The Morphing Forms of The Vernacular

Is the Relationship Between Vernacular Photography & Memory Shifting in the Digital Age?

By Lydia Shearsmith (23rd June 2021)
Martina Lopez (1998) from Questioning Nature’s Way
Abstract

This paper investigates the relationship between vernacular photography and memory in the digital age. Specifically, it contemplates how the digital age is affecting vernacular imagery, the relationship we have with memory and finally the representation of the self and its effect on how we are remembered. Throughout I discuss different digital advancements that have developed through the digital age and analyse the effect it has on photography’s relationship to memory.

Informed by the writing of theorists such as Daniel Plamer, David Bate, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Geoferry Batchen and Jose Van Dijck, it introduces different viewpoints which help inform the argument. The photographic practice of Corrine Vionnet, Jason Lazarus, Chino Otsuka, Diane Meyer, Greg Sand, Nan Goldin and Chompoo Baritone provide different approaches of how the relationship between photography and memory support such points made through practice / visual illustration.

The themes discussed investigate the morphing nature of vernacular photography; in particular, the impact of the migration from the photograph as physical artefact to a digital file is having on the photograph’s relation to memory. I move on to consider the effects these changes may have on memory itself, focusing on the possibility of there being a death of memory. I conclude with a discussion of how social media is affecting the portrayal of the self and how this affects personal legacy.

Key Words: Vernacular, Family, Memory, Digital, Social Media

Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Chameleon Vernacular
  • Chapter 2: The Death of Memory
  • Chapter 3: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Bibliography
Greg Sand (2012) Brothers
List of Figures
  • Cover Image: Greg Sand (2012) Brothers
  • Figure 1: Unknown (c.1850) Couple with Daguerreotype
  • Figure 2: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections
  • Figure 3: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep
  • Figure 4: Jason Lazarus (2018) from Too Hard to Keep
  • Figure 5: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife
  • Figure 6: Corinne Vionnet (2005) from Photo Opportunities
  • Figure 7: Screenshot by author (2019) #Beach on Instagram
  • Figure 8: Erik Kessels (2011) from 24 Hours in Photos
  • Figure 9: Erik Kessels (2013) from Album Beauty
  • Figure 10: David Ariel Szauder (2013) from Failed Memories
  • Figure 11: Diane Meyer (2013) from Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten
  • Figure 12: Chino Otsuka (2005) from Imagine Finding Me
  • Figure 13: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections
  • Figure 14: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife
  • Figure 15: Greg Sand (2011) from Once Removed
  • Figure 16: Nan Goldin (1982) Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC
  • Figure 17: Mona Hatoum (1998) from Measures of Distance
Introduction

Since the early 19th century, photographs have played an important role in the act of family life and cultural practices. (Figure 1) These photographs, representations of the visual culture of everyday life, are referred to as vernacular photographs (Batchen, 2014). Vernacular photographs often document special, rarefied moments that the photographer wishes to remember and look back on in the future. The photographs are fragments of reality that anyone can acquire (Sontag, 1977: 4); whether their production is for remembrance, record or for capturing the enjoyment of a moment, vernacular photographs capture everyone’s present with the intent of memorializing it.

Figure 1: Unknown (c.1850) Couple with Daguerreotype

However, due to digital and technological advancements, the relationship we have with vernacular imagery is in flux, especially concerning memory; due to the presence of a photograph being a physical object, yet now morphing into a digital file. As a digital file, a photograph has “increased flexibility that may lessen our grip on our images’ future repurposing and reframing, forcing us to acknowledge the way pictorial memory might be changed by ease of distribution” (Van Dijck, 2008: 58). The state of a digital file and the position it can take through the internet and social media has the potential to change the relationship we hold between vernacular imagery and memory. Throughout this paper, I will be exploring this relationship through analysing how vernacular photograph’s form and meaning is changing in a digital climate, assessing how these changes are affecting the ability of memory and finally, how photography is becoming more about self-assurance, than it is about our personal memories. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections

Chapter One: The Chameleon Vernacular will assess the progression in the role of vernacular imagery in recent history. Exploring how the change from physical, cherished photographic prints, to digital ways of taking, storing and sharing, is changing the way we view a photograph – Addressing whether we can still place as much importance on a photograph that may never take a physical form. I will be arguing that although vernacular photography holds an essential position in our lives, instead of holding importance in the act of remembrance; they are instead imparting significance on the moment itself and its use as a tool of communication.

Chapter Two: The Death of Memory, explores the role of vernacular photographs in the act of remembrance and how through either personal choice or file corruption, these images could cause a literal loss of memory. I will also reason that photography may not be an accessory for memory, more so a prompt of something that we have forgotten, that we may never remember. Furthermore, I will analyse how the progression of digital technology is creating an opportunity to record and save every aspect of life, resulting in the inability to forget. Applying it to the relationship between memory and forgetting, thus by having memory, how we must have the ability to forget.

Chapter Three: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self, will demonstrate how vernacular photography is altering from being a prompt of personal memory to being an idealised representation of the self, specifically an idealised legacy. I will explore how digital visual culture is affecting the way we are representing ourselves, dictating how we want to be seen in the future. I will demonstrate this by looking into the reasons we take and keep photographs of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the camera. Arguing that through striving for the perfect image, our photographs have started to become a diminished record of who we are.

Chapter 1: The Chameleon Vernacular

Vernacular photographs are often considered to be priceless objects, that “speak to us and for us, reinforcing our memories and histories and cultivating our sense of self, [they become] precious physical traces of our individual identities and histories.” (Zuromskis, 2016: 18). The photograph plays a vital role in documenting who we are, where we come from and can even project an idea of whom we might become. Before the invention of digital photography, there would be a prolonged period between the taking and the viewing of a photograph, which naturally imparts a heightened significance on the photograph. It allows for a reminiscence of the recent past, acting as a reminder that has a physical presence indicating longevity.

Figure 3: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep

Jason Lazarus’ archival project entitled Too Hard to Keep (Figure 3) highlights the profuse connection an individual can have with a physical image. To create the archive Lazarus “solicits submissions of images that are too hard for people to keep but too painful to destroy” (Smith, 2018: 198). The notion that there are photographs that hold that much emotional value to a person they cannot be kept, nonetheless they cannot destroy demonstrates how photographs can be more than just a visual representation of a selected moment. Too Hard to Keep highlights and awareness that once a photograph ceases to exist physically, the connection between its possessor and the moment it depicts is altered, there is a possibility of it being forgotten altogether. However, by handing the photograph into someone else’s possession, in this case, Lazarus’, the moment does not die, it can still hold onto its legacy even if it will never be understood again. The photograph has control over the mortality of a memory. However, how is the change from photographic print to digital file going to affect the emotions attached to a photographic image? (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Jason Lazarus (2010) from Too Hard to Keep

The development of digital modes of taking, storing and sharing challenges the role of vernacular photography in everyday life. Unlike, the photograph print, a digital file has a disposability due to the ease of its creation. As Susan Murray explains: “The ability to store and erase on memory cards, as well as to see images immediately after taking them, provides a sense of disposability and immediacy to the photographic image that was never there before” (Murray, 2008: 156). The personal value of the photographic image is decreasing due to the accessibility of production and the ability to store an abundance of images without it inhabiting a physical space. Furthermore, due to the instantaneous modes of taking the digital photograph “can speak instantly to the world, and our reminiscence happens in real-time.” (Lavoie, 2018). Taking a photograph is no longer a means of documenting moments to be looked back on as the past but as a moment that is recorded and viewed as the here and the now.

With our reminiscence happening in real-time, the status of a photograph as being a prompt of memory is also changing. The ephemerality of digital files results in the photographic image being regarded as temporary instead of fixed, especially to a younger generation. As Jose Van Dijck state: “Most teenagers consider their pictures to be temporary reminders rather than permanent keepsakes” (Van Dijck, 2008: 62). This indicates that there is an awareness among younger generations of the photograph’s role of being a keepsake of memory, but they choose for it not to be. This could be a result of living in the moment, alternatively, it could be a result of limited life experience. The older we get, the more reminiscent we become. It would be interesting to explore how the perspective of those considered to be ‘most teenagers’ at the time of Dijcks statement has changed with age.

