‘To gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’ (Schroeder, 1998, p.208)
In Visual and Other Pleasures (Mulvey 1989:19) Mulvey proposes the idea of the male gaze, describing woman as playing a ‘traditional exhibitionistic role’ in which ‘male spectators… can project their fantasies onto’ (1989:19) in cinema. The male gaze is established as a common occurrence in historical and contemporary media. Helmut Newton employed the male gaze in most of his work, often depicting women in the ‘exhibitionistic role’ (1989:19) that Mulvey describes (Figure 1). Moreover, Peter Schjeldahl employs the concept of the male gaze with reegard to Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits (Figure 2), describing them as ‘fiercely erotic’ (cited Meagher 2002:21). In these examples the male gaze appears well established.
In contemporary contexts however it can be argued the gaze is shifting and that Mulvey’s theory is outdated. Susan Bordo described Mulveys concepts ‘in the year 2015… seem[ing] obsolete’ (Bordo 2015). In the context of western contemporary society, objectifying bodies for profit is standard. Bordo points out that Mulvey ignores the consumerist culture we live in, and how the ‘eroticisation of the male body became big business thanks to the genius of Calvin Klein and other designers’ (Bordo 2015) (Figure 3). Thomas and Ahmed reinforce this: ’the displayed male bodies since the 80s… [are] offered to the gaze of women and heterosexual men in the new men’s magazines and fashion magazines’ (cited Whiteway 2017). In all instances the objectification of the body is used to target consumers, but equally allows for the rise of other forms of the gaze.
Similarly, culturally, there are female artists which create work using the gaze (Figure 4). The exhibition Women Looking at Men (Cheim 2016) features thirty-two women artists, specifically objectifying the male body and giving rise to the female gaze against Mulvey’s purely male gaze
Mulvey also ignores pornography catered to the LGBT+ community which can objectify all genders. The Chronicle’s essay states ‘the notion of the lesbian gaze has gained currency’ and argues ‘even the neat division of people into male and female seems, to many people, archaic.’ (The Male Gaze in Retrospect 2015). This idea of division being archaic is brought up in Legacy Russel’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Russel aims to strike back at existing ‘in a binary system’ using the rise of the internet and online presence (Russel 2020:7) focusing on being ‘anti-body, resisting the body as a coercive social and cultural architecture’ (2020:91) and thus resisting all forms of the gaze. Russel uses non-binary artist Victoria Sin as an example: ‘Their body shatters the shallow illusion as to any harmony or balance that might be offered up within the suggestive binary of male/female’ while ‘celebrating their queer body as necessarily visible… a calculated confrontation.’ (2020:59) (Figure 5).
Mulvey’s 1989 theory is far from incorrect: there are still many instances where the male gaze is employed. Nonetheless, Mulvey fails to recognise the expansion and evolutions of these alternative gazes and those who confront them in a contemporary context
‘There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at’ (Mulvey (1975) in Hall & Evans, 2003, p.381)
Miquela Sousa, otherwise known as @LilMiquela on Instagram, is a CGI virtual influencer created by startup Brud (Jackson 2018) with over three million followers on Instagram. Lil Miquela posts frequently, promoting brands and ‘spends her time taking selfies and hanging out with her equally-cool, but actually real friends’ (Cadogan 2018) her behaviour mimics a celebrity social media influencer (Figure 6)
Lil Miquela’s creators, Brud, claim she is ‘a champion of so many vital causes, namely Black Lives Matter and the absolutely essential fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in this country’ (cited in Russel 2020:93). Russel notes that Lil Miquela is an example of the ‘anti-body’ (2020:93) in her manifesto. Lil Miquela only exists as an online avatar and is seen promoting social change online (Figure 7) where she has #BlackLivesMatter in her bio and supports social causes on her instagram stories (Figure 8), backing Russel’s concept.
However, her presentation and marketing makes this hard to believe. Lil Miquela’s CGI body often poses in a way that caters Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in a ‘traditional exhibitionistic role’ (Mulvey 1989:19). Objectification is common for instagram influencers, ‘She attracts the same fetishised gaze as anyone else selling her own image’ reflected in her comments section- ‘“so beautiful” one guy wrote on a post where a bit of cleavage can be detected, adding a drooling emoji’ (Petrarca 2018). We also have to question Lil Miquela’s agency. She is owned by a company whom chooses her appearance and posing and is treated like the ‘object’ Mulvey describes by being placed in ways which appeal to her audience (Figure 9).
