Words on Photography
A photographer I missed out on my list of inspiring photography websites was that of Martin Parr. From looking through some of my most recent photography series (from the Brighton Gay Pride, to the English American Car Convention, as well as the Street Party, USA and Beside the Seaside, UK) I seem to have gravitated, consciously or unconsciously, to observational photography of his kind. Throughout the summer I have taken myself to crowded spaces within America and England, to document what I see, whilst being constantly drawn to amusing moments or the little ironies I see within the world around me. In these environments, where people go to relax, I have attempted to juxtapose small details within the frame which I find playful.
Another reason I have been drawn to this type of photography is because of the spontaneous element to it - of just being able to pick up a camera and then going along to a free, public event. It is there that I need to orchestrate nothing, where I let the narrative of life, as it were, unfold before my eyes. It is within this stage that all I need to do is to be aware of what's around me and then, when a moment presents itself, I compose the shot and take the picture. It gives me an immense sense of freedom taking these types of photographs, and they can be taken whenever the whim takes hold of one.
As for the subject matter I choose... I think this may have been born out of the brilliant American photographer Phil Toledano when he wrote, in the introduction to his series 'The United States of Entertainment': "I’ve always felt that the very soul of a country is reflected in the way in which it entertains itself."
And so there I go, venturing into places where people relax, to enjoy themselves or to partake in a hobby, a lifestyle, or a way of life. It has been these places I have been drawn to, where people cut loose and have fun, to experience the outer world around them when the sun is out to shine, where people are at ease within their life, if only for a day, or even just for a few moments.
Now that I have become completely sidetracked from my original intention, I want to finish this where I begun, with Martin Parr. But I shall save my perspectives on his work, on the way in which his work effects me (I find him wonderfully humorous) and, instead, let him speak for himself in this short interview on TATE SHOTS.
I was asked by the editor of Trebuchet Magazine, at the start of this year, for a photography series to be published in tryptychs. Immediately I thought of my series LOST IN NEW JERSEY, and so, with the artist Peter Venner, we put together the following collection, which was published in 14 parts.
Along with the photographs, Peter wrote the following essay to accompany the series:
The framework which generated the seemingly natural, although institutionally created, opposites of critic and artist was established in the 18th century to provide the necessary basis for which art was conceived and understood.
In this system art services critics by perpetuating the view that the artist inhabits the site of silence, vision, transcendent spirit, emotion and intuition. By contrast the critic exerts this from the site of intellect, speech, judgement and rationale. In more recent times a postmodern sensibility has become established, one that aims to dissolve the assumed hierarchy through which critics' use of praise, blame, and explanation to reveal the meaning, and therefore truth and value of a work, is rejected as being a spurious and reductive division between theory and practice.
More common is the practice of placing a text alongside a work with the intention that it be complementary as opposed to being supplementary, of course this is the intention here.
Common readings of photographs, readings shared by members of a society are reached through the intermediary of an ethical and political culture, but this doesn’t account for the personal readings of photographs, meanings that are unpredictable, private and not easily communicated. This experience, as if a detail attains distinct ‘focus’ against the background of less distinct information, happens when in the presence of fantasy; fantasy being an imaginary sequence where the subject plays a part. Ultimately meaning must come to rest somewhere, but what is it that sets the boundaries for the meaning of photographs?
The use of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of photographs and in the interpretation of photographer’s actions is now a widely accepted approach to establishing the meaning of photographs and is worth consideration here.
In brief, psychoanalysis is concerned with establishing that the ‘real’ (material reality, the real world) is not all there is; there are unconscious factors, memories and wishes that play an equally important part in our daily lives as material reality and this cannot be overlooked in any attempt to establish the meaning of things. Unconscious fantasy structures exert as actual an influence on a person's perceptions and life as does, for instance, such a force as the socio-economic conditions under which a person lives.
The key in applying psychoanalytic theory to the interpretation of photographs is in the position of psychoanalysis in not recognising a state in which the ‘real world’ exists, that is to say of approaching life in an unambiguous, lucid and self possessed way where things are perceived ‘as they are’.