A cause of this attitude towards a vernacular photograph being a brief reminder could be due to the introduction of social media platforms, especially Instagram and Snapchat, which are both predominantly photo sharing networks. These platforms demonstrate a “distinctive swing towards photographs as a currency for social interaction [which] must therefore be interpreted as part of a broader cultural transformation that involves individualisation and intensification of experience” (Palmer, 2010: 168). This indicates how the photographic image becomes a document of the here and the now; becoming a record of experience opposed to one with the intention of remembrance. The broader audience through social media imparts a stronger social significance of a photograph, in contrast to a personal emotional value that a printed photograph may impart. (Figure 5)

Figure 5: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife

Vernacular photographs have taken on an evidential role in everyday life; “Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had” (Sontag, 1977: 9).  Although, this is still true for physical photographs; the overwhelming number of images on social media platforms and the ease of documenting every moment, indicates that nothing has happened at all if it has not ended up in a photograph. “Photography has become less about the special or rarefied moments of domestic/family living… and more about an immediate, rather fleeting display of one’s discovery of the small and mundane” (Palmer, 2010: 155). Through the ease of uploading images, they no longer hold as great of a significance on any given moment. The photographs have become about proving something has been done, or a place visited opposed to celebrating and recording a special moment with a photograph. This is visualised through Corrine Vionnet’s series Photo Opportunities (Figure 6). To create the images, Vionnet compiles thousands of snapshots found online that relate to a specific tourist destination. The photograph illustrates a mere indication of the number of photographs taken at that specific location and how, through the internet, every one of the files is accessible to the public. This visualises how many people have registered a significance in visiting the location and sharing the fact that they were there.

Figure 6: Corinne Vionnet (2005+) from Photo Opportunities

The abundance of images created as a result of social experience and their aesthetic similarities has a significance in the changing form of vernacular imagery.  As visualised through the work of Vionnet, there is a staggering number of photographs all depicting similar if not the same, things and as a result of this, a photograph no longer has to be a person’s own to be used as an instigator of memory. In 1999 Novak stated that: “We experience much of history as photographic moments and these images from our cultural consciousness can trigger our personal memories in ways that our own snapshots often could not” (Novak, 1999). This can be applied to our current circumstance; however, the images do not have to be historical, they can be anyone’s vernacular image that either shares a visual similarity to an experience you have had or depicts a place you have visited. These images still have the potential to spark a memory.

Figure 7: Screenshot by author (2019) #Beach on Instagram

For example, Figure 7 depicts a screenshot of a search on Instagram of images tagged #beach; it is noticeable how visually similar the photographs are. Even if the photograph is not of you in particular that image could still spark a recollection of a photograph you might have taken or a time when you thought about taking a photograph but did not. It also highlights how we have become aware of our own presence within a photograph, often being the subject ourselves, instead of the one photographing. We have become the subject of our personal photographs as opposed to the people that surround us. This has the potential to alter how the photograph acts in conjunction with memory, which I will further discuss in Chapter Three.

The visual similarity and urge to document everything on social media platforms is leading to an image culture which “deals with ephemeral lifestyle concepts which are frequently changed and updated in the online catalogues through which they are accessed” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 341). Due to the mass of images, it is harder to keep track of what has been taken and shared. (Figure 8) There is an ability to go back and view the photographs at any given point due to their accessibility; however, it is more common to go on social media and scroll through other people’s most recent photographs, placing us in a position where the present is persistently being viewed. This results in greater importance being placed on the consumption of other people’s photographs opposed to our own, and the social interactions they may create. Photographs are posted to make other people aware of where we have been and what we have done, creating the possibility of a future conversation regarding the event. This signifies that an act of remembrance may be a result of a conversation regarding a shared image as opposed to the image itself.

Figure 8: Erik Kessels (2011) from 24 Hours in Photos

Through the digital age, vernacular photography is a chameleon; it is morphing and changing to fit into different circumstances to be as accessible to anyone that chooses to take photographs. The photographic print can still be seen to have an important position in most homes. Nonetheless, its visual language has morphed into different forms to allow for different styles of imagery for different forms of sharing. Whether it be an Instagram post, to depict a good time or a quick photo to a friend as a form of communication. However, I agree with the statement from Nathan Jurgenson that: “Photography has gone from being a medium for the collection of important memories to an interface of visual communication”. (Jurgenson, 2019: 13-14) The most considerable change for vernacular photography is that its significance no longer lies on memory and recollection but communication, as the visual prompts for memory can come from elsewhere.

Chapter 2: The Death of Memory

In Chapter One I outlined how the instantaneous process of taking and viewing an image places us in the here and now, resulting in a system where “Our contemporary documentary vision positions the present as a potential future past, creating a nostalgia for the here and now” (Jurgenson, 2019: 7). The photographs we take make us particularly aware of our stance in the present, resulting in the images we take being ones of self-representation opposed to records of memories to be looked back on in the future. Digital technology allows for our personal archive to be easily accessible, resulting in us revisiting our recent past more frequently than our distant past. This is especially relevant to individuals that lived in a time before digital photography, as to revisit the childhood pictures, they would have to find the physical images. This results in importance been placed on our recent histories, placing a heightened significance on living in the moment opposed to reminiscing our distant past. “The images produced by camera phones are typically experienced as ephemeral artefacts, unlike analogue photographs that are usually meant to be kept” (Palmer, 2010:158), images taken now are short-lasting, revisited close to the time of being taken and quickly forgotten about due to a new wave of imagery.

The personal decision to dispose of images, as a means of controlling the abundance of photographs, also adds to the ephemeral nature of vernacular imagery today. Wells (2015) argues that: “The delete button may be changing the relationship of photography to biography as images that might have been valued in retrospect are now rapidly consigned to oblivion before history and nostalgia can do their work” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 337). However, I believe that we place a significance on the photograph at the moment it is taken, experiencing nostalgia in the present, which results in our value of the photograph quickly depleting as new photographs take their places. This results in us happily deleting and disregarding photographs before they become a relic of our past. Sontag states that: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art” (Sontag, 1977: 21). This indicates how a photograph can have an unpredictable significance over time, nonetheless due to the ephemerality and readiness to dispose of images to replace them with new ones; there is a potential for these significant photographs to be deleted and forgotten about, obstructing our potential for recollection, and quite different from the physical artefact of the family album. (Figure 9)

Figure 9: Erik Kessels (2013) from Album Beauty

There is the possibility for the death of memory through a personal choice to delete photographs, but what happens when the loss comes from an error beyond our control, one of file corruption. Technological advancements are hard to keep track of and “as we move from one computer operating system or storage medium upgrade to another unprecedented amounts of information are being lost or trapped in obsolete formats” (Wells & Henning, 2015: 344). There is a fragility that comes with digital files and if they are not looked after they run the risk of deleting moments in our lives that we have entrusted to photographs that have fallen into an abyss that they cannot be returned from.

This fragility is illustrated through the work of David Ariel Szauder whose project Failed Memories (Figure 10) creates a visualisation of the process of recalling an image that has at some point being lost. The digital visual language used by Szauder through the image creates a dialogue between naturally forgetting and digitally forgetting and how either way, the loss of an image can cause a sense of corruption in its recollection.

Figure 10: David Ariel Szauder (2013) from Failed Memories

In my opinion, Diane Meyer more successfully addresses this concept through her series Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten (Figure 11) by borrowing “the visual language of digital photography through an analogue process which creates a relationship between forgetting and digital file corruption” (Meyer,2017). Unlike Szauder, Meyer uses personal imagery which creates a more emotional reaction to viewing the photographs. The barriers Meyer creates through stitching into the photographs means that there is anonymity of the subject; however, the scenes can still be deciphered, and the viewer can often pinpoint a similar image from their history, such as sitting in front of the Christmas tree, making every photograph personal. Meyer’s work highlights how although the digital file is more fragile and ever-changing if a physical image is damaged or lost, it is just as fragile. The loss of memory through the loss of an image is just as relevant to old ways of storing as it is to new. The loss of memory is not a new thing; it has just become more noticeable through a higher abundance of images in the digital age.

Figure 11: Diane Meyer (2013) from Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten

There is a potential for digital storage to allow for the creation of a perfect memory, which could instigate the death of memory. Digital storage “is so omnipresent, costless and seemingly ‘valuable’ – due to accessibility, durability and comprehensives – that we are tempted to employ it constantly” (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011: 126). The ease of using and accessing digital storage methods creates the potential to record every aspect of life, giving us the ability to digitally ‘remember’ any given moment. This then prevents the ability to forget, and when “The art of memory relies on the art of forgetting” (Rumsey, 2016: 12), it introduces a paradox between the relationship between photography and memory. Photographs remind us of specific moments in time; however, it is rarely that exact moment that the photograph causes us to recollect.

