Category Archives: Section 1

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.