OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Category: BoW A1

BoW A1: Response to Tutor Feedback


Really useful and inspiring tutorial session. It was good for my submission to be well received and encouraging to hear that my idea to explore themes of consumerism, consumption and retail were felt to have potential. We discussed many different approaches for this and it is important that I start experimenting with these quickly so I can begin to formulate the direction of my final BoW.

I have summarised a number of action points from the tutorial below with the aim that this helps keep me focused:

Contact with tutor:

  • Monthly progress report.
  • Email links to my blog as I post development updates.
  • Agree deadlines for assignment submissions.
    • 1/1/22 has been set for A2, in my mind this needs a quicker turnaround to build momentum – my personal deadline is 14/11/21.

Ideas for A2:

  • Approach – photograph empty/closed retail premises using Holga camera.
  • Incorporate this with time exploring the retail environment in my local area as a source of inspiration.

Research/context:

Artists:

  • Willie Doherty
  • Ben Roberts – Amazon project
  • Led by Donkeys/Cold War Steve (particularly public display of work)
  • Memes
  • Valerie Berlin
  • Oliver Richon
  • Dawn Woolley
  • Laura Letinsky
  • Eugene Atget (promoted by Bernice Abbott and more recently Sarah Dobai)

Writers:

  • Bauman: Consuming Life
  • Debord: Society of the Spectacle
  • Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics
  • Berger: Ways of Seeing (consumer aspects/Marxist readings)

BoW A1: Self Reflection

See:


Overview:

For A1, I have developed and advanced the methodology I used and found successful for DI&C A5 – primarily walking, investigating, thinking and then then developing an idea to a conclusion. I have used the assignment brief as inspiration to experiment with using film for the first time in many years (the images from the assignment are made using a 35mm Pentax K1000, but I also experimented using a medium format Holga.) Using these cameras forced me to limit the amount of photographs taken and I was left with a much smaller selection size than I am used to. This was an interesting exercise in itself, forcing myself to be more selective while having less choice for my final selection meant I could scrutinise the images closer.

Instead of walking and photographing without an agenda, which is my normal approach, I identified 7 sites to photograph for the project. These were based on memories of newspaper reports about incidents/notable occurrences that happened there. My inspiration was the divide between the dramatic descriptions of events compared to the banal, everyday nature of the sites most of the time. 

Outcome:

The images are black and white 35mm exposures. The photographs have no further adjustments or cropping made to them. This decision to do this was driven partly by the fact that there was something authentic about the aesthetic of the images that I liked and another way to limit my workflow. Of course this notion that photographs shot on film they have a stronger indexical relationship with reality is a fetishism on my part and I suspect my enjoyment of the process has clouded my critical judgement. However, I did find focusing solely on selection rather than other forms of manipulation liberating as it helped me focus clearly on the choices I was making. 

I always intended to incorporate text taken from the newspaper articles that provided inspiration for the project into the images somehow. I experimented with different ways of doing this (see here and here) before deciding on an approach that was much bolder than I had envisaged. In the final images, the text is the dominant feature with the image partially obscured behind it. This means the images need close examination to make out the scenes photographed, which, when identified are in conflict with the dramatic text. This tension was my main reason for choosing this style of presentation – it is not subtle, but that is the also the point. I would normally present work that is much more understated than this, again, making something more direct and confrontational was another way to push me out of my comfort zone. The black and white aesthetic of the photographs has connotations of the conventions of documentary realism. I chose a large, bold font for the text and coloured this red to suggest the words originate from tabloid newspapers. Selecting the multiply blend mode in Photoshop subtly blends the words with the image behind them to bring them closer together as one entity.

For the statement that accompanies the images, I have tried to be clear and concise in my explanation while alluding to semiotics and how text and image interact with each other, and can be read both separately and together to create a third meaning. I also make reference to notions of the truth value of the photographic image and the problematic nature of accepting this blindly. Despite this I am unsatisfied with the statement, I struggled to articulate clearly what I wanted to communicate. Practicing this is something I need to do more of, I did find the process of trying to describe my intentions helped with my own, personal understanding of the project. I am also unhappy with the title which is too prescriptive for my liking. After some brainstorming trying to come up with alternatives, nothing seemed to work any better which is why I decided to stick with Hidden Stanley – perhaps using this is a working title through my experiments with the project is the problem? 