Roland Barthes articulates that a photograph is “never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becoming a counter memory” (Barthes, 1994: 91). We have become reliant on the photograph acting as a memory. When in reality a photograph is a visualisation of what a moment looked like opposed to a snippet of the actual event. We entrust a photograph to possess a memory that only we can recall, focusing so much on capturing a moment that we do not actually take it in enough to become a memory.

Figure 12: Chino Otsuka (2005) from Imagine Finding Me

The concept that a photograph becomes a barricade for memory can be illustrated through Chino Otsuka’s series Imagine Finding Me (Figure 12). The work consists of Otsuka digitally inserting herself back into her childhood photographs, creating a dialogue surrounding identity and personal history. Discussing her work Otsuka states: “I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history’ (Otsuka in Azarello, 2015). The idea of being a ‘tourist’ creates a sense of the unknown. Otsuka is exploring her own history; nonetheless, she is in unknown territory. Even though she has the photographic evidence of her history of being in that moment, she has no recollection of it. Otsuka is navigating the map of her own life through photographs, but there is only so much she can learn. An imaginary conversation could be had between her two selves, but only she can answer the questions of her own history, but the photographs cannot help insight a recollection.

There is a noticeable risk in both digital files and physical print for a photograph to be easily lost. However, I believe it is the overconsumption of images and the ability to store endless amounts of images that run a risk of corrupting the relationship we hold between photography and memory. From an extreme perspective: “We may enter a time in which – as a reaction to too much remembering, with too strict and unforgiving link to our past – some may opt for the extreme and ignore the past altogether for the present, deciding to live in the moment” (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011:126).  The endless amounts of photographs we keep can result in reminders of our past appearing that we might not want to be reminded of. This has the potential to put us in a cynical position where we no longer want to remember past at all, living entirely in the present. Even if the photographs do not recall painful memories of our past the endless stream of photographs paired with our nostalgia for the present is leading to a similar effect even if it is not a conscious decision.

Chapter 3: Idealism & the (In)Stability of the Self

Due to advancements of social sharing platforms (such as Instagram), our photographs are now shared to a large audience in real-time, opposed to them being kept and shared between a smaller selection of close relatives and friends. This creates a keen awareness of how we are presented and perceived by others in a virtual space. The photographs we take and share become “a certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1994: 87). The photograph can place us in a particular position in time and space, documenting the path we are travelling and making others viewing the photographs aware of it as we go. The vernacular photograph is just as much a record of our personal ‘story’ as it is an accessory for remembrance. However, this record comes an awareness of what we choose to portray and how we choose to portray it. The photograph is a “self-representation that is less about seeing things as they are than about seeing things as we want or imagine them to be” (Zuromskis, 2016: 20), thus resulting in us mediating every aspect of how we are depicted to our ‘audience’.

Figure 13: Amalia Ulman (2016) from Excellences & Perfections

Taking a photograph requires the subject to perform for the camera and the photographer, however, with the increased popularity of the ‘selfie’ we have become both the subject and the photographer, controlling every aspect of how we are to be displayed to an audience. (Figure 13) Through the process of taking a photograph, we are presenting ourselves not as whom we think we are, and not as whom the viewer thinks we are but as a representation of whom we think the viewer thinks we are (Jurgenson, 2019: 57). We create a version of ourselves that we believe our friend and followers want to see.

Although this is visible through the way we present ourselves in a self-image, it is possibly even more prominent in the way we picture our surroundings and home lives. This is illustrated through Chompoo Baritones series #slowlife (Figure 14). Through the series, Baritone depicts the idealised scene we choose to show other people on our Instagram feed, in contrast to the ‘real’ picture, which shows an accurate depiction of how we live. This series highlights how hyperaware we are of our self-image, showing how we curator an idealised version of ourselves for the public while hiding our real selves, just outside of the frame.

Figure 14: Chompoo Baritone (2015) from #slowlife

However, due to this mindset and the idealised images that are produced because of it, most vernacular images are beginning to look the same, depicting a perfect reality. These staged mediation of ourselves may be aesthetically pleasing, but they lack soul and emotion. As Roland Barthes would put it, these photographs have a studium, they spark and enthusiasm without special acuity (Barthes, 1994: 26) but they do not contain a punctum, the “accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me” (Barthes, 1994: 27). The photographs have visual interest, but they do not have any emotional power over the viewer or even the subject of the image.

The work of Greg Sand (Figure 15) demonstrates how powerful a punctum can be. Sand’s series Once Removed, takes the subject away from an old photograph, leaving only the studio and a chair within the frame. However, when viewing the photograph, there is an apparent loss of presence, a realisation that there should be a person there. “The removal of the subject who is very much alive in the photograph – forces the photograph to more truthfully depict a present reality in which the subject no longer lives” (Sand, 2011). Sands photographs make us aware that “photographs remind us that memorialization has little to do with recalling the past; it is always about looking ahead toward that terrible, imagined, vacant future in which we ourselves will have been forgotten” (Batchen, 2004:98).

Figure 15: Greg Sand (2011) from Once Removed

Sand’s photographs successfully evoke this by heightening the effect of the punctum through erasing the details of the stadium. What interests the viewer is the lack of a subject, but what ‘pricks them’ is the nostalgia created through the sense of loss. However, the viewer has no idea what or who they are nostalgic for, just an awareness that they are not in a position to be able to remember the person. In contrast to the vernacular photographs, we are creating which produce a legacy of idealism as opposed to an accurate depiction of who we are. We have lost our punctum through digital visual culture.

Our vernacular photographs are more than just a prompt for recollection, but they help to record our personal legacy. However, due to the aesthetic sameness and lack of emotion they possess, our photographs run the risk of writing a bland history, which depicts what we looked like and the perfect things we did in our lives, but not giving an insight as to who we actually where. We create a record of ourselves “to present a sense of being a coherent person over time, to strengthen social bonds by sharing personal memories, and to use past experiences to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others” (Van Dijck, 2007:3). The documents of ourselves make our legacy genuine, they show the good and the bad and how we became the person we did, but now due to the idealised image promoted through social media everyone’s legacy is a depiction of what they want to show as their perfect selves opposed to their real selves.

Figure 16: Nan Goldin (1982) Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC

The photographs that depict a more authentic version of who we are those which present ourselves naturally not in a controlled environment and staging but the ones that catch us off guard and have a spontaneity. This can be demonstrated through the snapshot aesthetic used by Nan Goldin (Figure 16). Goldin describes the process of what she wants to capture within her work as an exact picture of her world “without glamorisation, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection’ (Goldin, 1996:6). Goldin strives to capture an informed depiction of what the real world is like. Although the images can sometimes be uncomfortable and troubling, not depicting an idealised view, they depict the truth. Furthermore, create a sense of truth as to who the people captured actual are and how they live. Remembering the difficult times can often make the good even better. However, if we continually present ourselves in an idealised form, our legacy will not be exciting because the perfect will start to seem ‘normal’.

Due to the idealised image, there is much pressure being put on individuals to have an idealised life. It is often hard to decipher between whether a photograph depicts the truth of a person or a façade of whom they want to be. This creates a position in which “There is a pressure for photography to structure everyday life in the very process of representing it” (Lister, 1995: 130). Instead of becoming a record of what is happening in a person’s life, the photograph becomes the aim of a person’s life. Photographs can start to influence the places we want to be, the food we want to eat and the person we want to become. “Everything exists to end in a photograph” (Sontag, 1977: 24) instead of the photograph being a result of being in a moment that we feel is special enough to want to remember so we photograph it.

Vernacular photography has become about creating a perfect legacy, due to our awareness that photographs are how we will be remembered, paired with a social pressure to present an idealised version of ourselves to others. However, we seem to have lost sight that our history and legacy develops from a cultural and personal outlook on the photograph. Photography is not about the technology used or the aesthetic it follows, but it depends on our cultural and subconscious way of seeing and reading. Photographs as record give us a position, identity and a power through security.  (Wells & Henning, 2015: 323) Security of a legacy, however, if we conform to visual cultures, this security may become challenged, resulting in our legacy being lost or untruthful.

