. All photos are in black and white – Erwitt expresses a view that colour provides too much information. The work is arranged into chapters around themes of activities; for example, read, rest and point, look.

The work has a feeling of spontaneity, moments plucked from everyday life and celebrated through the lens.There is a lightness and humour, refreshing in the troubled times of 2016. It focuses on the brighter side of life and O’Mahony tells us that some have been critical of Erwitt’s work for this; ‘there have been whispers that his work is “light-weight”, “flippant”, even “inconsequential”.’ The consequence of the work for me is that it makes me smile, it is like a well-drawn comedy sketch. Even in his famous image of the confrontation between Krushchev and Nixon in Moscow in 1959 (Erwitt, p139) there is a heavy touch of absurdity.

Technically, the work is masterful; full of rich tones of light and shade, composed to draw in the viewer’s eye and make every part of the image count. There is purpose and economy about the work. Wonderful.


Erwitt E (2001). Snaps. 2013 abridged edition. New York, Phaidon Press Inc.

O’Mahony J (2003). Guardian [online]. Elliot Erwitt best in show. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/dec/27/photography [accessed 17.3.16]

Auto Focus – book review

Auto Focus features a dazzling array of photographs by seventy-five of the world’s foremost contemporary photographers whose work focuses on self-portraiture.

(Bright, from cover sleeve)

The book includes 332 illustrations, with 288 in colour. It provides a fascinating insight into the genre of self-portrait photography, split in to chapters covering the themes of autobiography, body, masquerade, studio and album and performance. I find this an interesting genre, as despite its apparent ubiquity, it is not something I have personally explored or considered in any depth until now.

Autobiography gives the artist an opportunity to explore their own identity, to reflect on their own being. It is a meditation on self. Sunil Gupta exploring his illness through HIV (Bright, p 42), or Anna Fox (Ibid, p44) exploring her relationship with alcohol are two examples.

‘The body in self-portraiture has long fascinated … from classical renderings of the nude form to the use of the body to question what is human in a highly critical and political way.’ (Ibid, p62). Using our own bodies in photography in a partial state of undress, needs serious consideration in the context of our own cultures and expectations of behaviour in our social and professional environments. However, Bright shows us a number of examples of artist using the body, other than as a nude form.

The chapter on masquerade opens with a quote that sums up the sub-genre:

The artist disappears
No one knows where he went
He leaves his signs here and there
He is seen in this part of town and, the next moment,
miraculously, on the other side of town.
One senses him rather than sees him –
A lounger, a drunkard, a tennis-player, a bicycle rider,
Always violently denying that he did it.
Everyone gives a different description of the criminal.

Ry Gun, Claes Oldenburg’s alter ego

(Ibid, p99)

Bright explains that ‘photography’s rich and complex tradition of masquerade is thriving in contemporary art’ (Ibid, p99), and illustrates this through a number of artists. Aneta Grzeszykowska interestingly explains he she uses self-portrait as a tool for realising wider ideas, a kind of sketch pad or story board. I see masquerade as an extension of childhood games of dressing up or role-playing – ‘cowboys and indians’ for my generation, ‘Harry Potter spell battles’ for my children. Bright explains that Joan Fontcuberta ‘… uses playful narratives to question assumptions about truth in photography’ (Ibid, p124).

‘Studio and album’ deals with the context of portrait photography in the locations of studio and album. Bright explores the codes and conventions derived from these locations through the work of a number of artists.

The final chapter of the book deals with ‘performance’, opening with the quote, ‘I love acting, Its is so much more real than life.’ (Oscar Wilde). This is concerned with using photography to capture the performance of a work (performance art). Bright explains how the role of photography has evolved in this area – initially it was coincidental to the performance, often not high quality, but for the sake of keeping a record of the performance. However, it has evolved so that the performance is often made with the objective of capturing it in photographs; a performance primarily to the camera rather than an audience.

I would recommend this book as an excellent reference source for anyone interested in portrait-photography; it covers a breadth of styles and artist and includes high quality images.


Bright S (2010). Auto Focus – the self-portrait in contemporary photography. London, Thames & Hudson.

Self-Portrait Photography – Natalie Dybisz

I purchased this heavily discounted book on self-portrait photography by Natalie Dybisz (aka Miss Aniela), not really knowing what to expect.

The book covers a range of topics, with breadth rather than depth. Including a brief history of self-portraiture, equipment, shooting process, processing, marketing and a ‘showcase’ of self-portrait artists. Dybisz uses some examples of her work to talk us through the techniques she used in shooting and post-production. The artist’s own work is what I would describe as fantasy-fine art photography, mostly comprising Photoshopped composites.

Source: missaniela.com
Source: missaniela.com

While the work is not necessarily to my taste, there are a number of lessons I learned from the book:

  • Be creative in use of props and equipment – don’t fall into the trap of gear acquisition syndrome – much can be achieved with basic equipment and a good dose of imagination.
  • When shooting for composites, ensuring consistency of lighting in-camera saves a lot of time and effort in post-processing and will deliver better results.
  • Ideally the concept for the final composite should be decided in advance of the shoot, to ensure the right images are available for the composite. However, creativity does not always happen in straight-lines so additional work in post-production or reshooting will often be necessary.
  • There are some interesting perspectives on ‘posing’ – I find this a difficult aspect of self-portraiture; firstly avoiding the uncomfortable self-conscious look and secondly trying to act out emotions. Acting lessons needed.
  • Photoshop technique is touched upon throughout the book, from basic to more advanced skills. Dybisz makes use of the pen tool for cut-outing out elements for her composites – I’ve also watched YouTube videos with Photoshop experts extolling the virtues of the pen tool as the most effective way to cut-out. However, it is a tool that at present I use very little, so I need to develop some skill in its use!

I’m wouldn’t recommend this book as being of great worth for exploring the art of self-portrait, but it does give some useful insights in to creative compositing through shooting and post-production processes.


Dybisz N (1986). Self-portrait photograph: the ultimate in personal expression. New York: Pixiq.

Miss Aniela [website]. Available from: http://www.missaniela.com [accessed 5.3.16]



The Photographer’s Eye – book review

John Szarkowski’s (1925 – 2007) The Photographer’s Eye ‘concentrate[s] only on aesthetics –the visual content of the image –at the expense of what surrounds the photograph’ (Bull, p11). This is clear in Szarkowski’s introduction to the book in which he sets out the ‘five issues’ for consideration, being: 1) the thing itself (subject of a photograph), 2) the detail , 3) the frame, 4) time, and 5) vantage point. There is no consideration of the broader context in which a photograph is taken or in which it is used. This is a modernist perspective – with  ‘an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes’ (Tate).

The book takes us through a journey of disparate photographs using each of Szarkowski’s ‘issues’ as chapter themes. There is no colour – it is 1966 and it wouldn’t be until 1976 that MoMA featured an exhibition of William Eggleston’s colour photographs (shown in William Eggleston’s Guide, for which Szarkowski was to write an accompanying essay). The photographs are from a mix of known and unknown photographers.

