Category Archives: Exhibitions

Study Visit – Cathedral of the Pines, Gregory Crewdson.

Crewdson is known for his meticulously planned, cinematic ‘frames’. This exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines, is said to be his most personal to date.

Up until this point my relationship with Crewdson’s work was mixed.  On one hand it is impossible not to be full of admiration for the depth of planning, choreography and technical quality in each image.

In fact I would describe his work as a Hollywood movie lasting just 1/125th of a second.

But is it too clinical?  How much of Crewdson am I really  seeing here, or is it sanitised and synthesised? Is it so objectively, so precisely, reconstructed that it loses the essence of the original idea?

Looking wider, how much of the recognition should go to his numerous crew instead?  Does it matter that a ‘Director of Photography’ is employed to do a lot of the thinking?

Does it matter whether or not he actually presses the shutter:

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/06/monkey-selfie-case-animal-photo-copyright

There are recurring themes in the works: Bare bulbs; cars with open doors; semi naked ladies staring blankly; sheds or outside toilets.  The holes in the ground – reminiscent of his tales of his his father’s psychotherapist practice on the basement of his childhood home.

There is a curious portrayal of the genders too.  The female is seen in many images as naked, wet hair, staring forward at nothing obvious.  The signifiers are of vulnerability and introspection.  By contrast only one male is shown completely naked, but safely cocooned within the steel shell of his VW Camper.

It is tempting to treat each image as an intellectual puzzle, knowing that each and every element in the image is placed deliberately the brain tries to ‘solve’ the riddle.  I found myself trying to find the reason for every included element like a scene of crime detective.  Like an accountant going over a balance sheet, I felt that everything should be objectified rather than left as a subjective artistic view.

But it dawned on me that the opposite might actually be true.  Since every element is a faithful reproduction of Crewdson’s original vision for the photograph, it could equally be argued that we are seeing a reproduction that is very faithful indeed.  Like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork – everything uncannily replicated, true to his original idea.

Why the recurring themes like car doors and blankly staring ladies?  Is Crewdson moving the key elements of his mind around, juxtaposing them in different scenarios?  We all have recurring thoughts and dreams that we seek to reconcile as part of our life work.  How therapeutic is it for Crewdson to analyse, dissect and reconstruct these inner thoughts?

Indeed, a fellow student on the visit questioned whether we would similarly challenge a painter, having spent months meticulously working on an oil painting.  Clearly we would not.  On reflection it seems unfair to challenge Crewdson for being so meticulous about his work.

I initially found this exhibition difficult for the reasons outlined.  As well as gaining a much better understanding of his work, I came away with great respect for Crewdson as an individual too, not just for the sheer technical accomplishment, but for the almost obsessive attention to detail to faithfully create what is in his mind.

With this in mind, the work is surely authentic and courageous because I now know that he did not miss out anything at all in what he is showing us about his inner thoughts.  The interpretation is left up me – and I’m not the psychotherapist here.

 

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A response to Mother River by Yan Wang Preston

Inspired by this exhibition at Bradford, i decided to apply a similar methodology to a local walk, taking a photograph at precise intervals of every 1/4 of a mile.

I chose a square format to provide an ‘Instagram’ aesthetic, suggesting snaps taken at intervals along the way.

Key things i learned:

  1. The picturesque wooded areas felt like a significant part of the walk.  The photographs suggest otherwise (the woods only feature in a couple)! Im reminded once again how our selectivity in choosing photpgraphic subjects so often distorts reality. Arguably this is a much more authentic portrayal of the walk.
  2. How much we miss in our everyday lives! There is always something of interest if we care to stop and look.
  3. Im unhappy with the ending, the water.  Does not bring the set to a logical comclusion.  Perhaps a closeup of removed boots or a pot of tea in a cafe would have neen better.

