Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Study Visit – Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool

This was my first visit to the Open Eye Gallery.  It is a smart, modern, relatively new gallery space, perhaps on the small side but certainly adequate for the shows we say on Saturday.

Liverpool One - above the Open Eye

There were two exhibitions:

Mishka Henner

The works on show comprised:

·         A selection of his books, and those of other artists relating to image appropriation;
·         A selection of images from his ‘Less Americains’ book, presented as framed prints on the wall;
·         Extracts from his ‘Photography is ...’ book, presented as a single, continuous text print on the wall;
·         3 pieces from his new work ‘Precious Commodities’.

It was the latter that interested me most, but a word about 'Less Americains' first.  This was originally created as a book, based on Robert Frank’s 'Les Americains'; and I have to say that, for me, it works better in that form.  On the wall, the selection of 12 or so prints demonstrated the graphic qualities of Henner’s ‘reduced’ versions of the originals, but I’m not sure they achieved a lot more.  The concept of manipulating an iconic photobook in this way is a clever one and well-executed.  The witty title and the fact that Henner’s outcome (as a book) is, genuinely, new and different from the original, makes it an interesting and worthy piece of work.  It subverts the value of the iconic image; causes us to look afresh at both versions; and, like most appropriation art, it questions the whole idea of authorship.  But, even as a book, I’m not sure that it stands up successfully on its own.  Maybe it is only of ‘value’ through its relationship with the original?  And, on this gallery wall, the selection of prints does not, for me, move things on any further, maybe is even a step backwards from the book concept.

‘Precious Commodities’ is another thing altogether.  There were four pieces on show, all appropriated via the internet and created from aerial views of oilfields and cattle feed lots in the USA – highly processed, printed to a very high standard, and presented as large-scale colour images.

The main piece comprised around 12 square prints, which seem to come from this body of work - Pumped.  These were ‘nailed’ to the wall, in a grid, to form one single piece, perhaps 3-4 metres by 2-3 metres.  As is clear from the images in the link, the ‘marks’  around these oil wells form patterns, broken occasionally by small rectangular spaces where buildings/wells appear in sharp black, almost as if they have been drawn in with a brush or pen.  The high quality/contrast nature of the colour prints seems to give them a surface texture – resembling stone, or textiles, or an oil painting.  And, standing back to look at the complete work, that is what it most resembles – an abstract oil painting onto which small pen/brush drawings have been added.  (I was reminded of watching Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Rijksmuseum He became hugely enthused – and rightly so – by computer scans that brought up, in fine relief, the surface of Rembrandt’s paintings.)

Of course, these images (all of which can be seen here) are, potentially, pointing to issues about the environment, land use, food production, and so on.  But one can read the exhibition titles, and the artworks, in another way, I think.  For me, they also seem to be about form; about appropriation; about taking worthless, insignificant ‘bits’ of digital information and turning them into a work of art on a gallery wall.  Yes, the oil, the cattle, the land etc are all ‘precious commodities’, but the title also seems to refer to the perceived value, added by Henner, in turning something meaningless into a work of art.  The use of the word ‘commodity’ refers to the questionable commoditisation of art by the art market.  Does Henner wish to sell these images – presumably (and rightly) so.  Then he is knowingly participating in a market that attaches monetary value to creativity and so the work, perhaps, raises and explores the question of whether the ‘market’ is an appropriate mechanism for determining the ‘preciousness’ of the creative ‘commodity’.  I liked these works a lot; they fascinated me and drew me in to explore their form in detail.  I feel that Henner, too, is fascinated by what he can do with the original, meaningless digital information he harvests from the Internet.

I would also draw comparisons with two other artists that I have discussed previously in this blog – Penelope Umbrico’s Flickr Sunsets and Edward Burtynsky’s Oil.  Umbrico’s appropriated work seems to touch on the same issue of taking the insignificant and meaningless, harvesting the digital crops, and turning them into something meaningful and of ‘perceived’ value.  Burtynsky is another who explores the questions of land use, environment, etc through high-aesthetic images on a gallery wall.  Unlike Burtynsky’s work, Henner’s seems to step right away from the notion of ‘documentary’.  It is not clear what is being presented in the images and, whilst they might lead the viewer to ask the questions, there is also a sense in which they fascinate by their form more than their content.  Are they conceptual pieces, exploring what they are as art rather than what they show of the world?  I think, perhaps, so; and it is probably a sign of that fact that I have, personally, moved on somewhat in my reading and interpretation of images that I read, appreciate, and enjoy them in just that way.

Edith Tudor-Hart

The other exhibition at the Open Eye was quite a contrast - 'Quiet Radicalism'.  Quite a small show, from the Open Eye’s archives, it comprised, perhaps, 15-20 black and white prints, in simple black frames, mainly from her 1930’ photographs of Vienna, London and South Wales, but also including 3 or 4 from 1940/50s.  The interest, here, is as much around her motives and her background as it is about the images themselves.  She came from the ‘committed left’, a communist sympathiser, born in Austria but living in the UK, and connected with the Philby/Blunt Soviet spy ring.  The question was raised, towards the end of our viewing, as to whether or not we ‘liked’ them, with a suggestion that some people ‘dislike’ them because of their association with her political stance and her spying.