Conclusion

The relationship between photography and memory is definitely being affected by the digital age. I have found that “memory and photography change in conjunction with each other, adapting to contemporary expectations and prevailing norms” (Van Dijck, 2008: 70-71). The role of the vernacular image is morphing and changing into multiple different forms; they exist in the physical form and in multiple different digital formats. However, their form is majorly shifting into one of communication and ephemerality, placing heightened importance on the here and the now.

In terms of the vernacular photograph leading to the death of memory, it places us in a position where memory is being affected by multiple different variations of memory loss which often become contradictory. However, the most concerning form of loss comes from our ability of over documentation our lives through the accessibility of digital technology. Moreover, because “remembering also institutes a kind of forgetting” (Bate, 2010), the ability never to forget profoundly effects our ability to remember.

The idealised self-image is where the relationship between memory and photography becomes is challenged the most. As Barthes states “The photograph does not call up the past. The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (Barthes, 1994: 82). However, due to the effect of social media and a strife for perfection, we are creating a document of our existence that only depict what we look like. Depicting an idealised perspective of the relationships we have and the places we have been. The search for recording ourselves to create a legacy means that we place less importance on those around us and the spontaneity. It is no longer about our personal act of remembrance but of how we are to be remembered.

Throughout the process of writing this paper I have come to realise how ever changing the forms of vernacular photography are and how their connection to memory can differ to every person. I had not thought to consider the age group of people and how this may affect their response to photography; but, also how as we age, our relationship with memory changes. This could result in a completely different relationship between, people, memory and photography and the digital age is another factor to be considered. I found through writing this paper that visual trends have a powerful significance on the way we view any images and that our place in culture can affect the way we view photographs as we do.

If I were to continue with this research, I would like to consider how different media, beyond photography, plays a significance in our relationship to memory, especially home video. I feel that this would create an exciting dynamic between the way we choose to depict ourselves in images to the way we act in the everyday. I would also like to explore how different cultures may have a different relationship to vernacular photography, specifically those that are not westernised. (Figure 17) I would also pay closer attention to the complexity of memory, doing more research into the psychology of memory to be able to apply my findings into broader contexts.

Figure 17: Mona Hatoum (1998) from Measures of Distance
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  • JURGENSON, NATHAN. (2019) The social Photo – On photography and social media. London: Verso.
  • LAVOIE, STEPHANE. (2018) Modern Photography is changing how we remember our lives. OneZero [Online]. Available at: https://onezero.medium.com/modern-photography-is-changing-how-we-remember-our-lives-4b59adab4a2e [Accessed 04 November 2019
  • LISTER, MARTIN. (1995). The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Routledge: Oxon.
  • MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER, VIKTOR. (2011). Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • MEYER, DIANE. (2017) ‘Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten 2011-2017’. Diane Meyer [Online] Available at: http://www.dianemeyer.net/projects/Time_Spent/timespent.html [Accessed: 09 April 2019]
  • MURRAY, SUSAN. (2008). ‘Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics’. Journal of Visual Culture 7(2), 147–63.
  • NOVAK, LORRIE. (1999) ‘Collected Visions’ in Hirsch, M. ‘The familial gaze’, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
  • OTSUKA, CHINO. in AZZARELLO, NANCY. (2014) ‘chino otsuka inserts her adult self into photos from her youth’. Designboom Jan 2014 [online]. Available at: https://www.designboom.com/art/chino-otsuka-inserts-her-adult-self-into-photos-from-her-youth-01-13-2014/ [accessed 10 November 2019]
  • PALMER, DANIEL. (2010). ‘Emotional Archives: Online Photo Sharing and the Cultivation of the Self’. photographies 3(2), [online], 155–71. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17540763.2010.499623. [Accessed 30 October]
  • RUMSEY, ABBEY SMITH. (2016) when we are no more. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
  • SAND, GREG. (2011) Once Removed. Available at: https://gregsand.net/copy-of-remnants-1 [Accessed 10 November 2019]
  • SMITH, SHAWN MICHELLE. (2018). ‘Archive of the Ordinary: Jason Lazarus, Too Hard to Keep’. Journal of Visual Culture 17(2), 198–206.
  • SONTAG, SUSAN. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.
  • VAN DIJCK, JOSÉ. (2007). Mediated Memories in the Digital Age Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
  • VAN DIJCK, JOSÉ. (2008). ‘Digital Photography: Communication, Identity, Memory’. Visual Communication 7(1), 57–76.
  • WELLS, LIZ and HENNING, MICHELLE. (2015). Photography: A Critical Introduction. Fifth edition. London, [England]; Routledge.
  • ZUROMSKIS, CATHERINE. (2016)  ‘Snapshot Photography, Now and Then: Making, Sharing, and Liking Photographs at the Digital Frontier’. Afterimage 44(1-2), [online], 18–22. Available at: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1806222744/.
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Showcase Portfolio: Glenn Porter

GlenN Porter

Glenn Porter first studied photography at the Sydney Institute of Technology and has a mix of art, science and photography qualifications. He also holds several postgraduate qualifications including a Graduate Diploma in Science from Sydney University, Masters of Applied Science (Photography) from RMIT University and a PhD in Communication Arts from Western Sydney University. Glenn has also been recognised by the Royal Photographic Society with an imaging science distinction as an Accredited Senior Imaging Scientist (ASIS) and a Fellow (FRPS) of the society. He is currently studying on the MA Photography at Falmouth University. Glenn has exhibited his work in several group exhibitions and has his first solo show in China in 2022. Glenn’s work has been recognised in several prestigious awards as finalist including the Head On Portrait Prize, the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture and the Mullins Conceptual Photography Prize.

The Holga Experiment began as a method of approaching photography from a more instinctive position and being free from technical equipment and fixed ideas about content. It was initially an experiment in opening up my awareness to the environment around me and to shift my photographic vision from being a farmer to a hunter of images – moving out of the studio and into the world with just a single lens and camera. The simplification of the approach to my photography was liberating and the work began to get stronger as I became comfortable about shooting by feeling rather than planning. Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested “Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film” (Cartier-Bresson 1999). Cartier-Bresson also applied a simplistic approach to his photography using the same camera format and focal length lens with the majority of his work. Keeping the method simple, allowed me to explore the purpose of the work from an internal perspective and to develop my work more intuitively.

Glenn Porter (2021) Crow Flying Over Hill, Dorrigo

The work is about my personal connection with photography and my experience with creative practice. It connects me spiritually and symbolically with two ancient Japanese philosophies; ikigai and wabi sabi. The simplification of the photographic process with a hyper-awareness of the environment around me is what this body of work attempts to capture. The work displays an ephemeral moment of my life’s journey with images that celebrate the beauty of the everyday with the imperfection of life.

Glenn Porter (2021) Motel Room, Mittagong

Mitsuhashi (2018) suggests the word ikigai (pronounced iki – guy) is a combination of two Japanese characters iki 生き meaning life and gai 甲斐 meaning value or worth. However, Japanese philosophy is often difficult to translate into western values and language. Mogi (2017) also provides a translated meaning close to Mitsuhashi’s and indicates iki literally means to live and gai reason, while Garcia and Miralles (2017) claims gai translates to worthwhile. The concept of ikigai is for people to find their ikigai by living life while practicing something that gives them a sense of purpose that also derives from personal pleasure. Ones ikigai does not have to be materialistic, success-driven or financial. It is often simplistic values like cooking, growing vegetables, art, fishing and even cleaning.

Glenn Porter (2021) The Jumper, Nepean River

Wabi sabi 侘寂 is another type of Japanese philosophy that examines how we perceive and live life. It is also a combination of two complementary phrases; wabi which is the personal process of finding beauty and sabi which is the joy of things that are imperfect or the decay of things due to the passing of time (Fujimoto 2019). Fujimoto explains how these elements combine to form wabi sabi; “together, these notions form a sensibility that accepts the ephemeral fate of living: celebrating transience and honouring those cracks, cervices and other marks that are left behind by time and tender use” (Fujimoto 2019 p.33). Kempton (2018) describes the wonderment of wabi sabi as feeling the moment “of real appreciation – a perfect moment in an imperfect world” (Kempton 2018 p.5). Wabi sabi can be experienced anywhere and has a lot to do with the awareness of the feeling and environment. Fujimoto (2019) claims “describing an aesthetic consciousness bound up with feelings of both serenity and loss, wabi sabi might be found encapsulated in a simple Japanese garden” Fujimoto 2019, p.33).

