Lifting the Curtain – Photographic Influences

Posted on October 22, 2014

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As a photographic work, ‘Lifting the Curtain’ is multilayered. At its heart it is essentially documentary. The photographs record the urban landscape of East London as it is today but also evoke as sense of the past, revealing remnants of older phases of urban development mixed in with present day architecture, signage and  ‘street furniture’.

It is also a conceptual work. By choosing locations visited by Charles Booth and his associates when conducting their socio-cultural survey in late Victorian times  and by juxtaposing historic texts from Booth’s survey with the photographs I make direct reference to the past. My intention is to draw attention to the transient nature of the urban scene in East London and at the same time to engage the viewer/reader in imagining the past events and to invite them to consider a range of social issues – both past and present.

My decision to shoot at night and in the early morning is also part of the conceptual framework. The absence of people and the dramatic lighting give the images the feel of an ’empty theatrical stage’ onto which I invite the viewer to project the scenes witnessed by Booth (as set out in his texts). The absence of people and deep shadows in the photographs also serve as metaphors for the transience of life and people past and give the work a psychological charge. (the link between shadows and the past is echoed in the East London scene by Horace’s quotation ‘Umbra Sumus’ or ‘We are Shadows’ which is to be found on a plaque above the entrance to the former Huguenot Church (now Mosque) on Brick Lane in Spitalfields).

Given the multilayered nature of the work it is perhaps not surprising that I have been influenced by both documentary and conceptual photographers/artists. I have set out my thoughts on these influences below with reference to documentary, conceptual and aesthetic considerations.

Documentary Influences

A key early influence, which perhaps set me on the path to making ‘Lifting the Curtain’, was Joel Sternfeld’s ‘On this Site’. (1) Sternfeld describes the work as documenting a “list of places [he] cannot forget because of the tragedies that identify them.” (2) Sternfeld revisited places where these tragedies, such as murders and environmental disasters, took place and photographed the scenes, which most often bears little evidence of what took place there. The photographs are shown alongside brief somewhat terse texts which explain what happened at each location. The juxtaposition of the text invites the audience to engage with the photographs as memorials to the past events and to use their imagination to visualise what took place there. My idea to re-photograph scenes of past events and to juxtapose the photographs with texts explaining what happened there first came from reading Sternfeld’s book.

Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993 (courtesy of Joel Sternfeld)

Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993 (copyright Joel Sternfeld)

I have researched other photographers who have made similar work to Sternfeld’s. Three works in particular have influenced my thinking – David Gillanders’ uncivilised, Simon Norfolk’s Bleed and Choloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn. 

David Gillander’s is a Scottish documentary photographer who has made much work in and around Glasgow. In 2008 his project on knife crime in Glasgow won a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. The photographs in this work, which was about knife crime in Glasgow, were very graphic and spurred much debate about whether such images should be published (they appeared in the press). As a result Gillanders decided to find a different way to present the same story. He ‘took a step back from [his] initial approach and tried to make a complementary series of images which were less graphic in content, but equally powerful’. (3) The result is his work ‘uncivilised’ which is a series of photographs of the places where murders took place. The images were combined with with text from court transcripts and newspaper articles. Gillanders’ texts are narratives which describe sequences of events. Whilst the images do not show any traces of what took place there, the texts prompt the viewer’s imagination to visualise the gruesome scenes. The images are in black and white and are dark and moody. The text and image is presented side by side as part of the same panel and the text is styled to look like the font of a typewriter, referencing the official source of the material. A number of elements from Gillanders work gave me food for thought, in particular his ideas of including the text alongside the image as a single integrated artwork, using stylised text font to reference its source and his decision to use a moody aesthetic for the photograph to engage the viewer psychologically.

uncivilised Copyright David Gillanders

uncivilised (copyright David Gillanders)

Simon Norfolk’s Bleed is about the ethnic cleansing which took place in Bosnia in the 1990s. (4) A peculiar feature of this war was that those committing these atrocities were very aware that they could well be brought to account for their ‘war crimes’. Many of the victims of the mass killings were moved from their initial burial places to secondary sites, in an effort to cover up the crimes. Norfolk revisited and photographed  known sites of secondary mass graves. The photographs are accompanied by extended captions which explain what happened at these sites. Many of the photographs are close ups of patterns in the frozen ice and snow of the landscape. There is no evidence of  the past events. Norfolk plays on the idea that the lack of evidence in the photographs is a metaphor for the way in which the perpetrators sought to hide their crimes. In Norfolk’s work the images and text are not bound together in the same way as the image/text panels of Gillanders. In his case the texts appear as captions which in the book are shown at the end. What I learned from Norfolk’s work was that even a photograph of a scene which is essentially an abstract landscape can serve as a site of contemplation for past events and that photographs can serve as powerful metaphors for complex ideas.

