OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Category: Artists

Simon Norfolk

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Thinking about the direction of my BoW all that I can say for certain is that I want to make photographs in and around my local area. As I consider and researched influences for this approach, I remembered a series by Simon Norfolk I had seen at the Side Gallery in Newcastle some years ago. The work was of former mining areas in the North-East of England, near to where I live, and was concerned with how the landscape had changed since the closure of the pits. I was disappointed that I could not find these images online either on Simon Norfolk’s website or on the Amber website. I was pleased to get responses from both, with Side explaining that unfortunately the images had not been digitised, but that I could arrange to view them at the gallery when Covid restrictions allowed. I was thrilled that Simon Norfolk sent PDF files of the full set of images and the exhibition text and gave permission to use them here.

The series was entitled Goaf and commissioned by Side in 2010 as part of their exhibition Coalfield Stories (shown alongside work by Sirkka-Liisa KonttinenSally-Ann Norman and John Davies.) ‘Goaf’ is defined with a quote from the ‘Glossary of Terms Used in the Coal Trade of Northumberland and Durham, 1849’ by G.C. Greenwell as:

"a space or void from which the coal pillars that support the roof have been removed. Eventually the pressure reconsolidates the whole, the surface subsiding."

This explanation clearly states Norfolk’s intent with the series as “resistance against Coalfield Revisionists” who seek to bury the memory of the coalfield under retail parks and two-garage luxury homes. The exhibition text ends in defiant terms: 

"It's a bitter pill to swallow that not only did we lose in the defence of this industry, but that the victors get to re-wite history afterwards. And how fucking annoying is that?" 

The images in Goaf are captioned using other terms from the Glossary that are equally unique, evocative and sadly lost to clear meaning. The complexity of the language use by the miners (‘pitmatic’) is likened by Norfolk to the way Eskimo’s have a number of words for snow, “there seemed to be no end to the number and subtlety of words available to a miner to describe the material they were burrowing through”. Combined with the images, this text makes clear reference to the past while allowing the present and what has happened in between to be considered simultaneously. Norfolk compared searching for evidence of the East Durham Coalfield as more akin to archaeology or forensics than photography, and, despite being told that it had all been covered up, he found evidence to the contrary:

"The East Durham Coalfield does still exist; traces and fragments of it at least. Beneath an economy of low wage/high labour-input McJobs; hidden away under strangely subsiding fields; in small jobless industrial villages in the heart of the countryside and in the dust in old men's lungs."

Most startling, is Norfolk’s likening to how any trace of the coal has been removed from the landscape to the way the Nazis tried to hide their crimes at Treblinka by dismantling the buildings and landscaping the land. It seems an extreme analogy, yet Norfolk’s argument is a compelling one that I am ultimately in agreement with:

"It's obvious why the Nazis would want to eradicate their crime, but what can explain the ruthlessness with which any trace of the East Durham Coalfield has been expunged? Only 25 years have passed since this was the mainstay of the region's economy. But when I tried to place the locations of all the pits that existed in 1945 onto modern Ordnance Survey maps, instead I found forests of shameless fast-growing conifers; suspiciously newly bulldozed landscapes (from the Tellytubbyland school of landscape design) and a host of planners, PR spokespeople, development officers and 'executive homes' salespeople who, if I mentioned the word 'coal', seemed to want to look awkwardly at their shoes and change the subject. 'Jobs' are so last century, now we have 'lifestyles.'"

When I consider Goaf, it is not just that the places shown in the images mean something to me because I recognise them, or that Norfolk’s words resonate with my own feelings, I feel a sense that being from these places I should also be doing something to record what has gone before. Almost the entire area that I live is built on the legacy of coal, and Norfolk is right when he says that there has been a concerted effort to expunge this history, or at least to look back with rose tinted glasses. Criticism about the validity of documentary photography can not bear the scrutiny of work like this (and other important work undertaken by Amber) – understanding our history is how we make sense of our present and are able to plan our future. Norfolk’s methodology and presentation are also inspiring. The images are compositionally strong and powerful on their own, but they only activate for the viewer when combined with Norfolk’s text. The images are the gateway to the context provided, which gains meaning and understanding through placement with the photographs. This work is powerful inspiration for me in so many ways with much to admire and aspire to – the research, context and images all working together to achieve something more than the sum of their parts.