Lil Miquela is used as a model to make money though Instagram promotions- she sits between being an advocate for change or a performative activist for profit. Russel questions ‘can a corporate avatar- in essence, a privatised body, symbolic in form- be an authentic advocate… towards social change?’ (Russel 2021:93).
In conclusion, Lil Miquela is the ideal ‘anti-body’ (2020:93) to challenge the gaze, but her lack of agency and use as a feminine object for commercial purposes stunts this. Even so, the rise of virtual influencers may open opportunities for feminist discussion for other creators, further pushing the idea of Russel’s ‘anti-body’ (2020:93).
RUSSEL, Legacy. 2020. Glitch Feminism. London: Verso
SCHROEDER, Jonathan (1998) ‘Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research’ in STERN, B. (1998) Representing Consumers: Voices, Views and Visions London, Routledge
WHITEWAY, Emily. 2017. Real Man, Real Issue: How Is an Unrealistic Representation of the Perfect Aesthetic, Leading to an Increase in Male Body Anxiety, Dictated by the Media and Fashion Industry? Dissertation (BA Fashion Design), Falmouth University, 2017
RD: I ran a collective for young photographers (Macula) for seven years. I photographed them for my project Vale and they became a part of that work, so there’s a direct correlation between my practice and that setting, it was kind of blended in. Maybe one area is keeping up to date, aware of current trends and what’s happening in photography. You have an overview of lots of different aspects, maybe not the single area that you’re particularly interested in and I think that opens you up a bit more.
I’m teaching students in a very difficult situation, in lockdown, and they’ve got to make work and be experimental. How can I teach them and say try this and do this and then myself, not? I should embrace that myself. I’ve been taking pictures through Zoom and I was initially reticent – it’s through a computer screen and that doesn’t interest me. But I like a challenge and I’m competitive. So – can I get something that looks great and people don’t realise it’s through Zoom?
AT: How do you think photographic practice changes once placed in an academic setting?
RD: A lot of undergraduates find it difficult – they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. There’s this overwhelming sense of deadlines. You’ve got to be quite succinct in terms of what you’re doing, so if you’ve got quite a free-flowing art practice, then you’ve got to find a way to fit that in, which I think is quite useful in terms of working commercially or editorially, with very short time frames to make work. For me, it was OK because I’d done the BA at Newport which is a very tough course and so that was my grounding.
The justification of an idea makes practice completely different. If you’re an amateur, you’re just taking pictures of what you like. So many students want to work like William Eggleston for example – I’ll just walk around where I like and that just catches my eye, take a picture of that. But what is it that you’re doing beyond that? Academia makes you think about questions like the context of the work, the theoretical underpinning. On the one hand, that can be like a weight that’s tying you down, but it can also be helpful. Anything that I make, I ask where does this sit? What is this saying? How are people going to view this? And I also work on a series, rather than just a single picture – a body of work, rather than this slightly more free-flowing way of working.
AT: You reference your childhood a lot in interviews, and my own childhood experience of commons in Kent and Sussex is central to my current project at Woodbury Common. Why is childhood so influential to the way you make work?
RD: Childhood is about formative experiences. When you’re a child, you’re experiencing things for the first time. It has a huge psychological impact on you and who you are. I grew up on the edge of Tamworth and when I was three my Mum would just let me roam in the cornfields, and there was a big house at the end of our road, an old Georgian manor house and they had an annual fireworks party. Going feeding the horses, that feeling of freedom and exploration – that carries forward. These things I did as a child and a young adult, they carry weight and influence the work I make far more than anything contemporary, or any influence of a photographer, because these influences came along in my early twenties. When I make work now that’s more contemporary, like The Island, the melancholy from that is the melancholy from being a teenager. The emotions are from earlier even though the subject is more contemporary.
