I have not posted for a while but have been quietly thinking about how I will take forward my work on my final course Photography 3: Your Own Porfolio. The course is more structured than the Advanced module. I will be required to undertake a number of projects, a written critical review and a major project which will be passed to my tutor bit by bit in three assignments. There is a risk with this structure that my work could become fragmented – something which I do not want to happen. So I have decided that I will use the written critical review to explore a theme within photography and to use this theme as the basis for all the photographic work I undertake during the course. This will give cohesion to my photographic practice and result in a stronger presentation of my work for ultimate assessment for my degree.
During the Advanced module my focus was on ‘Disarming the pose’ which was an investigation into strategies which photographers use to divert portrait subjects from overt self conscious posing. Barthes observations on his own response when faced with having his portrait made were the source of this idea. (see my previous post on this here).
In my recent posts I have expressed an interest in furthering my exploration of portraiture by investigating the question of how context informs the reading of a portrait. My project ‘Women and Landscape’ is specifically aimed at this. (see here). My thinking on what shape this project will take is evolving and will continue to do so as I make further portraits.
The recent meeting of the Thames Valley OCA group has also been very useful in helping me to develop my thinking on how I want to take my work forward. The meeting took as a text for discussion Martha Rosler’s ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’. This work is essentially a critique of Modernist social documentary and uses a combination of image and text. What struck me most about this work by Rosler was the way in which image and text can work together to generate questions in the mind of the spectator (rather than simply close down how the image/text should be interpreted – as in the case of advertising). I will present a detailed review of Rosler’s work at a later stage on this blog.
This discussion has lead me to read more widely on the question of the ‘adequacy’ of photography as a medium for unambiguous representation. My starting point for this was Bertolt Brecht’s oft quoted statement:
“The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations—the factory, say—means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed.”
This was quoted by Benjamin in ‘A Short History of Photography’ and he goes on to make his own observation on the mutability of photographic meaning and the need for associative text:
“One thing, however, neither Wiertz nor Baudelaire grasped and that is the possibilities which lie in the very authenticity of photography. This authenticity cannot forever be circumvented by the reportage of cliche which forms only verbal associations in the reader. The camera becomes smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture transitory and secret pictures which are able to shock the associative mechanisms of the observer to a standstill. At this point the caption must step in, thereby creating a photography which literalises the relationships of life and without which photographic construction would remain stuck in the approximate.”
It seems to me that Modernist documentary took an opposite view to this. There was a belief in the single image with little or not associative textual information. Photography was seen as a universal language capable of being read by all. Robert Frank’s seminal work ‘The Americans’ is constructed on this premise.
Other critical thinkers have also engaged with this issue. Allan Sekula, who sadly recently died, was a leading figure. Barthes also explored the relationship between text and image in essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’. There seems to be plenty of critical meat to get into here.
My current thinking is that I will explore the issue of photographic meaning and how this is influenced by associating an image with other images and with text as the theme for my critical study.
As to my photographic work, I plan to continue with my ‘Women and Landscape’ project as this fully consistent with my focus on exploring photographic meaning. I also plan to continue my work documenting London’s East End. The scope/theme for this work has to date been very open and has run along the lines of:
‘My aim is to document the East End as it is today in a way which alludes to its history and character. The photographs are a mixture of urban landscapes and portraits. In the landscapes I am trying to include references to the past within the present day scene. The portraits illustrate the diversity of the population, which in itself directly links to the history of the place.’
This is very open ended and its relationship with my general theme around photographic meaning is not clear. I have decided to redefine the work to be about ‘Immigration and the East End’. The location has for centuries a destination for those fleeing persecution and seeking opportunity.
Some time ago whilst walking around Bethnal Green I came across this graffiti:
It occured to me that this might make a suitable title for the work: “ALWAYS FOLLOW UR DREAMS!! – Traces of Immigration in London’s East End”. For now I will use it as my working title.
I see the work as a series of urban landscapes, building facades, interiors and portraits. The landscapes/facades/interiors will be of sites of significance in the history of immigration in the East End. The photographs of these places as they are today will bear little trace of what has taken place there. I plan to photograph in the early morning or late evening capturing each scene without people which will in a sense offer up an empty stage – a site for contemplation. For each photograph there will be an associated text. The text will refer to the history of the place and is intended as an autonomous piece of information to be read alongside the photograph. I want to avoid the text anchoring the image/text combination to a closed meaning. Rather I want the juxtaposition of text and image to open up new questions in the mind of the viewer. Here is a possible example – it is a photograph of a house facade in Fournier Street, Spitalfields. This will not be one of my final images but is a first attempt at trying out the concept:
For the portraits I would hope to find suitable subjects who can trace their ancestry to East End immigrants. In some cases this will be in the distant past and in others very recent. I would hope to interview the subjects to find out more about where their family came from originally and how they came to in the UK. The text associated with the portrait would be constructed to provide information about the circumstances of the family’s emigration to the UK. I hope that this will result in the portraits being read not just as a representations of a present day people but also as representations of their families and others of their race who have taken the brave decision to emigrate to London’s East End . How effective this will be I don’t know at this stage. As with other work I have done. The ideas I present in this post are a starting point. If past experience is anything to go by things will evolve as I go along.
Gaining access to building interiors to make photographs, for example the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Mosque or 19 Princelet Street (the Museum of Immigration), is likely to prove problematic. So too will be finding subjects for the portrait series. So my thinking is that to begin with I will focus on the urban landscapes and building facades to test out the concept and to produce a portfolio of work. Once I am satisfied that I have work of quality I will then approach a number of organisations to try to gain their support. In particular the Museum of Immigration and Spitalfields Life could be useful allies, if I can demonstrate to them the quality and value of my work. This approach will I hope enable me to open doors. This approach also sits comfortably with the phased approach recommended by the YOP course documentation.