Context:

As detailed here, the work of Karen KnorrTom Hunter and John Kippin were influences for this project. The style of Barbara Kruger is also something that came to mind, but this was only after I had decided on my final output. I am increasingly interested in Kippin’s practice and need to do some further research as the themes he is concerned with such as the fallacy of photographic realism and truth and power relationships in both photography and the world are ones that resonate with me. There is also a complexity that I admire about his work which is both full of meaning, some of which is difficult to read or even contradictory, but also aesthetically pleasing. Kippin’s work with text is also fascinating, and I suspect this is something that I will want to experiment with further.

Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image and the notions of anchorage and relay were also on my mind, especially the idea of the interplay between text and image creating a third meaning. (See here) Rather than fixing meaning and leading the reader toward a preferred reading, the text adds to the ambiguity of the photographs, creating more questions than answers and suggesting another Barthesian idea – the polysemous nature of the photograph. 

Looking ahead to A2:

Firstly, I need to comment on why it has taken so long to bring this assignment to realisation. The photographs were taken some months ago and I have been clear about how I wanted to proceed with them for some time, and yet, it seemed important to establish a theme for my BoW before I submitted this. I am unsure how much this is me trying to rationalise not submitting earlier and how much is genuine, but, I do know that I have struggled to think of a theme for both BoW and CS, and without knowing the direction I am heading in I have found it difficult to bring this assignment to completion. My strategy from the beginning of level 3 has been to read, think and practice with the belief that a way forward and theme would develop. I feel this is now starting to happen (I am going to focus on the topic of consumption and consumerism) but I am surprised at how difficult it has been, and how long it has taken, to get to this point. The important conversation I want to have with this submission is not about the work itself but how to move my BoW forward. Although I now have a subject to pursue, this is still very broad and I will need to do a great deal more experimenting and thinking before I reach the final form of the project. As far as A2 goes, my plan is to develop the methodology I have used here and photograph empty retail sites using my Holga camera – I need to have a quick turn around on this project and build momentum which I can then use to help me progress with the course. 

BoW A1: Hidden Stanley

Obscured behind large blocks of text, the photographs in Hidden Stanley show banal everyday locations, seemingly removed from the lurid descriptions inscribed onto the images. The text is appropriated from newspaper headlines and describe such sensational events as a sweet shop used as a front for the distribution of drugs, a bus station that was the scene of a pitched battle between a gang of youths and the police, and a former pub that is now a swingers club with a dungeon. 

The words and pictures sit together in precarious tension, each questioning and throwing doubt on the truth of what can be seen and read. The photographs are benign, boring even; the text lack context, giving only a partial insight into what has happened. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks and complete a story that is barely suggested – and to decide whether to believe what they see and read.

BoW A1: Development and Approach

See:


A1 developed out of an experiment developing my methodology for DI&C A5 – a project based around walking the same route each day and photographing without preconception. The images were raw material with the final shape of the project only coming through in the editing process.

The idea for Hidden Stanley came from a memory that returned to me during one of my walks – a sweet shop that had been used a front to distribute drugs. Passing the shop, now closed down and shuttered, I was struck by the banality of the building and how there was no way of knowing the illicit history without local knowledge. The sensational headlines from the time seemed far removed from the reality of the scene. From this I began to think about other stories from my local area that had featured in the news over the years but were similarly banal on the surface despite the sensational and lurid headlines of the time. I identified 7 stories which I could also back up with news articles on the web. (See here.)