Stow: To put stones and rubbish from falls requiring removal, or from stone drifts or from where it is taken up or down &c., into places appointed for the purpose.
Lambton Worm by Andy Goldsworthy, public art on the former colliery sidings at South Pelaw on the old Consett to Sunderland railway, now part of the Three Rivers Cycle Route.
©Simon Norfolk (reproduced with permission)
Scale: A scale of air is a portion allowed to escape through a door, or stopping, for the purpose of ventilating a wagon or rolley-way, &c.
Dalton Park Shopping Outlet built on the former waste site of Murton Colliery.
©Simon Norfolk (reproduced with permission)
Scares: Thin layers of pyrites or fools gold, interstratified in coal seams.
A pink Cadillac, Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and a stretch Lincoln (that previously belonged to Mike Tyson,) now owned by former miner Colin Fishwick for rental to the hen-night trade. Behind is the former waste from Silksworth Colliery, now fashioned into a dry-ski slope.
©Simon Norfolk (reproduced with permission)
Renk: A standard distance or 60 or 80 yards (called the first renk), upon which a standard price is paid for moving of a score of coals.
New housing being built on the site of  Vane Tempest Colliery.
©Simon Norfolk (reproduced with permission)
Claggy: A seam of coal is said to have a claggy top when it adheres to the roof, and is with difficulty separated. 
Demolition of the A streets; (l) Andrew St, (r) Alnwick St in Easington. The street on the right and the house in the centre of the picture, are where they filmed ‘Billy Elliot’.
©Simon Norfolk (reproduced with permission)

Links:

Gregory Crewdson

When I first became seriously interested in photography, the work of Gregory Crewdson stood out as something special. I found the complex production values and references to cinematic visual conventions impressive. His work was also one of the first examples of photography I became interested in, that was explicitly intended to be viewed in an art context – this clearly differentiated it from the more conventional/commercial photography I had looked at up until that point. As my knowledge and interest of contemporary photographic practice increased however, my admiration for Crewdson and his work declined.

In part one of BoW, we are asked to consider the work of Crewdson, and I took this as an opportunity to revisit his work and consider if the trajectory of my opinion of this remains or if I should revaluate. The series Twilight is the first series I came across by Crewdson and in my opinion is his most successful work. There is a dramatic rupture between the seemingly banal, everyday scenes and style of the work. The images are clearly influenced by cinema, and indeed could be described as cinematic, however, they do this in a general way that is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills rather than by overtly referencing a specific film. They contain visual references that suggest the work of Hitchcock, Spielberg and Lynch. Indeed, it is David Lynch, with his recurring preoccupation with darkness and evil that lurks just below the surface of everyday life that is particularly relevant. Series’ that followed Twilight are similarly styled and continue with the same themes and concerns, but with less impact in my view – as the production and set design become more and more elaborate, the end result seems increasingly laboured and forced.

Looking back over Crewdson’s career I realised that I knew little about his early series’ Natural Wonder and Hover. I found myself wanting to see more of these bodies of work and the fact that they are different to Crewdson’s later work while retaining many of the same themes is of interest. I wonder if it is the success of Twilight that made Crewdson decide on this as his signature style and way of working?

Ultimately, further research has not changed my opinion of Crewdson’s work and practice. Indeed, I find the expense and level of detail that he goes to in making his images a distraction. However, the combination of artifice and reality and the tension this creates is something that appeals to me and requires deeper consideration. Having never seen one of Crewdson’s images in an exhibition, I wonder if my opinion would change experiencing the work in real life? I suspect that I would continue to agree with Grant Scott (2020) in his assessment that it is possible to admire the work without enjoying it.