We’d holiday in Devon and one of my first conscious memories was hunting dogs on Dartmoor, and it was just so unnatural to a three-year-old. These are also memories of remembering, even at ten or eleven I was very quiet and introspective so many of my memories are of memories of those memories if that makes any sense. It’s that internalisation that I visualise in my work.
AT: There is often a melancholy in your images, sometimes a subtle use of light, sometimes an unmistakable subject as with The Island. Is this a conscious decision?
Yes. Definitely. I sometimes joke that I could describe my work as beautifully sad. I’m not a particularly sad person, but I think you tap into that melancholy you’ve experienced from life and with The IslandI was referencing that sense of being a teenager and your first girlfriend breaking up with you and sitting in your room and listening to sad music, wallowing a bit. That sadness is not depression though. You’re slightly nostalgic about that intensity of feeling – being in the Midlands and it’s winter and it’s wet and it’s bleak and it’s raining and you’re just bummed out and there’s something about that. It’s not a great emotion but it’s a powerful emotion and it’s something you tap into. Because I had all those years of illness, I can easily tap into that notion of being in a room and listening to melancholic music. Music can capture melancholy so well, it really is the best medium for that. I don’t think photography can ever do that in the same way.
I’ve never been clinically depressed so for me, it’s that bookend of emotion – without the sadness you don’t know the joy. You’re melancholy and sad about what is past and what is gone – there’s a weight there. Because Vale is about being ill and losing my twenties, there’s that juxtaposition between bucolic, sublime summer landscapes and these young, beautiful people, and there’s an obvious juxtaposition with looking sad in that landscape. The work is layered. It’s carrying emotions. It’s a direct reflection of that sadness.
AT: Your work often blends the fictional and the documentary, and you’ve mentioned that you’re a frustrated filmmaker. Would you consider working with video? What can photography achieve which film cannot – and vice versa?
RD: Before I went back to do my Masters, I was working a lot with video. With Arnolfini and Spacex, I did all their video work, and a couple of music videos for local bands. I always made skateboard videos, little short videos on holidays. But photography was always my first love, and I decided to study it. I’m definitely someone who likes to work by myself as I’m confident enough to know what I’m doing – this is my work, this is my vision – and photography allows me to do that, it’s all me, there’s that selfishness. The best films happen where you’ve got one or two people who’ve got a clear vision and they’ve been left alone to make it, rather than diluted with different voices.
The advantage of film is mis-en-scene – you have sound and you have music to create atmosphere, particularly in horror, to create that tension. The Moorwas in a way an attempt to create something that had that aesthetic, but you were missing the sound and the music. A way to explain the series would be to imagine it was stills from a film that doesn’t exist. I wanted to make these very striking photographs, creating images that would be like the film poster. I hadn’t seen anything similar, like an artist or a photographer working in this way and this always makes me question the validity of what I am doing. I think this is quite common.
The power of the still image is the time that you have with that image. I felt like there could’ve been video with Durlescombe, like with the threshing machine and the moving image of that working was amazing, and that could’ve easily made an interesting documentary subject, but I think it was a question of practicality. If I wanted to work in film, I wouldn’t be interested in just using the moving image like conceptual, fine art. I would want to make this big narrative, with actors, have all this staging, etc.
AT: This blend of the fictional and the documentary brings to mind Gideon Koppel’s film Sleep Furiously, set in a partly-fictionalized Welsh sheep farming community. What can an imaginative engagement with place achieve that an, ostensibly, more objective documentary approach cannot?
RD: I think the notion of documentary is outdated – this sense of what you are seeing as the viewer as the truth. A factual account is not the case. It never was documentary, it always was subjective, dependent on the creator, their motivations aesthetically, their political background, what they were trying to tell an audience. In the case of Durlescombe, that allowed me a much broader reach in terms of places and locations. The name is a place holder, a tool to collate this work in what that sounds like a real place. The work is 95% documentary. It might appear quite similar in terms of the staging to the The Moor, but nothing is staged, it’s all happening there, so I’m taking the pictures of these scenes in front of me, like the image of John in the barn just leaning down. You’re seeing things happening and then you’re capturing them. And in terms of the portraiture you’re just telling people to stop what they’re doing sometimes. I remember that excitement, particularly with the threshers, because I was there and I didn’t have that control anymore. It was often about stepping back and seeing the whole scene.
