Category Archives: Coursework

The Emperor’s New Clothes

I’m distressed to discover that the notes ask me to consider whether a couple of artworks they have discussed, which have developed from accidental events, are a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

I find the phrase unhelpful at best. In my experience it is normally used as a form of inverted intellectual snobbery by those who don’t wish to consider anything outside of their own narrow frame of reference. It attempts to set the user into an intellectually superior position, where they can clearly see the truth that the deluded other has missed, and so avoids any requirement on the users part to actually engage with the artwork/artist in question. With a few limited exceptions (including that in the original fable) it should be consigned to the same intellectually bankrupt dustbin as ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

The notes ask us to consider  examples of critics with polarised views…but this seems to me a different issue. My experience of critics is that irrespective of their view they have tried to engage with the artwork. That is, after all, their job. Having done that, they are perfectly entitled to consider a work vapid and explain why they think that  – writing it off as the Emperor’s New Clothes without justification strikes me as poor criticism.

So…with that off my chest…we are asked to consider artists who have used  technical mistakes to further their work.

To mind mind there are three possibilities here:

  1. accidents that look interesting – the internet abounds with examples of these but I don’t plan to consider them further. They aren’t art – they’re simply pretty accidents. A more serious example would be Capa’s Normandy Beach photos that were damaged in processing. While the damage actually increased their impact, no attempt was made to replicate it or explore the idea further.
  2. accidents that inspire a line of artistic thought – Graham’s American nights series fits into this category. Graham overexposed an image accidentally, and this triggered a series of ideas that became an artistic concept. This has a long artistic history as a process – Da Vinci is reputed to have said: ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’ (cited in Turner, 2011) and more recently Bacon has expressed a similar idea: “All painting is an accident.  But it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.” (cited in Askey-Adams, 2015) 
  3. accidents that are manufactured for their artistic impact – it is arguable that these are genuine accidents, but it is certainly the case that the outcomes are unpredictable. A photographic example of this would be Moriyama’s Farewell Photography (The Guardian, 2015) and I feel much abstract expressionism would also fit into this category.

In the latter two cases the accidents are integral to the concept…without the accident there would be no artwork. In this sense it is little different from a sculptor using the accident of the grain in the wood to enhance or develop a sculpture – and I doubt anyone would suggest that was cheating.

To quote a paraphrase of Schopenauer: “Discovery is seeing what everyone else sees but thinking what no one else has thought.”  (cited in Quote Investigator, 2015) The creative process, and therefore the genesis of the artwork, is in the thoughts of the artist.

References

Askey-Adams, S., 2015. The Gift of Happy Accidents in Painting | Sharing my Painted Journey. Available at: https://sandyaskeyadams.com/blog/91475/the-gift-of-happy-accidents-in-painting [Accessed March 18, 2017].

The Guardian, 2015. Snatched from the fire: the photos Daido Moriyama rescued from ruin – in pictures | Art and design | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/nov/12/daido-moriyama-fire-flames-farewell-photography-paris-photo-2015 [Accessed March 18, 2017].

Quote Investigator, 2015. Research Is to See What Everybody Else Has Seen and Think What Nobody Has Thought | Quote Investigator. Available at: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/04/seen/ [Accessed March 18, 2017].

Turner, C., 2011. The deliberate accident in art | Tate. Tate Etc: 21. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/deliberate-accident-art [Accessed March 18, 2017].

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Being Frank

Frank is a photo project developed by Alec Soth. It is based on a found photo album containing images made on a trip to Japan in the 50s by an unknown photographer. Soth shared some of the images on his blog/website and sought contributions in the form of user submitted stories to go with the photos.

I find this quite interesting as an artistic idea…it feeds directly into ideas about the death of the author, and as an artistic concept using ready–mades, its genesis can probably be traced back to Duchamp and his urinal. Unlike Duchamp’s urinal however this is a serious work, interogating, as it does, the way we all interpret visual clues in accordance with our own personal baggage.

There is an ethical dimension to consider as well. This is not just our personal baggage. It is, almost literally, someone elses. Do we have the right to repurpose someone elses memories for the sake of art? Especially if that person, through death, or simple ignorance of the activity, is unable to give consent…informed or otherwise.

My initial reaction is that we do…subject to the simple proviso that we are not defaming the individual concerned. If I understand correctly there is no legal protection for the reputation of the dead, but that does not mean we should abandon any sense of ethics when dealing with the materials they leave behind.

