In Conversation With: Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron is an interdisciplinary artist based between East Sussex and Cornwall, UK. Working across a diverse range of media including photography, painting, moving image and installation, she articulates a world of uncertainty, frequently using a combination of digital and analogue techniques to manipulate the periphery of fact and fiction. The blurring of these demarcations plays a crucial role in exploring ideas centred around time, space and the nature of existence, presenting life as a source of wonder and infinite possibility. Investigating states of change or metamorphosis is also a recurrent theme as she uses her work to illustrate the transition into a future which is impossible to predict or control. 

Follow Shona Waldron on instagram

Primordial Loop from Shona Waldron on Vimeo.

Shona Waldron Sensorium

24th – 28th June 2021

The Fish Factory, Penryn, Cornwall

Private View: 24th June 2021: 6pm – 9pm 

BtL: Your upcoming exhibition Sensorium opens on the 24th June 2021. It brings together works from several of your recent projects. Can you sum up any overall themes in your practice?

SW: Sensorium is a collection of work that encompasses moving image, photography, painting and installation. The title draws inspiration from the sensory apparatus of the human body which is responsible for receiving and interpreting external stimuli. Intended to be viewed as part of an immersive experience, each exhibited piece explores themes surrounding the intersection of art, science and technology, evoking the idea of new realities that are activated by our perceptual encounters with the space.

Although my work often makes reference to scientific language and taxonomical systems, there is equally a free-flowing element that induces feelings of fluidity and life in a constant cycle of evolution. There are also parallels made between the organic and the technical, with a blending together of analogue and digital media to allow the subject matter to exist in a transformed state that surpasses the limits of its original definition.

BtL: You seem to be interested in visually exploring the relationship between the technological world and the natural world. Why is it important for you to incorporate a range of media into your practice?

SW: The incorporation of a variety of media and processes is definitely very important. I find that moving beyond the boundaries of a purely photographic practice allows the work to function in a universal context which is useful when dealing with these expansive and broad themes. This mixed media approach makes it easier for my work to emphasise connections on multiple levels, whether it be visual, auditory or as an entire sensorial experience. I think this way of working is helpful in creating a sense of dynamism, something that is of particular interest in light of my ideas surrounding the mutable relationship between technological and biological forms.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: The title of your video work Primordial Loop seems to both juxtapose and connect the idea of new possibilities / the inter-connectedness of man and machine; the technical and the organic…

SW: Primordial Loop is an experimental video piece that incorporates 3D modelling and animation. Its title draws inspiration from ‘primordial soup’, a term often used to refer to the blend of biological conditions that first enabled life on our planet. In addition to looking back towards these early beginnings, the work explores our immersion in the digital world by reinterpreting natural environments through the screen-based society we inhabit. The study of evolutionary processes is also of great importance as this ultimately evokes a transcendental journey through the past, present and future as well as a fusion of the organic and the technical.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Emphasis is placed upon these themes from the very onset of the piece which opens with an animation of cells dividing, a sequence that delineates a point of origin and the genesis of new life. The cells then fade out of view to be replaced by jellyfish that float across the scene, gelatinous in form with iridescent hues of purple and blue. Although included due to their    their correspondence with the cells, the jellyfish are notable in presence since they are one of the oldest species to exist on our planet, residing in our oceans for more than 500 million years. This remarkable timescale predates the dinosaurs and is fascinating in light of my ideas surrounding primal states.

 

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Following this, the video transitions into a haze of violet light which dissipates to reveal the shapes and structures of tree branches, rocks and mountains as scenes of a digital jungle emerge. Moving deeper into the landscape and through the undergrowth, circular patterns begin to appear with organic matter converging into the centre point where the panels of the video meet, creating a hypnotic effect that is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

BtL: Do you think your process of digitally constructing the work is important as a way of situating these primitive visual landscapes within the conditions of the 21st Century?

SW: Absolutely. The digital process allows nature to exist in a computational form and suggests that it is not estranged from technology in the way that we might initially imagine. In the text Novacene – The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, (2019) the scientist James Lovelock reiterates this view. He proposes that ‘computers work purely in zeros and ones; from   that they can construct entire worlds … information may indeed be the basis of the cosmos’ (2019: 88). It is this description of the cosmos being made up of information, that is referenced in a literal sense within my work.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This environment visually resembles many of teamLab’s installations such as The Infinite Crystal Universe. Presented as immersive experiences, teamLab encourages us to reach infinity and oneness by seeking to ‘transcend boundaries in the relationship between the self and the world, and of the continuity of time’ (Pace Gallery 2014). Computer programmes and algorithms are widely used in the creation of these works, engendering the belief in a computational universe in the same way that my work intends to.

teamLab (2015-2018) The Infinite Crystal Universe

BtL: You seems to situate your visual practice across a variety of thresholds. Can you give us a few examples?

