‘Strange & Familiar’ – The Barbican (2016)

‘Strange & Familiar’ at The Barbican (2016)

here’s looking at us: and what do we see?

‘You take a photo and the image is there on the back of the camera or phone and you immediately want to see how it looks. You know the moment; you were there, experiencing it. But the real thrill is seeing how the camera has turned the moment into an image that can last forever’ (Parr, in Pardo & Parr (ed.s), 2016, p.12)
Sergio Larrain (1958) London. Baker Street

The Barbican (2016) show Strange and Familiar was a vision of ‘Britishness’ envisaged by 23 international photographers from the 1930’s to present day, each seeking to explore social, political and cultural aspects of British ‘identity’. Its curator, Martin Parr, is known for his affectionate yet satirical images of British life. He asks the question, ‘What is it about all these photographers that we find fascinating?’ I think it’s really interesting to understand and see that we are really a strange nation.’ (Parr in Klingelfuss, 2016). This session aims for participants to critically consider such representations of ‘Britishness’ as viewed through foreign eyes.

‘We cannot claim to have really seen anything before having photographed it’ (Zola in Sontag, 1977, p.87)
Raymond Depardon (1980) Glasgow

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To investigate the representation of ‘culture’ and national identity? Are we merely a visual stereotype? Is Strange and Familiar really different? How might it show us something ‘new’? (or not?) Do we remain in a heterogeneous view of the (Western) world?
  • To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations of ‘Britishness’ and consider the impact of these. How do we feel when the lens is trained on ‘Us’ not ‘Other’?
  • To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of such representations of icultural dentity
  • Participant Outcome: Research and identify / produce 2 truthful representations and 2 sterotypical representations of ‘Britishness’
‘The exhibition will reveal a very different take on British life than that produced by British photographers. It is both familiar and strange at the same time’ (Parr in bBC, 2016)
Gian Butturini (1969) A Calm Day

Martin Parr’s curatorial intent for Strange & Familiar is a simple one; and one that is inherent to the photographic enterprise (from a Western perspective anyway). Can these 23 foreign eyes provide us with new ways of looking at, understanding even, our own ‘British’ culture? In the age of Brexit – do we even have a unifom British identity anyway? Or, does the work shown fall back (at best) on visual tropes we have all seen before – despite thier combined focus on different areas and aspects of a so called ‘United’ Kingdom. Or (at worst) does it succumb to the voyeurism that is implicit in all imagery of ‘foreign’ lands. As John Taylor (1994) reminds us ‘By chance, the words ‘site’ and ‘sight’ in English sound the same, and thier meanings can overlap (a land is both a ‘site’ (as in a place) and a ‘sight’ (as in a view) (Taylor, 1994, p.15).

‘Be it on holiday or assignment, many of us relish the opportunity to take photos abroad – to document the architecture, the people and the rituals of the foreign lands we visit. That alien feeling of being somewhere unfamiliar breeds an excitement to get behind the camera and shoot. (Life Framer, 2016)
Robert Frank (1951) London

Consider the work from London / Wales included by Robert Frank for example, if we merely change the ‘site/sight’ from the USA to the UK – are we presented with a similaly (if not stylistically) darkened view of cultural identity? Might we say that Frank’s work in the UK is slightly more tame? Or, the work of Tina Barney, with her focus on the social elite, was notably introduced to her British subjects from contacts at Sotheby’s. Yet, in The Europeans her painterly tableau of these British upper classes continue to remain on the cusp of fact and myth, the staged and unstaged, and yes, certainly the familiar but strange with it. Is it really ‘British’? Or is it a subjective ressponse which is more irrespective of nationhood?

Tina Barney (2001) The Two Students

What is clear, is that the work contained in the exhibition is fluid in appropach but it is also cumulative in it intent. Like any ‘self’, it changes and evolves, and these 23 different subjective visions provide a plethora of ‘portraits’ of a British selfhood. Are they too politically motivated? Is there too much concentration on a percieved British class system? An external view, yes, but we must wonder what Google Earth /  and ‘photographers’ like Doug Rickard, Micheal Wolf and Jon Rafman might have to say?