Study Visit – 21 May 2017. Bradford ‘A trio of exhibitions’

1. Britain in focus: A Photographic History

  • Not seen a real daguerrotype before, only in books, so this was fascinating to see.
  • Noted how Cameron would defocus to create a soft effect.
  • Learning that US soldiers would purchase daguerrotypes in junk shops, discard the photo then use the holder to store items made me reflect on how much of our archives are lost.  Cameron is prominent in history as she had good contacts, was wealthy and photographed famous people.  But how many local photographers were doing good work, exploring new boundaries, but we never knew?
  • Parr reminds us to photograph the banal…as that is tomorrow’s curiosity.
  • The soldeirs took a risk – but these are the only records we now have for some aspects of the war (unsanitized by the propaganda machine)
  • Smaller exhibition than expected – is this really a celebration of out best wotk over the years? Or have much of Bradford’s archives now been relocated to london i wonder?

2. Pinhole Camera

  • A beautiful ethereal feel to the images, dreamy, otherworldly. Evokes the work of Francesca Woodman in feel if not in technique.
  • Sarah van Keuren: pinhole cameras need long shutter speeds so they hold a collection of expressions, not just a single frozen moment.  “Seems to get at a certain hidden truth” about the character of the subject.  This is something ive reflected on before, how a portrait, a single moment, can never fully represent a full person as they cannot be ‘all of themselves in 1/125th of a second.
  • I’ve been working more with black and white film cameras lately. Theres s connection, a richness, a less-clinical and more emotional representation that appeals to me. How can i apply pinhole photography to my practice to develop this idea further?

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/whats-on/poetics-light-pinhole-photography

3. Mother River, Yan Wang Preston

  • An ambitious project, following the Yangtze River for its length of 6,211km and taking 63 photographs with a large format camera exactly 100km apart.
  • As a group we explored whether this was a good strategy or not.  How many exellent photo opportunities were excluded because they were not exactly on a 100km ‘Y Point?  Some images were not particulary interesting.  However i took a different view.  This made it authentic, not artificially enhanced by picking only the good bits.  If three quarters of the images were strong, then I can believe that three quarters of the river is interesting in real life.  I feel I’m being shown the truth.
  • The work reminded me strongly of a similar project i understook last summer, to walk the entire 15mile length of my local River, the Amber.  Instead of taking photos at fixed points however i took them at the interesting bits.  Which i more successful?  It depends on the viewer’s sense of connection with the land i would argue, not just the images themselves.

General notes:

  • Had a really good chat with the tutor/leader on the study visit about the use of blogs.  I thought i was expected to fill my blog with reviews as evidence of having read books, etc.  However this is not the case, making the blog too verbose for assessors to review and diverting from its msin purpose of being a place to refect, show learning and to critique.  Ive taken a different approach with this post with this in mind.
  • Other advice was to keep my work personal and interesting.  Dont be scared to take risks, say more about who I am, what I like – and brave enough to say what I don’t.
  • As ever, great company from my fellow students. Discussing and sharing makes the course ‘come alive’ and i always come back more motivated and inspired in my studies.

Exercise 3.2 – aspects of personality

This exercise requires me make a list of some unique aspects of my personality then set about expressing these attributes through a photograph.

I noted that the exercise does not use the word ‘portrait’ on this occasion.

I reflected on a few ideas then went for a walk around the city of Derby.  I opted for a gritty black and white aesthetic to echo the darker, more melancholy, shadow-self that resides below the happy, cheerful persona that other people identify with as being ‘Ian’:

_IMG2767 There is a constant conflict within me of wanting structure and order vs. seeking a simpler, less structured life where random fun things happen.

After taking this I also considered that there’s a voyeuristic element to this image – as though a person unknown is watching me through a venetian blind.  I fear our gradual loss of civil liberties caused by CCTV, internet surveillance, and so on as we cannot be assured that those watching us always have good intent.

 

_IMG2766This image describes me on two levels.  I love to be alone in nature, especially near trees and water.  Despite being in the centre of a busy city this rower have found his own quiet space, the image framed to exclude the surrounding buildings and bridges.

Like me, he’s seeking to enjoy a journey as much as the achievement of the destination.  No competitiveness, no challenge.  Just being, moving, travelling.

 

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Is this graffiti reflecting my nature of wanting to help and support people?  Or is it a mirror, reminding me how often I don’t do this?

 

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I’m easily discouraged by obstacles.  I’m trying to learn to step back and see the way around them.