In this context I feel the album is different from the Sophie Calle images taken in hotel rooms which I discussed previously. The Calle images were of objects still very much associated with the live individual – they were , to my mind, stolen. The album, by contrast is lost – whether by accident or design – and the link with the original owner is broken.

Soth, A, The Frank Album « Little Brown Mushroom. Available at: http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/blog/the-frank-album/ [Accessed March 18, 2017].

Chance – is it a fine thing?

The supporting notes for Section 3 of BoW start with a discussion of chance in photography, in the context of abandoning yourself to the process…of not starting off with the end too firmly in mind.

In a fairly widely known video clip,  Tim Minchin (Minchin 2013) says:

“…you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”

I have a fairly large measure of sympathy with this assessment. It’s clearly important to have an eye on the big picture, but equally important to allow yourself the freedom to react to the things that are happening around you.

Once again I find the notes unhelpfully people/documentary centric, concentrating as they do on interactions between people and the photogrpaher. As an example to encourage us to think about chance they cite the work of Sophie Calle – especially Please Follow Me, The Hotel and Take Care of Yourself. Clearly, Calle has started these projects with the end in mind – the images she takes of/information she receives from the various random people in these works are clearly chance in that she had no control over what they did..although she clearly has control over what she captured/published.

In what seems like a side issue we are asked if we think her work was deceitful or intrusive. The answer seems pretty self evident..it is yes to both. It is clearly intrusive to secretly photograph people and then publish those images – whether this is good or bad is another issue altogether and depends on our perceptions of the degree of privacy we expect and the frequency and nature of the intrusion. If I were buying some potatoes I doubt I would care about being photographed – if I were engaged in a secret affair I might well feel differently.

Pretending to be a chamber maid made while actually being a ‘working artist’ is clearly a deceit. If they had been my possessions being photographed in my hotel room I would have been a little bit more than annoyed – irrespective of the fact that my ‘hotel possessions’ consist of little more than clothing and photography magazines. Even if she subsequently sought permission to publish it appears to me that such activities simply add weight to the cries for privacy laws which would make art, and especially photography, more difficult for everyone.

That said, there are chance encounters that I might use if they fitted the overall concept of what I was trying to achieve. For example, snatches of conversations I’ve had while out photographing, quotes from unrelated texts that strike a chord with the work, ideas from other artworks – ultimately I think inspiration is a matter of chance, of encountering material that your brain connects to your project in a way that sometimes only you immediately understand.

Minchin, T, 2013. Tim Minchin · Occasional Address. Available at: http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/ [Accessed March 12, 2017].

A touch of Romanticism

Ozymandias and furnace core

Needed to get this one off my chest. One of the feelings I get as I wander around these sites, even the ones which are built over, is “What was it all for?”

This is scarcely original – ruins have been used as a salutary reminder of out short time in the light for a good couple of hundred years, if not more, and the idea of combining this particular bit of romantic poetry with the remains of a blast furnace core is so obvious I need to work it through, if only to prove to myself that I’ve done it and rejected it.

The basic technique however is worth considering. The text colour is similar to an oil paint produced with ore from the Cumbrian iron ore mines, and the supersition onto the original image points , I think, to the absent referent, the iron and steel industry which is no longer there.

After worrying these ideas around in my head for a couple of months, and plenty of research into picturing absence I think I’m beginning to make proper progress.

Conrad Atkinson

Went to Tullie House in Carlisle at the weekend to see “Cumbrian Art: Picturing Places” which featured primarily landscape paintings, and a few photos, from the museums collection, with the emphasis on Cumbrian artists.

In reality I went because my wife had heard there was a large scale painting of the Workington iron and steelworks on display. It turned out to be this one by Conrad Atkinson, an artist I’d not come across before but is apparently quite influential.

What to say about the picture – well first off the online version does not do it justice. It’s too bright and light – the real version is very large and the colours are much heavier, so that the overall effect is quite sombre and overpowering. It’s quite an early example of Atkinson’s work – later works feature words and photos and various differing materials – whereas this is a straight painting. The grasses in the foreground hint at a theme which pops up in some of his later work…the relationship between man and nature in an area known for natural beauty, but in reality heavily industrial in parts.

My interest piqued, I’ve done some internet research and the Tate has another of his pieces which I find more than a little fascinating – For Wordsworth, For West Cumbria – a mixed media piece containing painting, photos, quotes from Wordsworth and iron ore and coal.

This raises a number of questions in my head about how I present my photos, and how I work them to explain why I’m so interested in ex-ironworks sites. Could I, for example, introduce antique postcards of the sites (yes…they exist), incorporate iron ore into the final pieces e.g. by using  Egremont Red pigment in some way or mix the work with quotes from the time about the longevity of the sites or the products.