Akihiko Okamura (1969) Day after the Battle of Bogside, Northern Ireland

presentation: Strange & Familiar (Barbican, 2016)

But not only is this exhibition a multifaceted history of Britain charted by very different sensibilities through the decades, it also charts the developing medium of photography itself, as various strands of social documentary give way to fine-art photography and colour floods in. In the show’s later rooms, places and people are increasingly given separate portrayals’ (Buck, 2016)
Bruce Gilden (2014) from Strange & Familiar exhibition

Suggested Session Outline:

‘So what do we learn about ourselves by studying the many different ways of looking at the United Kingdom? clichés have not become clichés without good reason…it makes us as a country more aware of our own diverse identity’ (Parr, in Pardo & Parr (ed.s), 2016, p.15)
  • Ask participants to conduct independent and in-depth research into the work of at least 2 of the practitoners included in the Strange and Familiar exhibition at The Barbican (2016).
  • Compare the works included in the Strange and Familiar exhibition with thier other projects / practices. Are they similar or is there anything ‘peculiarly’ British about thier approach?
  • Ask participants to read Lucy Buck (2016) ‘Martin Parr’s strange and familiar face of Britain at The Barbican (2016) in The Telegraph (1st April 2016) available here
  • Like any ‘portrait’, there is an interaction between photographer, sitter and audience Who’s view is it? Is it the photographers view? Is it an stereotypical identity? Is it a collaboration? How is it ‘read’ by its audience? What happens when we have a lens trained on us?
  • Brainstrom stereotypical representations of ‘Britishness’
  • Create 2 images of the same scene – one sterotypical, and one more subjective.
  • Critique and Review.
‘A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into a souvenir (Sontag, 1977, p.9)
Candida Höfer (1968) Liverpool XVI

‘New Topographics’ – George Eastman House (1975)

New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at The George Eastman House (1975)

Visual Detachment & Political views?

By Amy Miles (16th Decemeber 2019)
‘Their stark, beautifully printed images of this mundane but oddly fascinating topography was both a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental’ (O’Hagan, 2010)
Robert Adams (1973) Mobile homes, Jefferson County, Colorado

The International Museum of Photography New Topographics (1975)  was pivotal in the development of American landscape photography. Gone were the romantic,  sublime visions of an unspoilt American frontier. Rather, the artists included in the show (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel) projected a version of America full of tract houses and industrial estates, a more anthropological, objective view of human imprint on the American land.

‘Looking at the work, what comes to the fore is the predominant spirit of the solitary road trip as a working model. The photographs evoke Evans’ American Photographs (1938) and Frank’s The Americans (1958) as much as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and the Dennis Hopper-directed Easy Rider (1969)’ Many of the series were products of cross-country journeys, and all showed the conflict between the frontier spirit of traversing the majestic countryside and the stark reality of the pale, dank sprawl of motels, shops and houses that they encountered (Lange, 2010)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Traditionally, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of landscape photography, might be something similar to the work of Ansel Adams – a romantized and idealic view of the American land. However these photographers didn’t follow in these footsteps at all, and started to capture what our landscapes really looked like. The curator of New Topographics, William Jenkins, aimed to show an America from a more neutral and non-biased stance, removing the photographers specific emotions or styles. Whether or not this accurately described the artists’ intentions, in retrospect we certainly have a more politically aware view of this ‘man-altered landscape’ (Rosa, 2010). Heavily influenced by the work of Ed Ruscha (strangely not included in the show) Jenkins muses;

‘the pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion … [this was[ rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images’ (Jenkins in Hershberger, 2013, p.236)
Ed Ruscha (1963) from 26 Gasoline Stations

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to consider a history of American landscape photography and a shift to a more political approach. How are photographers influenced? Is thiss political approach inherent today? Has there been a polarisation in the way we visualise the land between vernacular and gallery contexts?
  • For participants to take a critically informed personal stance to evaluate exhibitions / works and the curatorial rationale and intent.
  • To reflect on the nature of the gallery context and questions of taste, value and judgement. Is it ‘good’?
  • Participant Outcome: To critically evaluate an exhibition of thier choice, considering curatorial intent, selection of works, and reviews. Would thier own practice fit into this and why? *Participants could also be encouraged to ‘curate’ thier own exhibition / include thier own work in this and consider the curatorial rationale.
Walker Evans was also a clear influence for this new generation of photographers. His work refused to romanticise poverty, to create perhaps a more realistic (but certainly more objective) view of the American Depression.
Walker Evans (1941) from Let Us Now Priase Famous Men

However, Evans images have been debated (e.g. Whitman, 1975, Tagg, 2003, Tedford, 2017) upon whether they were taken from a detached point of view, or whether he was sgiving his subjects dignity (if not sympathy). Frank Gohike emphasises Evans influence on his practice, most importantly, the detached viewpoint, that ‘The attempt to make a photograph from which the photographer seems to be absent is a strategy whose value and power all of us I think primarily learned from [Evans]’ (Gohlke in Salvesen, 1975, p.17).

