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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
Hunter, T. (2006) Living in Hell and Other Stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.
In Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Michael Fried argues against a type of image that he designates as ‘theatrical’ in style, that is, obviously staged and artificial looking. Fried’s aesthetic preference is for ‘anti-theatrical’ images, and he argues that overt theatricality interferes with the viewer’s ability to identify and empathise with what is displayed in the scene. (Bate, 2015: 50)
Although Gregory Crewdson is not referenced by Fried, it would seem obvious that his overtly constructed images are exactly the kind of picture that Fried would describe as ‘theatrical’. Fried does discuss the work of Jeff Wall at length, he views Wall’s strategy of creating images that he describes as ‘near documentary’ to be “fundamentally, an antitheatrical ideal”. (Fried, 2008: 66) On the surface this is an innocent enough comment – aesthetically Crewdson’s draws deliberate attention to the constructed nature of his images both in terms of style and staging, but also because of the way the people he shows in his constructed tableaux seem alienated from their surroundings. Wall on the other hand, more often than not, strives to present authentic and naturalistic scenes that initially seem banal, common place and everyday. The post production work that is employed by both Crewdson and Wall is comparably complex, yet, Crewdson aims to highlight this (the signature impression is that the images have an uncanny, hyperreal quality) while Wall strives to make his final composites appear as natural as possible. This is a significant distinction of intent with Crewdson deliberately foregrounding artifice and Wall attempting to disguise the heavily constructed nature of his images. Instinctively, it is Wall’s approach that I prefer, even though I know that all photographs are illusion. With this thought in mind, I wonder if I have missed something about Crewdson’s work – although his images are clearly constructed they are also clearly real world settings that we can identify and recognise. As well as the many references that are present in his work, Crewdson could also be making a comment on the very nature of photographic representation and the false way this relates to reality. The relationship to reality that Wall’s work displays is now more than carefully a carefully considered application of the conventions of photographic realism. It could be argued that Crewdson, by drawing attention to the artifice inherent in his work, is challenging the viewer to question everything they see in the images.
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Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.
Berg, S. (2007) (ed.) Gregory Crewdson: 1985-2005. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.
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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.