I’m photographing the Ten Tors and that’s much more documentary but I’m imbuing it with this melancholy, this heavy black and white, so there’s still a subjective narrative there. It’s truthful in a lot of ways to the Ten Tors, but a lot of days they’re walking and it’s sunny and it’s easy but I’m focussing on this young-people-versus-nature, so it’s my subjective version of the Ten Tors.
I always make work that’s layered. If it’s very straight, it’s not telling me something new or something different. There’s not enough there to engage me. Work that interests me makes me look at it and question what I’m looking at. Was this staged? Is this documentary? You’re questioning the veracity of what you’re seeing. That’s what I find interesting.
AT: What photographers have influenced you along the way? Whose work excites you currently?
RD: The work I’m drawn to is predominantly like the work I make. It’s people who are working in a similar way but differently. Like they’re picking up on similar influences, for example, myths and folklore. There’s so much photography out there. I’m drawn to work that impacts me, that draws out an emotional response, that I have this instant reaction to in terms of how it’s photographed, or in terms of how it’s presented.
Jem Southam is a critical influence. I was introduced to his work during my BA at Newport and out of the British work I was shown, in terms of landscape, it was the work I was drawn to. He was working in colour, large format. The Red River is one of my favourite photography books. It was integral in informing how I could look at the landscape as it was the first book that I had seen with a real lyrical, poetic quality; it was much more than just a series of pictures of the Red River. The work resonated with me and I knew then at twenty-one, that’s how I wanted to approach photography, with emotion, poetry and feeling. Then after moving to Exeter, I found I was living around the corner from him and was introduced to Jem.
My favourite contemporary photographer is Tereza Zelenkova. She’s a Czech photographer whose work predominately deals with myth and the landscape. Themes of the uncanny really underpins her work. Similarly, Robin Friend. He studied at Plymouth quite a few years ago with Jem and his book Bastard Countryside is really fascinating – that notion of a spoiled landscape is really interesting. Vasantha Yogananthan is a Peruvian Indian photographer. He deals a lot with his identity, photographing in India but around this idea of narrative in myth and religion. His work is sublime and complex.
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
AT: What other artists, writers, filmmakers and so-on have influenced your practice?
Painters like John Northcote Nash, Eric Ravillious whose subject is the English landscape. Constable would come into that too. Also Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. It’s this beautiful sense of place and light – they’re integral to these painters.
Influences from literature are very much more from my childhood. Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion of the World has a backdrop of poaching and pheasants in this autumnal landscape. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five is coastal, with a level of mystery and exploration. More recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was an influence on The Moor, particularly the notion that you’re inhabiting this dystopian environment but there’s no explanation about the dystopia.
I talk about childhood films like Black Island and the British Film Foundation films. They wouldn’t get shown now but they made great one-hour films with real attention to light and detail. The acting was sometimes a bit ropey, but they had a huge impact on me as a young child. And also contemporary filmmakers like Wim Wenders that have crossed over into photography. His book Once was one of the early photography books I had and I’d go through it a lot looking at the pictures. His latter films weren’t so good, but his visuals and the colour in films like Million Dollar Hotel are sublime.
AT: You’ve mentioned you are a heart and not a head photographer. Can you say a bit more about that?
RD: It’s a very basic generalisation, but I want people to have a very emotional response to my work. I try to make images that provoke some kind of emotional response. I’m drawn to subjects through my own personal history and formative and emotional experiences. You have a lot of contemporary photography that’s very intellectualised. To me it doesn’t really have any aesthetic value. It can be really clinical, very much about the concept, which sounds sophisticated but it’s actually quite simplistic. A lot of that work is quite elitist and aimed at a very small audience. It’s not something that interests me. However, it can be successful when you combine a complex theoretical underpinning with sublime, aesthetically engaging images. For me, I’ve always got to be drawn into work by the image. I’ve got to have some emotional response to it. If I’m not drawn into the image, then why would I care what it’s about? That doesn’t mean the work I make isn’t layered or contextualised, but that theory is always secondary to the images for me. Often in over-intellectualised work, the images seem to be an afterthought.