For me, they fall into the category of 20s/30s/40s black and white documentary photography, which includes the FSA, Bill Brandt, and so on; and they are ‘typical’.  (There might be formal differences e.g. several images are taken from and elevated viewpoint, which can be compared with Soviet photographer Rodchenko.)  With the benefit of hindsight, one might question whether these images, and those of other comparable documentary photographers, actually made a difference to anything; and there is a sense in which they become historical archives of what the period looked like.  Except that they aren’t of course, because life went on in colour!  Coincidentally, I was flicking through the Sunday Times next day, and came across this colour image of Paris 1944.  How would we read this image differently if it was in black and white?

So – a good visit – I am pleased to have seen the new Mishka Henner work, and it is of immense value to meet and chat with fellow students and two OCA tutors.  Many thanks to Peter H and Keith R for their input.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Exercise – An essay on reviewing photographs

This exercise focuses on an essay in ‘The Photography Reader’, published by Routledge, editor Liz Wells.  It is by Liz Wells herself, and entitled – ‘WORDS AND PICTURES: On reviewing photography’; an essay that, she explains in the opening sentence, has its origins in a piece written in 1992 for a newsletter targeted at ‘photo practitioners’ in the south-west of Britain.

What is the basic argument of Well’s essay?

It is that the challenges of writing about photography are even more complex in the post (post?) modern cultural context and in light of digital developments.  The first context dismantles the former hierarchies of critical authority, whilst the second opens up more diverse space within which the discourse is conducted.  Whilst that fluidity is to be welcomed, she argues, it doesn’t alter the fundamental responsibilities of the critic and even, insofar as criticism may be more subjective and value-driven, puts additional responsibility on the critic to acknowledge his/her subjectivity and values.

Is the essay’s title a fair indication of the essay itself?

I think the essential ‘message’ here is that a title is to be read in relation to context as well as content.  Taken totally out of context (a bit unlikely), the title might be interpreted as referring to an instructive and informative piece on the approach to ‘reviewing photographs’ and relating words to photographic images; whereas it is actually a reflection on the challenges facing critical reviewers in the late 20th century.  In that sense, I guess the title could have been more specific.  But, she does explain its origins in a piece for photo practitioners and it does, here, appear in a Photography Reader, within a chapter entitled ‘Contexts: gallery, museums, education, archive’.

To what extent does the writer rely on Postmodernist doctrine?

If one reads the underlying and fundamental message to be that the critic still has a ‘responsibility’ in reviewing photographs, and that aspects the that responsibility remain beyond the emergence of postmodernist thinking, then it might be argued that this does not, wholly, rely on the doctrine itself.  Insofar as the new challenged she identifies for the reviewer are partially related to technological developments, those conclusions too might be reached without reference to postmodernism (though the doctrines do, in part, take account of and incorporate that breaking down of hierarchical structures through, for example, diverse communications channels).  However, much of her fundamental argument seems to centre around the additional challenges and responsibilities faced by critics since “Postmodern theory insisted that things are fluid, things fall apart, there is no centre” (page 433, final paragraph). In other words postmodernist doctrines supply the crucial underlying context within which much of her argument is developed.

The essay raises the issue of the qualifications and duties of a critic.  How important do you believe it is for a critic of photography to have deep knowledge of the practice of photography?

Wells does have something to say about the qualifications and duties of a critic (perhaps more about the duties than the qualifications).  Responsibilities include – feedback to the artist; the historical marking of particular exhibitions or events; engagement within debates about ideas and practices; mediating work to a broader public.  She goes on to say that, for critics to be constructive, they also need to be self-analytical, paying attention to the implications of what they are saying, and not simply reproducing established assumptions.  That means they must also acknowledge subjectivity, political tendencies, assumptions about readers, and even mood on a particular day.  Good writing, she says, involves knowing what they value and why they value it.  She acknowledges that most critics are driven by a fascination with their subject.

However, she also quotes Bill Jay’s views about criticism – revealing (according to Wells) his conservatism.  According to Wells’ version of Bill Jay’s view, criticism should introduce photographers you didn’t know about; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place images in a historical context; place them in context of the artist’s culture; and throw light on process.  This, we are told, demands superior knowledge and insight.  The critic’s writing should be informative, elevating and useful.

So – Wells is presenting us with two quite different views – Jay’s ‘traditional’ conservative view of the critic’s (more limited and specific) role and her own, broader, more fluid definition, which incorporates the postmodernist doctrines mentioned above.

A thorough answer to the question posed would require some definition of what is meant by ‘deep knowledge’ and ‘the practice of photography’.  The former might include some/all of photographic history; art history; visual culture; in-depth awareness of the photographer, his/her background, purpose/intent, previous work, relation to other contemporary practice; sound knowledge of photographic process (technical and creative); broad understanding of cultural/political context; depth of knowledge about curatorial practice; a thorough appreciation of the art market; and so on and so forth!  One might argue that the best critical writer will have all or most of the above, and more.  A ‘professional writer’, one might say, should be striving to bring an up-to-date knowledge of all that is relevant to his/her writing about photography, whilst, ideally, retaining some degree of independent thinking, originality of view, and personal passion for their subject.