As well as photographs, each chapter contains a few words of introduction from Szarkowski and a quotation from a notable artist or writer relevant to the theme of the chapter. For example in ‘the thing itself’, the quote is:

There is a terrible truthfulness about photography,
The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model,
paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet,
and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath,
and the picture is admired beyond measure.
The photographer finds the same pretty girl,
he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet,
but somehow it is no good – it is still Miss Wilkins, the model.
It is too true to be Juliet.

George Bernard Shaw

The photos selected in each chapter explain visually Szarkowski’s themes – the juxtaposition of different styles and different subject matter make this all the more powerful. We learn about the range of subjects that are photographed – much broader than in other media that requires more effort to produce; how the details are important for our interest and to convince us what we are seeing is a reflection of reality; on the frame, ‘to quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft’; the special relationship of photographs with time – describing only the present and preserving moments of time as images; and finally, the vantage point – how although the photographer cannot move the world, moving himself can create fresh and unusual perspectives on the world.

This is a truly wonderful book on the narrative within photographs and, therefore, how we might think about that when making photographs. For context, go elsewhere!


Bull, S. (2009). Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

The Guardian [online]. Was John Szarkowski the most influential person in 20th-century photography? Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/john-szarkowski-photography-moma [accessed 1.3.2016]

Szarkowski J (1966). The Photographer’s Eye. 2007 edition. New York, The Museum of Modern Art.

Tate [online]. Modernism. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/m/modernism [accessed 1.3.2016]

Photography – Stephen Bull

I read this as an e-book over what must be a couple of months. A tour de force of photography in all its forms, its eras, its interaction with the traditional art world, with discussions of influences on it and of it, references to important writing on photography, and all with clear and accessible writing! Bravo Mr Bull.

It is a book to return to for reference and it is so broad in scope that it would make little sense to summarise, what is already in the form of comprehensive summary itself. However, I cite a few of my highlights to help remind me that this is a book for revisiting:

Clarifying the difference between modernism and post-modernism:

  1. MODERNISM: THE NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY (Page 11 · Location 367)
    Szarkowski and Shore concentrate only on aesthetics –the visual content of the image –at the expense of what surrounds the photograph.
    Postmodernism calls into question the universality and progressiveness of modernist ideas. Offering, instead, a more fragmented worldview, it often focuses on social issues rather than aesthetic ones.

The concept of indexicality – was it ever really valid and how it is challenged by the digital revolution:

    Indexicality is a term from the writings of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (which scholars began to collect together from the 1930s). Along with Ferdinand de Saussure, Peirce was a pioneer of semiotics: a way of understanding how communication works. Semiotics centres on the idea of the sign, a basic unit of communication.
  2. PAST / PRESENT / FUTURE: PHOTOGRAPHY AND TIME (Page 17 · Location 471)
    Barthes means the way that a photograph not only tells us that someone or something definitely existed, or something definitely happened in the past, but also brings that past into the present. It is this distortion of time that can make photographs so compelling,
    … the centrality of the book to so much photographic analysis has often led to a mournful, even morbid interpretation of photographs as being only to do with death and the past.
    semiotic terms: photography’s perceived indexicality was being called into question (Mitchell 1992: 24–28; see also Rubinstein and Sluis 2008), as if the weathercock in Peirce’s example was being turned by a motor, not by the wind … the more questionable ‘reality’ depicted in digital photographs fits a postmodern period of uncertainty … ‘Digital technology does not subvert “normal” photography, because “normal” photography never existed’ (Manovich 2003: 245) … To Batchen digitally manipulated photographs do what photography has always done: depict the world as an altered version of itself. From such viewpoints digital technology can be regarded not as representing a revolution, but as a gradual and continuing evolution in photography –and how it is thought about –since the early 1990s.

Pornography and photography – I recently grappled with the line between art and pornography following a visit to a Bettina Rheims exhibition (see here).

    Even though the evidence from many police raids during the 19th century reveals the massive quantities of pornographic photographs made and sold even in the first few decades of the medium, ‘dirty’ pictures are generally ‘quarantined’ from photography history (Solomon-Godeau 1991a; Williams 1995: 12).

Introducing Semiotics

  1. UNDERSTANDING SEMIOTICS: SIGNS, SIGNIFIERS AND SIGNIFIEDS (Page 34 · Location 751) ‘The Photographic Message’, an essay on press photographs (published a few years before ‘Elements of Semiology’), Barthes refers to what he calls the ‘codes’ of connotation that such photographs draw upon and which are understood culturally (Barthes 1977a). These include codes of pose and gesture, technical effects (such as focus and blur) and the meanings of objects in pictures.

Freud and Surrealism connection

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY AND PSYCHOANALYSIS: THE UNCONSCIOUS, FETISHISM AND THE UNCANNY (Page 49 · Location 1020) Freud’s ideas and those of his followers became the basis of Surrealism, a movement founded by André Breton in Paris in the 1920s after some key writings on psychoanalysis were translated into French. The main revolutionary, idea of Surrealism was to discard all culturally acceptable rules and access the unconscious mind through methods such as automatic writing where conscious control could be abandoned (see Alexandrian 1970; Breton 2003; Mundy 2001).

Insights into photography for selling. A reminder to self that I should be much more observant of this type of photography, rather than just see ‘an advert’. Note separate post on Judith Williamson’s critiques of advertising (see here)

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY FOR SELLING: ADVERTISING AND IDENTIFICATION (Page 63 · Location 1243) The rhetoric of the photographic image is powerful enough to convince us, in the instant that we glimpse the advertisement, that what we are seeing is real and to disavow the knowledge that we are looking at models in a highly constructed scene (and therefore disavow that the dream we see is unattainable).
  2. (Page 64 · Location 1262) belief that consuming products will improve our lives or, in more recent advertising, that buying a product will make us ‘ecologically sound’
  3. (Page 68 · Location 1320) ‘atmosphere’ or ‘feeling’ associated with the brand, rather than to sell any specific product.
  4. (Page 68 · Location 1325) Paul Frosh, around 70 per cent of the photographs that are put to use as part of everyday advertising –including images encountered in magazines, on packaging, or on the walls of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores –are stock photographs (Frosh 2003: 2)
  5. (Page 70 · Location 1353) images have come to replace any experience with the real world whatsoever
  6. ( Page 71 · Location 1376) The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to shout back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back. (Banksy 2006: 8)
  7. (Page 73 · Location 1416) market for art photography only began to fully emerge in the 1970s. Lindsay Stewart of Christie’s auction house sees this as the result of various coinciding developments.

The insight that snapshots are not simple, it is just that we are used to them!