 


I feel very inspired to develop this into a body of work and, for this reason alone, has been excellent at helping me out of a bit of a rut.  Compared to previous OCA courses I am finding the portraiture in I+P to be more challenging, so it was good to be ‘let off the portraiture leash’ for a while and take photos I enjoy again.

My idea is to consider developing this to see how this mirror of self, portrayed through inanimate objects, changes over time.  Perhaps a photobook over a year.  Like keeping a written journal but containing photographs.  It will be fascinating to see how feelings, mood, style and environment work together and evolve over a period of time.  I need to be careful to ensure that this introspective self indulgence doesn’t become all consuming though.   While I adore the work of Francesca Woodman, things didn’t end up well for her, as we know.  There are also aspects of the self-exploration into the troubled life of Claude Cahun here, as already explored in detail by Gillian Wearing: https://wordpress.com/post/ian513626photography1iandp.wordpress.com/1436

Often a fan of bold ‘Martin Parr like’ primary colours and implied humour, it was interesting to explore this darker side of self.  I believe we all have one inside us.  Hopefully the viewer would feel that they knew something of my personal journey when they reached the end of it.  Although it should really be a personal journal that triggers other ideas and thoughts.  My tutor has encouraged the use of a paper-based photo scrapbook and journal for this purpose so I will combine the two some how.   I note that some people engage on ‘Project 365’ and ‘Photo a Day’ projects.

 

Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 – Tate Modern

Being a long standing admirer of Tillmans’ work I was keen to make the trip to London to see his exhibition at the Tate Modern.  Comprising 14 themed rooms of his work to date, the exhibition flyer/booklet stresses that this is not just a retrospective, however.

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/wolfgang-tillmans-2017

On entering the exhibition it soon becomes apparent why.  Each room is more of a themed installation than just gallery space.

One room may house images on the theme of ‘travel’, juxtaposing huge closeup abstract views of a car headlamp with scenes of remote corners of Africa, for example. Tillmans draws the observation that the car headlamps ‘are more angular now, giving them a more predatory appearance’, drawing parallels with human eyes and hinting at them reflecting a more aggressive rather than ‘wide eyed innocent’ world we now live in.

Another room, based upon his work Truth Study Center (2005 onwards), is ingeniously laid out on trestles rather than just the walls.  The subject matter highlights the difficulties separating fact from fiction in the modern world of photography, politics  and media – all the more poignant in the current era of ‘fake news’.  The trestles form a sort of maze through the room, getting in the way of our clear path through.  It is hard to see every table without going back on yourself at least once.

Other rooms explore issues of gender and sexuality, the environment and other topics.  One contains his books and posters laid out for perusing, evoking a feeling of visiting the photobook sale at the Format Photography Festival – except here of course there was only one exhibitor.

Further underlining the intention that this is a series of installations rather than just photographs, one room is empty apart from seats and a high quality hifi system.  Playing a small selection of tracks from Colourbox, Tillmans also wants us to take time out to appreciate this art form as the artist intended, not on a squarky little mobile phone speaker or headphones.

Tillmans continues to inspire for his ability to see everyday things in a way that reveal so much about the people around it.  There’s s strong political and environmental narrative in much of his work but this is done while still leaving the viewer space to reflect and think (the exception being the EU Referendum posters perhaps which leave no space for ambiguity!).

Footnote: I was disappointed to note that, shortly after my visit I saw that an OCA study visit has been set up for the same exhibition, led by my current tutor.  If only I’d waited a week!  If I can arrange to go, it would be interesting to visit again with my tutor and fellow students to see how their perception of the exhibition compares with my own.

Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing: National Portrait Gallery

My tutor suggested I visit this as part of my feedback for Assignment 2.

Having encountered Wearing’s work before I instinctively disliked it, and so I expected the exhibition to be a challenge for me.  On the train to London I reflected upon why: did the idea of a mask make me uncomfortable?  Appropriating her own family members?  I felt that, as a photographer, I knew nothing of who she was, only what her relatives looked like.  

 It was clear that Cahun was a huge influence on Wearing.  Cahun was a French girl who transformed herself into the persona of a male over a period of several years in her teens and early adulthood.  Her dissatisfaction with herself gave rise to mental illness issues in her younger years, perhaps the frustration and madness being expressed in this image:

She said ‘behind this mask another mask, there can be no end to these disguises’.  It is as though she was tortured by a need to peel the onion of herself in the hope of finding a layer she was actually comfortable with.