This project uses an inexpensive plastic Holga lens attached to a DSLR camera body. The Holga lens attached to a digital camera is a variation of the original medium format film-based Holga cameras, nevertheless, the lens is the same as the plastic film cameras and produces similar artefacts. The project also set down some rules; i) the image must be taken with a Holga lens, ii) the lighting must be available light and iii) the image must be cropped square. The Holga lens is a fixed focal length of 60mm with a fixed aperture. Exposure adjustments can only be made using the shutter speed and/or ISO setting.

Glenn Porter (2021) Corella Squadron, Aberdeen

Holga cameras were developed in the early 1980’s in Hong Kong as an inexpensive plastic medium format camera for the Chinese market (Malcolm 2017). Holga’s are often referred to as plastic toy cameras with a low-priced plastic meniscus lens. Images display overt artefacts such as film fog or light leaks, low-fidelity images with strong vignetting.  The image imperfections, caused by the inexpensive manufacturing and lens design, has produced what is referred to as the ‘Holga aesthetic’ and has become highly celebrated. Bates (2011) notes that other plastic cameras like the Diana also produces a similar aesthetic to Holga cameras.

Glenn Porter (2021) Twin Trees, Pine Forest, Armidale

This body of work is a result of my own ikigai, my passion for creating images that resonate with my personal creative vision. The application of the Holga aesthetic works perfectly for experiencing a sense of wabi sabi with the imperfections clearly witnessed within the images. The loss of fidelity due to the inexpensive plastic lens demands an approach that focuses on form and tone as a compensation for sharpness. The square format is in keeping with the original Holga tradition. The body of work is an eclectic set of urban and natural landscapes that connotes my personal concepts or notions of ikigai and wabi sabi which becomes a highly personalised visual statement. The work intends to provoke a sense of stillness, reduction, tone, form and self-reflection, and to also harmonise with the Japanese aesthetic and its traditions.

The notion of ikigai is an important one within this work, not only as an internalised purpose for life, but more so for the joy this purpose brings to me personally. My ikigai, is largely about the production of a body of creative photography work which brings me great joy. Cartier-Bresson describes this concept of joy when practicing photography in his The Mind’s Eye autobiography. He exclaims “To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” (Cartier-Bresson 1999, p.16). Cartier-Bresson also describes the notion of feeling the image during the hunt for images rather than seeing or taking a more analytical viewpoint when shooting. This is a significant point of difference when considering ikigai as a philosophical notion, which impacts how I feel spiritually rather than how I think. Cartier-Bresson further suggests; “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16).

Glenn Porter (2021) Road Caution, Uralla

Cartier-Bresson is explaining what it is like to work intuitively and reducing or simplifying the equipment helps promote the notion of working from feeling and gaining the intellectual and personal joy that comes with this approach. I have experienced what Cartier-Bresson is describing throughout this project. It is my connection with photography through my spirit and ikigai. Cartier-Bresson further indicates; “It’s a way of life” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16) and this can be interpreted from a Japanese philosophy perspective as ones ikigai. Nathan Jurgensen (2019) also mentions Cartier-Bresson’s thinking regarding the personal joy photography offers practitioners. He also refers to Jean Baudrillard’s suggestion that there is a certain joy in the transformation of the real into a document within the concept producing a condition of hyperreality (Jurgenson 2019, Baudrillard 1983).

Glenn Porter (2021) The Pontoon, Nepean River

Several theorists like Sontag, Barthes, Jurgenson, Bates have described the condition of photography through how the audience may perceive the work as an extension of reality or reality through the lens of modernity. The intent of this body of work, while it may be interpreted through this lens, is a more egocentric focus on my connection with photography as my ikigai. It does not try to raise issues about the world or society, it is simply a way of expressing how I feel about photography by using photography. The work does however, raise questions about what is photography and what is art?  Cotton (2014) examines these questions primarily from an aesthetic theory position but also explains how phenomenology plays a role in how the interaction between the viewer and the photographs operate within different viewing contexts including gallery, newspaper, billposter, family album, screen etc.

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References
  • Bates M., (2011) Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity, 2nd edition, Focal Press, Oxford.
  • Baudrillard J., (1983) Simulations, MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Bunnell P.C., (1994) Introduction, essay found in Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective, (2011) Nazraeli Press, Portland.
  • Cartier-Bresson A., (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, Aperture, London.
  • Cotton C., (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Fujimoto M., (2019) Ikigai & Other Japanese Words to Live By, Modern Books, London.
  • Garcia H., Miralles F., (2017) Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hutchinson, London.
  • Jurgenson N., (2019) The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media, Verso, London.
  • Kempton B., (2018) Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, Piatkus, London.
  • Kenna M., (2017) Holga: Photographs by Michael Kenna, Prestel, London.
  • Kenna M., Meyer-Lohr Y., (2015) “Forms of Japan” Prestel, Munich.
  • Malcolm F., (2017) Beyond the Visible, essay found in Holga: Photographs by Michael Kenna, p.5-13, Prestel, London.
  • Mitsuhashi Y., (2018) Ikigai: Giving Everyday Meaning and Joy, Kyle Books, London.
  • Mogi K., (2017) The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life, Quercus Editions, London.
Glenn Porter (2021) Little ‘Big Chook’, Moonbi
Routledge Award Winner: Summer 2021

In Conversation With: Dinu Li

Dinu Li

Dinu Li is a multi-disciplinary artist and Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University who has exhibited internationally for both solo and collaborative shows. His practice delves into his engagement with his Chinese heritage, the socio-political conditions of place, as well as the intangibility of memory. This interview is a dissemination of a number of key areas ranging from his migration to the U.K and his discovery of photography, through his projects as a professional and his insight into the current educational climate.

by Louis Stopforth (4th june 2021)
Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: You mention your first encounter with photography and how you could read the images. Is this something you have found with producing works of your own, that you could communicate beyond language barriers?

DL: I have been surrounded by photographs since my childhood, growing up in Hong Kong. My dad came to the UK when I was a few months old, and so my understanding of him came via photographs of him displayed on my mother’s dressing table. There were images of him posing in Trafalgar Square, or standing in a snow filled park, or standing next to his car. Those snapshots were placed next to photographs taken in China of my aunt, uncle and cousins. As the photographs were quite small, I paid a lot of attention to observing all the details contained within the compositions, creating my own narratives around what I saw.

I then came across the photographers Chris Killip and Joseph Koudelka by accident whilst wandering around a bookshop in my early-twenties. Up until then, I hadn’t taken photography seriously. I walked randomly inside the store, and casually arrived into the arts department, stopping at bookshelf ‘K’. Without thinking, I pulled out two books, In Flagrante by Killip and Exiles by Koudelka. Using my intuition, I was able to dissect the images to make sense of the world as seen through the eyes of both photographers. I guess my formative years looking at my family photographs must have helped, as I seem to have been able to read those images as if reading text.

LS: Your work delves between contrasts of barriers as well as unity within humankind. Has emigrating as a child caused these themes to have significant prevalence in you work? Especially as you navigated through various cultures and sub-cultures as you settled in England?

DL: Working class families in Hong Kong live in densely populated environments, and neighbours can appear as if they are literally living besides you. As we didn’t have a television at home, I spent my childhood peering through the cracks and gaps of closed shutters or venetian blinds, so I could watch tv programmes from other people’s televisions. My understanding of popular culture was one of half experiences or half satisfactions, as I never got the full picture from looking through those gaps.

I was brought up in Hong Kong when it was still part of the British colony, and so the sounds coming from my neighbour’s television sets was a melting pot between Chinese opera and American detective series depending which channel those families were watching. At one time, I recall going to the cinema twice in one week, watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one day and Chinese revolutionary ballet on another day

I moved to the UK as a seven-year old, but settling here was not easy, as the locals were unwelcoming to foreigners. Within weeks of my arrival, two boys living a few doors away pounced on me one day, as I was about to set off for school. They pushed me against a wall, slapped me around a few times, and filled my pants with handfuls of soil. As they ran off, they shouted “get back to where you come from”. As disturbing as it was, that memory has been a catalyst to some of my work in my art practice. It has been a paradoxical concept to imagine a backwards walk to one’s birthplace, with a trail of British earth leading from a point of departure to a final point of destination.

LS: We Write Our Own History is a photographic body of work that consists of arrangements constructed by demonstrators from the 2014 Hong Kong protests, displaying incidents they experienced. When looking at this work classical painting, particularly works from the Dutch Golden Age, come to mind as unassuming objects carry metaphorical significance. Did you ever think of the work in this way when it was produced?