  1. (Page 81 · Location 1548) They [snapshots] are sophisticated images and the majority of us receive an education in how to pose for and take snapshots from the moment we are born. It is only because this detailed knowledge becomes second nature at an early age that we forget our indoctrination into the culture of snapshot photography, making snaps seem simple and even ‘naïve’. They are neither.
  2. (Page 82 · Location 1559) The origin of the word ‘snapshot’ is generally agreed to derive from a 19th-century hunting term for a gunshot fired quickly and haphazardly.

Other topics covered in the book are: photography as document, photography as art, photography in fashion, and photography and celebrity. An excellent source of reference for discussions on photography!


Bull, S. (2009). Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Martin Parr at the Hepworth

An impromptu trip to the Hepworth on a rainy Saturday afternoon (what other kind of Saturday afternoon is there in Yorkshire at the moment!) and I find the man himself shooting portraits for £300 a go. Along with a crew and an open studio for anyone to watch. A bit of a treat! Especially to discover he still says, ‘say cheese’. Unfortunately, with the constant in and out of punters, I didn’t feel I could interrupt for a chat!

Below are my photo-notes from the exhibition – these are shots of the context plates alongside the photos and show the breadth and depth of the work on display in this retrospective; 300 photos covering 40 years the Hepworth explains.

I’ve long been an admirer of Parr’s work, with his ‘bad weather’ series being an inspiration for me to get out and take pictures, whatever the weather. And his book, ‘the last resort’, encouraged me to embrace colour photography as a medium for street photography – having earlier been indoctrinated by the hoards suggesting B&W is the only way and referencing Henri Cartier Bresson et al.

Parr has been widely interviewed in the press about the exhibition. In the Telegraphy, he is disarmingly honest about his hit rate for the Rhubarb Triangle:

I suggest … he must have finessed the formula for taking a quintessential “Parr” photograph. “You are after iconic moments,” he concedes, “but they are very difficult to produce. Most of the pictures I take are not very good. For the rhubarb commission, I took three or four thousand – and ended up with 40. If I knew how to take a great photo, I would stop.

What was my sense of the exhibition:

  • The vast body of work left me with a sense of urgency to take far more photographs. Perhaps I am too selective in what and when I shoot and may be missing opportunities.
  • The vivid colours of Parr’s work are as summer music is to my ears. There is light and vivacity. They are somehow up lifting. Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, the photos bring out the bright-side of life. We can laugh at the human condition.
  • The work was pinned to the wall in print format – no framing or mounting. The first time I’d seen this approach in an exhibition. This approach made the work seem more accessible – and this appeared evident in the crowds visiting the exhibition.
  • While Parr’s subject matter was always the banal, his series always explore defined aspects of the banal. It the combinations of images within a theme that helps make them more engaging. It feels like we are exploring a subject through the images.

Apologies for smudging – old iPhone with mouldy lens!


BBC Arts [website] . All systems grow: Martin Parr and the Rhubarb Triangle. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5db1BBQfJcMfLTHS8bJv1ys/all-systems-grow-martin-parr-and-the-rhubarb-triangle [accessed 26.2.16]

Hepworth [website]. Martin Parr. Available from: http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/martin-parr/ [accessed 26.2.16]

Magnum Photos [website]. Book – Bad Weather. http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53GUHDY [accessed 26.2.16]

Telegraph [website]. Martin Parr: ‘If I knew how to take a great photo, I’d stop’. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/martin-parr-if-i-knew-how-to-take-a-great-photo-id-stop/ [accessed 26.2.16]


La Maison Européenne de la Photographie

I was lucky to visit the catchily named La Maison Européenne de la Photographie while on a business trip to Paris. The place is vast! At the time of my visit there were a number of artists’ work on show. A retrospective on the work of Bettina Rheims was the main feature, occupying 3 levels of the gallery. Other exhibits were Renaud Monfournay, Tony Hage and a collection of Taiwanese photographers.

In this write-up I focus on the work of Rheims and Monfournay. My notes from the visit are attached in a pdf below.

Monfournay’s exhibition was of black and white portraits of musicians. The work was edgy, with a gritty rock and roll expression. His own website features many examples of his work, including ‘musician’s gallery. Not a Kodak smile in sight – Monfournay’s images capture the spirit of his subjects with narratives that reflect their individuality. Monfournay talks about his work (in French) around Manchester (see Vimeo reference) with a focus on its music culture. I’d like to watch the interaction between this kind of portrait photographer and his sitters – the psychology of it – something to look out for on Youtube.

I was not familiar with the genre of photography that Rheims works with – I’d describe her work as highly erotic and controlled, mostly featuring female subjects, and with a good dose of imagination behind the poses and narratives for her sitters. I-D-Vice magazine features an interview with Rheims, and introduces here as, ‘French photographer Bettina Rheims was a disciple of Helmut Newton, and his influence is visible in her work. Many of her series echo the sexually charged exhibitionism and focus on female flesh so closely associated with the iconic photographer.’ Helmut Newton (1920-2004) was a fashion photographer dubbed ‘the king of kink’ (artsy). Some examples of her work can be seen on her own Instagram account (link below) or a Google image search (or Pinterest) on her name, produces many images. They are obviously popular on the internet, perhaps because of their subject matter.

Sex and sexuality is a significant part of our lives but mostly treated as a private part of our lives. For me Rheim’s work raised questions – is there a boundary between art and pornography, or is it simply the context that makes the difference? How does the erotic objectification of the female form sit with the feminist ideology? Is it just that this work sits on the fault-line between public and private and it is cultural and societal norms that determine whether we perceive it as art or pornography? Questions too difficult to answer in the context of a blog post on a gallery visit. The work was technically accomplished and imaginative but there was the uncomfortable feeling of becoming a voyeur legitimized by art. It is not something I would like my children to see and I do wonder how the exhibition would sit in other less ‘open minded’ parts of the world.


Artsy.net [website]. Helmut Newton. Available from: https://www.artsy.net/artist/helmut-newton [accessed 13.2.16]

Bettina Rheims [Instagram]. Available from: https://www.instagram.com/bettinarheims/ [accessed 13.2.16]

The Guardian [online]. Is Nobuyoshi Araki’s photography art or porn? Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/may/08/nobuyoshi-araki-photography-art-porn [accessed 13.2.16]

I-D.Vice [website]. bettina rheims photographs the complex worlds of sex workers, prisoners and celebrities. Available from: https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/bettina-rheims-photographs-the-complex-worlds-of-sex-workers-prisoners-and-celebrities [accessed 13.2.16]

La Maison Européenne de la Photographie [website]. Available from: http://www.mep-fr.org/english/ [accessed 13.2.16]

Manchester par Renaud Monfourny . Available from: https://vimeo.com/79094056 [accessed 13.2.16]

Renaud Monfournay [website]. Available from: http://www.renaudmonfourny.com [accessed 13.2.16]

Daido Moriyama at Cartier Institute, Paris

[Source of featured image: guardian.com]

I was lucky to visit Diado Moriyama’s ‘Tokyo’ exhibition at the Cartier Institute in Paris during a business trip to the city. Moriyama has long been an inspiration for me.