‘Reality’ is only available through representation; no reality is known outside of representation. In the same way meaning is never simply ‘there’ for consumption but instead is produced in a process of substitution of one term for another in a potentially unlimited series. This is C. S. Pierce’s notion of unlimited semiosis and Derrida’s différance. In psychoanalysis there is no convenient division between normal and abnormal behaviour and this concedes truth as subjective and meaning as constructed.
Common fantasy structures contribute to constructing reality in the realm of representations (photographs), consequently and crucially there is no question of freeing representations (reality) from the determinations of fantasy but there is a benefit in the awareness of the agency of unconscious fantasy in the creation of representations.
Fantasy is perpetual transformation which doubles back on itself to repeat, but differently. This movement describes not so much a circle as a spiral that perpetually advances into new territory whilst simultaneously tracing the same figure. This metaphor fits the practice of photographers driven by fantasy, forever chasing the image that will finally satisfy the fantasy, but which, inevitably, is never found or 'captured', but very nearly many times. The process is characterised by the discharge of free energy by the most direct and rapid model available; the drives pursue their adventures by whatever metaphoric or metonymic routes the purely formal characteristics of the signifiers allow them, routes which are potentially innumerable and limitless. Photographic images and indeed the pursuit of photographs as well as the very notion of photographer may perhaps serve to regulate and organise the otherwise formless displacement of desire much as fantasy does. Fantasy then is a staging of desire and the process of photography provides a unique opportunity to act out, repeatedly.
On a different thread, common photographs - photographs that seem only to need common sense to establish their meaning - seem to fit naturally with the concept of hieroglyphs in that their form is fixed like a hieroglyphic symbol and that they seem to remain outside the purview of theory. This likeness is exemplified by a common claim that certain photographs have a significance which transcends their literal content, which may or may not be expressed in words. This concept is particularly strong in Humanist photography through what is known as ‘the decisive moment’. In a roundabout way this idea of the pregnant moment appeared in painting earlier in art history and earlier still in sculpture as the idea that art’s highest calling was to depict human expression in its ideal, all encompassing form. What results is an assumption of discursive clarity. The concept of hieroglyphs functions in exactly this way; the hieroglyph is an unambiguous symbol – meaning is set and communicated without difficulty.
In Egyptian culture hieroglyphs offer the chance of communication between the two worlds of existence; earthly existence where communication is through the ambiguous system of language and the perfect upper world where communication is unambiguous and instantaneous, through the medium of ‘vision’. Interestingly this idea runs through this period of history and into Christianity, where God, who inhabits the heavens, communicates through visions in supposedly unambiguous ways. Even today religious experience in Christianity and religion in general, is characterised this way - as a kind of pure experience attributed as a gift from or privileged momentary access to the upper (spirit) world. The moment fails to endure but lives on as personal legend and is recounted and re-lived this way. A parallel may be drawn between this process and assumptions made about photography and certain photographic practices that may shed some light on the motivation that drives photographers to make and present multiple photographs in such series as ‘Lost in New Jersey’.
I sent a link to the following photography documentary on Joel Meyerowitz, as well as the opening text to a few close friends, including one who I shall call 'Z'. Below, is a transcription of the discussion that ensued...
You got to watch this, for its a piece of its time, in New York City. We have the renowned street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, standing on the corners, with Robert Gilberg, as this torrent, this great flood of words comes out of him; all about the street, about the light falling on people's hair, of the small moments that bubble and burst in the space of a thousandth of a second. And in those instances, Joel snaps his small little 35mm colour camera. He's insatiable, non-stop, aware, and completely connected. He's got a voice like Martin Scorsese, a voice like a steam train across its tracks, hurtling along and powered by the passion that's inside of him. This is really an incredible insight into street photography, into the inner mind of a photographer who is utterly connected to his world around him.
I know there is an attempt at reviving street photography at the moment, but to me it just seems so passé. Meyerowitz talks too much sentimental nonsense for me. Garry Winogrand's (photographed at the same time 60s-80s) philosophy of street photography blows Meyerowitz's chatter out of the water. Besides, street photographers always seem to be so wrapped up in themselves. They like to think of themselves as some kind of hero, always talking about risk and endurance. I would argue that he is completely disconnected and only thinking about the world in terms of photographs: he is in his head, not in the street.
Ha ha ha, you're so cynical, you need to connect to your heart and the inner landscape of your emotions!