DL: I have a deep appreciation of painting from the Dutch Golden Age, and it is ironic how my images from We Write Our Own History shares similar tensions to one particular painter of that period called Clara Peeters. For example, it is noticeable in so many of Peeters’ paintings that her table top items are often placed on the very edge of the table, as if on the verge of tipping over. This causes a sense of unease that I hope is also apparent in my photographs.

Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

Another striking feature is the incongruous manner by which items are placed, as if going against traditions of still-life painting. In her painting Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels (1611), Peeters places a large goblet not only at a central vantage point, but also in front of much smaller items. This is unusual, as such items had historically been placed at the back of a large arrangement, to avoid blocking an overview.

Clara Peeters (1611) Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

LS: When studying under you, you encouraged collaboration with others. Does this advice stem from your own experience engaging with art institutions or projects in which you have made investigations in conjunction with people? Or is there another reason you stress the importance of collaboration and partnerships?

DL: The status of art and artists was put in question by Duchamp, who acted as agent provocateur, provoking deeper critical engagement in the arts, and as a challenge to systems, institutions and traditions. I share Duchamp’s sentiments in challenging the status quo, and wish to be considered a verb, rather than be labelled by a noun.

By verb over a noun, I mean it is not important for me to be classified as an artist. It is only important to me that I have actioned something or made something. When my work is good, it maybe classed as art or otherwise. Since post-modernity, the status of art has been questioned further, and so the emergence of sharing that status by participation, collaboration and community engagement was inevitable.

The post-modernist American architect Buckminster Fuller wrote the book I Seem to be a Verb (1970), in which he states “I live on Earth at the present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” By that account, and being an integral function, it is no accident that I seek to share the production or delivery of art making with others. At times, my function is simply as facilitator.

LS: Memory and narrative are consistent themes within your works, in particular your trilogy of films within The Anatomy of Place, and your project The Mother of All Journeys. Why is this? Is it an engagement with your native culture or is it a way of providing physicality to an otherwise intangible that may otherwise one day become forgotten?

Dinu Li (2019) from The Anatomy of Place

DL: Yes, I think you’ve guessed correctly. Perhaps the best way to answer your question is to elaborate on another artist, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her sculptures take the form of resin casts, allowing Whiteread to give space a physical presence. What we bypass and ignore everyday are our spaces, as space is invisible. But by giving space a substance, not only does it become visible, but they occupy more presence, more prominence. One of my favourite pieces by Whiteread is also one of her earliest works called Shallow Breath (1988) in which she casted the intimate space directly underneath her father’s mattress, as if Whiteread is making visible, the invisible breaths by her father, breaths that could have infiltrated into the underside of his own bed.

Rachel Whiteread (1988) Shallow Breath

LS: In regards to your trilogy of films (Ancestral Nation, Family Village and Nation Family) was it due to having extensive time working on an off with one subject that the work was concluded as a trilogy or was it more than this?

DL:The genesis to my trilogy came about because I was interested in the word ‘country’ in its Chinese written form. In Chinese, that word can be expressed in three different ways, partly depending on the evolution of the Chinese lexicon, partly due to personal circumstance and so on. For example, in ancient China ‘Ancestral Nation’ would have been used to express the word for ‘country’. People who leave China to emigrate to far away countries often use the words “Family Village” due to its nostalgic undertone. However, Nation Family is the most common way to express the word for ‘country’.

Nation Family Trailer from Dinu Li on Vimeo.

I simply used those three terms as titles for each of my trilogies, and made work in response to the words. For example, for Ancestral Nation, some of the work took place in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the philosopher generally understood to have helped shape the Chinese characteristics. For Family Village, I examined vernacular architecture in contemporary China. And for Nation Family, I interrogated a specific period in the life of a cousin, by using an old black and white photograph of him as my starting point. It is one of the photographs I looked at as a child growing up in Hong Kong.

LS: During The Mother of All Journeys there is an emphasis on memory, and its relationship to actual time and space. Was the use of photography for you essential given its almost institutionalised place as an artefact of record and its own connection to time and space?

DL: In that project, I was interested in interrogating the authenticity of memory itself and to also problematise photography as a form of documentation. I guess the work started all the way back to those years when I used to form my own narrative about family members through their photographs displayed on my mother’s dressing table. In those years, my mother told my stories related to each photograph, which mixed in with my own imagination about the lives of my relatives. The Mother of All Journeys was an attempt to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of my mother’s life experiences, using old family snapshots to aid our journeys.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

By the time I was ready to make this work, my mother was already in her 70’s and being forgetful about memories she has instilled in me. Our collaboration involved me recounting my mother’s memories back to her, in order for us to locate the site of her memories. The work involved a lot of missteps, as our combined memories as reliable sources slipped in-between moments of clarity and other moments of uncertainty.

LS: When The Mother of All Journeys was exhibited at the Amelia Johnson Contemporary there seemed to be a clear emphasis on the spatial configuration of the work, and how it was situated both on the walls as well as within the gallery space itself. What influenced this presentation?

DL: Due to the complexities of the project, we divided the exhibition into three parts, using walls as demarcations to define geographic differences. The work involved journeys to China, Hong Kong and parts of Northern England, and so their separation in terms of exhibition display felt necessary.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: Do you think it is important for photographic work, work that is typically flat surfaced and wall supported, to be displayed in a more spatially configured and engaging way? And are there particular kinds of spaces you like to work with?

DL: I think it is important to work with a given space, responding to the architecture in site specific ways. I find it exciting to display my work in different ways depending on the site, and how the light moves across that space over the course of the day. Sometimes a long wall lends itself to displaying work in a linear fashion. Other times, if a space has a variety of rooms, the same body of work can be reconfigured in other interesting ways.

One of the most interesting spaces I have enjoyed working in recently is Birkenhead Market, where I occupied several market units to display my trilogy and several other pieces. I was so excited to install my work in such a context, as market aesthetics always reminds me of my childhood, since the place I grew in was stones-throw away from Hong Kong’s famous street markets.

LS: After having first-hand experience studying under you at Falmouth University, where you are Senior Lecturer in Photography, I know how you really push students to produce unique and meaningful work. Do you ever find that being in your position, surrounded by students, that you look at things differently based on conversations you have with them or work you see?

DL: I am beginning to see more students working on projects but unable to discuss the meaning behind what they have spent months doing. in their works, there is a trend in projects that appear autobiographical; political without recognising that’s what they are doing; and most recently, a return to documentary traditions in landscape photography. These themes and trends do not feel incidental to me.

From my vantage point, the reason why I think students find it difficult to articulate their projects is very much related to Brexit. There is so much uncertainly to being a student today. They question the value of their work, they are unsure if they are making good work, they are concerned about their futures and they don’t know how to feel about leaving the EU. It is no wonder they find it difficult to discuss the meaning behind their images. Brexit has formed an invisible backdrop to the contexts surrounding the times by which today’s students are being educated.

LS: Given your position you must of course pay close attention to how the arts are viewed by the wider educational sector, and indeed the government. What does the current climate look like for educating students within creative subjects?

DL: I hope educational establishments continues to allow creative subjects to keep pushing the boundaries of what art is. I worry about the professionalisation of creative courses and just hope we allow students the space to be inquisitive, the time to find their voice, and the freedom to try out new ideas. I go back to the notion of identity and wanting to be understood as a verb rather than a noun. In that sense, I hope our students will develop the kind of inquisitive minds that allows them to be more fluid in the way they operate.

Stephen Fry once said “Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

LS: And finally, as for your personal practice is there anything you are currently working or investigating?

DL: I am developing new work, something autobiographical, delving into my own youth, when I was immersed in black youth culture. I’m looking at developing work connected to reggae and dub music.

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Showcase Portfolio: Hannah Wright

Hannah Wright

‘A family album holds a profusion- a confusion – of pleasures and pains, as pictures old and new offer themselves up with depictive innocence. Family collections are never just memories’ (Holland 2000: 1)

 

The intent of Detriment (2016) is to unpick the family myths and reflect on a personal journey of loss, with significant memories from my childhood. Photographs from my childhood are haunted with memories of conflict and abuse, or as Barthes would refer to as the ‘Punctum’ of a photograph, a personal response that ‘pierces’ or ‘pricks’ me (Barthes 1980). My pieces are a response to the past, and elaborate on the referent, which haunts my family album, by combining elements of past and present. This project is similar to the workings of a family album in that I am bringing new perspectives, new understandings and new forgetting’s (Holland 2000: 1).