Frank Gohlke (1975) from Grain Elevators

presentation: New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (George Eastman House, 1975)

Robert Adams work is evidently based on this subjective relationship between man and the landscape. His work could be interpreted in a way that shows his emotional opinions towards how the landscape has changed and affected the environment.

Robert Adams (1983) On Signal Hill overlooking Long Beach, California

For example, Dennis (2005) critiqued this image as: ‘The tree in the foreground is not only dwarfed by the enormous sprawl of the city behind it, but also acts as a lone and pathetic reminder of what has been displaced by urban development.’ That said, there is still evidence of an emotional / visual detachment in the outcome. It is not implausible to suggest that the image posits an subjective position towards the ongoing march of man.

 

One might argue that the work of Lewis Baltz were taken from a similarly detached and clinical viewpoint, but yet that that the ongoing march of human development around him made he, himself, feel detached – expressed also visually (and subjectively).

Lewis Baltz (1974) from New Industrial Parks

Gosney (2013) posits this view, that ‘Lewis Baltz’s stark images juxtaposed the contrary ugliness inherant in industrial tracts and national parks…symbolising what many saw as problems of the modern age’ (Gosney, 2013). However, it must also be noted that Baltz’s images are paradoxically akin to social research.

New Topograhics exhibition in 1975 was not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world. Looking back, one can see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” carried a political message and reflected, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities’ (O’Hagan, 2010)

Suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants to conduct in depth research into the work of at least 2 of the practitoners included in the New Topographics exhibition
  • Do they have any similar reference points / visual or conceptual infuences? What are the commonalities? What are the differences? Why do you think William Jenkins curated them in the same show?
  • If you were the curator: Of the practitoners included in the show, which work would remain? And which would be rejected?
  • If you were the curator: How you adapt the show today? Are there any new works you would include? By whom and why?
  • Would you include your own photographic practice? Could you make work in this detatched yet politically present way? Of what, and why?
‘We are, perhaps, never more frustrated than when the photograph fails to tell us what it means or is about something other than what it is as a picture.’ (Dennis, 2005).
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‘What is a Photograph?’: International Center of Photography (2014)

What is a Photograph? at the ICP (2014)

blurring the boundaries: when does a photograph stop being a photograph? (and does it really matter anymore?)

‘By foregrounding a photographs means of production and malleability of meaning, by making the photograph both a material thing and a philosophical question, it asks us to really look at what and how we are seeing’ (Batchen, 2014, p.60)
What is A Photograph? (ICP, 2014) exhibition view

The ICP (2014) show What is a Photograph? was described by its curator as ‘Bring[ing] together artists who reconsidered and reinvented the role of light, color, composition, materiality, and the subject in the art of photography’ (Squires, 2014, p.9). This session aims for participants to take both a critically informed and a personally evaluative stance to such exhibitions and thier intent.

‘The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art […] more, rather than less, real to us’ (Sontag, 1964, p.14)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to consider the nature of contemporary photography and its relationship with other media
  • For participants to take a critically informed personal stance to evaluate exhibitions / works and the curatorial rationale and intent.
  • To reflect on the nature of the gallery context and questions of taste, value and judgement. Is it ‘good’?
  • Participant Outcome: To critically evaluate an exhibition of thier choice, considering curatorial intent, selection of works, and reviews. Would thier own practice fit into this and why? *Participants could also be encouraged to ‘curate’ thier own exhibition / include thier own work in this and consider the curatorial rationale.
‘Having an opinion is part of your social contract with readers’ (Schjeldahl, 2004)

Showing from January – May 2014, Carol Squires curated What is a Photograph? an exhibition of 21 artists who have pushed the boundaries of a so called / traditional photographic practice. Like John Szarkowski and Stephen Shore before her, this was questioning and attempting to explore the nature of the shapeshifter we call ‘photography’. Whilst the title of the show poses an excellent, (though never quite answered), question, the critics were mixed in their responses. Is this due to a failure in the curatorial rationale, or simply that the slippery nature of the photograph itself (and all its contexts of consumption) eludes such a single and simple definition?