This one of the first shows of Moriyama’s recent colour work, but it was accompanied by a slide show of his early black and white photos too. O’Hagan’s article explores why Moriyama has chosen to shoot in colour after so many years in black and white  – though I’m still unclear of the reason, other than ‘There are no other deep reasons for this work except feeling and emotion.’ My notes made during the show and some iPhone shots are attached below.

Points of significance for me:

  1. The show was a spectacle, with large billboard size displays of colour images. Bringing the streets of Tokyo to a Paris gallery. It is the first time I had experienced a photography as a ‘show’.  The print sizes seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom for print sizes as Moriyama mostly works with simple point and shoot cameras. I should explore the boundaries of having larger prints made of some of my own work.
  2. Moriyama’s photos are abstracts from everyday Tokyo life. People, objects, places. His focus seems not so much on the entirety of his subjects but on elements of lines, shapes and colours that form part of the subjects and often connote rather than represent the subjects. There is a close-up intimate feel to the work. Again, given the simple cameras he generally uses, I was left wondering how much cropping took place for some of the subjects that it would have been difficult to get close to. Perhaps heavy cropping is not detrimental to gritty street photos.
  3. The photos show a passion for the streets of Tokyo. They are obsessive about the life of the streets. For a man of 77 years they are a life’s work. Photography is Moriyama’s way of expressing his passion. In one text display he says he often returns to the same subject again and a again, ‘like a dog pissing on its territory’. There must be passion for photos to express something of the subject.
  4. I felt excited looking at the work – I wanted to get out and take photos as soon as possible. This must give some clues for the direction of my own work.

I purchased the catalogue of the exhibition, which I will review in another post once I have worked through a backlog of other reading material.


O’Hagan S ( 2016). Guardian [online]. Tokyo: the city that came out of the shadows. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/07/daido-moriyama-street-photographer-tokyo-colour-fondation-cartier-interview [accessed 13.2.16]


100 Leading Ladies

My reflections on an OCA fringe visit (Adam Newsome as good company) to the exhibition 100 Leading Ladies by Nancy Honey at Cartwright Hall, Bradford.

A pdf from my Evernote photo-diary is attached below – provides some iPhone snaps shots and links to details about the exhibition.

Things of specific interest to me:

  • The collaborative nature of the work meant there was a large stylistic range of portraiture. I’d contrast this with the work of Jane Bown (documentary approach to portraiture also), whose work seems to follow the photographer’s preference, rather than the sitter’s preference (see blog entry here).
  • I’m not sure that all the portraits were successful in saying much about the sitters – some looked like family photos / posed stiff smiles (the photo-persona). Whereas others were full of personality. Smile/laugh like you mean it, or keep a straight face – show your real personality.
  • The sitters’ gazes varied between portraits – some looking straight into the camera and others away to the side. The latter appeared more real, but the former worked if there was no photo-persona smile.
  • Where hands featured prominently in the photos, they commanded almost as much attention as the faces. Some, I found distracted, but other added to the impression of personality.
  • The work was done with a cause – an ‘anti-celebrity’ perspective, showing what real women could achieve by being true to themselves. The intention was to educate young women. Adam and I wondered if this message would reach them – a gallery on the outskirts of Bradford. The book selling for between £20 and £30 would not be accessible/desirable for many young women. Hopefully, the museum would contact local schools to encourage visits.
  • Presentation in the gallery was in simple frames (no glass) and there were no large-scale prints. I suspect down to the practicalities of space, logistics and cost to exhibit 100 portraits. But it still worked well. My impression that the photos were paired (one above the other) with complementary elements – same order was also followed in the photobook.

100 Leading Ladies [website]. Available from: http://www.100leadingladies.com [accessed 31.1.16]
Nancy Honey [website]. Available from: http://nancyhoney.com [accessed 31.1.16]

The Guardian [website]. Women In Leadership (28.9.15). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2014/sep/26/nancy-honey- photographer-100-leading-ladies [accessed 31.1.16]

Intermissions – OCA study visit

I thoroughly enjoyed the OCA study visit to the Intermissions exhibition curated by Keith Roberts (OCA tutor), who also hosted the study visit.

As well providing an opportunity to meet some fellow students, hearing Roberts discuss his work provided insights that would have been difficult to see based on purely on the material accompanying the images.

A pdf of my notes and iphone snaps from the day are shown here and detailed explanations of the exhibition can be found in the links referenced below:OCA study visit - Liverpool

For me the important learning points from the exhibition and visit were:

  • In the context the work, Roberts was very much the photographer as curator, using found images. However in contrast to the work of Joachim Schmid (reviewed here), in which I found it difficult to find interest, I found Roberts’ take on the Hardman commercial portrait archive very interesting. I’ve reflected on the reasons for this:
    • There is historic value in the work – recovering some of an archive of portraiture, which had been left hidden in a library’s storage, out of view, and bringing it and its story into view. The commitment and skill required to do this, and the value in showing the images, seems to me very much different to collecting digital images already posted online, and already available for viewing by anyone with the time or inclination.
    • Then, the concept of presenting the images with an ‘intermission’ (same sitter with a time lag of years between the sittings) encouraged me, as a viewer, to reflect on what could have happened in the intervening period to age the sitters, particularly as the images were taken around the period of World War II.
    • Hardman is already well-known for his landscape and cityscapes – Roberts brings fresh information on his work.
  • Though Roberts did not explicitly pass comment, I sensed there had been some struggle in bring the art to public viewing. For example in gaining access to the library archive of the negatives, which had until recent years been stored in less than ideal conditions and were deteriorating. I found it surprising that the National Trust had declined to show the images in Hardman’s House (preserved by them – reference below) – apparently as the prints were not created by Hardman’s own hand. A photographer as curator, struggling for his art.

Hardman Portrait [website]. Available from:  http://hardmanportrait.format.com/2317785-home [accessed 16.1.16]

The Double Negative [website]. Intermissions: The Quiet Portraits Of Edward Chambré-Hardman. Available from: http://www.thedoublenegative.co.uk/2016/01/intermissions-20th-century-liverpool-via-edward-chambre-hardman/ [accessed 16.1.16]

The National Trust [website]. Hardman’s House. Available from: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardmans-house [accessed 16.1.16]


Jerwood Photoworks Awards 2015

Notes from visit to Impressions Gallery, Bradford, 9.1.16. (Pdf direct from Evernote):


Impressions Gallery [online]. Available from: http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/?current [accessed 9.1.16]

Photoworks [Online]. Available from: http://photoworks.org.uk/project-news/exhibition-jerwoodphotoworks-awards-2015-matthew-finn-joanna-piotrowska-tereza-zelenkova/ [accessed 9.1.16]

Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing is the book based around the 1972 BBC television series (available on Youtube – see my ‘Art’ playlist), presented by the prolific writer John Berger (1926).