Notes:

Themes:

  • The subconscious/psychoanalysis
    • Father was a psychoanalyst
  • “anxiety, alienation, confusion and dread.” (Badger, 2001: 35)
  • “creepy scenes of American suburbia” (Badger, 2001: 217)
  • The uncanny (Freud)
  • Influence of popular culture and Hollywood cinema
  • The paranormal/supernatural
  • The everyday
  • Heightened theatricality
  • Memory and imagination
  • The banal and the fantastic
  • Small-town American iconography
  • The inexplicable

Series:

Influences:

  • Edward Hopper
  • Henry Peach Robinson
  • Oscar Rejlander
  • Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Alfred Hitchcock
    • Vertigo
  • Steven Spielberg
    • E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • David Lynch
    • Blue Velvet
  • Todd Haynes
  • Wes Anderson
  • Films/cinema – particularly horror and science-fiction
    • The X-Files
    • American Graffiti
  • William Shakespeare
    • Hamlet – see Ophelia from the Twilight series

Process and practice:

  • “[Crewdson] directs…creepy scenes of American suburbia – Desperate Housewives on Prozac or Crack cocaine – like a Hollywood production, employing lighting technicians, a casing director, a set designer and so on. He shoots innumerable ‘takes’ of the tableau he has devised for his actors. Then the best sections of each negative are taken and combined using Photoshop, and the result is a perfect photograph for the Photoshop age, a photofiction that has all the right cultural references and does not pretend to be anything other than a photo-fiction.” (Badger, 2001: 217-8)
  • Works in the “directorial mode” – a process “instigated by artists by artists and photographers for whom video constituted an absorbing in initial experience of directing, rather than physically making, a work of art.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 458)
  • “Gregory Crewdson’s tableau images relate directly to cinematic and televisual expectations of narrative and drama, often suspending the moment at strange in-between instants.” (Bate, 2015: 50)
  • Gregory Crewdson’s work is typified by its extravagant style and use of narrative: “His is a practice indicative of much contemporary photography that collapses the older distinction between the artifice of the interior and the ‘real’ outside world. It is here that the photography has come closest to cinema in its scale and conceptualisation. This expensive and labour intensive way of working has become possible only recently, with an established art market for photography and support systems for elaborate working procedures. As in cinema there are things that are only achievable in photography with time and a lot of resources.” (Campany, 2013: 33)
  • Crewdson’s central subject matter and approach to art is “carefully orchestrated scenes of mildly surreal disquiet amid white, middle-class semi-rural communities.” (Campany, 2020: 126)
  • “The people [in Crewdson’s images] are not caught mid-gesture, as they might be in a single frame from a film. They tend to hold still and silent poses, as if troubled or traumatized into immobility. They act as if they are posing, or pose as if they are acting…In cinema, when the viewer’s gaze is more or less trained to watch for facial expressions and bodily gestures. When the image is still and mute, the gaze is free to wander, taking in small details that would otherwise pass by. The viewer can study the image forensically.” (Campany, 2020: 126)
  • “Many of [Crewdson’s elaborately staged tableaux photographs] are photographed in Western Massachusetts, which provides the almost-anywhere-in-the-USA look: small towns with gutted cores and suburban assemblages that could exist anywhere. In this type of setting, Crewdson paints a general sense of malaise and disaffection.” (Colberg, 2020: 23)
  • Discussing the series’ Beneath the Roses and Cathedral of the Pines: “In all these photographs, the surroundings are anything but glamorous, and every person is caught deep in thought. It is as if, we are led to believe, these people have no life other than their innermost one, however impoverished it may be.” (Colberg, 2020: 24)
  • “[Crewdson] has said that his elaborately constructed melodramas are influenced by his memory of childhood. His psychoanalyst-father’s office was in the basement of their New York home, and Crewdson would press his ear to the floorboards to try and imagine the stories being told in the therapy sessions…[For the Twilight series] he worked with a cast and crew of the kind found on a film set. Here it is not only the display of rituals and the paranormal but also the construction of archetypal characters who carry out these acts that create the psychological drama.” (Cotton, 2014: 68)
  • “Gregory Crewdson…presents hyper-detailed fictions of small town American lives riddled with unexplained mysteries and disturbing scenarios…these huge color images offer minute detail, incredibly sharp all-over focus and multi-source lighting that would be impossible in an ordinary photograph. Standing in front of one of Crewdson’s’ dramatic – even melodramatic – staged images, the eye is lured and hooked in a pleasurable way that is novel for photography, though perhaps familiar from the experience of being drawn into the visual opulence of a Hollywood film.” (Soutter, 2018: 114) 
  • “Gregory Crewdson is a photographer whose work reworks the American suburb into a stage set for the inexplicable, disconcerting and often disturbing. In creating what he calls ‘frozen moments’, he has developed a process akin to the making of a feature film. Operating on an epic scale, he uses a large crew to shoot and then develop the images during post-production.” (Scott, 2012)
  • “Gregory Crewdson’s photographs expose the ostensibly idyllic world of rural, small-town America as an unsettling cinematographic dream, full of darkness and mystery…Crewdson creates complex and detailed pictorial worlds in which the iconography of the landscape and of suburban America are used as metaphors for his own neuroses, anxieties and longings. The inexplicable, which plays such a central role in these highly suggestive and ambiguous works, essentially manifests itself as an eruption of untameable, rampant nature in a civilization that has itself become both brittle and incomprehensible…Crewdson draws primarily on popular movie myths in order to give visual shape to the psychological desolation and secret longings of his protagonists. What emerges are poignant images of a society confronting the abysmal depths of its own damaged psyche, a quasi-hypnotized society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it continues to sleepwalk.” (Berg, 2007: 7)
  • “Gregory Crewdson’s photography revolves around a single theme: the penetration of the repressed, eerie and inexplicable into a supposedly protected pretty world. With an energy that can clearly be described as obsessive, he works to create a universe of images whose detailed and lovingly portrayed idyll is lastingly and irrevocably destabilized.” (Berg, 2007: 11)
  • “Crewdson’s work, in content and production, engages deeply with film. His photographs in the Dream House and Twilight series look like excerpts from a movie rather than fragments of reality: unlike the “decisive moments” of street photography, they are neatly framed tableaux, contained rather than cropped.” (Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 87)
  • “In Crewdson’s meticulously staged photographs, light figures as a natural, artificial, symbolic, and supernatural phenomenon. Whether it is uncanny, alien, or mystical; whether it takes the form of the sun or the moon, street lamps, car headlights, flashlights, a candelabra, bracket light, bathroom cabinet, standing lamp, or naked bulb; Crewdson uses light in a wide variety if ways an in doing so generates an abundance of inexplicable moods.” (Martin Hochleitner in Berg, 2007: 151)