Bleed book cover (copyright  Simon Norfolk)

Bleed book cover (copyright Simon Norfolk)

Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn is a more recent work published in 2014.(5)  In this series of photographs/texts Mathews revisits sites where recaptured deserters were shot during the First World War. The photographs are accompanied by texts giving the location, the names of the soldiers executed and the time and date of the execution. As with the works of the other photographers above, there is little or no trace of the executions in the present day photographs. I recently had the benefit of listening to Mathews speak at the Brighton Photo Biennial. She talked about how we project what we know about a place into an image and search for signs of these associations. She also commented that the absence of people in the images speaks to the absence/death of the people fatally connected to these places. The multilayered nature of her work is something which I am seeking to achieve with ‘Lifting the Curtain’. I was also interested in the way she has chosen to present the work. In her book for example a great deal of space is given over to the text to avoid it being swamped by the larger, colourful photographs. She places the text on the right hand pages of the book. This unconventional approach ensures that the text is the first thing that the reader sees. I plan to re-examine Mathews approach to presentation in Assignment Five for YOP which will deal with the question of presentation of my work.

Six Farm, Loker, West-Vlaanderen Private Joseph Byers and Private Andrew Evans (06 February 1915, time unknown); Private George E Collins (15 February 1915 at 7.30am)

Six Farm, Loker, West-Vlaanderen
Private Joseph Byers and Private Andrew Evans (06 February 1915, time unknown); Private George E Collins (15 February 1915 at 7.30am) (copyright Chloe Dewe Mathews)

Conceptual Photography Influences

As I said at the beginning of this post, it is my intention that ‘Lifting the Curtain’ invites the viewer to consider a range of social issues. As such I decided to research the work of conceptual photographers working with image/text who explore political, social and cultural questions.

I started with Victor Burgin, who was an early practitioner in this genre, but I found his work very complex and difficult. Much of his work requires a prior knowledge of his references to enable the work to be understood in his terms (albeit understanding the work in his terms is not a necessary requirement). His work frequently references Freud for example. Looking at Burgin’s work made me realise that there is a risk with conceptual work that the viewer/reader will get lost and give up.

I moved on from Burgin to consider the work of other artists and have been most influenced by the work of Karen Knorr and Anna Fox.

Karen Knorr has been a practicing photographer in the UK since the early 1970s. Her work in the late 1970s and early 80s was concerned primarily with class relations and cultural values. Belgravia (1979-1981) for example is a ‘series of black and white photographs with ironic and humorous texts that highlighted aspirations, lifestyle and the British class system under the neo liberalist Thatcher era in the late 70’s and early 80’s’ (6)  Her series Gentlemen (1981-1983), which was photographed in Saint James’s clubs in London investigates the patriarchal and conservative values of Britain at the time of the Falklands war. These series are highly effective because of the subtle interplay and resonances between image and text. Knorr’s work is not concerned with the places depicted in her photographs, but rather what they stand for and the values and aspirations of the people associated with such places.

The images and text are shown on single panels with the image at the top and text below. Ample space is allowed for the text which operates in relay with the images to conjure up narratives and dialogues. Knorr works on the presentation of the text so that emphasis is placed on key words and phrases. She does this by the way she breaks up the text, line by line, by her choice of font and by choosing to use capital letters for certain words. In Gentlemen Knorr constructed the texts from parliamentary speeches and news reports, refashioning them to convey her intentions.