SW: Further influential research includes the concept of the technological singularity, a term first popularised in 1993 with Vernor Vinge’s essay The Coming Technological Singularity. In physics, a singularity is defined as a point of infinity, such as the centre of a black hole, where matter becomes endlessly dense and physical  laws break down, resulting in the merging of space and time. In relation to this scientific definition, the theory of the technological singularity hypothesises that we will soon cross a threshold where machine intelligence will surpass biological intelligence, an advancement that will lead to irreversible changes to civilisation.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, suggests that ‘machine intelligence could become indistinguishable from that of its human progenitors within the first half of the twenty-first century’ (2005: 3). What this will look like for humanity is unclear as both a dystopian and utopian scenario would be possible. Either way, it is the notion of transcending current limitations that is most intriguing. It is also speculated that the universe began by such an event, meaning that there was a singularity in our past as well as one potentially in our future, demonstrating the way history repeats itself in a loop.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This notion of the singularity manifests in Primordial Loop when the screen becomes increasingly pixelated and the motion accelerates, referencing the exponential rate that we are approaching what is often referred to as the ‘event horizon’ (Kurzweil 2005: 7). Once this is reached, the centre of the screen unfolds to reveal a passage into a new space-time dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

The final scene reveals the culmination of this journey into a post-singularity state. The video fragments, breaking apart from its original structure and transforming into multiple screens floating within a dark void. The plurality of the work opens up new ways for it to exist, with the panels constantly moving across the X, Y and Z axes. The music also shifts from its electronic sound to something choral and celestial. At this point in the video, space is perceived in a more fluid way, it bends and stretches, becoming something that we develop a heightened awareness of.

Yayoi Kusama (2019) Infinity Mirrored Room: Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe

This exploration of a boundless existence relates strongly to Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, another key inspiration for my practice. The installation, Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe, is described as a perceptual experience that functions as ‘a harmonious and quiet place for visitors to contemplate their existence, reflect on the passage of time, and think about their relationship to the outer world’ (Hirshhorn 2017). The title of Kusama’s piece acts as an expression of hope and resonates with my own feelings of reverence for the infinite. A sense of spirituality is embodied within the ending of my work, suggesting that it has indeed transcended in the same way that it is predicted that we, as humans, will one day transcend our own experience of reality.

BtL: The photographic strand of your practice, titled Merge/Melt, seems to explore similar notions to Primordial Loop through amalgamating technological and natural elements to create something that exists in a transformed state.

SW: Merge/Melt experiments with the use of digital tools to build new forms and structures, revealing warped patterns and textures that suggest  the physical world is melting into an electronic one. During the production of the series, photographs of jungles and cityscapes were fed into an algorithm and then merged together to generate new entities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

The Deep Dream algorithm was used specifically for this purpose as it was able to draw out interesting shapes within the depths of the images. Deep Dream is described as a convolutional neural network and was originally developed in 2015 as a means of providing AI researchers with an insight into what an algorithm sees when it analyses an image. Since its inception, however, it has primarily been used as an artistic tool with results that are psychedelic in appearance. The artist Mario Klingemann is one of the pioneers of working with neural networks in this way. The works Archimedes Principle and Parting From You Now, draw attention to the pareidolic details that can emerge from an image, in the same way that humans are able to observe random shapes in passing clouds. The ability of Deep Dream to provide an algorithmic vision of our environments relates to the computational form of nature seen in Primordial Loop, epitomising the suggestion that ‘computation is existence’ (Lloyd and Ng cited in Kurzweil 2005: 342).

Mario Klingemann (2016) Archimedes’ Principle
Mario Klingemann (2016) Parting From You Now

BtL: There is appears both a visual and conceptual fluidity to your practice, yet also a sense of chaos and the unexpected.

Artist and theorist Joanna Zylinska’s text AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams also feels especially relevant. Zylinska refers to algorithmic art as ‘an ouroboros-like circle of random variations’ (2020: 72), a description that encapsulates the chaotic nature of my work but equally observes the connectivity that is so integral to its construction. The effect of this merging process is the predominant feature.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt
Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

In some images, it becomes difficult to distinguish city lights from stars as the sky dissolves into the architecture and structures blend together like coloured inks, a liquid yet luminous appearance that could almost be the result of street lights reflected in a pool of water. Due to the alteration and enhancement of certain hues, some of the images look more industrial and synthetic whilst others, with jewel bright shades of green and blue, are more jungle-like, allowing each composition to exist on a continuum between metropolis and nature. It is this fluctuation that I find most inspiring as it underscores my interest in the creation of multiplicities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

To clearly communicate a sense of things evolving, I present my images as animated video sequences on screens and opted for a circular format in order to create a stronger comparison to the concepts explored in Primordial Loop. These circular shaped pieces embody a more pronounced mutability and link back to Zylinska’s reference to the loop of the ‘ouroboros’, reflecting wholeness and infinity. They additionally have the look of portals, perhaps acting in a similar way to black holes. This creates a further parallel with my video piece which also leads us through into a new dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: You are a graduate of the BA Photography course at Falmouth University. Any tips or advice for current / prospective students?

SW: My advice would be to view university as a time to experiment with photography, to try out new ways of working and push the boundaries of the medium. Over the course of my three years at Falmouth, I feel fortunate to have been able to expand my practical image making skills, both with analogue and digital processes. Although it can be strange to do something unfamiliar, I would completely recommend it as it will enable you to develop new areas of interest and gain a broader experience of the arts. And, it goes without saying, to make the most of the university facilities and technical workshops in addition to opportunities for collaborative working whilst you are a student as this provides invaluable support.

BtL: What can we expect from you next?

SW: I am planning to develop more work that expands upon the themes seen Sensorium and incorporates a variety of techniques, I will be continuing to practice in other visual disciplines alongside my photography. In addition to lens-based media, i will be continuing to branch out into other areas such as painting, sculpture and installation – and continuing to experiment. Who knows?