At another extreme, though, anyone can, to an extent, read and critique a visual text.  Wells’ article is certainly directed towards the ‘serious’ critic/reviewer, but, if we accept the notion that postmodern thinking shifts the creative process towards the ‘reader’, perhaps any response is a valid one and we are all, potentially, critics.  Herein, I guess, comes the notion of hierarchy, values and, potentially, the market.  Is any critical writer, fundamentally, and whatever independence they claim or maintain, essentially imbuing the subject of their writing with value, by which, potentially, the creator of the work gains commercial advantage.  In a capitalist system, the critic (along with the gallerist, curator, museum, academic etc) is playing a ‘market-making’ role.  Developing a ‘depth of knowledge of the practice of photography’ may well involve a thorough ‘steeping’ in everything that is ‘current’, and is likely to involve the critic getting very close to the ‘players’ in this market place, which can be exactly the approach that maintains the hierarchies and structures against which postmodernism appears to ‘rail’.

If the definition of ‘deep knowledge of the practice of photography’ is a narrow one – implying, in essence, (as might be inferred from Bill Jay’s view, as represented by Wells) that the critic should be a practicing photographer, then I think my answer would probably be ‘No, that type of knowledge isn’t important and certainly isn’t essential.  However, unless one is taking the extreme and not very productive view that anyone can critique a photograph, then the assumption that a critic brings some element of expertise and knowledge to their role implies some understanding, at least, of how photographers go about creating their work. And, if we were to broaden the critic’s scope, making him/her a commentator on visual culture, they may well need at least some understanding of painting, sculpture, print-making, video production etc.  There is little value in arguing that only a deeply knowledgeable practicing artist can critique art.  And critiquing purely on the qualities of process is to miss the point of creativity.

So, I edge towards the view that the reader reads that with which they are presented, and explores the process of creation in order to further develop the reading and understanding of a visual text (as opposed to the view that the reader learns about the practice of art and is then in a position to read).  A professional reviewer, who is committed to photographic art (or visual culture in general, or whatever), will develop enough understanding of creative practice and (in our current economic system, at least) the market, to ensure that they can effectively practise their own profession.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Assignment Three – New Version

Following the feedback from my tutor, I have produced what I feel is a much improved and hopefully more ‘professional’ version of my video in response to Paris Photo.  I’ve taken on board most of Jesse’ comments, used some better editing software – and spent a few more hours on it, of course!

Here’s what I’ve done:
·         Purchased ‘VideoPad’, a more versatile piece of video editing software than the ‘freeby’ that I worked with originally, and used elements of the original video to help me learn my way around it – effectively creating the whole format again, from scratch.
·         Listened to the soundtrack again, and come to the conclusion that it works, and that it provides a good structure around which to re-do the video.
·         Reviewed all my original images again, making a similar but slightly different selection, based on the fact that I knew I was working towards this video, as opposed to the original ‘generic’ selection.
·         Taken on board many of Jesse’s suggestions, such as:
§  Reduce the number of zooms and be careful about using ‘portrait’ format images (fewer used, and better control of the way they’re panned in the new version);
§  Don’t repeat images (only one repeat in this version);
§  Come up with a better title – hopefully achieved;
§  Deal with the ‘glitches’ – the new software seems to be much more effective a generating the video file;
§  Improve the precision and rhythm – just one quibble here, I wanted to have about eight ‘rapid fire’ images at towards the end, but even the new software couldn’t handle it;
§  Incorporate some other images and pick up on some of his cropping/zooming suggestions.
·         To help plan the new version, I printed all the selected images at 2”x3”, cut them up and arranged into a narrative sequence that worked best with the soundtrack.
·         I left that new version for a few days (whilst I was away in London, during March) and came back to it ‘cold’.  Whilst happy that it was an improvement, I felt it need a stronger start – recalling the message from Peter Rudge at the Leeds Workshop and the need to get the viewer’s attention in the first few seconds – and perhaps a cleverer ending.
·         Another piece of advice from Jesse was to look at some of the experimental videos on Vimeo.  There are a lot, and a very varied bunch, but it was the avant-garde category that most caught my attention; and I guess my own video might, loosely, fall into that category.
·         Since then, I‘ve been quite busy and it has nagged away in the back of my mind.  I’ve even occasionally been tempted, once again, to abandon the whole thing.  However, it is now ‘topped and tailed’ in a way that I think works successfully.  The three images at the start, with the short soundclip (downloaded, free of charge) do have a bit of an avant-garde influence, reflecting the Vimeo research.  The ending could be a touch ‘Monty Python’, perhaps even a bit ‘naff’, but Jesse did comment on the irreverence of my approach and I think the ending maintains that.
So, the new version is available on YouTube & is being shared with my tutor.  I’ve had enough of it for the time being.  I’m reasonably happy with it; certainly think it is a vast improvement on the original; and will now press on to other things, perhaps revisiting again when Assessment time approaches.  But, any comments and suggestions will be gratefully received and stored away until then