Anna Fox – OCA Study Group

Posted on May 8, 2014

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Yesterday I attended an OCA Study Group in the OCA Farnham, where Anna Fox gave a presentation about her photography.

Prior to the event, we had been advised to review Anna’s website here and a recent interview she gave published on American Suburb X here. These also serve as a reference point for my thoughts on the talk below.

Anna is the Professor of Photography at OCA Farnham, so we were very privileged to have her talk to us. She explained how she developed an early interest in photography as her father was a documentary photographer. As a child she formed an early view that Brassai and Cartier Bresson were for her and that Atget was not. She studied photography at Farnham coming under the influence of Martin Parr and Paul Graham. Her use of colour and fascination with documenting contemporary society seems to emanate from these influences. That said she has a clear and distinctive style of her own.

Her presentation was a review of some of her most significant works which she further illustrated by passing around copies of her books. Her starting point was her first major commission undertaken in 1987, Work Stations This is described as a ‘study of London office life in the late 80’s, a critical observation of the highly competitive character of working life in Thatcher’s Britain’. It is a series of photographs of scenes from office life at that time. Whilst compiling the series of photographs Anna independently collected texts from a variety of sources. These were related  the highly competitive, status ridden, ‘survival of the fittest’ nature of the working environment at that time. Having edited her photographs Anna then matched her images with texts to create a work which is a highly politicised critique of society under Thatcher.

I was very interested in the way in which Anna used text with the images as this has significant resonance with my East End work. Interestingly she did not obtain copyright agreement for quotations from published sources, although she did in each case reference the source of the quote (to give it documentary legitimacy). Her aim was not for the text to illustrate the image or vice versa rather for the text to act in relay (per Barthes) and to stimulate new meanings and narratives. She also explained that she saw the text as part of the work not as caption information.

Next Anna went on to talk about a new project she is working on about leisure in France, Loisirs. In this work she has adopted the practice of creating digital collages of anything up to 30 images of the same scene, shot within a 1-4 hour period. By doing so she introduces new people and narratives into the mise-en-scene. Sometimes the same person or people appear more than once. This approach introduces an explicit time dimension into her work. When questioned as to whether this approach was consistent with her statement that she is interested in documentary truth, she expressed the view that she saw no inconsistency. She emphasised the difference between photographs as documents (passport photos, crime photos and so on) and documentary photography, which is inevitably subjective. The photographer chooses what to include in the frame, when to shoot, the point of view, the lens, the lighting etc.. By deliberately manipulating the images, and stating that she has done so, she feels that she is able to draw attention to this subjectivity.

Anna often works with a large format 5×4 camera. She likes the quality of the film and the format enables her to produce very detailed large prints. She often work simultaneously with medium format digital cameras (Hasselblad’s). She has found that working with the large camera and a production crew, lends a gravitas to the work and encourages her subjects (who are just members of the public) to work with her. It makes them feel important and they take her seriously rather than dismissing her as a snapshot photographer (Tom Hunter makes the same point about his use of large format). She also believes in giving recognition to her crew members, book designers, curators and so on.

Restort 1 and Resort2  were both series made at Butlins and were forerunners to the French project. The photographs  are in strong colour. Many were made using her process of digital collage and they were printed very large. She described the challenges of working with sponsors who want to step in and edit her photographic selections. She made a very clear distinction between working on a commercial commission(where the art director edits the photographs) and an art commission (where the artist/photographer maintains editorial control).

Anna went on to talk about some of her earlier work such as My Mother’s Cupboards, Country Girls, The Village, Cockroach Diary and 41 Hewitt Road. These are all a much more personal form of documentary, all of which combine images and text. What was most striking for me about these works was the way in which the final form of presentation is designed to fit the particular piece of work. The projects are ‘joined up’ from production to presentation.

My Mother’s Cupboard is a good example. She describes the work as ‘Colour photographs of my mother’s tidy cupboards together with excerpts from my father’s rantings’. The work explores her family relations in a unique, amusing yet thought provoking way (I for one found echoes of my family life in the work). The photographs are ordered, tidy, calm and yet the texts of her father’s rantings are violent, abusive, explosive. The juxtaposition of the two has a shock value which makes one think about what goes on in families. To further this shock value Anna produced the work as a small pink soft bound book. It looks so gentle, calming and benign, almost like a prayer book. The texts are placed opposite the images. They are in an ornate font, printed very small and light. You have to strain to read them and when you do manage to comprehend what is being said they jump out at you!  This is really well designed and thought out. Certainly something for me to think about!

Anna’s work is very varied and she doesn’t seem to have stood still for long. Quite an inspiration.

So what did I take from Anna’s presentation:

  1. Be prepared to experiment with new approaches, don’t stand still,
  2. Documentary doesn’t  just mean document,
  3. You can make something really interesting work about small things around you,
  4. Text and images can work very well as integrated artworks (so I should persist with my ideas on YOP),
  5. Presentation is as important as the photography/texts themselves. Maximise impact through a thoughtful and integrated approach.

An excellent and worthwhile afternoon.

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