Routledge Award Winner: Summer 2021

Communicate / Consume

Encoding & Decoding: A World of Signs

‘Semiotics is in principle, the discipline of studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all’. (Eco, 1976, p.7)
René Magritte (1929) The Treachery of Images

This session introduces participants to the language of semiotics, stemming from the Greek sēma (sign) and the ways in which we might understand the photograph as a ‘code’. It draws from the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce and Roland Barthes, in considering a ‘language’ of photography / visual culture in an advertising context.

 

‘It is not the person ignorant of writing, but ignorant of photography, as somebody said,  who will be the illiterate of the future, But mustn’t the photographer who is unable to read his own pictures be no less deemed an illiterate?’ (Moholy-Nagy in Benjamin, 1931, p.294)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

Braun Advert (2008)

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To become familiar with the language of semiotics
  • To explore the role of text within adverts to convey / support the message
  • To consider dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings of adverts
  • Participant Outcome: 1 x A3 print advert
Sheba Advert (2008)
Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything that can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or actually be somewhere at the moment that the sign stands in for it. (Eco, 1976, p.7)

suggested Session Outline:

  • Give / modify the Presentation below. Concentrate on the language used by de Saussure (signifier / signified) Pierce (icon / index / symbol) and Barthes (denotation / connotation / lingusitic message / cultural paradigms). Daniel Chandler offers an excellent overview available here. Throughout:
  • Think about and compare the use of written / verbal language and visual language. What (seems to) make a photograph different from painted or illustrated representations? How might the use of text within an sign / advert ‘guide’ our interpretation of it? Are there synergies between the messages conveyed by written text and the images?
‘it is perhaps only when encountering a different language that this experience of a gap between language and the world of objects (the objects language designates) actually begins to reveal itself as “unnatural”. Suddenly, the way language names things in the world comes upon a different system’ (Bate, 2016, p.19)
Elliott Erwitt (1974) New York
  • Dog
  • Chein
  • Hund
  • Perro
  • كلب

 

 

 

 

‘The caption permits me to focus not only my gaze, but also my understanding’ (Barthes, 1977, p.39)
Tommy Hilfiger Advert (2000)
Calvin Klein Advert (1995)
Yves Saint Laurent Advert (1995)
  • Think about how these messages may reproduce dominant ideologies / cultural paradigms. Are these speciifc to shared understandings?
  • What ideaologies are promoted by the images below? Do they become ‘invisible’ through shared understandings?
  • Select an advert / image and make a large print out / projection of it. Using post it notes, participants should work in a group to identify each dennotational aspect of the image to and deconstruct what it connotes.
  • Compare Roland Barthes (1972) essay ‘The World of Wrestling‘ in Mythologies to the visual language used in The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King (1994) Walt Disney Feature Animation: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Messages are socially produced in particular circumstances and made culturally available as shared explanations of how the world works. In other words, they are ‘ideologies’, explanatory systems of belief’ (Goodwin & Whannel, 2005, p.60)
Panzani Advert (c.1970)

 

‘An Italian would barely perceive the connotation of the name, no more probably than he would the Italianicity, [it is] based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes’ (Barthes, 1977, p.34)

Think About: What are the dennotative and connotative aspects of the Pazani advert Barthes discusses? Does it have any synergies with the Dolmio advert below? Does the Dolmio advert introduce any ofher ideologies (family / gender roles etc)?

‘By the word reading we mean not only the capacity to identify and decode a certain number of signs, but also the subjective capacity to put them into a creative relation between themselves and with other signs’ (Hall, 1999, p.514)
‘Understanding photography as a body of practices and aesthetic values which follows a paradigmatic structure is helpful in understanding its representational role, for it focuses our attention on how the interactions between the intentions of photographers and the uses to which thier photographs are put’ (Hall, 1999, p.80)
The Spy Who Loved Me Film Poster (1977) Lewis Gilbert
American Heroes Postage Stamp (2001)
‘Advertising forms a system of meaning… The viewer sees all advertisements as one, or rather sees their rules as applicable to one another and thus part of an interchangeable system’ (Williamson, 1978, p.13)
  • Or is it? Think about how these messages may be misconcieved. Consider dominant readings / negotiated readings / oppositional readings.
  • Revisit the previous large image / post it notes and consider how the image / advert might be understood in different ways, by whom and why.
  • Consider adverts which have attracted controversy. Evaluate some examples of The Advertising Standards Authority decisions available here
  • How would you evaluate the John Lewis (2015) Man on the Moon Christmas campaign? Why do you think it attracted oppositional readings? How do you feel about the morality of supermarkets etc offering ‘charity’ christmas campaigns? Is this practice sincere or disingenuous?
‘It’s unclear why the old man is on the moon, though he looks a lot like one of those desiccated Nazis who fled Germany after the war and built an Aryan paradise in Patagonia. Lily sends Heinrich a telescope, delivered by party balloons, with which he can spy on the child in her bedroom. How is that good?’ (Pearson, 2015)
‘As soon as a photograph leaves Eden and enters into circulation, it becomes culturally coded, transforming the image and putting it into the realm of connotation’ (Elkins, 2007, p.15)

Presentation ideas: Encoding & Decoding: A World of Signs

to follow

  • Ask participants to create an advertising (campaign) of thier own. This might be themed (e.g. Christmas) or it might be within a certain product context (e.g. a mystery scent – they might create an advert based on smell alone).
  • They should conduct a semiotic analysis of thier final consturcted image. What does it denote / connote? Why did they make the visual choices they did? Does it conform to any cultural paraadigms? What is it’s linguistic messge? How might it be (mis) read? By whom and why?
  • Print / project and critique
‘There is one lesson we can learn from photographs: images exist not to be believed, but to be interrogated’ (Grundberg, 1999, p.273)

 

‘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

Conflicts and Contexts? A Brief Consideration

War as Entertainment. War as change?