The work is a series of essays that encourages us to see and read art, beyond the two-dimensional image, the interpretations of the traditional art establishment and those holding hegemonic interests. It encourages the reader to think from multiple perspectives about a work to allow more profound understanding. Berger explains how ‘the way people look at art is affected by a whole series of learned assumptions … beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status, taste etc’ (Berger, p11) – importantly that these assumptions may not be relevant and ‘mystify rather than clarify’.

Take for example, the perspective of the commissioner of the work (much art work is necessarily funded and influenced by someone other than the artist). Berger discusses how shifts in power influenced art; from religious works adorning grand places of worship and acting as icons for the believers; through power-plays by royalty and its favoured nobles and grandiose shows of ownership by wealthy merchants; to ‘publicity’ material (mostly photographs) of commercial organisations and their advertising agencies.

The gaze created in the art work is often designed to elicit a certain response in the viewer; to encourage envy or desire for example. As viewers we need to be conscious of this impact on our own interpretation. One essay deals specifically with the portrayal of women in art vs men in art. This is an interesting read, though I’m unconvinced that Berger’s reading of female psychology and place is as relevant in 2015 UK as it was in the 1960s – something for deeper consideration another time!

Berger discusses the impact of photographic reproduction on the art world – transforming art from something accessible only in certain places to something that can be viewed as a reproduction anywhere. The message of art became available to anyone who would care to view a reproduction, without need for the time or expense of visiting galleries or museums. The power shifted from control of access to ownership of ‘original’ work and the vast sums of money that circulate that entails; ‘the bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art … dependent on market value … has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.’ (ibid p23). He draws a comparison between oil painting and photography; with oil paining being the first medium to make the illusion of reality possible in two dimensions, with its ability to show contrasting textures for example. Later, photography largely surplanted this role. Therefore Berger argues that the traditional genre of oil painting existed between about 1500 and 1900, when photography took over (ibid p84)

The final essay discusses ‘publicity’. This is a view on the use of publicity to encourage envy and how consumers can become envied (and feel superior) through purchases. He contrasts this with oil paintings of wealthy merchants, which were used to display the wealth already possessed, whereas publicity images fuel dreams of consumers who do not necessarily have the means to purchase and may never have the means to do so. Berger sums up the nature of publicity/advertising wonderfully:

Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it … everything publicity shows is there awaiting acquisition. The act of acquiring has taken the place of all other actions, the sense of having has obliterated all other senses.

Overall, the book contains important lessons on keeping ones eyes and mind open.


Berger J, et al (1973). Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Maughan P (2015). The New Statesman [online) “I think the dead are with us”: John Berger at 88. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/06/i-think-dead-are-us-john-berger-88 [accessed 5.5.16]


The death of the author

Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) essay, The Death of the Author, is about the personality and perspectives of the author as an individual getting out-of-the-way of the writing and allowing the reader to work at their interpretation of the text. So, moving away from the traditional literary criticism of ‘what the author means’ to ‘what does the reader understand by the text’. This encourages the participation of the reader in the work.

The example Barthes provides is of a Greek tragedy where all the characters speak ambiguously but do not realise their own ambiguity. It is then the audience who hear the ambiguity and understand its tragic consequences – the audience must participate in the ‘text’ to interpret what is happening. There can be more than one meaning, depending on one’s perspective. There is no single meaning, ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’ (Barthes). Hence not with the author but with the reader and therefore, ‘the death of the author’.

In photography, the understanding of the image itself is necessarily with the viewer as the image has no words to direct the viewer to the photographer’s meaning. So, the viewer must necessarily work at understanding the meaning. However, if textual context is provided this will direct the viewer and we would do well to consider careful the textual content to avoid limiting the viewer’s possibilities for interpretation and participation in the work.


Barthes R (1968). The death of the author. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.

Towards a Philosophy of Photography

I’ve just completed my first reading of  Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilém Flusser (1920-1991). It is a remarkable book, even more remarkable for that fact that it pre-dates digital photography (and other digital media to a large extent), and yet it seems to predict the impact of that technology on our culture.

It’s implications reach beyond photography, as Flusser himself suggests, ‘the photographic universe can serve as a model for post-industrial society as a whole and  … a philosophy of photography can be the starting point …’ (loc 868). For me, this is rooted in what Flusser describes as the power of the image to program human behaviour itself; for images to be read naively as a representation of reality itself and therefore symbolic of what should be acted out in reality (for example through advertising).

Flusser describes post-industrial society as one in which ‘work must be replaced by information’ and where the power lies not so much in the ownership of the means of production but in the ability to program and control apparatus (simulating thinking) that directs the production of goods and information (think Apple, who produce none of their own products). Similarly the camera has become the apparatus to produce technical images (taking away the work element of drawing or painting). It is a clever black-box, in which we cannot see the inner workings, but can control its output through the symbols provided on its controls. Flusser describes photographers in ‘a stalking … game of making combinations of time-and-space categories … making combinations with the [settings] of their camera’ (loc 371).

The camera itself is subject to programs of the manufacturer, with the photographer acted upon by those programs. The photographer ‘plays’ a camera, much like a musician, ‘plays’ an instrument to create an output. The camera can take over its operator (go to any famous landmark and observe the camera-phone selfies) in its greed for images, driving an obsession, and meanwhile just creating images that are redundant (contain no new information). As Flusser describes ‘they are not in charge of taking photographs, they are consumed by the greed of their camera,they have become an extension to the button of their camera. Their actions are automatic camera functions’ (loc 659).

The image or photograph has little intrinsic value – it can be infinitely reproduced – the power is with ‘the person who created the information it conveys’. Flusser argues that the photograph as ‘an immobile and silent surface’ has scarcely any meaning. It is the channels through which it is communicated that convey meaning and it is possible for a photograph to switch between different channels (eg documentary to art) and for the intention of the photographer to be lost. The channels help to ‘encode’ the photograph with meaning.

Flusser discusses how people receive photographs as ‘objects without value that everyone can produce’, without appreciating that we are ‘manipulated … and programmed to act in a ritual fashion’. Rather sinisterly, that they ‘suppress critical awareness’, within a kind of magic circle.

So what then is should the photographer do to escape the magic circle, the flood of images that are mostly produced mindlessly each and every day in the digital world? As Flusser states ‘we have become accustomed to visual pollution; it passes through our eyes and our consciousness without being noticed.’ (loc 750). It is here this that Flusser states that his philosophy will ‘expose this struggle between human being and apparatus’ and help photographers find an answer.

Flusser states that photographers who are conscious of the basic problems of ‘image’, ‘apparatus’, ‘program’, and ‘information’ can create images that are not redundant:

… one can outwit the camera’s rigidity … smuggle intentions into its program that are not predicted by it … force the camera to create the unpredictable … show contempt for the camera … in order to concentrate on information. In short: Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera.