Carol Squires (ed.) (2014) What is a Photograph? New York, International Center of Photography

 

‘Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space, and thus on social and cultural experience and are thus enmeshed with subjective, embodied and sensuous interactions’ (Edwards & Hart, 2004, p.1)

‘You must be putting to the test, not just the artwork, but yourself in your response to it’ (Schwabsky , 2012)

presentation: What is a Photograph? (ICP, 2014)

‘Artists around the globe have been experimenting with and redrawing the boundaries of traditional photography for decades. Although digital photography seems to have made analogue obsolete, artists continue to make works that are photographic objects, using both old technologies and new, crisscrossing boundaries and blending techniques (Squires, 2014). Yes, this is certainly the case, but the emphasis of this critique is on Squires term ‘objects’, and it is clear that there is an overbearing concentration on the physicality of the photograph-as-object throughout the show / in the practice of the artists included. This seems to be rather surprising given the ubiquity of the photograph today, and all of its digital forms of reproduction, in a show curated in 2014, Is it just the wrong question / title? Is it too broad? What would Walter Benjamin have to say?

This point was not lost on the critics:

‘Unfortunately, the works chosen to investigate this question, are, simply put, not very strong. What’s worse, while many of them are cartoonishly bad, a few are magical and get it just right. The resulting exhibition is maddeningly close to being good, but it is hobbled by some serious and almost headache-inducing failures that can only be blamed on a lack of curatorial judgment’ (Pollack, 2014)
‘It’s a strangely blinkered and backward-looking show. Nearly all the work on view have more to do with photography’s past than with its possible future’ (Johnson, 2014)
‘It is not that this show looks backwards (which it does), but rather, that it looks backwards to produce a certain history which at once marginalizes photography’s digital transformation and yet at the same time is a product of that shift’ (King, 2014)
‘In a day and age where the majority of photographs exist in ephemeral form, tying an inquiry into what a photograph actually is, to experimentation by very art-world centered humans around materials simply misses most of the excitement’ (Colberg, 2014)

However, Squires responds to the chameleon-like nature of the photograph as she is also quick to point out that ‘We are in a moment – which may stretch on for years – in which the photograph shifts effortlessly between platforms and media’ (Squires, 2014, p.42), Indeed we are, so why, in this show, might we be presented with a question and selection of images which one could argue has more in common with painting and sculpture, and the associations of value, judgement and aura that these media might connote. Is this a return to 19th Century photographic values? Is the photograph so confused / de-valued as ‘art’ that it must resort to mimicing painting and sculpture to make the gallery its ‘home’/ Or is this a direct response to the digital age and the plethora of images that come with it?

That said, perhaps Squires question is a useful one. To return to Olin’s (2013) definition as the photograph as evoking both ‘vision and touch’ as well as Batchen’s (2014) reminder of the photograph as a ‘means of production with a malleable meaning’, and Edwards & Hart’s (2004) notion of it as ‘images and physical objects’. Perhaps this exhibition serves us with an important reminder of the shifting nature of the photograph and the relationship we are invited to have with it, to instigate debate and exploration of it’s usually transparent and often more functional nature, as it continues to shapeshift between contexts and media.

’Emotion without cognition is blind, cognition without emotion is vacuous’ (Scheffler, 1991, p.9)

suggested Session Outline:

‘The best photographs always inspire curiosity, rather than satisfy it’ (Soth in Schuman, 2004)
  • Ask participants to conduct in depth research into the work of at least 2 of the practitoners included in What is a Photograph? at the ICP (2014).
  • Ask participants to read and compare at least 2 of the reviews below. Do they agree with the argument being made? What are the similarities and differences
    • Colberg, Jörg (2014) ‘What is a Photograph?’ in Conscientious Magazine (31st March 2014) available here
    • Johnson, Ken (2014) ‘Digital, Analog and Waterlogged’ in The New York Times (30th January 2014) available here
    • King, Jacob (2014) ‘What is a Photograph?’ in Aperture Blog available here
    • Parsons, R. Wayne (2014) ‘A Puzzlement: What is a Photograph?’ in The New York Photo Review available here
    • Pollack, Maika (2014) ‘What Is a Photograph?’ at the International Center of Photography and ‘A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio’ at the Museum of Modern Art’ in Observer Culture (2nd December 2014) available here
    • Rexer, Lyle (2014) ‘A New Exhibition Asks, What Is a Photograph, Anyway?’ in Time Magazine (30th January 2014) available here
  • If you were the curator: Of the practitoners included in the show, which work would remain? And which would be rejected?
  • If you were the curator: How you adapt the show given the critical response? Are there any new works you would include? By whom and why?
’If I like a photograph, if it disturbs me, I linger over it. What am I doing during the whole time I remain with it? I look at it, I scrutinise it’ (Barthes, 1993, p.99)