By Louis Izard (14th Decemeber 2019)
‘Wars are now also living room sights and sounds’ (Sontag, 2004, p.16)
Roland Emmerich (2013) White House Down
David O. Russell (2003) Three Kings
Oliver Stone (1987) Platoon
‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings’ (Sontag, 1977, p.20)

It is clear that certain representations of war and suffering have become all too commonplace, particlularly in the images we see (both now and then) of the difference between coverage of the the Vietnam war (1955- 1975) and Iraq war (2003 – 2011) and they way they have been appropriated for entertainment alone.

Does this make us less or more involved? Does the power of the cinema dilute this? or are we merely living in a simulacra? Where does the photograph fit in?

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2004) looks into the way we view war and suffering. She proposes two central ideas on how war photography / imagery can affect a population. The first is through the media, in which mass distribution of these images of suffering cause public outrage and demand for change. While the other idea looks at the gradual erosion of compassion after repeatedly viewing these images. Essentially, she argues that ‘Such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked’ (Sontag, 2004, p.94).

Steve McCurry (1991) Camels and Oil Fire, Kuwait
‘I really don’t think that a picture of an atrocity should be a good picture, a beautiful picture, a well-composed picture… It should be casually composed, hastily framed, only competently printed’ (Sischy in Lewis, 2003)

In contrast, the Vietnam war was widely photographed, and the images captured are certainly graphic to our modern eyes. This is due to the display of real and uncensored depictions of suffering from both sides, in so many different contexts.

Consider the photographs included in the music video for Buffalo Springfield (1966) For What It’s Worth below.

Iraq was considerably different. As Kenneth Jareke (2014) points out ‘It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank…If I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies’ (Jarecke in Deghett, 2014).

Consider the film trailer for David O. Russell (2003) Three Kings below.

representations from Vietnam are more likely to depict the violence inflicted on others, whilst images of Iraq are mostly of tanks, guns and US soldiers – a particularly Western / American view of the world perhaps?
Nick Ut / AP (1972) The Terror of War / ‘Napalm Girl’
‘Baudrillard pointed out that the [Iraq] war was conducted as a media spectacle. Rehearsed as a wargame or simulation, it was then enacted for the viewing public as a simulation: as a news event, with its paraphernalia of embedded journalists and missile’s-eye-view video cameras, it was a videogame. The real violence was thoroughly overwritten by electronic narrative: by simulation’ (Poole, 2007)
Rick Merron / AP (1965) Vietnam War
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Getty Images (2011) Iraq War

So today, in our image world, and the age of the (uncensored) internet – what is the role of Citizen Journalism? As Sontag (2004) notes, ‘The less polished pictures are… [more they are] welcomed as possessing a special kind of authenticity’ (2004, p,24). Here is New York (2004) was one of the largest collaborative projects undertaken to archive the events of 9/11 but also as a celebration of a vibrant city overcoming trauma.

Micheal Shulan (2004) (ed.) from Here is New York
‘What was captured by these photographs — captured with every conceivable kind of apparatus, from Leicas and digital Nikons to homemade pinhole cameras and little plastic gizmos that schoolchildren wear on their wrists — is truly astonishing: not only grief, and shock, and courage, but a beauty that is at once infernal and profoundly uplifting. The pictures speak both to the horror of what happened on 9.11 (and is still happening), and to the way it can and must be countered by us all. They speak not with one voice, but with one purpose, saying that to make sense of this terrifying new phase in our history we must break down the barriers that divide us’ (Shulan, 2004)

 

.Follow louis iZArD on Instagram

Who am I?

and, who’s In Control?

‘In front of the lens I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art’ (Barthes, 1980, p.13)
Viviane Sassen (2016)

This introductory session aims for participants to explore the nature of (shared) control inherent in all portraiture and the tension between photographer, sitter, the viewer who ‘interprets’ it and the context within which it is seen. In this context, it also encourages participants to reflect on a series of portraits, and also make comparisons between painted and photographic representations of ‘self’.

It poses the question ‘In what sense can a literal image express the inner world and being of an individual before the camera?’ (Clarke, 1997, p.101)

‘A face is a mask, is a lie. The face acts as a permeable membrane, a negotiated zone between the subject and the object, outside and in’ (kennedy 2006)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

‘Portraits are representations, not documents’ (West, 1997, p.53)
Albert Sands Southworth & Josiah Johnson Hawes (1850) Young Girl with Portrait of George Washington

Compare: The painting and the photograph. Which do we consider the more ‘truthful’? Which subject is given the most prominence? Why?