AT: I find Dartmoor fascinating, particularly as it’s an entirely manmade landscape and deeply scarred. That resonated with me in The Moor. That’s not the Dartmoor most people seek and expect. What is your relationship to the Picturesque and the Sublime more typically depicting the moors?
RD: It comes down to a subjective response to it. You’ve got people like Gary Fabian Miller who’s going out and walking in a small part of the moor and then making sublime camera less pictures in his darkroom. My response is working in that Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of how the moor is viewed, this unforgiving, bleak, mysterious landscape. Also, the moors written about by Enid Blyton as this place of trepidation and mystery. It’s nice to walk on Dartmoor in the sunshine but I don’t have the same emotional response to that. I like being a bit scared, lost and excited because this is a bit mysterious. I have been following the Ten Tors recently and we’re out in the middle of the moor in thick cloud and it’s like being on another planet. It’s so unnatural, it’s unbelievable. The response I have to that captivates me. I’m fine with people taking pretty HDR pictures but to me they’re just superficial pictures of pretty landscapes, they don’t have any emotional depth. It’s always that distinction: what’s the work saying above and beyond it just being a pretty picture of a landscape. That’s what Dartmoor is for a lot of people.
When I started my Masters, I always knew I wanted to make a work about Dartmoor. I had a very intense emotional response to it from a very formative experience when I visited as a young child. I was drawn to this landscape. I questioned who had made work on Dartmoor? Was there anyone who had envisaged it how I see Dartmoor? There was Gary Fabian Miller, working with camera less photography. Chris Chapman who was making more traditional documentary work. Susan Derges who was working with camera less photography as well. And more recently Nick White has made a series on the militarisation of Dartmoor. I think it’s important to be aware of who has worked in a similar area as you.
In the end, I titled the series as The Moor because I wanted some ambiguity about the location. It’s interesting to note that recently the Black Mirror episode Metalhead was shot in some of the same places I used for The Moor, that someone with a similar dystopian idea was drawn to a similar landscape.
AT: Outside of your personal connections and photographic practice, what informs your relationships with places?
RD: When I was on the BA at Newport I was so influenced by everything from America. I’d walk around the edges of my small Midlands town and try and take pictures that looked like a Robert Adams picture, with big open landscapes and a horizon. Even though I’ve never been to America I’m so influenced by their culture, pictures, filmmaking, television and photography, it feels like I have been to America. I can imagine if I do visit, it will have such a strange familiarity.
This culture and the visual references hugely influence what I do. For example, Vale draws on these influences; some of the images are imbued with a sense of Southern Gothic, spirituality and religion.
I don’t have an academic relationship with landscape. It’s very much instinctive, that I feel like there’s some familiarity with the place. I will find a place and I’ll have an emotional response to it that’s derived from personal experience. I’m not so interested in a political landscape. Although The Island is the most political work I’ve made, it’s not really political in terms of dealing with that sense of struggle and ownership. It could just as equally have been about Covid, that melancholy and people being by themselves. Leaving Europe was the genesis, but it can work outside of that. It’s almost a precursor to the bleakness and melancholy of Covid.
AT: Finally – the inevitable question – how have you responded to Covid-19 in your photography? Has it caused a change in the way you see place and your practice?
RD: My initial plan was not to make any new work during the lockdown. I was going to catch up on editing. I started cycling again and I was regularly cycling up to a tree on the southern edge of Exeter because it was just an easy focal point for a short cycle. As I was there, I just started taking pictures.
Then I got asked by a curator and a photographer to do some pictures using Zoom or a similar platform. I was initially reticent because I thought it was going to be terrible, it didn’t interest me or seem to fit into my practice. However, I’d been mulling over an idea for a year or two about referencing a sense of past Britain. Incorporating references like Agatha Christie, imagining characters that would inhabit these novels – and picturing the landscapes of the English Riviera. I had met with a young actor before lockdown to discuss taking some pictures, but this didn’t happen because of lockdown.
However, after a while I thought it would make sense to try and photograph her through a screen as she often emulates screen stars, so there’s a direct correlation. It’s a combination of new pictures through Zoom and archive images that I took pre-Masters when my subject matter was located more around the British coastline.