Gentlemen (copyright Karen Knorr)

Gentlemen (copyright Karen Knorr)

Anna Fox is another British conceptual/documentary photographer who in her early career worked extensively with image and text. She too was concerned with social issues and cultural values. Her series Work Stations for example tackled the highly competitive nature of work in Thatcher’s Britain. (7) Her series My Mother’s Cupboards I found particularly interesting. This small work is about the claustrophobic relationship between her mother and father. Fox’s approach to presenting such a complex and intangible subject is both effective and amusing. She juxtaposes quotations from her father with photographs of excessively fastidious drawers and cupboards maintained by her mother. Her father’s words are generally outrageous and often profane. The photographs are quiet, neat and ordered. The violent quotations are presented in a florid italic font which is presented in silver, rather like on a wedding invitation. This lures in the unwitting reader, only to find that the words are most often a violent invective. The work is presented as a small book and a great deal of space is allocated for the text. The images are small and in a way appear to be dominated by the text. All of this conveys much about the relationship between Fox’s two parents.

My Mothers Cupboards (copyright Anna Fox)

My Mothers Cupboards (copyright Anna Fox)

My research of the work of Knorr and Fox has demonstrated how through considered use of image and text it is possible to convey intangible ideas and raise questions about cultural and social values and to present an open dialogue requiring the active involvement of audience to create meaning. I also learned that for image/text works to be successful, careful consideration needs to be given to the spacial relationship between the image and text in such works and fine details such as how the text is divided up and the nature of the font used.

Aesthetic Influences

I have taken a conscious decision to make images that are visually compelling. People viewing them have called them ‘beautiful’ but I am not sure that I would use that term.  Some feel that it is inappropriate to use ‘beautiful’ images for  subjects dealing with human tragedy  and such like. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought. My sense is that one can only communicate if one gains the attention of the viewer/reader and that a key tool that the photographer has to achieve this end is to produce images which are aesthetically strong.

Also as I indicated above I have consciously decided to shoot at night or early morning which gives the images a chiaroscuro appearance with areas of deep shadow. I have done this deliberately to convey mood and to enhance the psychological engagement of the viewer with the images. Other photographers have employed this approach and have influenced my thinking on these matters.

Simon Norfolk has again been a particular influence. In his work Burke and Norfolk he shot many of the photographs in the early morning light giving them  a blue tone, which one gets from making photographs during twilight. (8) He has expressed the view that this is a deliberate strategy which represents ‘an expression of disappointment: he sees a country laid to waste by 10 years of futile occupation, and he sees the violent imposition of imperialist values’. (9) Norfolk’s use of the blue morning light is what Barthes calls ‘Photogenia’ (embellishment of photographs through lighting, exposure and printing). Barthes refers to ‘ Photogenia’ as one of the connotation procedures used by photographers to create meaning.

A security guard's booth at the newly restored Ikhtyaruddin citadel, Herat  Burke and Norfolk (copyright Simon Norfolk)

A security guard’s booth at the newly restored Ikhtyaruddin citadel, Herat – Burke and Norfolk (copyright Simon Norfolk)

Another photographer who has made photographic series involving night-time photography  to convey mood is Todd Hido. In his series House Hunting Hido presents a series of photographs of apparently innocuous houses.(10)  The images were all made at night and the benign houses are transformed into psychologically charged places. There is a sinister feeling about the photographs which is hard to place and the lights in the houses invite speculation about what is going on in there – behind closed doors. Perhaps I have been too influenced by the Film Noir aesthetic in my childhood!

House Hunting (copyright Todd Hido)

House Hunting (copyright Todd Hido)

 

1)   Sternfeld J. (2012) On This Site Gottingen: Steidl

2)   Levitt L. (2006) Photography, Memory, and Tragedy: Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site The Punctum Available from: http://documentaryworks.org/punctum/onthissite.htm [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

3)   Gillanders D. (2008) uncivilised Available from: http://www.davidgillanders.com/documentary/uncivilised/ [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

4)   Norfolk S. (2005) Bleed Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

5)   Dewe Mathews C. (2014) Shot at Dawn Madrid: Ivorypress

6)  Knorr K. About Karen Knorr Website Available from: http://karenknorr.com/about/ [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

7)  Fox A. Work Stations Anna Fox Website Available from: http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/workstations/ [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

8)   Norfolk S. (2011) Burke +Norfolk Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

9)  Guner F. (2011) Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern Available from: http://www.theartsdesk.com/visual-arts/burke-norfolk-photographs-war-afghanistan-tate-modern [Accessed on: 22nd October 2014]

10)  Hido T. (2001) House Hunting Portland: Nazraeli Press

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