Quotes:

  • “in many of Crewdson’s tableaux, nothing makes sense and nothing is explained.” (Badger, 2001: 35)
  • “in Crewdson’s work suburban life is on the brink of being splintered by nail-biting anxiety.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 459)
  • Discussing the series Natural Wonder: “The photographs combine naturalism with artifice blending the beautiful with the grotesque. The result is a kind of visionary tableau narrated at close quarters like a bedtime story or claustrophobic nightmare. Crewdson sees the natural world and its processes as potential metaphors for psychological states. His studio images recall the Surrealists’ construction of scenes which attempted to convey complex states of consciousness” (Campany, 2013: 149)
  • From the Gagosian website (here): “Gregory Crewdson’s photographs have entered the American visual lexicon, taking their place alongside the paintings of Edward Hopper and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as indelible evocations of a silent psychological interzone between the everyday and the uncanny.”
  • “Crewdson signifies his subjectivity not only as a (neurotic) individual, but as an artist, through reference to making. Postmodern photographers emphasize the copy and the convention; he emphasizes creativity.” (Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 91)
  • “I am drawn to photography by some irrational need to create an image of a perfect world. I strive to create that perfection through obsessive detailing, through a weird kind of realistic vision. When the mystery emerges, my irrational need to create a perfect world meets up with some kind of failure to do so. This collision between failure and compulsion to make something perfect creates an anxiety that interests me.” (Gregory Crewdson quoted by Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 92)

Criticism:

  • Although Crewdson is not directly referenced, Michael Fried in ‘Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before’ (2008) makes the case that visibly artificial scenarios possess “theatricality” that interferes with the viewers ability to identify and empathise with characters in the scene. Informed by 18th century pictorial tableau painting, Fried prefers a naturalistic style he terms ‘anti-theatrical’. (Bate, 2015: 50) 
  • Tropes that run through Crewdson’s work (Colberg, 2020: 25):
    • Whiteness – people of colour are largely absent.
    • Run down locations.
    • Loneliness.
    • If someone is naked, more often than not it is a woman. 
  • “Nobody ever comes across as even remotely content, let alone happy…It is as if everybody in a Crewdson photograph is contemplating their general inadequacy while remaining in their assigned domain…With the general environment always being in disrepair or at least in urgent need of some improvement, the viewer is led to believe that this inadequacy is tied to the depicted people’s economic status: regular people…lacking all hints of the kinds of beauty valued by their society – are unhappy because they lack the means to be happy…Regular people are failures – that’s Crewdson’s neoliberal message.” (Colberg, 2020: 25)
  • “We might expect Crewdson’s unprecedented photographic process to produce surprising new narratives, but the scenarios feel like stills from second-rate movies or like illustrations of cliched Freudian dilemmas.” (Soutter, 2018: 114)
  • In, ‘Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson‘, Grant Scott concludes: “I have to admit that I do not enjoy the work of Gregory Crewdson, but I can admire it. I cannot connect with the sense of isolation, and aesthetic perfection, but that doesn’t matter. What is important is that people do, however what I do get from his work is a sense of gateway, the suggestion of other world that I could discover.” (Scott, 2021)

Links:

Bibliography:

Badger, G. (2001) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives.London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Berg, S. (2007) (ed.) Gregory Crewdson: 1985-2005. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Campany, D. (2020) On Photographs. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Colberg, J. (2020) Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. Mack

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Crewdson, G. (2008) Beneath the Roses. New York: Abrams.

Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. Yale University Press New Haven.

Scott, G. (2012) Gregory Crewdson. The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2012/10/23/gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)

Scott, G. (2021) Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson… The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2021/02/21/thoughts-on-gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)

Soutter, L. (2018) Why Art Photography? (2nd ed.) Oxon: Routledge.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th Edition) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Tom Hunter

See: Documentary exercise 3-10: Imaginary Documents


Living in Hell, from the series ‘Living in Hell and Other Stories’ (2003-4) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

I have admired the work of Tom Hunter for some time, and was glad to be able to attend an artists talk organised by Bolton University via the Redeye photography network. Tom presented a chronological overview of his practice and spoke passionately about the way he uses photography to connect with people. His work is often based in his local community of Hackney, with themes of politics, representation and what images mean being recurring concerns. He is interested in how art can change society and in capturing the humanity, beauty and dignity of his collaborators while also showing reality, warts and all. His work is often made with a large format camera with composition and lighting inspired by art history – a conscious rejection of the notion that documentary photographs should have an aesthetic of gritty black and white. This staging means that the audience is clear that the images are constructed while there is also an integrity inherent in them that makes the viewer both accept and question the relationship between photography and truth – his aim is for us to be aware that images are never innocent.

Girl Reading a Possession Order, from the series ‘Persons Unknown’ (1997) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

In an essay broadcast on Radio 3 (transcript here), Hunter gives an eloquent account of how his series Persons Unknown was influenced by the paintings of Vermeer, an artist who gave such incredible attention to ordinary events that the people and scenes represented were lifted into the extraordinary:

"for me Vermeer was a painter of the people, a revolutionary artist who, by use of realism and social commentary, elevates ordinary folk to a higher status…I wanted to present my friends, neighbours, lovers and myself to the world in a similar way. People I knew at the time were expecting me to produce the usual stock of black and white images of the victims of society, squatters and travellers, taking drugs and fighting bailiffs; exotic but alien figures from an unimaginable lifestyle, which could be marvelled at but never understood. But instead the images I made took direct reference from Vermeer's compositions, from his use of light, colour and calm contemplation. From this understanding I composed and rendered my photographic work 'Woman Reading a Possession Order', which took as its starting point, Vermeer's 'A girl reading a letter at an open window'
…
my reworking shows a girl reading her eviction order. She is given dignity, light, beauty and space, to tell her own story in her own time. The girl in the photograph is shown in a very intimate moment in her struggle with eviction. But we can all identify with her and her suffering, so this becomes a universal moment." (Hunter, 2011)
After the Party, from the series ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ (1999-2001) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

The empathy Hunter has for the people he photographs is what enables the viewer to identify with people and circumstances that they most likely have no direct knowledge. The mixture of reality and construction has the effect of drawing us in – although the photographs are clearly carefully and deliberately composed they are also completely believable. The comment that Hunter rejected showing “exotic but alien figures from an unimaginable lifestyle” particularly resonates with me – I am increasingly of the view that it is the integrity of the photographer and respect for the people they photograph that makes the difference – it is so much easier to ‘take’ a photograph, rather than ‘make’ one.