‘The subject framing eye of the photographer is difficult to reconcile with the objectivity of the camera’s technology, it’s seemingly transparent realism of recording’ (Hutcheon, 2003, p.117)

 

 

 

 

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to consider the different ways in which a self might be represented.
  • To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of the portrait, as an interaction between photographer, sitter and audience Who’s view is it? Is it the photographers view? Is it an ideal self? Is it a collaboration? How is it ‘read’ by its audience? What happens when we don’t know we are bring watched?
  • Participant Outcome: Produce 3 10 x 8 portraits. (where the photographer is in control / the sitter is in control / a collaboration between photographer and sitter)
Walker Evans (1931) Torn Movie Poster

Think About: A percieved innocence / transparency of photographic portraits. Why might we find this image ‘grotesque’?

The grotesque effect of the photograph of the movie poster depends on the equivalence of object and its representation, of woman and picture-woman, that photography allows (Savedoff, 2000, p.51)

 

 

 

You will need:

  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards)
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • Flashguns (or a Studio) to practice lighting techniques
  • Any props / costumes you might need
  • Ideas about locations to photograph in (and how this will influence the image)
  • 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
‘Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own’ (Avedon in Kozloff, 2011)
Felix Nadar (c.1855) Charles Baudelaire
Etienne Carjat (c.1860) Charles Baudelaire

Compare: These different visions of Charles Baudelaire. Can photographers ‘create’ different selves and transform the sitter into someone else? How do we ‘read’ each image?

‘Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image’ (Barthes, 1980, p.10)
Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi (c.1862) Carte de Visite

Think About: Performing for the camera. How and why do sitters perform? Do we always want an ‘idealised’ image?

‘Many people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed; not because they fear as primitives do, being violated, but because they fear the cameras disapproval – people want the idealised image’ (Sontag, 1977, p.85)

 

preparation work:

  • Ask participants to read Richard Dorment (2003) ‘Photography in Focus: Thomas Ruff’ in The Telegraph 29th May 2003 available here
  • Ask participants to explore the National Portrait Gallery resources and select one feature / practitioner of thier choice to further research available here
  • Ask participants to watch Sandy Nairne (2019) Judging the BP Portrait Award and select / consider images they respond to (or not) available here
  • Ask participants to identify and bring a selection of props they might need, as well as identify locations for photographing
  • Ask participants if they have thier own digital cameras and cards
  • Make sure you have access to computers
  • 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.
  • Decide whether you will introduce location / studio lighting
  • 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
‘When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man’ (Cameron in Raymond, 2017, p.34)
Thomas Ruff (c.2000) from Portraits

Think about: The control / vision of the photographer / the interpretation of the viewer. What does Ruff’s work really tell us about the sitter?

’Photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait. I take photos of people the same way I would take photos of a plaster bust. What people see, eventually, is only what’s already inside them’ (Ruff in Dorment, 2003)

 

 

 

suggested Session Outline:

Arnold Newman (1963) Alfred Krupp

With this image in mind, ask participants to watch Arnold Newman talks about taking Alfred Krupp Portrait (2011) available here

Think about: How and why Arnold Newman has constructed this portrait the way he has / How Alfred Krupp might have wished to be represented / How we respond to it as viewers / How are public figures / celebrities represented?

 

  • Ask participants to consider the nature of the portrait. How do they make them? Is there a difference when they are photographed as sitters? How do we ‘read’ portraits as viewers?
  • What is the difference between a painted portrait and a photographed one?
  • Give the Presentation below. Invite participants to compare the approaches? Who is in control? Are self portraits different? Do we all ‘perform’ in similar ways? Are photographs of celebrities merely collaborative stereotypes? Can a ‘space’ be a portrait?
  • In pairs make 3 portraits:
    • Take Control: The photographer has complete control over the representation of the sitter. ‘Who’ are they (percieved as)?
    • Ideal Selves: The sitter has complete control over thier own representation of the sitter. ‘Who’ are they (trying to be)?
    • Working Together: Photographer and sitter collaborate on the representation. What’s the difference?
  • Print / Project and critique the images with these intents / aesthetics / the tensions between photographer / sitter / viewer in mind. Are they viewed in the way that photographer / sitter intended?
‘There’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you cant help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I’ve always called the gap between intention and effect’ (Arbus in Goldman, 1974, p.32)
Gillian Wearing (1992) from Signs

Think About: Collaborative portraits. How does Wearing’s work Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-1993) encourage us to consider the nature of the portrait?

‘[This collaboration] interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.’ (Wearing, 1997, p.3)

 

 

 

Presentation ideas: whO Am i? who’s In Control?

The Materiality of Wolfgang Tillmans and Marlo Pascual

by Louis Stopforth (9th december 2019)

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes proposes that ‘the Photograph is flat’ (Barthes. 1993. p.106). However photographic materiality has come into question by artists, curators, and critics alike after much deliberation in regards to the medium, procuring that the photograph no longer was to be read as ‘flat’ but that it had a tangibility to it that could be felt and experienced. This exploration of the medium refuted that a photograph was merely an invisible vessel for information, but rather it could be an object of interest in its own right as well as having its materiality contribute to its place as a descriptor.