Letters of Expired Devotion (2017), is a progression from my previous project, Detriment to a Family Album; Where I continue to explore identity, memory, absence and metaphors for the process of remembering and forgetting. In a response to the absence of my own family album, my practise pieces together fragments of family history with my own memory, by creating reconstructed archives, with the aid of my Grandparents love letters. I created this project with the intent of placing my own identity within existing family archives, and shift personal details of family, loss and conflict into a public space. My practice enabled me to gather and piece together these fragments of family history, combine them with my own memory, to create a personal response to them.

‘The archive oscillates between embodiment and disembodiment, composition and decomposition, organization and chaos’ (Spieker 2008: 1)

My practice works in a similar way to an archive, in that I am organising, and piecing together fragmented memories, preserved in the form of photographs, files, objects and stories. My work has taken the shape of a reconstructed archive, as a substitute, to make up for the absence of the family photographs of my childhood that are in the possession of my Dad. An archive can become a haunted place, as they do not simply reconnect us with what we have lost. Instead, they remind us (Spieker 2008: 4). My practice recycles and reinvents family treasures, showing present family perspectives, such as my own, to reveal the time that has past. In Freud’s terms, the unheimlich can be connected to archives, as “Heim” meaning home in German, and “Heimlich” means secret, or hidden; Marking the unexpected return of an object we recognise as familiar.

George Wright, My Granddad, survived the sinking of HMS Sikh off Tobruk, 1942, at 20 years old. During a two-year interment as a prisoner of war in Italy, he became friends with a fellow prisoner, Bert Cottrell, who later became his Brother – in – law. The letters between my grandparents began when my Granddad was sent to Lympstone, Devon, to recover in a rehabilitation centre after falling ill with dysentery and malaria.

‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them’ (Benjamin 1969: 61)

The letters were passed down to my mum and I when my Grandparents passed away, precious memorabilia to cherish and remember them by, as a part of their lives are preserved in writing. My starting point began with a running theme of Melancholy and absence throughout my practice.

Follow Hannah Wright on Instagram

In Focus: Alex Prager

The constructed worlds of Alex Prager

by Teresa Williams (9th december 2019)
Alex Prager (2013) Face in the Crowd

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)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

  • Places with a Past
  • Something Old Something New – post to come
  • Tell Me a Story – post to come

aims & Outcomes:

  • 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
Alex Prager (2013) Welcome Home
‘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
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops) and imaging software
  • Tripods
  • 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
Alex Prager (2008) from Silver Lake Drive
‘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 work:

  • 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:

presentation ideas: Contextualising Alex Prager

suggested Session Outline:

  • 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.
  • What impact does the use of colour in Hayashi’s Gila River Relocation Camp have?
  • Research the colour theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Johannes Itten.  Consider how the choice of colour in background and costumes could have particular associations with mood or emotions.
  • Arrange the shoot and complete a risk assessment. If working in groups you can be mutual participants. Shoot in RAW format to allow for exposure and light balance tweaks later.
  • All participants to show their work for critique by tutor and peers.

In Conversation With: Abigail Reynolds

Abigail Reynolds

Abigail Reynolds is a multi-media artist living and working in Cornwall. At the core of her practice is an investigation of both visual imagery and language, often interrogating the relationship between the two. Her work frequently explores the subjects of time and space, the shifting of context in relation to chronology, the artists self, materiality and immateriality.  Her works develop in ever more progressive ways, transforming the past in relation to the present. During this conversation Reynolds and I discuss her projects The Universal Now, Lost Libraries of the Silk Road (2018), Lost Libraries Cabinet (2019) Teaching a Stone to Talk 1988 | 2017, and When Words are Forgotten (2018). The discussion gives an insight into how she considers her work in both its creation and its finalised state. It also sheds light on her perspectives regarding photography, language, conceptual artworks, time, representation in the visual arts and the self within a number of her artworks

‘Art is a visual language, and I use the same tools when I read it as I would in reading a poem or a play’ Abigail Reynolds
by Louis Stopforth (9th October 2019)
Abigail Reynolds (2015) Desert Seeds

LS: Your practice is often concerned with language and the written word. Is it this interest that initially drew you to photography, a visual language that can be communicated beyond dialect?

AR: Art is a visual language, and I use the same tools when I read it as I would in reading a poem or a play. I guess by dialect you mean maybe language ie an English reader can read a photo from China but not a text in Chinese … photography has become a global language but I don’t agree about dialect. There are many nuances in photography that place it in time and space. There’s the approach to subject as well as camera and lens technologies.

LS: A number of your works have been comprised of the endpapers of books, titled by the names of the books they originated from. This work immediately brought to mind the piece ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ by Robert Rauschenberg as it comprises of no physical trace of a ‘thing’ which we might be able to decipher. Instead the work is given its weight through the inclusion of its title. We begin to recognise the importance of this empty piece of paper, and its origins. How do you view the importance of the written word alongside artworks?

‘A title / caption / script can enrich the image or totally undermine it’

AR: The relationship between a visual work and a text is complex. A title / caption / script can enrich the image or totally undermine it. I use the title to carry part of the meaning of the work, but I only give it as much weight as other, visual decisions, such as scale. Some artists use titling very strongly to create a context for a viewer to think within, for others it’s hardly of any importance beyond having a way to list works on a consignment form. ‘An Oak Tree’ by Michael Craig Martin explains this whole mechanism with a concise and riddling brilliance.

Abigail Reynolds (1998/2017) Endpaper from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

LS: ‘Teaching a Stone To Talk 1988 | 2017 is an endpaper that shows the imprint of objects on the papers surface from prolonged exposure to a light source (indeed other endpaper works show changes in tonal range from their aged exposure to light but none so viscerally as this one). This piece is essentially a naturally occurring photogram, an effect that has long occurred prior to photography’s ‘invention’ as a process. Do you yourself view this work as photographic? 

 

 

 

AR: I do, and I like the way it speaks about the action of light and of time very directly. It also happens to suggest a narrative of the reader, an imagination of the possible reader.

LS: In recent photographic history practitioners have explored more and more the materiality of the photograph, as well as exploring society’s preconceived notions of what photography is. During your on-going project: The Universal Now, you yourself repurpose images that had the intention of being objective-documentary images, those that supposedly hold cultural, historical and anthropological value within their intended place and condition. You then transform their physical properties, as well as their purpose. Is there a conversation about society still imbedded within the transformed work, or is it more formalist than that?

Abigail Reynolds (2009) from The Universal Now

AR: In these guide-book photos of monuments the hand of the author is usually minimised. The photos are not offered to view because of the photographer but because of what is photographed. The sense of a social document is very strong in them – like a portrait of society and what it values / what it has valued. In some works a change in camera or print technology between the two photographs is obvious. I enjoy the authority of these images and teasing this out a bit by making their time-bound condition more obvious by contrast.

LS: In your interview for Elephant titled ‘Abigail Reynolds: Cuts in Time’ you mention there being a ‘compression of time’ happening in London due to its architecture. Does this mean because of photography’s ability to only record fragments of time you are making a statement against photographs as singular artefacts within your integrated images; one image from one moment in time simply isn’t enough for representing the continuous change of a landscape?

‘I join the mass of people in feeling that nothing is stable or linear – everything is fluid, fugitive, shifting’

AR: Ah yes time is compressed in London – because you can see multiple layers of time everywhere if you look properly. This just isn’t true in Los Angeles for example. The photographs build on this pre-existing condition by compressing again. Compressing two times or images into one new surface. I understand that this can also be read as a release, but I see it as a compression. I suppose I join the mass of people in feeling that nothing is stable or linear – everything is fluid, fugitive, shifting. That goes for personal identity, city spaces, public or group identity. I like this – I mean, I am not at all afraid of this, and it’s clearly true. I like also the cyclical and repetitive – the return and the echo, as we constantly move, but also often return. Like a dance.

LS: As for the construction of these works, are the forms created by splicing images done for a particular reason – or is it an intuitive process that is informed by the images used and their significance to each other?

AR: I try to listen carefully to the qualities of the photographs both their structure and attitude to the subject, then I make cuts that are finely tuned to the particular qualities that interest me. It only really works, I think, if what I do builds on the formal qualities of what is already present. Otherwise, I am just in the way. I work on images in close up. I focus on the detail, I’m very respectful of the image.

