‘Figure 34’ – from my extension of the ‘Textbook’ project into ‘New Photographic Chemistry’
Photography Matters was a full day or presentations and discussions around the PhD research and practices of five OCA tutors. This note will reflect on just one of those which, perhaps, has most relevance to my own practice. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t much of value in the other four – there certainly was, and maybe too much to try and cover in a brief blog post.
So, I concentrate on Rachel Smith’s ‘The Materiality of Images: exploring creative practice’, which was, in itself, a rich and substantial paper. My reflections here are based partly on my notes from the day but also on a second viewing through a video on the OCA Student site – and I needed that second viewing. Rachel referred to the possibility that concern with materiality has not always been of high regard, intellectually, but that she is particularly concerned with the connotations associated with the object itself – and reflected on the significance, perhaps, of her own formative experience with a Kodak Brownie & the physicality of the process of making/developing images. She referred to that ‘formative’ experience notion again, when talking about the work of Wolfgang Tillmans (his was with a photocopier, apparently!), and wondered whether this was a rich area for future research. I would agree – so often, a photographer talking about his/her work begins “I remember when my uncle gave me a camera when I was …” or “I will never forget the smell of chemicals in my grandfather’s dark room …”! (I could never make much sense of chemistry but have had associations with the digital for nearly 50 years – Is this significant?)
The paper took us through several examples of artists who have worked with the photograph’s materiality – the aforementioned Tillmans, Gerhard Richter and Ann Collier, in particular – concluding, via a quote from Kim Timby, that ‘… process and presentation are inextricably tied to the meaning of the work …’. Along the way, we had encountered Barthes’ description of the physical attributes of the ‘Winter Gradens’ photo of his mother and Flusser’s reference to the intervention of the photograph’s objectness. We may see (or seek to see, as in the peering through over-painting, in Richter’s work, towards the ‘family snapshot’ behind it) the subject, but the object intervenes.
She wondered whether the current concern with materiality had any connection with the rise of digital – noting that many of us rarely encounter the image in physical form unless we attend a gallery. Responding to the torrent of digital images in digital form, some artists e.g. Anastasia Samoylova give them a physicality by printing, folding (we could add tearing, burning, cutting, moulding and so on) and re-photographing to represent that physicality and build layers of process (meaning). (Some dismiss them as ‘vapour’ e.g. Sally Mann!) Rachel also suggests that there are ways in which a physicality can be identified even in images that remain in digital form. Compare, for example, the glitches and errors that can occur even in digital handling of digital images – again, artists are working with these as a disruptive reminder of the impermanence, even of the digital. And, what about the cultural (and other) significance of the mode in which we view these digital images – on a mobile phone or at the end of a series of cables? [In my Contextual Studies essay, I briefly compared Roland Barthes’ emotional consideration of the old physical print of his mother, as a child, at the Winter Garden, with, say, a 21st century son glancing at his iPhone to see a Facebook-posted picture of his mother in fancy dress at a ‘Hen Party’ outside the Winter Gardens in Blackpool!]
I mostly concluded, from Rachel Smith’s excellent presentation, that critical thought around Photography is still at the ‘coming to terms’ stage in relation to the growth of digital methods of making, distributing and viewing photographic images. Flusser described the importance of the ‘experimental photographer’ who ‘plays against the camera’; and I feel that, as artists, this is where we can perhaps play our part. I didn’t make the image at the top of this post as any sort of reflection on materiality; it is part of my ongoing experimentation and exploration from that old ‘Textbook of Photographic Chemistry’ and has gone through a few iterations over the last couple of months. But there is scope for such a reading. It sounds such a cliche to ask ‘what is a photograph?’ – but the viewing/making of art that explores those boundaries is what interests me.