Anchor and Hope, from the series ‘Unheralded Stories’ (2008-9) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

In Living in Hell and Other StoriesHunter takes inspiration from lurid headlines in The Hackney Gazette. (An approach also used by the author Thomas Hardy from whom Hunter gained the inspiration for this concept.) Charles Saumarez Smith makes the assessment that “These photographs are not works of reportage, but of convenient fiction.” (Hunter, 2006: 8) Tracy Chevalier makes this explanation about why the series succeeds:

"Part of their power is being local. Played out on a national or global stage, such stories are distant; we respond to them intellectually rather than emotionally. When, however, the focus has been aimed at the familiar - on the street we walk down, in the buildings we visit, amongst the people we know - we feel much more personally involved.
…
Perhaps we read the stories simply out of surprise that such things can happen in what seems om the day-to-day surface of it a calm, stable, even monotonous world. Everyday life is full of small, familiar moments strung together that repeat themselves over and over. We eat, we breathe, we walk, we sit, we talk, we sleep. How peculiar when something outside of that mantra erupts; it shakes the placid surface of daily life. That, whether we admit it or not, is thrilling." (Hunter, 2006: 10-12)
The Way Home, from the series ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ (1999-2001) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

Links:

The Mole Man, from the series ‘Unheralded Stories’ (2008-9) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

Bibliography:

Adams, T. (2005) The Face is Familiar… The Observer, 11th December 2005. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/dec/11/art (accessed 7th March 2021)

Birch, T. (2012) Tom Hunter: Website Essay. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/website-essay/(accessed 7th March 2021)

Dyer, G. (2021) ‘Tom Hunter: The Persistence of Elegy.’ In: See/Saw: Looking at Photographs.Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. pp. 212-215

Hunter, T. (2006) Living in Hell and Other Stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.

Hunter, T. (2011) Under the Influence. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/(accessed 7th March 2021)

Hunter, T. (2012) The Way Home. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Hunter, T. (2014) Acid Flashback: traveller photographs that relive 90s rave culture. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2014/feb/27/traveller-photographs-90s-rave-culture (accessed 7th March 2021)

Pulver, A. (2009) Photographer Tom Hunter’s best shot. The Guardian, 4th November 2009. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot(accessed 7th March 2020)

Smyth, D. (2010) Think global, act local. British Journal of Photography, August 2010. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/(accessed 7th May 2018)

Smyth, D. (2018) Tom Hunter’s personal odyssey. 1854 Photography. At: https://www.1854.photography/2018/06/tom-hunters-personal-odyssey/ (accessed 7th March 2021)

John Smith

Stills from Citadel (2020)

I knew nothing about the work of John Smith before I watched his recent short film Citadel on Mubi. (Being able to see art films like this that would normally be shown in gallery spaces or film festivals is fantastic – I am only frustrated that more of Smith’s work is not available to view online, and wonder why this is.) Citadel is a film about the incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic by the UK government and a comment on the shift of power from Westminster to London’s financial district. The work emerged through serendipity, an artistic strategy that Smith favours and cultivates, Smith originally intended to make a film focusing on the way light changed the view of the financial landmarks such as the Shard he could see from his bedroom window. He began filming in late 2019, fixing the viewpoint of his camera out of the window, but by early 2020, the work started to gain in meaning as the scale of the Coronavirus pandemic and the effect of lockdown began to take hold – suddenly, Smith’s strategy of confining his view from his bedroom window gained new significance seen alongside the government’s stay at home message. 

The film is beguiling, at once meditative and dynamic. Speeches made by Johnson over the course of the first lockdown accompany the visuals and the cavalier attitude expressed, first stating business as usual, and then, a message that we should get back to work is truly shocking – something that is left in no doubt by the end caption which states that by August 2020 the UK had achieved the highest Covid-19 related death toll in Europe and entered the deepest recession since records began. At times the words are remixed along with the visuals with phrases ‘buy and sell’, ‘business as usual’, ‘you should go to work’ and ‘get to work’ among the repeated refrains. Sometimes Johnson’s words are accompanied by lights going on and off on the tower blocks in a way that resembles a graphic audio representation – it is as if Johnson’s words are literal embodiments of these financial centres. The middle section is seductively contemplative as the camera focuses on the windows of Smith’s neighbours at night going about their business of cooking, exercising and working, illuminated by artificial light in a way that makes the scenes beautifully melancholic – there is a sense of literally having a window into the lives of these neighbours while remaining painfully separated – a clear representation of social distancing.