Flusser V (1983). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Kindle Edition. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Goldsmith K (2015). It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content. 14 July. Los Angeles Review of Books [online]. Available from: https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/its-a-mistake-to-mistake-content-for-content [accessed 30.12.15]

Langford’s Basic Photography

Langford’s Basic Photography; the guide for serious photographers is referenced as essential reading for the OCA’s C&N module.

Personally, I found much of the material in the book redundant: it attempts to offer something for everyone, covering many aspects of photography in a basic way (give away in the title). For example, extensive material is dedicated to film photography and developing techniques – an area which I neither have the time, nor inclination to pursue in the digital age; whereas material related to digital photography covers a basic description of a computer and how to load files from an image card to a computer. Descriptions of the functions of a the camera were also well-trodden ground for me.

Amongst the redundant material, there are some aspects that I found of more use to me: the science of light and its behaviour; and the sections relating to composition include references to specific photographers as exponents of particular styles, which is useful for reference.

Over-all I suspect the beginning photographer would benefit from this book, if they were interested in film photography and darkroom equipment and processes. However, for a beginner intending to use digital photography, there must be far more relevant books. I cannot recommend investing in this book – perhaps a revised edition, reflecting the prevalence of digital photography would be more useful.


Langford, M, et al (2010). Langford’s Basic Photography (9th ed.) Oxford: Focal Press. Kindle version.

Light: science & magic – book review

I read Light: Science & Magic during a return long-haul trip to Singapore – I thought a better use of time than watching a stream of films! It is an introduction to photographic lighting.

It is a technical book, written in a very accessible style and covers a wide range of areas relating to lighting: including basic principles, equipment, an examination of light itself, dealing with reflections, surface appearances and tricky subjects, and so on. The tools in the book are ‘the grammar and vocabulary of light’. It will no doubt become an important source of reference for me and I recommend it to other readers.

I include here a few ‘notes to self’ on important aspects to me at this stage:

  • ‘The eye can detect a very slight change in colour mixture, but the brain refused to admit the difference’. That is until we see a photo reproduced on the screen or in print. Our clever brains sort out unbalanced colours for us when we are within a live scene, but not when we are viewing images. Overall, the authors argue that it is better to correct light balance in camera if possible, rather than in post-production. An area to which I don’t pay enough attention – should carry and use grey card as a habit!
  • On contrast – a small light source produces hard shadows (all rays coming from one direction), whereas a large light source (rays enveloping the subject) produces soft shadows. Size is relative to the subject and its distance from the subject: for example the sun is a small light source because of its distance. Whereas the sun diffused through clouds is a large light source. It is the relationship that is important.
  • On subjects – different subjects react in different ways to light and require different treatments. They can either transmit, absorb, or reflect light. It is the reflective qualities that work on the camera.
  • When light is transmitted, refraction occurs as light passes from one medium to another. Diffuse transmission is where light rays are scattered in unpredictable directions (eg through white cloth / translucent materials). Direct transmission is where light more or less passes through (eg clear glass / transparent materials). Simple transmission cannot be photographed – there is no reflected light for the camera to capture.
  • Absorption – when a subject fully absorbs light, it cannot be photographed – think of the difficulty with black cats!
  • ‘Photographic lighting … is primarily and exercise in reflection management’.
  • Family of angles – deals with the angle of view within which the camera will record reflections (think snooker angles) and affects the desired placement of light sources for a given subject.
  • Portrait photography – full and useful discussion of lighting for this area of photography. Must revisit and practice.
  • Equipment – comprehensive discussion of this area and the options. Need to revisit once I’m familiar with the basic equipment I have already.

Above all, there is an emphasis on practice and application of theory to master photographic lighting.



Hunter F, BIver S, Fuqua P (2015). Light: science & magic (5th Edition). Focal Press, New York & London.

David Sault, Ilkley Camera Club

On 20 November 2015, I attended a presentation by David Sault, a fine art photographer.

He discussed what he saw as the difference between fine art and contemporary photography; the former being more concerned with line, form, light and composition and the later with the expression of concepts.

Source: davidsaultphotography.com
Source: davidsaultphotography.com

He talked through different aspects of his work, including that he works in ‘portfolios’ or to different themes or ideas. He emphasised the importance of expressing an idea and having a reason for taking a photography – having the photography reflect your own vision.

It was interesting to hear how the work of artists (painters) inspired him – not that he attempted to mimic their style but took ideas from the concepts expressed in their work.

He showed some powerful images, which he’d used different processing techniques in Photoshop. These can seen on his website, along with some tips on using Photoshop.

An interesting evening at a local camera club!


David Sault [website]. Available from: http://www.davidsaultphotography.com [accessed 21.11.15]

Women in Photography – Bradford

On 21 November 2015, I attended a series of lectures, Women in Photography,  organised by the Royal Photographic Society in the National Media Museum Bradford.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 19.56.09
Source: telegraph.co.uk

The agenda for the day is attached as a pdf: Women in photography – RPS. In summary, the day included:

  1. Thomas Galifot, curator of photography Musé d’Orsay, on the topic, ‘about (some) women photographers 1839-1919’. This was not about a history of women through photographs but of women photographers in the 100 years to WW1 – 75 women from France, UK and USA. It covered the influence of sexual identity the women’s strategies for success. Galifot told their story through four themes: a) becoming a gazing subject (restrictions on the their environment), b) investing intimacy and the female experience (areas not accessible to men), c) embracing sexual difference, and d) taking the route on manly territories (moving beyond the domestic environment).
  2. Antony Penrose on Lee Miller. Penrose is the Director of The Lee Miller Archives and Lee Miller’s son.  The talk and the images were stunning. A powerful and moving narrative provide by a son about his mother’s work and life story. Particularly her story and images of WW2 and the text she wrote to accompany them. An extraordinary experience!
  3. Linda Marchant on Cornell Lucas – on the theme of ‘women in the frame’. Lucas was the photographer at Pinewood Studios in the 1950s. Marchant discussed the performance of the women stars in front of the camera and the collaboration between photographer and celebrity.
  4. Helen Clarke – talked about her initial research on Vivian Maier as part of a master’s degree project. It was initial ideas on comparison between her work and that of male street photographers in the same broad era.

To top off the day the museum put on display for the lecture attendees some items from its archive. Including, Lucas’ camera (1 of 3 made in the world) and prints of his photos of the famous – I particularly liked the Marlene Dietricht. There was also a signed print of Cartier-Bresson’s!

£5 (with my OCA student discount) very well spent.


Royal Photography Society Event [website]. Women in Photography. Details available from: http://www.rps.org/events/2015/november/21/women-in-photography—bradford [accessed 21.11.15]


Zanele Muholi: Vukani/Rise

I visited Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery to see the exhibition Vukani/Rise, by Zanele Muholi, a South African photographer. The exhibition leaflet describes her:

… photographer and visual activist whose work explores gender, race and sexuality, particularly in relation to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual [LGBT] South African community.

