I used a methodology of walking/exploration and memory for A1 and I wanted to continue and expand this for A2. I also wanted to continue to experiment with using a film camera as I found the limits that shooting analogue presented appealing – making images this way forced me to work differently, and perhaps most importantly, made me consider my editing choices more closely as I had a smaller amount of images to make my selections from.
Having decided on the subject of consumerism for CS I wanted to investigate what I could find on the high streets of the towns closest to me. I am interested in how the retail environment is in a state of accelerated change with many chains going out of business in recent years. Received wisdom suggests that the high street should be full of empty retail units and I wanted to investigate if this was the case. Rather than using a 35mm camera, I shot the photographs on a Holga ‘toy’ camera. The camera produces extreme lo-fi results – exposure control is minimal, framing is difficult and haphazard and the lens is made of plastic. Yet, the strong vignette, soft focus and scratched negatives create a distinctive aesthetic that I felt would fit my aim of photographing empty shops. I shot in seven locations – Stanley, Consett, Gateshead, Metro Centre, Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland. Despite finding empty shops in each of them, I would not describe any of the places I visited as being defined by this. Choosing to photograph and present only empty shops suggests otherwise, and while I am not attempting to provide a document of impartiality or truth, there is a strong question mark about these images and what they are saying. Focusing on dereliction and decay is something of a photographic cliché, superficial and only gives a partial representation.
Presentation and selection:
Originally I planned to include text as part of the images as a continuation of the strategy I had employed for A1, albeit in a more subtle form. I had the idea of including part of the now closed retailers advertising strategy as a way of drawing attention to the gulf between the hopes and promise of their advertising/brand message of the past and the reality of today. Toys R Us was the stimulus for this – whenever I think of the brand I recall the song from the advert “It’s a magical place/we’re on our way there/with toys in their million all under one roof.” (See here.) The word “magical” superimposed onto the image of the empty and decaying store was a prospect that seemed too good to miss. Unfortunately, when I tried to research advertising from the other retailers I struggled to find the information I needed so had to put this idea to ones side.
Text has been an important part of the last few projects I have made. Having to discount my original idea made me think more about this and wonder what the effect of using no text or captions with the images would be. Despite not imposing text onto the images myself, the signage present on each store front is integral to the reading of each photograph.
I approach most projects with a strong idea of the artists that are influencing and informing my work. Here, I was driven by an idea and methodology rather than having any particular artist in mind. In retrospect I can see how similarities with the work of Eugene Atget both in terms of aesthetic and subject matter. The photographs could be classed as documentary, but the use of film and the Holga mean they are no longer straight documentations. (Alternatively the indexical nature of film could be read as more truthful than digital.) As I reviewed the pictures, and also considered work that combined image and text, I was reminded of Martha Rosler’s ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Methods’ and her essay “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)”. In ‘Bowery’, Rosler chooses not to include humans. Jeffries (2021: 33) describes this as a “poignant absence [which] haunts each of Rosler’s shots”. While my images also exclude people, something which accentuates the emptiness of the shops themselves, it does not have the purpose and intent of Rosler. Indeed, what if anything do the images say except there are some signs of dereliction on the high street? While the aesthetic created by the camera and film is initially appealing to me, the more I consider this the less comfortable I am – is this an affectation or even fetishistic?
Thoughts on where I go next:
While the approach I have taken so far of engaging with place with an open mind and allowing ideas to form has served me well so far, this is something I need to develop in a more structured way as I progress my BoW. Now that I know what my subject will be I need to find a way to say something cohesive about this. My instinct is that a critique of capitalism and consumption is too simplistic – I need something more nuanced. I am interested in the state of retail now, but I need to be realistic and not try to be too all encompassing. Rather than branch out further, both geographically and conceptually, perhaps I should narrow my gaze and concentrate on what is closer to home? One of the themes I am exploring in CS is the tension between large, homogenous chains and small, independent retailers. The shops near to me broadly fit the second category and this is perhaps the direction I should take and explore further.
A3 offers a final opportunity to experiment before committing to a direction for the final two assignments. I have three broad ideas currently:
1. Documentary approach:
As I allude to above, I am attracted to the idea of photographing local independent businesses. This could involve a collaboration with the owners, interviewing them to understand more about their business and the place it holds in the community. Text from the interviews could potentially be combined with the photographs to give context and provide a fuller understanding.
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s series ‘Byker Revisited‘ is an inspiration here. For this project, Kontinnen developed her earlier ‘Byker‘ work, a traditional documentary project shot in black and white, collaborating with the people she photographed rather than pointing the camera at what she saw. (This excerpt from the accompanying film ‘Today I’m With You’ (2010) gives a fascinating insight into the process, although it should also be noted that the final decision about image selection ultimately lay with Kontinnen herself, sometimes these were not the shared by the people in them.)
The working title of ‘shop windows’ refers to an idea I have about photographing retail premises and presenting them in a way to compare and contrast the differences and similarities. The most obvious subject is shop window displays and how they are used to entice shoppers inside. Presenting these as together is a possibility and I am influenced by the work of Penelope Umbrico in this regard. (See ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr‘.)
2. Visual Culture approach:
The retail landscape is covered in imagery designed to appeal and influence the shopper, from signage to product packaging. The idea that these stay on the periphery of our perception is something I am interested in and I have made a couple of experiments taking still images from short sections of video I have made while walking around shopping centres. (See here.) I am not sure if this idea has potential, but it is something that keeps coming into my mind so I need to spend some time working further on it to see if it takes me anywhere.
Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is a key influence for this idea, although the enigmatic pronouncements of this text, their opaque nature and the bleak outlook is becoming less appealing to me of late. Researching ethics recently I came across this podcast with Jennifer Good in which she discusses the importance of visual literacy and encountering images in the world:
“[T]he average person is…much more visually literate, than we even realise ourselves…when we encounter photographs, they shape our views in a split second. And all we’re doing when we try to analyse that process is just slowing it down, slowing it down and unpacking something that is already happening [we’re] trying to slow down and account for those very subtle ways in which images impact our politics and our ideas and our consciousness and our movement through the world.”
This notion that we are simultaneously reading visual culture in a sophisticated way while being only semi conscious of the process is fascinating, as is the debate about how much this changes our outlook, if at all. Rephotographing ‘found’ images, such as adverts, transforms them from ephemeral to objects of consideration. An example of recontextualising advertising and drawing attention to the subtext of the imagery is Richard Prince’s ‘Cowboys‘ series. Removing branding from adverts for Marlborough cigarettes, Prince drew attention to the myths of masculinity and the American identity that the adverts used to provide an aspirational lifestyle. Investigating the different types of imagery that are available in the real world could be something to explore further, perhaps presenting together by subject or type.
3. Cost of living/commodities:
Currently there is huge concern and debate about increases to the cost of living and the pressure this will put onto households. I have been wondering if I can make something from this and have been thinking about commodities that can be stripped of their marketing to be photographed. Food is the most obvious example of this, and bread a potential candidate because of the wide variety available and varying cost from mass produced factory loaf to a hand made artisan one. (See here.)
Jeffries, S. (2021) Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Post-Modern. London: Verso.
The Messy Truth: Conversations on Photography (2020) [Podcast] Dr. Jennifer Good – On Ethics. At: https://play.acast.com/s/themessytruth/drjennifergood-onethics (accessed 30th July 2020)