In an interview with Ian Christie, Smith describes his process for Citadel:

“As I prefer to work on my own I feel more comfortable filming from a window than in the street. But I also like working with self-imposed limitations and I am a big believer in synchronicity and chance – if you’re patient you can see quite enough if the world from a window without having to look into it!” (Christie, 2021)

These ideas of chance, self imposed limitations and patience all appeal to my way of working – although Smith has been particularly lucky in the way this project has come together. He continues explaining how he initially focused on the effect changing light on the architecture he could see from his window which includes landmarks such as the Gherkin, Natwest Tower, the Shard and 22 Bishopsgate. However, the piece became about more than aesthetics:

“I wanted to show what these buildings signify, the expansion of neoliberalism that fills more and more of my view every week…I wanted to suggest that the centre of power was there, in the City, rather than in Parliament.” (Christie, 2021)

Kim North makes a particularly bleak assessment of Citadel, seeing the buildings abiding in an apparent air of timelessness, seemingly unaffected by the chaos of the global pandemic that surrounds them:

“Rather than the great British myth of coming together in a crisis, Smith shows that Covid has really accelerated the forces that divide and atomise us. Towards the end of the sixteen-minute short, the windows of people’s homes flash S-O-S into a cold, ambivalent night; but the truth is that we no longer exist in communities that help each other in a crisis. The triumph of Neoliberalism has meant we are all on our own and no-one is coming to save us.” (North, 2021)

Citadel is an impressive piece and I find Smith’s working methods inspiring. At the point of writing I am beginning my BoW with no idea where it may take me or any preconceptions about what it will eventually be. The way Smith has transformed the seemingly restrictive idea of shooting a film from his bedroom window into something that is both visually and conceptually engaging fires my imagination.

Links:

Bibliography:

Christie, I. (2013) English Eccentric. At: http://johnsmithfilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/English-Eccentric.-Ian-Christie.pdf (accessed 1st February 2021)

Christie, I. (2021) John Smith in a time of Covid: “I wanted to capture the melancholy of watching people through their windows.” Sight and Sound. At: https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/interviews/john-smith-coronavirus-lockdown-films-citadel-covid-messages (accessed 1st February 2021)

Judah, T. (2021) Reflections 13. Ubiquarian. At: http://ubiquarian.net/2021/01/reflections-13/(accessed 1st February 2021)

McCahill, M. (2021) Capital Punishments: “Citadel”. Cinésthesia: Feelings. On Film. At: https://cinesthesiac.blogspot.com/2021/01/capital-punishments-citadel.html (accessed 1st February 2021)

North , K. (2021) Film review – Citadel. Medium.com. At: https://maligndesires.medium.com(accessed 1st February 2021)

Smith, J. (2021) John Smith introduces his film “Citadel”. Mubi Notebook Column. At : https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/john-smith-introduces-his-film-citadel (accessed 1st February 2021)

J.A. Mortram

See: Exhibition Visit: Small Town Inertia (Digital Image and Culture Blog)


Jimmy and Lady. “I never had any plans. Just take it as it comes. Never made any plans. I never knew nothing you see, coming from a small village up in the country like I did. Then, when I was a child in Ireland the country was on the breadline. That’s why a lot of Irish people up and left for America because they just couldn’t live in Ireland, there was no money, no work, no Doctors, no Social Security, no nothing.” © JA Mortram (reproduced with permission)
David. “I’m holed up here, like an outlaw, if I venture out, I have unseen enemies after me, the weather can be an enemy too. I’m outside of everything, because I’m blind, I can’t be a part of things, so I’m apart from them, I can’t go in anywhere and have a look, I can’t really mix with other blind people, as they may have gone blind in another ways to me, so, I’m outside every group, an outlaw.” © JA Mortram (reproduced with permission)