The gallery also presented video installations telling the story of some of the people in the work and of an interview with the artist explaining her work.

Source: bbc.co.uk by Zanele  Muholi
Source: bbc.co.uk by Zanele Muholi

The exhibition comprises portraits of the LGBT community, ‘from the inside’, as Muholi explains. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate turn of phrase, referencing Susan Sontag’s inside/outside perspective, including commentary on Diane Arbus’ work, which Sontag considers voyeuristic.

Muholi wanted show her subjects with strength and dignity and give them a voice that they do have in the mainstream press. The photographs document the community and are not exploitative, showing individuals in their normal condition. While there is a huge gap in time between the work of Arbus an that of Muholi, and a corresponding shift in cultural and social perspectives, I can’t help but draw a comparison between the two photographers’ perspectives; little dignity is afforded to Arbus’s subjects, who are presented as outliers on the extremes of society, not in the context of going about their everyday lives.


Open Eye Gallery [website]. Zanele Muholi: Vukani/Rise
18 September – 29 November 2015. Available from: http://www.openeye.org.uk/main-exhibition/zanele-muholi/ [accessed 8 November 2015]


BBC [website] (2015). Zanele Muholi. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/12VHc6SJ36ySTKlCSYG1swY/pride-and-prejudice-how-zanele-muholi-documents-south-africas-lgbti-community [accessed 8 November 2015].

Diane Arbus Photography [website]. Available from: http://diane-arbus-photography.com [accessed 8 November 2015].

Jon Tonks – Empire exhibition

Last weekend I visited the Impressions Gallery in Bradford to see John Tonk’s exhibition, Empire.

The context for the work is described in the gallery’s blurb:

Empire takes a fascinating journey across the South Atlantic exploring life on four remote islands – the British Overseas Territories of Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands and St. Helena ­– relics of the once formidable British Empire, all intertwined through their shared history.

Jon Tonks spent up to a month at a time in each territory, travelling 60,000 miles around the Atlantic via military outposts, low-lit airstrips and a long voyage aboard the last working Royal Mail Ship. Some 400 rolls of film, 24 flights and 32 days at sea later, the resulting work creates an insight into these distant places that resonate with a sense of Britishness which is remarkably recognisable yet inescapably strange.

There was a video installation near the entrance to the gallery, showing Tonks talking about the work and his experiences while making the documentary. While I liked the idea of showing an interview with the artist, I felt it could have been better directed and perhaps would have benefitted from scripting – the repetition of description ‘it’s really interesting’ became irritating after a short time.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 23.02.38
Source: johntonks.com, the last cow by Jon Tonks.

The gallery itself is a room situated above Bradford’s library and a ten minute walk from the National Media Museum. In the reception area is a small shop, with photo books and information on upcoming events. Despite its shared location, the closed space for the exhibition created a peaceful area for viewing and reflecting on the photos.

The work itself was printed in square format and framed in uniform dark wood recessed frames. It appeared to be mounted on white card within the frames. The clean lines of the framing meant there were no distractions from the enjoyment of the photos.

Tonk’s work was in the documentary style, shot in colour, and included places and people of the remote islands. I enjoyed the work for the story it told and some moments of humour in the narratives (for example the last cow). Many of the prints were large-scale and this created the sense of being present in the places photographed, and the feeling of emptiness and remoteness of the islands.

The work is available as a photo book – it was striking that it made a much stronger impression on me when viewed as large prints as compared with the photo book.

The work successfully conveyed the story of life on these isolated islands and some of the eccentricity that accompanies it.


Impressions Gallery [online]. Available from: http://www.impressions-gallery.com[accessed 7.10.15]

Tonks J (nd). Jon Tonks [website]. Available from: https://www.jontonks.com/work/ [accessed 7.10.15]


O’Hagan S. (2013). Empire by Jon Tonks – review. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/29/empire-jon-tonks-photography-review [accessed 7.10.15]

Thoughts on definition and Sontag


When I read Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I struggled with some of the obscure academic language and felt that needing to decipher this distracted from the importance of what Sontag had to say. Thankfully, Ashley la Grange provides a ‘plain English’ version of Sontag’s work, which makes it more accessible and allows reflection on the substance of her work. It has also encouraged me to revisit the original work.

Here I attempt to define a photograph with the objective of providing a framework for my analysis of photographs and photographers. I then draw heavily on La Grange’s re-write of Sontag’s On Photography to consider the implications of the definition.


A photograph is an image extracted from reality at a specific place and time, selected by a photographer, using the technology of camera and lens. The photograph may be manipulated after it is captured in the camera (post-processing). The photograph can be viewed through a variety of media, in many different contexts.

  • A photograph has a basis in reality, which distinguishes it from painting and drawing: it is defined substantially by its subject matter, rather than by the photographer; as it is based in reality and captured by a machine, it is attributed with greater authenticity as a record of reality. As la Grange summarises Sontag, photographs are created by ‘ … a loose cooperation … between the photographer and the subject – mediated … by … a machine …’. However, the photography is not reality itself, which is far more complex than a selected moment in time captured in an image. A photography always hides more of reality than it reveals.
  • As a photography captures a specific place in time it allows us to study that moment and view it again and again. Because it is a still image, it is easier to remember than a moving image as it is not immediately replaced by another moment. Sontag argues that this capacity to review the same image also means that the moral impact of disturbing images is reduced with continual exposure. This must be the case to allow us to cope  with this kind of image without emotional over-load – we become desensitized (true of many experiences not just the viewing of photographs).
  • An important aspect resulting from a photograph capturing a moment in time is that they become a record of our own mortality (Sontag argues that this is one of the most powerful aspects). Similarly they provide a visual trigger for our memories; they can even replace our memories with a photographic representation of a moment. A weakness in this representation is that as photographs are only fragments, their place and their original context gets weaker – but as they seem to be pieces of reality (and seem to carry authority) they can play tricks with our minds.
  • Because the photographer selects the frame for the photo, it becomes not only a record of the subject but of the perspective of the photographer. His view of the world. Sontag ‘points out that photography … , increasingly defines realism as not what is really there, but what the artist really sees’. This can include aesthetic framing of the subject, which can act an antidote to any distress caused by images or war or starvation.
  • The image is created using technology, which can be used in a way that requires no technical skill. Many people take photographs but most do not practice it as an art form. And those that do practice it as an art also depend on the ‘power of the machine’. The mechanical, almost effortless means of capturing the image has other implications: the image can include details that are accidental, not noticed by the photographer until the image is viewed later. ‘In photography, the subject matter has a greater influence on the final image than does the photographer … And it is this subject matter that determines the viewer’s preferences when looking at photograph, not the formal characteristics of the photograph.’ The machine also changed what it was possible to see, what could not be seen with the naked eye, high-speed action frozen as a moment in time.
  • The lens of the camera can create a different perspective to that seen with the eye. Distance can be compressed, distorting perspective as we normally view it. Without an image being manipulated, the camera can distort its slice of reality.
  • Photography has implications for our experience of reality – the interest in the process of making a photography and of proving we were there, or witnessed an event can get in the way of experiencing the reality. I’ve particularly seen this at music concerts, when there are always people who seem to view the whole event through the screen of a mobile phone camera. Sontag feels that photography has become one of the main ways of experiencing something – go to any famous landmark and see the truth of this.
  • As a photograph can be placed in different contexts for a viewer, the time and place of the original taking can be expunged. A photograph can have a weak grip on reality. ‘… things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad’.
  • ‘Sontag feels that the question of photography being a fine art is misleading. Although it can generate art, it is a medium like language with which a range of things can be done’. This is an excellent analogy.