At last I think some ideas are crystallising.

Bibliography

Anon. (n.d.). Pigment/. [Online]. Available at: http://www.florencepaintmakers.co.uk/the-products/pigment/ [Accessed: 17 March 2016].

Atkinson, C. (1980). For Wordsworth; for west Cumbria. Tate. [Online]. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/atkinson-for-wordsworth-for-west-cumbria-t03229 [Accessed: 17 March 2016].

Atkinson, C. (1940). Workington Steelworks. ARTUK. [Online]. Available at: http://artuk.org/discover/artworks/workington-steelworks-144111/search/actor:atkinson-conrad-b-1940/view_as/grid/page/1 [Accessed: 17 March 2016].

Tullie House, (2016). Cumbrian art: Picturing places. [Online]. Available at: http://www.tulliehouse.co.uk/events/cumbrian-art-picturing-places [Accessed: 17 March 2016].

Conceptual Photography

The course notes ask for a paragraph on our understanding of the term “conceptual photography”. The trite answer would be it’s about photography with ideas, but simple reflection suggest that even the most humble snap is covered by this category – the idea was that I wanted a photo of my cat to load up to Facebook!!

A more useful answer…to me at least…is that it is photography where the content of the photo, and the technique, are subservient to the idea.

So Ansel Adams is not conceptual photography…yes , he had ideas about conservation and grandeur, but his images were about mountains or lakes, and his photography was about technique. Note that I’m not suggestin gthis is in any way bad…simply not conceptual.

On the other hand..if we take Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills series the work is obviously about something other than taking a selfie while acting out a movie role. The critique of women’s typical film roles is the driving force – not the images themselves, technically excellent though they are.

An even more extreme example can be found in BJP Dec 2015, which shows one of Eric Kessel’s “In Almost Every Picture” series. Featuring a series of beach portraits with the heads and upper bodys neatly removed the images invite us to explore other ways of understaning portraits than the face alone, and Kessel argues that it should even question where the end of photography lies.

So to summarise..conceptual photography…it’s first and foremost about the idea not the image.

Psychogeography

The course notes as us to consider whether, in the context of psychogeography, it is possible to produce an objective depiction of place and if that matters.This seems to me to beg two sub-questions:

  • What is “objective”?
  • What is “place”?

Objective first. We perhaps have a general, lay, understanding of what constitutes objective – typically ideas of neutrality, presenting the facts and nothing but the facts etc – ideas which are frequently discounted by modern thoughts on documentary. Ed Ruscha’s “Every building on sunset strip” may be as close at it is possible to get to this idea, in that it reproduces each and every building in much the same way, without seeking to omit information. But in the final account, is it really objective…why did he choose to photograph it that way? Sunset strip was hardly un-photographed….his decision to examine its banality is subjective in itself.

Similarly Joel Sternfield’s “Walking the High Line” adopts a neutral tone so it could be seen as objective, although the pictures are much more obviously composed than Ruscha’s.

But does this matter? The second question “What is place?” comes in to play at this point. Is Ruscha’s image of “place” or simply “location”?

For example, had Debra Fabricius photographed every meter of the canal she walked it would have been location, but she has chosen particular images, which makes it her location  – or more accurately – place. In her words she documents the stories revealed to her by the canal. In a different context, land art, which seems at first glance to have some relationship with psychogeography, Bender, Hamilton and Tilley (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/leskernick/articles/art/text/art06.htm ) say “Static, set in place, its meaning and identity is not transferable to another location: the place is the work and the work is the place.” Sternfield’s High Line and Fabricius’ Urban Drift are place…their meaning cannot be transferred elsewhere.

The second part of the exercise is to consider if this matters? It seems to me this is so self-evidently a “no” that is almost not worth asking. Completely objective “location” is soul-less – sterile. Consider Google maps, or Google Street View. They become interesting in more than a “simple curiosity” way only when someone does a subjective data trawl.e.g. Marion Balac’s Anonymous Gods (cited in BJP, Dec 2015). Without subjectivity place is simply location – it is our relationship with location that makes it place.

It does not matter that perfect objectivity is not possible – because perfect objectivity is simply dull. To quote the blurb from “Why it does not have to be in focus” Photography long ago ceased to be exclusively a medium for accurately portraying what is in front of the photographer”.

On a slightly unrelated note the broader interpretation of psychogeography covered in these notes makes it far more interesting than I initially thought, and certainly more so than Coverley’s rather dry, metrocentric analysis.