Figure 1: Photography into Sculpture Exhibition (1970) MoMA

 

The Photography into Sculpture held at MoMA in 1970 (Fig.1) was a seminal exhibition in allowing artists and photographers alike to begin the exploration of photographic materiality as the focal point of their work, superseading depiction. Peter Bunnell, the curator of this exhibition, one year previously wrote a short essay ‘in which he identified a body of work ‘calling attention to the photographic artifact’ (Batchen. 2002. p.110).

 

 

The importance of this exhibition was how ‘the primacy of the image was traded for the primacy of the object, where each work was not ‘’a picture of, but an object about something”’ (Statzer. 2014).

Since then numerous artists, works, exhibitions and essays have focused on the physicality of the photograph, and to more experimental and conceptually charged extents. Two artists I explore here are Marlo Pascual and Wolfgang Tillmans, who have both produced works discussing the materiality of photography but in quite dissimilar ways.

Figure 2. Marlo Pascual (2010) Untitled. Two C-print, photographs, mounted on plexiglass.

Marlo Pascual (b.1972) and her distorted, ruptured, torn, and intervened with photographs (Fig. 2) instantly defies unawareness to the photographs material presence; ‘the photographs two dimensionality is revealed as a fiction’ (Batchen. 2002. P.110). The recognition of photographic materiality is one that does not effortlessly come to our attention, like other art forms, hence Pascual’s contentious alteration of the photograph.

She states ‘I want it to be physically imposing’ (Pascual, 2012). Pascual’s work discusses materiality in the most extreme of ways, aggressively intervening with the photographic object.
Figure 3. Wolfgang Tillmans (2007.) Lighter 46. C-print photograph, in artist’s frame.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Fig. 3) on the other hand is an example of how photographic work can deal with materiality in both a physical way as well as a photographically representational way (a photograph in its ‘institutionalized’ sense). In contrast to Marlo Pascual, Tillmans work in regards to materiality speaks more intrinsically to photography itself as it does not use exterior materials to itself. For this to be appreciated one must observe two projects simultaneously: Lighter and paper drop.

Figure 4: Wolfgang Tillmans (2006) Lighter III. C-print, photograph, in artist’s fram

Tilllmans’ exhibiting of Lighter (2005 to present) consists of an ongoing series of prints that have been folded and bent, protruding into space (Fig. 4). They speak universally of both photographic process and photographic materiality due to there being no personal vision in the trace ‘image’ of the work. If there were clearly recognizable depictions on the surface of the image it would become misconstrued and associated with something rather than the photographic self. Instead the abstract coloring we are presented with is a comment on the process of making a photograph (the colours being the effects of variations in the conditions of light in the darkroom on the photographic paper). Whereas the folding and bending of the paper talks about all photographs material nature. ‘Lighter invite(s) us to think of photography not in terms of an image, but structurally’ (Eichler. 2015. P.11).

Alongside his more dimensional pieces, however, Tillmans uses photography in its more traditional sense of depictional representation (Fig. 5) as a way of personally investigating the broader notion of all things being dimensional.

Figure 5. Wolfgang Tillmans (1991) Still Life Talbot Road. C-print photograph

With his paper drop (Fig. 6) prints he uses photography typically how it is expected; creating a visible and recognisable trace of a moment. Despite this, these prints discuss materiality much the same as the Lighter works as when they are displayed alongside each other, and when we view the flat surfaced paper drop photographs the same as we would any other photograph, we observe that what is depicted is a physical photograph ‘folded back on itself forming a reclining tear-drop shape’ (Eichler. 2015. p.11).

The result of this is that Tillmans produces a ‘study of photography looking at itself’ (Eichler. 2015. p.11); displaying its physicality without manifesting itself into something with more form than itself.
Figure 6: Wolfgang Tillmans (2011) paper drop (green) II. C- print photograph

Therefore it is possible to be attentive to both reference and representation whilst the concept of the work is still dedicated to the physicality of the photographic self.

References
  • Barthes, Roland. (1993) Camera Lucida. Published by ‘Vintage Classics’ in 1993. Originally published in French in 1980.
  • Batchen, Geoffrey (2002)  Each Wild Idea. Published by ‘MIT Press’, London, in 2002. Paperback First Edition.
  • Eichler, Dominic (2015) Wolfgang Tillmans: Abstract Pictures. Published by ‘Hatje Cantz’, Ostfildern, Germany, in 2015.
  • Pascual, Marlo (2012) Marlo Pascual: Selected Works by Marlo Pascual.  Saatchi Gallery [WWW]
  • Statzer, Mary (2014) Mary Statzer on ‘Photography into Sculpture’, New York, 1970. Aperture [WWW]

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.

‘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)

National Geographic: Fact or Fiction?

‘And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin’

(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915)
‘A magazine can open peoples eyes at the same time it closes them’ (Mason in Goldberg, 2018, p.8)
National Geographic (April 2018)

In April 2018, National Geographic reflected on thier representations of race and indigenous / non-Western people. This session aims for participants to interrogate racial / objectifying / mythological stereotypes that the magazine / visual culture might project, and to take a more critically reflective approach to such representations. It is appropriate to be used as a more theoretical / case study presentation based session or could have an associated visual response regarding the nature of visual stereotyping as it ‘becomes’ fact.

 

‘The photographer is super tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear’ (Sontag, 1977, p.42)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To investigate the ethics of the representation of racial difference in visual culture
  • To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations and consider the impact of these
  • To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of such representations
  • Participant Outcome: Research and identify 2 positive / truthful representations and 2 negative / sterotypical representations of people of colour

1: Presentation Ideas: 19th century / 21st century?