It takes courage to actually stand in front of a stranger and take pictures of them. I was out taking photographs in Brighton the day before yesterday, with a friend who was down from London, and I bottled out of taking so many shots of weird and wonderful characters, the same of which happened to me on the Jersey Shore, which I cursed myself about afterwards. I would certainly say that Meyerwitz was in the street, as seen in that film, in that he was acutely aware of what was happening outside of his head, of his self. He stood, looking, fiendishly searching for tiny little moments that was, like in all cities, bursting all about him.
Have you any links for Winogrand's words, or have yo useen any interviews about him?
Next you'll be encouraging me to 'search my soul', no doubt!!
And what about the ethical question of taking photographs of people without their consent? Is knowledge of this what requires 'courage' to break an unwritten rule? (would you say someone who behaved unethically was courageous?). For me, the street photography of Meyerowitz misses all the big questions and gets caught up with sparkly sunlight and disparate 'gestures' and that selected 'decisive moments' apparently reveal some truth about life. Thoroughly misguided. Winogrand, on the other hand, had more insight and doesn't make any connection between the photograph and life (other than the index, the imprint of a trace of light from a thing on a light sensitive surface; i.e the image is illusion), and photographed only to see what things looked like in photographs, an exemplary approach that demonstrates a genuine understanding of the medium.
There used to be some good videos of Winogrand 'working the streets' on YouTube, but i haven't checked for a few years
We shall leave the argument of the 'soul', and even searching for one, out of this. Also, I think that perhaps ethics should be left out of this too, leaving it for the weighty situations of our earth; like why did the world stand by whilst thousands of innocent civilians were bombed, raped and massacred by Sri Lankan Government forces over a period of years? Why is it that our governments decide to step into one conflict (Libya) and not another (Syria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Serbia and Palestine, to name but a few).
But this is a subject I do not want to get into right now, especially as it is not even part of this discussion, as it were. Whether ethical or not, whether right or wrong, good or bad, not one person in this documentary, who was captured by the lens of Meyerwitz, confronted him about it, to disagree or to lambast him not be photographed. Often, from what I saw, people appeared to be more complimented than disgruntled about it. The thing that so captivated me about this film was Joel as a man who was truly aware, anchored in the ever present moment. And so any man, woman, poet, artist, or anyone else for that matter, who is truly aware, I have always felt akin to, inspired by and moved. For is it not that one of the aims of life is to be aware, submerged in the very here and now that perpetually plays out before us? For me, it is, and so when I discover people who live and breathe and make this there aim, consciously or unconsciously, I cannot help but feel drawn to them, as I sit or stand in total admiration, in awe of them Being (Being as in 'being' who they are, who they truly are, in that naked, raw instant). Joel spent most of this film searching for those short bursts of interactions around him, in the streets of New York in that exact moment of time, and whether decisive or not, he was seeing more in a second than most see in longer periods of time. His attention was acute, he was riveted by what was playing out before him in the pantheon of the streets. I admire his ability to be able to do that, and certainly it is a thing that takes great courage to do, for so many of us are afraid to interact with total strangers, others like you and I, even if it is to take their picture in a thousandth of a second.
However, I am writing this only seeing a number of Winogrand's work, and some time ago at that, only knowing a fraction of the surface of his work, which leads me onto the situation of having to delve deeper into his photographs and gaze, with an open eye, on his 'imprint of a trace of light from a thing on a light sensitive surface'.
Accompanying Text: "One of the great paradigm shifts in contemporary art over the past 20 years has been the movement of photography into the realm of fine art. The critical and commercial success of artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, who are represented by contemporary art galleries, and the appointment of photography curators to top public galleries such as Tate Modern and Guggenheim, has ensured that the medium is increasingly regarded as a vital part of contemporary artistic practice. With digital techniques of manipulation becoming more and more advanced, photography stands to continually develop and change as a tool for artists.
Given that the first photograph was produced in 1826, why did it take so long for photography to be accepted by the art world? How reliable is a photograph as evidence of the real world? What makes a documentary photograph different from a 'fine art' photograph? How will the increasing impact of digital manipulation impact upon the medium? What might the future developments in photography be?
These are some of the questions that curator Charlotte Cotton, photographers Anne Hardy and Clarisse D'Arcimoles and Aaron Schuman will discuss as they explore the most pressing questions regarding photography today."