It’s really at an early stage but aesthetically, it’s sitting together nicely. The heavy use of grain is covering up the screen moiré from Zoom, but it’s also referencing something and adding an ambiguity. People are trying to work out what I’m doing – is this new, is this old?
It’s been good in terms of having a focus, still being able to photograph with somebody under lockdown. An easy way to describe the work is this love/hate relationship I have with this sense of Britishness. I like a lot of the British landscape and some of this nostalgia around the past, but I hate the small-mindedness and I hate the Brexit.
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
I envisage places the same as before Covid. Cycling up to the tree, making work there, was very much to do with the sense of that place and the significance of that tree for a lot of people in Exeter. The newer work is very much about place and Britishness. Covid has stopped me continuing the work on Durlescombe. For example, I’m not photographing on the farms because I don’t feel it’s particularly right, but there’s no rush and no deadline and I can carry that on at the time I feel is appropriate. It’s good to be open to new ways of working. I think that’s important to students as well not have this fixed idea of this is what I’m doing.
‘A combination of repeatability and access. By repeatability, I mean the ability to make exact copies of an image ad infinitum; simple laws of supply and demand dictate that the more objects there are to go around, the less fighting over them ensues, and consequently, value falls’ (Thein, 2013)
The commercial side of the ‘art’ world can be seen throughout history. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, the Popes of the Catholic Church ‘strove to make Rome the capital of Christendom while projecting it, through art, architecture, and literature, as the centre of a Golden Age of unity, order, and peace’ (Norris 2007). Artworks were commissioned by the Popes of the time in order to create a legacy for themselves and the church, which in turn helped to instil awe and wonder in the viewers. It is undeniable to say that this form of commerciality was beneficial to the art of the period though, as some of the most ubiquitous works of art were created in this time by artists who had been commissioned by the Catholic Church. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was a commission by Pope Julius II in 1508 and has been both a tourist and religious attraction ever since, attracting up to 20,000 people per day in summer (Pullella 2012).
However, as the Renaissance allowed artists to look more towards Humanism rather than Catholicism, many works of art were made that did not focus on Christianity but looked at the value of human life and people instead. Some of these artworks have been commercialised more recently, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a good example of this. Described as ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world’ (Lichfield, 2005), the Mona Lisa has been reproduced countless times by clothing brands and artists alike.
Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. was not the first appropriation of the work but it drew more attention to it as critics of the time saw Duchamp’s work as ‘immoral and vulgar, even plagiaristic’ (MoMa 2021), so having a reputation such as Marcel Duchamp attached to the image of the Mona Lisa certainly elicited more attention. Perhaps more importantly however, Duchamp managed to take the work away from the commercial world and mould it back into the art world again. By drawing on a postcard of the original piece, he takes the synonymous image of the Mona Lisa ‘from the banality of reproduction and returns it to the private world of creation’ (Jones, 2001). We could say, then, that commerciality actually led to more creativity for Duchamp; he saw how Da Vinci’s painting had been commercialised and used this to his advantage.
Gift shops are the ideal arenas for art to be reproduced and commercialised. This can, however, dilute the initial context of the work. When talking about Edvard Munch’s The Scream on the TalkArt podcast, Tracy Emin argues that Munch’s work was grossly misunderstood, and that what was initially a work intended to talk about the ‘never ending scream of nature’ ended up ‘being a car key ring, or a fridge magnet, or a cartoon, or a joke. There was nothing jokey about that at all’ (Emin, 2020). She went on to discuss how she has made sure that after her death she ‘will not become a nail file or a key ring’, alluding to her negative view on the way in which the commercialisation of certain works can diminish their context.
‘The context of display is an important issue because it colours our perception and informs our understanding of works of art’ (Barker, 1999, p.8)
Case Study: Albert Namatjira
Albert Namatjira was born in 1902 in Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory of Australia. He was separated by the government from his parents to attend a Lutheran mission school at a young age and he soon became interested in the possibility of learning to paint. ‘Motivated by a deep attachment to his country and the possibility of a vocation that offered financial return’ (Kleinert, 2000), Namatjira expressed his interest of learning painting to Rex Battarbee, an Australian artist who in 1936 took Namatjira on expeditions as a cameleer. Battarbee lent Namatjira the materials needed in order to paint and taught him how to do so in a European style. Battarbee ‘was impressed by his evident talent’ (Kleinert, 2000) and two years later in 1938 Namatjira would hold his first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery in Melbourne.