LS: The project Lost Libraries of the Silk Road, is interesting as it tackles the issue of representation in the visual arts, in particular photography and moving image. The subject matter you are exploring is no longer visually present, and therefore impossible to record. In essence, were you documenting a void, an immaterial subject matter that pushes the invisible subjects of politics, conflict, natural disaster, and time to the forefront of the work? 

AR: Yes! Given what I just said about respect for the image, I wanted to flip the playing card and see the other side – no archive, no image even. What would I do then? What will we all do then?

LS: During the course of Lost Libraries the video is narrated by three separate voices. Is this inclusion of narration added to become another descriptor beyond the visual, relieving the camera of being the sole informant for the work? 

AR: I use three voices though to dislocate again the sense of a unified self – but to convey a disparate and fugitive self. When I didn’t have much of an image to interrogate, I found the blankness really acted as a mirror, and I turned to a much more subjective mode. The film is personal, because to be confronted by such enormous swathes of time and space heightened my awareness of how localised my sense of time and history are, how my values and assumptions are so very specific to the place and time in which I happen to be living. The word ‘timeless’ is often applied to art works as a term of praise but of course there is nothing outside time. If we are given the timeless we would not know what to do with it.

‘The word ‘timeless’ is often applied to art works as a term of praise but of course there is nothing outside time. If we are given the timeless we would not know what to do with it’

LS: Compared to previous work that would be undertaken in your studio, where you could control and deliberate on the work you produce, how was it operating as a travelling artist for the Lost Libraries project, where often moments can be fleeting and out of your control?

AR: I am as likely to be bewildered in my studio as I am on the road, funnily enough. I don’t always feel in control of it. In fact, I really enjoy moments when I don’t seem to be very much in control and feel as though I am being led, rather blindly.

LS: Alongside the film appears Lost Libraries Cabinet, which acts as a physical manifestation of an otherwise intangible film.  Is the inclusion of physicality within your work a way to give tangibility to subject?

AR: The unique aspect of visual art is that it is seen in real space and time. This makes it physical tactile, more fully present. So for me the confrontation is more direct. A film-maker recently said to me ‘you can’t understand things unless you can hear them’ – maybe it’s like that. Maybe it’s giving more voice to the form, and more form to the image. More layers, more opportunities to engage with the same thought but approached from slightly different angles.

LS: ‘When Words are Forgotten’ represents the lost literature of the libraries you visited whilst capturing the individuality of texts, represented in differing colours, shapes, and textures of acrylic and glass. The transparency of these materials reiterates how these books are physically un-attainable and appear almost more like ghosts from a bygone era, haunting our social memory. Do you think there is a comparison to be made between this body of work and photographs as recorded moments of time past?

AR: Often it is the case that while I’m making a new work, the full scope of connections with the new work and existing work is not clear to me until much later. This rather like post-rationalisation; a term used to explain that artists work intuitively, but once thoughts and feelings are resolved into a finished work, the rationale suddenly becomes clear – but only after the fact. I find this very often in making formal as well as conceptual decisions. Anyway, because of the work I am making now as opposed to at the time of ‘When Words are Forgotten’, about 18 months ago, or maybe because that work exists and is very present to me, I see the glass sheets like the skeletons of leaves or yes ghosts, some energy or structure that persists though the flesh has gone. Now I am very directly working with facsimiles of The Book of the Dead, and considering river crossing and the Daguerreotype, an early photograph on mirror. Making art is inexorably pressing forward into new terrain, which means the angle of view onto the past is altered constantly.

LS: Finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?

AR: I am now working with the collection at The Harris – which is a museum / library / public gallery in Preston. Ways of working that interested me having made the Lost Libraries installation are my starting point. I will deeply interrogate a small selection of books and photographs, both in film, so that the surfaces can be seen up close, as detailed and sumptuous as when I hold them, and also by displaying them in a cabinet of glass – so the look of the audience is simultaneously made more complex by the distorting sheets of glass, and more direct by the film. I’m really enjoying the process. The work will be on display in The Harris from 14 February 2020.

Places with a Past

on this site: the places and spaces of joel sternfeld

‘The impulse to make a picture of an event which has already happened may seem counter-intuitive, if not impossible. Unlike a painter who may recreate a historical scene, the photographer has no such leeway’ (Albers, 2015)
Joel Sternfeld (1993) Central Park, North of the Obelisk, Behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam

This is an adaptable session which aims to introduce participants to researching the history of places and spaces and the importance of aesthetics / accompanying text / context in its photographic representation. It encourages in-depth independent research into Joel Sternfeld’s practice and its commparative positioning within wider ideas regarding different ways of photographicically representing place, space and history.

Joel Sternfeld (2001) from Walking the Highline
‘The poet-keeper of the High Line is the photographer Joel Sternfeld. He has been taking pictures of it in all seasons for the year, and he has a gift for seeing light and space and color— romantic possibility of every kind— where a less sensitive observer sees smudge and weed and ruin. He would not just like the High Line to be saved and made into a promenade; he would like the promenade as it exists now to be perpetuated, a piece of New York as it really is’ (Gopnik, 2001)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To undertake research into the history of the local / a specific area
  • To explore the relationship between image and text / caption
  • To visually experiment with the loading of narrative into single / multiple images in sequence and series
  • To understand the difference between literal and ambigous imagery (and thier consequences)
  • To consider the context of viewing such images and how this might impact on thier interpretation
  • Participant Outcome: 5 6×4 digital prints
Ori Gersht (1999-2000) A Train Journey from Cracow to Auschwitz from White Noise
‘Without their subtext, they lose their specificity. The eye passes over the photograph but cannot penetrate it. There is no mental adjustment we can make that will give it clarity, except by recourse to place, circumstance and [ori gersht’s] intention’ (Searle, 2005)

You will need:

  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards) *This session can also be run using Camera phones or Lumix cameras
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • An Introductory Brief & Presentation for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
  • Some local examples of places with a past *and preferably some visual representations of them to critique / discuss
  • A booked room to critique participants work (either via a projector (powerpoint with text) or via print)
  • Blue tack to pin the work
  • Costings and Risk Assessments
Richard Misrach (1999) Battleground Point from Desert Cantos
‘Where the document begins and where the aesthetic object begins is really hard to tell. That’s fairly obvious in my work; there doesn’t seem to be an illusion of a straight document’ (richard Misrach in Caponigro, 1998)

Research: the work of joel sternfeld

 

Preparation Work:

  • Research the history of a local / specific area *local libraries, newspapers and people living in the area can help here
  • Ask participants to read Kate Palmer Albers (2015) ‘Joel Sternfeld’s Empty Places available here
  • Ask participants to read Fiona McDonald (2014) ‘Thomas Demand: Making History – with paper’ in BBC Culture available here
  • Ask participants to watch the video On This Site by Joel Sternfeld (2014) available here
  • Ask participants if they have thier own digital cameras and cards
  • Make sure you have access to computers / image editing software
  • Make sure there are enough team members to support participants (never assume thier prior knowledge)
  • Decide whether you will project the work or print it.
  • If you are printing it make sure the Photo Lab are aware and be aware of timekeeping so they have space to print the work.
  • *If you are running this session off campus, make sure there is access to printers (or projectors if you are concentrating on sequencing a narrative only – create a powerpoint and include the text with each photograph)
Catherine Yass (2013) from Decommissioned
‘Catherine Yass photographed the former car showroom and dance studios that used to stand on the JW3 site once they had been decommissioned and emptied. The resulting large-format transparencies were placed around the demolition site – on diggers, under girders, in piles of glass and rubble – and then retrieved some weeks later, after they had been damaged scratched, ripped, and transformed by colour reactions on the emulsion. The images have been placed in the new building in light boxes and are in Yass’ words “small windows into a past and interior world illuminated by imagination and memory’ (outset, 2013)

Presentation Ideas: places with a past

Suggested Session Outline:

to come

Abigail Reynolds (2015) Desert Seeds
‘Making work is a strange and erratic dance of intuition, graft, brute materiality and opportunism. I allow myself to be attracted to certain images, forms and places which then become points to work away from. For me, making work is partly aversion and partly attraction. I enjoy to play with my sense of surroundings and also materiality. I also enjoy the difficulty of sculpture and the challenge of problem solving, which is always present when making anything three dimensional’ (Abigail Reynolds in Aesthetica, 2013)