‘Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate. These ideas are by no means shared by the people who inhabit that empire’ (Said, 2003)
Pierre Petit (1882) A Kalina woman and her child photographed in Paris
National Geographic (February 1986)
The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretive processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder’ (Wells, 2011, p.6)

Photographs are ubiquitous. We devour them daily and perhaps we do ignore the way they act as surrogates for our understanding and knowledge of the world. Since the first issue of National Geographic was published in 1888, it has provided a powerful yellow bordered window on a world beyond our reach. Yet, perhaps, it is more of a mirror, and at that, one which only reflects ourselves. The West. On the the 100th anniversary of the publication its editor positioned the magazine in an inherently (and uniquely) truthful context –  ‘These covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’ (Garrett, 1988, p.270). is it really unique? is it really objective? indeed, can any photograph claim such veracity? Despite the popularity of National Geographic, and the respect it still seems to attract, Grundberg (1988) and Mason (2018) take less optimistic views, that it doesn’t show us anything new.

Does it merely recycle and reproduce a colonial gaze – merely reflecting already known stereotypes of The Other. Does our Western gaze still remain rooted in 19th Century tradiion?

 

‘Besides presenting our culture’s attitudes and preconceptions as if they were universal, or even nonexistent, the photography of the National Geographic produces a pictorial iconography that tends to reduce experience to a simple, common denominator (Grundberg, 1988)

Preparation Work:

  • Ask partticipants to read Andy Grundberg (1988) ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’ in The New York Times (18th September 1988) available here
  • Ask participants to read Susan Goldberg (2018) ‘For Decades Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It ’ in National Geographic (April 2018) available here
  • Ask partticipants to read Kianaz Amaria (2018) ‘National Georgaphic’s November Cover Falls Back On Racist Cliches’ in Vox (18th November 2018) available here

2: Presentation Ideas: The survival of the stereotype?

‘If photography is perceived as reality, then modes of representations will themselves enhance that reality, in other words the photograph is perceived as ‘real’ and ‘true’ because that is what the viewer expects to see: this is how it should be, becomes this is how it is / was’ (Edwards, 1992, p.8)
National Geographic (July 1959)
National Geographic Traveller (September 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work’ (Said, 1978, p.283)

In 1915, National Geographic’s official policy statement was threefold; (in Lutz & Collins, 1993, p.26)

  • ‘Absolute accuracy’
  • ‘Beautiful, informative and artistic illustrations’
  • ‘Nothing of a partisan or controversial character is printed’

There was no acknowledgement of a potential inconsistency between these aims – such as a tension between accuracy and aesthetics – an approach which is so easily recognised in contemporary photographic practice today – and often used very successfully to create contemplation / action in the viewer. Clearly not, in the case of National Geographic. In 2012, thier position had not changed: ‘Only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided’ (Foster, 2012, p.2). In November 2018, only 6 months after thier public ‘apology’ in The Race Issue (April 2018) their cover / Instagram coverage maintained these colonial myths – in thier representation of The Cowboy / Native Americans – and this was even within thier own shores.

Is National Geographic still replicating a Western (or even white American) worldview? Think about Western ideas of Africa, North Korea, Columbia, Saudi Arabia. Does National Geographic merely reproduce what we already think we know?
‘The myth transforms history into nature’ (Barthes, 1972, p.154)

Preparation Work:

  • Ask partticipants to brainstorm some stereotypes of different countries and people
  • Find 2 visual examples which perpetuate these stereotypes (photographs, films, adverts, painting etc)
  • Find 2 examples which present a more truthful / positive view or less stereotypical viewpoint

3: Presentation Ideas: A (visually) superior simulation?

‘We are moving towards a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real’ (Turkle, 1996, p.23)
National Geographic (October 1978)
National Geographic (November 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Animals are anthropomorphized shamelessly…National Geographic seems less involved in conveying information about its subject, than in being perceived pictorially’ (Grundberg, 1988)
‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true’ (Baudrillard, 1994, p.1)
National Geographic (May 1985)
National Geographic (August 1999)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (Fanon, 1986, p.18)

It is clear that 19th Century images might reflect the stereotype that readers in the industrial world expected to see. It was separate from the personal experience of its viewers and could only be read within the context of other images of its time – in relation to images taken by soldiers, anthropologists, missionaries and diplomats – who all had an imperialist agenda of thier own. However, when non-Western lands and people are represented as developed by National Geographic, it is all to often, an iconic ‘semi-developed’ stereotype that is created, a clash between traditional and new, Western and non-Western that can be almost comic. Again, the visual clash is of exotic tradition, timelessness, lack of development and change, which reminds us of an idea of a lack of development without Western intervention.  In essence, in the National Geograpic view of the world, non -Western lands are more frequently pictured as unchanging and timeless, whereas images of the West seem to celebrate scientific and industrial achievement.