With her partner Marcel Moore, she left France to be together in Jersey.  The exhibition suggests that many of the photos were actually taken by Moore rather than Cahun (leaving me to question who is really the photographer here).  When the Channel Islands were invaded the Germans imprisoned her for working at great personal risk for the resistance.

This image was taken towards the end of Cahun’s personal transformation (visually at least) into a man. She holds her head as though it were a mask being removed.  After all the changes in relationships, hair, clothing and where she lived, perhaps this is the symbolic moment where the mask is finally removed – she feels she is finally being her authentic self?

 

 

The Wearing part of the exhibition starts with a large print of her famous homage to Cahun, underlining the extent of the influence on Wearing from the outset.  However here Wearing holds a mask of herself while wearing one of Cahun.

 

Wearing started out studying are rather than photography.  She had an early fascination with masks and disembodied hands.  She also chronicled herself over several years using a Polaroid camera, raising questions about who we are really, how we evolve and change over time.

As the exhibition progresses towards the room housing Family Album, I found a growing appreciation for Wearing’s work.  She describes the people she emulates as people she admires – her ‘spiritual family’ as she calls them.  This includes other artists such as Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Sherman.  The mask becomes a substitute for the person that was once there.  Wearing goes behind the mask to find them as well as placing a camera in front of it.  Her empathy for her subjects comes through – there’s no effort to make them grotesque caracatures in masks, but to sympatheticly create a facimilie of the real thing.

Of course there is one flaw in every image’s authenticity, one that ties the images together as a set with a common theme and purpose – they all show Wearing’s eyes gazing directly back at the camera instead of the real owner’s.

 

 

Tate Liverpool

In January i visted the Tate Liverpool which was showing Tracey Emin’s bed.  This is something I’ve always wanted so see. As well as being hugely controversial at the time, winning the 1998 turner prize and so becoming a further catalyst for the Stukist protests in response to the earlier work by Damien Hurst, it is a work that fascinated me.  Although not a piece of photographic art I believe there is still much of relevance for the photographer.

Emin assembles each installation herself.  In a literal sense, this comprises an unmade bed and adjacent blue floor mat. The resulting ensemble is untidy in appearance and scattered with personal everyday items such as empty cups, discarded underwear, packaging for cigarettes, pregnancy tests and medicines. As a viewer, the initial response is mild revulsion or an urge to tidy up.  I heard someone in the gallery say ‘Art? If my daughter left her room like this she’d get a clip round the ear!’  If honest, many of us might cast a judgmental opinion on how scruffy some people are.

But then the mind becomes more curious about the possible stories behind the discarded items. They tell us a lot about someone. How they live their life, their issues, social envirnonememt and perhaps mental outlook on life. Are they promiscuous? Depressed? An unwanted pregnancy? Did they leave the bed unexpectedly in a hurry arising from some great personal upheaval?

The detritus is the essential part of the work.  It reveals a lot about us – like a detective going through the waste bin.  Our personal experiences, predudices and opinions fill in the gaps to make a story. Conversely, had this been a normal bed – neatly made with everything tidily away in a drawer – we would have no clues to work from. Who is this person?

Looking at this from a photographic perspective it highlights the masks we wear as people. We always ‘make our bed’ before showing ourselves to anyone – by putting on a smile for the camera. We make ourselves ‘look presentable’ with lipstick and the like.  But those wrinkles we try to hide from the camera reveal our true character. Our story.

When people say ‘that’s a nice picture of me’ do they actually mean ’my mask is in place – I appear happy and slim on this photo, it does not highlight my insecurities?’  The image meets their ideal self image.

I believe Emin was exceptionally brave to create this work.  She was prepared to look openly and frankly at all the issues in her life and, quite literally, lay them out on the bed for everyone to see.  It is a form of self portrait – ‘an unflinchingly personal self portrait’ ( Pennington, 2016).  I feel that I know her (at that point in time) much better for having seen it.

A good photographic portrait shows us the subject’s own unmade bed.  We see the real person, not the veneer.