I was pleased to be able to attend an online talk by J.A. Mortram organised by OCA student Helen Rosemier. I have followed Jim’s work with interest over the last few years and have been inspired not only by the quality of the images and the powerful testimony that accompanies them, but also his working methods and strong personal ethics. In many ways the work is very much in the tradition of socially concerned documentary photography with the use of a black and white aesthetic, political intent, subject matter and use of text that provide context and depth. What separates it is the way Jim collaborates with the people he photographs – he describes himself as a conduit, his role being to amplify the stories that the people he collaborates with share with him, his ego and status as a photographer is not his concern or even a consideration. He is a carer for his mother so his understanding of the welfare state and the effect austerity measures have had is part of his lived reality rather than someone who, no matter how well intentioned, is unable to identify so closely with the situation of the people in the photographs. The injustice Jim sees and also experiences himself, is also something that drives him to show the real circumstances of life faced by many people.

As I consider what my BoW project will be I am unsure how closely, if at all, it will resemble Jim’s work. There is much here to inspire however, and much to remember in terms of ethical considerations no matter which direction my work may take. Above all, it is the authenticity and integrity in the work that sets it apart – something that is difficult to show in a tangible way but most definitely present. 

© JA Mortram (reproduced with permission)

Below are some notes from the talk:

  • Work is a way of paying back a debt
    • Pay back in kind all of the people allowed to document
  • COMMUNITY – CONTEXT – CONDUIT
    • The three words that encompass JM’s practice
      • Community:
        • Work was a way of refinding community
        • All made no more than 3 miles from his home
      • Context:
        • All important
      • Conduit:
        • How he would define himself
          • Taking stories and passing on
          • AMPLIFIER
  • Guardian article misquoted saying he was giving people a voice
    • Still unhappy with this description of his work
    • Everyone has a voice but not everyone is listening
      • When people are submerged in a stressful situation they aren’t thinking about how to communicate this
  • Ask – how can I help my community?
    • AMPLIFICATION
  • Austerity
    • The war on the welfare state
  • Started to photograph at the time of BBC 4 season on photography – very influential:
    • Genius of Photography
    • James Ravilious documentary
    • Shooting the Past
  • Social media enabled to put work out 
    • Good response on Flickr
    • Realised could go further into the community
      • Interest in people’s stories, especially people who were being unfairly represented in the media
        • E.g. Benefits Street
      • Very angry as this did not represent personal experience as a carer on benefits 
        • Lots of pain and hardship
  • COMMUNITY = NETWORK
    • Quite something when you meet someone as a stranger and within 15 minutes they are sharing intimate details of their lives and deconstructing themselves
      • Absolute honesty and truth
    • Audience:
      • Would rather affect 1 person profoundly than 1 million not at all
  • Through stories could actively see the repercussions of austerity measures
  • Everyone photographed was met by chance
  • Started to become part of online photo community through blog
    • Duckrabbitblog
    • Grant Scott (United Nations of Photography)
  • Became both addicted and utterly compelled to make images
    • Didn’t realise how much recording stories would have a personal effect
      • Does not see this as a burden – just so sad that people documented are so alone
      • You can want a photograph to change the world but while you’re waiting for that you can do something to change peoples lives
    • We have to bear witness – TESTIMONY
      • History so often written by the victorious
      • Wants work to be a firm rebuttal to anyone in the future who tries to say things weren’t that bad
    • Photography is the most impactful medium for communication
      • Especially now with the reach if social media
        • The challenge is getting a signal through the noise
  • Ethics – personal lines in the sand:
    • Treat people like you want to be treated
    • Must have consent
      • Sometimes talked into sharing pictures by collaborators
  • Does not recognise the language of photographer/subject
    • Process of photographing is organic
      • Does not view himself as a photographer
  • Influences:
  • The truth really matters!
    • Especially because of how insular society is now and false views online
    • Often the stories are hard to photograph and tell
      • But, stories are really important
      • Hope that process of telling stories can give people closure and help them
    • Wants photography to change the world!
    • Wants the world to be better!
      • Hope!
  • Ask yourself –
    • Are you making pictures because that’s what a photographer does or because the picture needs to be seen?
      • What motivates and keeps motivation?
      • What fuels the tenacity?

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