‘Photography Matters’ Symposium–Materiality of the Image

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‘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.

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‘FOAM Talent’

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FOAM Talent exhibition – David Favrod, from ‘Hikari’ series

Last Wednesday, on the much-appreciated recommendation of my tutor, I spent some time at the Beaconsfield Gallery in Vauxhall, viewing the FOAM Talent exhibition, featuring 20 artists who had been selected for FOAM’s 2015 ‘Talent’ edition (and resisting the temptation of Jeff Koons’ brightly coloured animals on show at Damien Hirst’s gallery just round the corner – another time, maybe). At that time, I was close to confirming an exhibition of my work in the Summer and concentrated, primarily, on presentation when viewing the exhibition. Sadly, the plan doesn’t look as though it will come to fruition (not for a while or in that way, at least) – but the information and inspiration from my Beaconsfield visit is still highly valuable and I’ll record/reflect in this post.

Even had I not been looking at exhibition/presentation ideas, I couldn’t have failed to be impressed by the variety and creativity on show. On the return train journey, I listed 18 different forms of presentation that I had viewed,for the photographic image; some minor overlaps between them, maybe, but remarkable variety nonetheless. Take the above detail from David Favrod’s ‘Hikari’ series, for example – 4 large-scale prints, pasted directly to the wall and directly adjoining each other, with another, even larger print to the right that has had a digitally-created ‘sunrise’ overlaid, then a much smaller, ‘traditionally-framed’ but unglazed print placed smack in the middle of the other four prints. It hardly conforms to any traditional ‘hanging’ conventions but is all the better for that – highly effective in immersing the viewer in the sensory experience of the series, even though Favrod (like all the others) was only working with a relatively small amount of gallery space. Marton Perlaki’s work (below) probably had the most space of everyone, but it was on a wall with a rising, uneven floor and a floor-to-ceiling, boarded up arched doorway at one end. It was put to very good use. I really like the combination on the right, both for the juxtaposition of bald head, bubblegum and dry-ice, and for the mix of large-scale, wall-pasted print, unglazed framed black & white print (right) and ‘traditional’ glazed and framed print, left, all overlapping and subverting the hanging conventions (and each other; and some photographic genres, too).

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Marton Perlaki

I have made reference to glazed/unglazed because it has been a question in my own mind. I prefer my work to be printed on a matte paper and for the surface of the print to play a part in the viewers’ experience. There were some good examples of this approach, not least Justin James Reed’s work, below. The detail on the right shows the middle-left print (which was on a paper – I gently touched it, to confirm!) mounted so that it ‘floats’ within the simple black frame.

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Justin James Reed

I had the place to myself (hence ‘touching’ – gently and carefully, I promise) and could probably have walked off with some of Naohiro Utagawa’s work – casually propped on shelves (below). I enjoyed the work – he tears his images and re-photographs them as ‘still-life’ assemblies – and the casual presentation might almost have encouraged the viewer to pick them up. They were dibond-mounted and covered with perspex, so perhaps that was the intention (I didn’t). It certainly does emphasise the materiality/physicality of the image, though, and is another way of subverting the traditional wall-hung gallery approach.

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Naohiro Utagawa

Not everything worked so well – the issues with glazed frames well-represented below.

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FOAM Talent exhibition

But, returning to the variety and creativity – I can’t do much more than illustrate some more examples …

Use of the light-box, below, with traditional wall-mounting right and another version of the casual prop left. The latter all looks a bit casual but see how all the cabling is effectively hidden away and we get to concentrate on the image.

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Dominic Hawgood (left) & Alessandro Calabrese (right)

Two examples of the ‘installation’ approach below – Veum has handwritten & other supporting material in a ‘vitrine’ and deep ‘specimen-style’ glazed frames for original old prints; Rosenmunthe mixes all sorts of styles and framing, with a large rock on a suspended piece of glass (which should eventually break, according to the accompanying signage!).

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Christian Veum (left) and Johan Rosenmunthe (right)

Sjoerd Knibbeler (below) mixes mounted prints, slideshow (into a ‘tunnel’), and framed text with a floor-to-ceiling transparent print of an image of steam rising (or disappearing) through a hole (right).

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Sjoerd Knibbeler

Jean-Vincent Simonet creates an immersive spectacle with floor-to-ceiling wall-pasted colour prints, onto which bright perspex-covered images have been ‘floated’.

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FOAM Talent exhibition – Jean-Vincent Simonet

And so it goes on … I’m very aware that this whole post has been about presentation, not content. But there is also such a richness of content in the show that I could never do it justice (probably didn’t do it justice in the amount of attention I was able to give it on the day). I am, as is probably obvious, mostly inspired and encouraged by the sheer freedom and variety that these ‘emerging’ talents have brought to their individual, and often relatively small, spaces within the show. The range of ‘technologies’ available with which to reproduce/present photographic images and the scope to do more than just put a flat, framed surface up on a wall, should encourage us, as students, to push the boundaries (subject, of course, to budget – some of these things don’t come cheap). The show has finished, unfortunately, so I can’t encourage others to go – but I’m glad I made it!

A diversion–planning for ‘Art Week’

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In passing, I’m having something of a ‘down’, with plans not working out as it had seemed they would & a certain amount of frustration & uncertainty about how to move things forward. I’m not going to reflect on that negativity as I’m not sure it would achieve much. Instead, this is a diversionary post about some work that is (more or less, anyway) unconnected with these studies. I’ve been invited to exhibit something in a small ‘Fringe’ event at the local ‘Art Week’ in early July. Since it is, essentially, a charity event, I’ve no intention of trying to do something with my main Body of Work but decided to produce some new work, with a slight hint of a ‘local’ flavour.

This set of nine images (designed to be exhibited/sold as square prints) has a title ‘H.O.L.M.F.I.R.T.H. – literally digitally transformed’. It’s a bit of simplistic fun, I guess – fabric design/print & photography by yours truly. There’s a sort of unsophisticated puzzle in there but the images look visually attractive as prints &, who knows, we might manage to sell some. I quite like it, anyway, and I could even launch into some contextual comments about the transformative powers of photography … but maybe not!

I attended the ‘FOAM – Talent’ exhibition last Wednesday, which was really excellent with plenty of inspirational work/presentation. Yesterday, I was at the OCA’s ‘Photography Matters’ symposium, which also had much content worthy of reflection and comment. I’ll save them up until I can approach in a more positive frame of mind! (Which will happen, as it always does!)