la Grange A (2005). Basic theory for photographers. Oxford, Focal Press, Amazon Kindle Edition.

Aho & Soldan at Helsinki Airport

I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a completely unplanned visit to a photo exhibition – one I chanced upon while transiting through Helsinki Airport! An interesting context for displaying work – waiting areas that are often filled with nothing but nondescript grey walls.

Heikki Ano (1895-1961) and Bjorn Soldan (1902-1953) are Finnish artists, described as pioneers in experimental photography and producing the most prolific body of work in inter-war Scandinavian modernism.

The exhibition space was set up as room within a room, using block walls and with seating for waiting passengers within the room. Passengers seem to be surprised and interested in the work – probably a welcome diversion during an otherwise tedious wait at an airport.

Most of the work on display was very well executed street scenes, though I believe that their oeuvre is much broader than this.

While I’d previously seen the formal space at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for the Rjikes Museum, I found the use of the temporary structure to display art in Helsinki Airport exciting and innovative.


Aho & Soldan [website]. Available from: http://www.ahosoldan.com [accessed 25.9.15]

Lumiere Brothers Gallery, Moscow

I was fortunate to visit this contemporary photography gallery in Moscow’s Red October district (a regenerated area that was a former vast sweet factory). The whole area and the buildings still have the feel of its industrial past.

There was an exhibition of the work of two contemporary Russian photographers, plus a touring exhibition called ‘the last samurai’ which showed photographs from the 1890s of Japanese delegations to other parts of the world (USA, Europe) as Japan ended its age of isolationism.

I am discussing the work of the Russian photographers as that was of most interest to me. It was regrettable that no catalogue or photo books of their work were available – apparently a difficulty in securing funding to make this possible.

Erwin Parviz’s work focused on areas of decay and poverty within Moscow. Bleak urban landscapes in black and white.  As I don’t read Russian, I was unable to gain much information from the narrative boards by the photos.

Parviz made use of stark environments, interesting points of view and high contrast light (often shooting into the sun) to make dramatic images.

The other photographer was Vladimir Filonov, with whom I was particularly impressed. There was also more information available in English on the man and his work. I learned that like many soviet photographers, he trained as an engineer and has no formal training  in photography.  Over a period of 30 years his work has covered a range of styles from direct documentary work to fantastic collages.


Some of his work told the story of the ordinary people of Russia and how they live. The work was lyrical and full of contrasts, much like this iPhone shot of Filonov’s photo of a young boy and old man.

As I continue to develop my own skills, I am reminded by the work of great photographers that there needs to be interest throughout the frame to make an image compelling. While this might not be achieved in the moment of a spontaneous shot, those not making the grade need to be edited out ruthlessly and without attachment to the moment in which the photo was made.

I have made a note to find out more about the work of Filonov but suspect that I’ll need to enlist the help of Russian friends to help with language!


Lumiere Gallery [website]. Available from: http://www.lumiere.ru [accessed 25.9.15]

The Moscow Times [online] (15.9.15) . Vladimir Filonov: An Amateur Lover of Photography. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/arts_n_ideas/article/vladimir-filonov-an-amateur-lover-of-photography/530907.html [accessed 19.9.15]

Edward Steichen in High Fashion, MAMM

I visited the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow  (MAMM) to see the work of Edward Steichen from his Condé  Nast years (1923–1937). It was an expansive exhibition featuring early fashion photography and photos of celebrities. My guide advised me that Steichen started the modern fashion photography genre, but she also said that he was responsible taking all of the photos in MoMA’s 1955 Family of Man exhibition, whereas he was the curator, so I’m not sure that I should necessarily rely upon what she told me!

It was a wonderful experience to see Steichen’s prints close up – their fine tonal quality was impressive. Some of the work was pictorialist and staged with contrived backdrops, but it was interesting to observe a shift from this style to one more natural and straight. I found the fashion images a little stiff compared to more contemporary work, with very little movement in the models or the clothes. However, the portraits of the rich and famous were impressive with their strong compositions, variety, and apparent connection between Steichen and his sitters (which we also feel as viewers of the work).

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I left feeling privileged to have seen the work of one of photography’s giants first-hand.


Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow [website]. Available from: http://www.mamm-mdf.ru/en/ [accessed 25.9.15]


Mois de la Photo: making sense of the photograph in the web era

Thanks to the cameraphone, we are drowning in images. Which are important, and what gives them meaning? In Montreal, a group of artists attempt to decide

Source: Mois de la Photo: making sense of the photograph in the web era

This article in the Guardian explains how a Joan Fontcuberta curated expedition will examine the role of the photograph and the photographer in the age of the camera phone and the proliferation of images through the internet. Fontcuberta makes a startling statement:

I think that now most artists adopt  images [ie select from images captured by others] because they don’t pretend to be the biological parents, they just pick those images to make them alive in another context. The importance is how we assign meaning. The craft and authorship of the image are no longer relevant issues, which brings us to the crisis of photography.

This view seems to strike indignation or anger in some photographers (based on comments on Facebook). If Fontcuberta has correctly analysed the condition of photography now, then do photographers face the same crisis that portrait artists faced as photography took over their role in recording information? As the camera-machine made redundant the need for the portrait artist’s technical skills in drawing or painting, does the camera-phone, smart digital technology and the mass of images posted to the internet also make redundant the technical skills of a photographer using a camera? He becomes purely a selector and processor of existing images made by others to express his intention?

As everyone who uses a camera-phone has arguably become a photographer, the meaning of the word photographer has become ambiguous and all-encompassing, becoming too imprecise to carry meaningfulness. I suggest that there is more a crisis in semantics, rather than a crisis in photography itself – photographers using only other people images, are rather editors or curators of photographs, not photographers.


Pett S (2015). The Guardian [online]. Mois de la Photo: making sense of the photograph in the web era (15 September). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/15/mois-de-la-photo-making-sense-photography [accessed 18.9.15]