It is notable that it was only when Namatjira painted in a European manner that he began to gain national and international commercial attention; many people sought to buy works of art from one of the first Aboriginal painters to work in a European style. However, Namatjira, along with all other Aboriginal people in Australia, were wards of the state and were therefore disallowed from making their own legal decisions. He could not, for example, decide to travel between territories. Choices such as these would be made for him by the government and subsequently state departments of Native Affairs (Edmond 2014: 358) and because of his legal standing (or lack thereof), Namatjira was taken advantage of many times during his life by people who wanted to sell originals or copies of his work. Paintings bought for £20 may have then been marked up to as much as £100 (Edmond, 2014: 350). Whilst this may seem like a rather normal occurrence in the modern-day art market, it is important to note not only the immediacy but the lack of control Namatjira had over these deals.
It is undeniable then that commercialisation played a largely negative role in Namatjira’s artistic career. Whilst he may have created some of the most famous and beloved artworks in Australia to this date, they are outshone by the immorality of his treatment. In 1957, his wardship was finally revoked, but Edmond & Williamson (2014) propose that ‘all it meant was that he was no longer subject to the rules and regulations that so-called full-bloods had to observe and thus, from one point of view, was less an invitation to join white Australia than an excision from his own people’ (2014: 365-6). No longer being a ward of the state gave Namatjira some more freedoms, most notably a licence to buy alcohol. The commerciality of his work meant that Namatjira earned more than most other Aboriginal Australians of the time. He used his money to buy and supply alcohol to his family and friends, which he was later arrested and imprisoned for (Alexander 2014).
‘(Photography) promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are logged’ (Elkins, 2011, p.17)
Doug Rickard produced his series A New American Picture, by utilising the vast visual archive of Google Street View. He iimportantly reminds us to challenge preconceptions about what photography, or ‘photographies’ can be, especially when it comes to digital imagery. Rickard spent an extensive amount of time (2009-2011) exploring stereotypically ‘subordinate’ urban neighbourhoods and rural areas across the USA, from the comfort of his own computer desk. He would then photograph the composition on his computer screen with a digital SLR. Whilst many photographers aim for the most transparent process possible, Rickard includes blurred faces, pixelated distortion and warped perspective which reveal the digital origin of his photographs.
Perhaps Rickard’s process reflects the beginning of an age where human beings are reduced to data, constantly being observed, being monitored?
Yet, paradoxically, Rickard returns humanity to this data by picking out individual stories and adding them to the overarching and ongoing narrative of the American working class. The sense of distance provided by Rickard’s multi-layered technique adds weight to the images- reminding us of how distant we might be from these people and places; both on a geographical, cultural and socio-economic level. And so, Rickard is no more of a visual appropriator than any more ‘traditional’ photographer: he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside. The images included in A New American Picture only became photographs (dare we say ‘art’?) once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised and published by Rickard.
‘Doug Rickard… is interested in the American content and its haunting, visceral power. “I was interested in photographing America in the same context, with the same poetry and power, that has been done in the past” (in Appleyard, 2011)
Rickard’s work blurs the lines between technology and reality, the image and the world around us. His practice challenges our view of what photography is, and could be in this new, digital age.
Although Rickard is drawing from a collection of images which have already been ‘taken’, His practice, to me, cannot be considered to be a ‘pure’ form of artistic appropriation (despite appropriation being a completely valid way of producing powerful work, which can eloquently distil a cultural mood). The original mages within Google Street View are not, in my opinion, photographs. They were objectively, methodically collected by a vehicle-mounted camera driven down every street; they have no nature of subjective selection.
Rickard is no more a visual hunter-gatherer than any photographer. he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside which is, itself, layered with constructed imagery.