Next, I walked a route that went past each of the sites and took some initial photographs. In the brief for A1 we are encouraged to limit the amount of images taken through strategies such as using an analogue camera and a single roll of film. Having recently been gifted a 35mm camera, this seemed like an opportune way to test it out. I also had a Holga camera that had not been used for a number of years, so decided to experiment with this at the same time. I completed the route twice, taking a roll of film with each camera on both occasions. The final selections were made from these – a mistake with the initial roll of 120 film in the Holga meant I did not have a set of images I wanted to use from this so the final selections were made from the 35mm photographs. It had been many years since I had shot film and the physical process of doing this along with the anticipation of waiting for the film to be processed filled me with nostalgia. Having had the photographs developed, there was something I found attractive about the aesthetic – the grain and imperfections of the black and white images fit with my ideas about exploring the everyday nature of these sites. There was also an authenticity about the look of the photographs because this was a direct result of the process of making them rather than being achieved through post processing. The imperfections present, particularly on the Holga images, also appealed and could be something to explore further.

The genesis of the idea coming from newspaper articles meant that I always intended text to play an important part in the project. I experimented with a number of ways of doing this, firstly through captions and then by overlaying text directly onto the images. (See here and here.) Making the text an integral part of the image seemed to work past and brought these two elements into direct dialogue creating a tension. Initially, I envisaged smallish text (12 pt) in the centre of the image, but this seemed lost and too subtle. Increasing the size to 120 pt and choosing a bold font (Mono 45 Headline) made the text dominant, or at least equal in importance with the image. There was something about the way this made image and text relate to each other that seemed to work – the first thing the viewer is faced with is the text which they then need to almost look behind to reveal a scene which does not seem to reflect the content of the words at all. Perhaps this could be read as a comment on the heavy handed simplicity and lack of nuance that is typical of these sort of articles?

Context and Influences:

Contextually, I had the work of Tom Hunter (see post here), John Kippin and Karen Knorr in mind. 

From Belgravia (1979-1981) ©Karen Knorr (reproduced with permission)

The meaning of much of Knorr’s work, in series’ such as Belgravia, relies on the interplay between image and text with captions both enabling the reader to understand the photographs and opening up many more themes than either would show by themselves. Knorr’s accompanying text for Belgravia describes the relationship like this:

“Historically, portraiture of the upper classes has tended to be flattering but the combination of image and text brings this work closer to satire and caricature, without losing the strong effect specific to photography. The meaning of the work can be found in the space between image and text: neither text nor image illustrate each other, but create a “third meaning” to be completed by the spectator. The text slows down the viewing process as we study the text and return to re-evaluate the image in light of what we have read.” (Knorr, s.d.)

‘Lover Set On Fire in Bed’ from Living in Hell and Other Stories ©Tom Hunter (reproduced with permission)

In Living in Hell and Other Stories, Tom Hunter, influenced by the approach of Thomas Hardy in gaining inspiration for his novels from newspapers of the time, staged scenes based on newspaper headlines. Hunter needed to imagine the each scenario based solely on the salacious headlines he came across and the images are a mixture of reality and construction. Tracy Chevalier, in an essay about the series, asserts that the project succeeds because there is an everyday recognisable, believability evident in the images which becomes memorable because of the way this is disrupted by the extraordinary events depicted, shaking the placid nature of everyday life. (Hunter, 2006: 10-12) It is this sense tension between the mundane and the sensational that I wanted to achieve in my images, the difference being that this is amplified by the banal nature of the images and the imposing overlay of text. 

Industrial ©John Kippin (reproduced with permission)

John Kippin frequently overlays his photographs with enigmatic text that both affirms and questions their content, or as Alistair Robinson puts it “what we see and what we believe.” Kippin is influenced by semiotics and the language of advertising and how this “directs our ‘internal landscape’ of mythologies and aspirations.” He uses a strategy of “manipulating signs and symbols ‘against themselves'” to emphasise the ambiguity in both words and images. This can be read as a commentary on the fact that communication is seldom straightforward and the ideological nature of interpreting signs. (Robinson, 2018: 9-10) Kippin’s use of text and image is more subtle and ambiguous than mine, however, the intent is the same – for the reader to make a ‘third meaning’ from the combination of image and text and look for the ways these inform and refute their understanding of what is being shown. 

Bibliography:

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

Knorr, K. (s.d.) Belgravia 1979-1981. At: https://karenknorr.com/photography/belgravia/ (accessed 10th September 2021)

Robinson, A. (2018) ‘Negative Epiphanies’. In: Kippin, J. Based On A True Story. Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag. 

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