Today, does this position non-Western lands (and thier people) as backward / in need of Western / American intervention? Are non Western people simple aggregated into a similar category of Other – without any visual acknowledgement of individual customs and practices? Does a timeless mythical identity of Other, create an equally fabricated identity of a (so called) perfect and developed West?
‘A way of viewing the world as something fundamentally separated from the observer. Knowability in advance and sustainability were proofs of the power of one’s system of viewing, but they also include a destructive power over what is observed’ (Pinney, 2011, p.28)
‘Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, it’s age old habit, in mere images of the truth’ (Sontag, 1977, p.3)

National Geographic (April 2002)

suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants to critically evaluate any racial stereotypes they percieve in the IKEA (2018) Wonderful Everyday advert below.

 

Re-Defining (dis) Ability?

Objectified objects / positive portraits

‘All photographs, be they of people with disabilities or of other subjects, contain visual rhetoric, patterns of conventions with a distinct style that cast the subject in a particular way’(Bogden, 2012, p.1)
Wirestone Advert (2010)

 

This session encourages a comparative and ethical approach to advertising campaigns / visual approaches which aim to promote disability awareness. Participants are encouraged to consider the potential for the objectification (or not) of disability, as well as the importance / function of text to potentially anchor our interpretation.

‘The body becomes the signifier of difference for disabled people’ (Hevey, 1992, p.30)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) for Walt Disney Pictures

 

‘Movies have tended to show disabled people as objects of pity or even comedy, a different breed whose condition subjects them to isolation’. (Cox, 2012)

 

 

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To investigate the ethics of the representation of disability in advertising / visual culture
  • To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations
  • To visually consider the impact of these at provoking our ‘concern’ and action
  • To explore the role of text within the adverts to convey / support the message
  • Participant Outcome: 1 x A3 print advert
‘The impairment is what limits and thus defines the person. The focus here is on the failure of the individual to adapt to society as it is, and thus the impairment is regarded as the cause of disability’ (Evans, 1999, p.274)
The Spastic Society Advert (1982)

The text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken it’ with second order signifieds’ (Barthes, 1977, p.25)

You will need:

  • A selection of visual adverts and representations of disability
  • 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
  • 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
‘By defining that person wholly by their impairment, the charities speak for disabled people implying they cannot speak for themselves’ (Hevey, 1992, p.26)
Muscular Dystrophy Association Advert (1995)

 

‘Only disabled persons, constructed as a particular kind of people, are subject to a process of image specialisation advertising, as such their image can be constitutied as a transaction in the public sphere. Charities are advertising a product who happen to be people’ (Evans, 1999, p.279

 

 

preparation work:

  • Ask participants to read Jessica Evans (1999) ‘Feeble Monsters: Making Up Disabled People? in The Visual Culture Reader (Hall & Evans eds. 1999) available here
  • Ask participants to read BBC (2016) Disabled models and athletes outraged by Brazilian Vogue Paralympic campaign photo (26th August 2016) available here
  • Ask participants to read Tara Campbell (2019) ‘Exploring Mental Health Through Photography’ in Creative Review available here
  • Ask participants to investigate the artists interviews available though fragmentary.org available here
  • Ask participants to watch and discuss Pro Infirmis (2013) ‘Becasue Who is Perfect?’  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 Reprographics are aware and be aware of timekeeping so they have space to print the work – or use A3 colour photocopiers.
  • *If you are running this session off campus, make sure there is access to printers or projectors
‘The focus [on] the ability not the disability’ (Barnes & Mercer 2003, p.98)
Mencap (1990) Kevin’s Going Nowhere Advert

 

 

‘The implications of this is that for charity advertising to be successful in its aim of raising funds, it may be undermining another objective: to ensure people are afforded civil rights and seen as of equal value to others’. (Bender, 2003, p. 124)

‘Imagining disability as ordinary, as the typical rather than the atypical human experience, can promote practices of equality and inclusion that begin to fulfil the promise of a democratic order’ (Thompson, 2001, p.360)

Presentation ideas: Objectified objects / positive portraits

 

Linda Dajana Krüger (2014) from Real Pretttiness

‘Why can’t Down Syndrome people be exaggerated or wear too much makeup if they like it? You see all kinds of people expressing themselves with fashion or makeup that is more or less a costume. It’s a common habit’ (Krüger in Griffin, 2014)

 

 

 

Diane Arbus (1970-1971) from Untitled

 

‘We can stare at these portraits in a way that we couldn’t stare at these women and girls if we met them on the street. We can be fearful and curious and safe all at once. They are Other’ (Dorfman, 2009)

suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants what knowledge.they have about disability (both physical and non physical) Remind participants that not all disabilities are visually discernable.
  • Give the Presentation above. Invite participants to compare the adverts? What are the similarities and differences? Pay attention to the time they were made / positive or negative messages and use of text as message. Is is successful? Which adverts / images are more positive? Why?
  • Brainstorm ideas and (stress) ethical concerns about the images. *Participants might make a more ‘positive’ versison of a pre-existing advert / image / character etc.
  • individually / in groups make an advert (include text) which aims to inspire change and makes a positive representation of the individuals / issue.
  • Print / Project and critique the images with these intents / ethics / aesthetics / use of text in mind and considering how we might overcome compassion fatigue and the visual objectification of the differently abled.
Muscular Dystrophy Association Advert (1985)

 

‘They had me stand in leg braces and they told me the caption was going to be: ‘If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.’ I was 6 years old. I was told I had a normal life expectancy at that point and I did not want to be a fireman. So I was quite upset… I knew I couldn’t be a fireman. That was absurd… It felt untrue. It felt exploited’ (Mattlin, 2012)