Szarkowski’s (1966) discussion of photography focuses on the idea of selection. A photographer chooses what to include within a frame, and what to leave out. It is impossible for the ‘photographer’ to be truly objective, as a truly objective image is not a photograph, it is only visual data. so where does that leave Rickard, or indeed, his source material? A New American Picture only became subjective photographs once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised. One might even liken his work to that of a ‘readymade’ sculptor; he turns something completely banal and utilitarian into a different practice merely through recontextualization. But yet paradoxically, despite its source material, we should still frame this practice in the tradition of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Paul Graham – or even Edward Hopper, as an equally visual / critical and subjective commentary on the state of thier own America.
‘Any doubts as to the artistic – rather than ethical or conceptual – merits of this new way of working were definitively settled by Rickard’s pictures. It was William Eggleston who coined the phrase “photographing democratically” but Rickard has used Google’s indiscriminate omniscience to radically extend this enterprise – technologically, politically and aesthetically’ (Dyer, 2012)
The idea of photography as an accurate representation of the real world is mythological. Whether it be an artist’s concept, a news story, a memory, an advertisement, an illustration or investigation, all photographs feed into a false narrative of some kind. Yet, Rickards photographs are aesthetically pleasing, insightful, emotive and harrowing. The sense of distance provided by his multi-layered technique adds weight to the images, reminding one of how distant we really might be from these people and places, on geographical, cultural and socio-economic levels.
This session encourages participants to consider the place of memory and fiction in their images and the relationship between personal memory and constructed memory or narrative. They are encouraged to conduct in depth independent research into the work of Alex Prager
Prager’s distinctive works cross the worlds of art, fashion, photography and film…each of her images is packed with a multitude of emotional layers and narrative possibilities. Her early photographs were predominantly shot on sets of Los Angeles, with carefully staged scenes, further heightened by hyper-styled costumes, makeup, lighting and the use of a richly saturated colour palette, lending the images a particular dramatic intensity.’ (The Photographers Gallery 2018)
Participants will explore the place of memory and fiction in their images
They will research the work of Masumi Hayashi, Alex Prager, Sophie Calle and Trish Morrissey, and apply some of the concepts to their own work
They will use old photographs as ‘aide memoirs’
Participant Outcome: 1 x 10 x 8 digital photograph
‘Prager does for photography what James Ellroy did for crime fiction, inventing a neo-noir L.A. vernacular that creates a feeling of the past without the limitations of historical accuracy’ (Witt, 2019)
You will need:
Photo album(s) or digital photos from your childhood
Appropriate props / models
Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards) *This session can also be run using Camera phones or Lumix cameras
Access to computers (or laptops) and imaging software
Notebooks for participants to log research and sketch ideas
An Introductory Brief & Presentation (below) for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
A booked room to critique participants work (either via a projector or via print)
Blue tack to pin the work
Costings and Risk Assessments
‘Prager’s oeuvre consists of heavily staged, large format images using rich colours. Her photographs can be seen as ‘single frame narratives’ that capture enigmatic stories within the edges of the frame. Both her photographs and films are characterised by the absence of a linear narrative; each of the works recounts a bizarre, perpetual unreality’ (foam, 2019)
Preparation Brief: Locate a memory from your childhood, and see how you can endorse and elaborate it with the help of family members / friends who share your memory, as well as photo albums / digital photos which may have recorded it. It’s important to have a strong sense of place as you will need to be able to visualise it. Make a note of any dominant colours there. Draw a sketch of how you remember the place. Your imagination will be necessary if you are unable to gather enough factual detail.
Ask participants to prepare for the session by conducting Independent research – talking to family / friends, finding photo albums / digital photos.
Ask participants to watch Alan Roth (2007) Re/collecting Memory, about the highly personal work of photographer Masumi Hayashi available here: Part 1 and Part 2
Ask paricipants to consider the relationship between personal memory and constructed memory or narrative by:
Show participants the Presentation above / a selection of images by Prager, Hayashi, Calle and Morrissey and discuss their concept / staging / construction.
Referring to the Preparation Work sketch, decide where to stage a photograph which represents the memory. You may wish to restrict it to to a place although preferably you will have participants to stage a performance under your direction.Decide how the ‘actors’ will be dressed, and what expressions or gestures them should perform.Choose and source any props required.