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Posts Tagged ‘visual culture’

Just a quick note here to let you know that I am going to be speaking at an event tomorrow night (Thursday 21st July) at the Centre For Creative Practices in Pembroke Street in Dublin. It’s called Music Photography in a Digital Age and was organised by Naomi McCardle as part of the PhotoIreland festival. Full information on the event is below  – should be a good night. Thanks so much to Naomi for inviting me to be part of this. (more…)

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This post is part two of an essay on Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities project. You can read part one here.

Invisible Cities clearly must be considered as part of a tradition of documentary photography and as such it raises a number of interesting questions that I will now turn to. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from outside a particular culture or environment trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. Martha Rosler has been deeply critical of the documentary tradition, particularly when it involves a privileged outsider shedding light on marginalised or disadvantaged communities. She would see this practice as merely reinforcing existing power relations and doing little to address any of the root causes of the situation. Similar difficulties are identified by Stuart Hall: he describes how stereotyping is used to maintain power in a society or culture by marginalising certain groups, and how photographic representations, whether intentionally or not, play an important role in this (Edward Said has also written persuasively of how Western representations of the Orient  have played a pivotal role in maintaining the power relationships between East and West). As a white European working in Africa, with its historical and contemporary difficulties with colonialism and post-colonialism, Seawright runs the risk of falling into this trap, a situation he is by no means unaware of:

Until I accepted the Imperial War Museum commission in 2002 to respond to the war in Afghanistan, I’d never considered making work that extended beyond my sphere of direct experience. I wrestled with the problems that making work in another country presented, not least that I have been critical of non-indigenous practice in Northern Ireland

(Paul Seawright quotation from interview with Russel Roberts)

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In this essay, written in 1995, Lev Manovich explores the ramifications of digital technology and photography. He asks if such a thing as digital photography really exists, and to what extent this really differs from traditional photographic practice.

Manovich starts by referring to a range of digital innovations that have transformed the practice of image production and manipulation, innovations that would lead most people to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of the photograph has radically changed.  The aim of his essay is to question whether this is really the case, and to expose a number of paradoxes at the heart of digital photography that become apparent when we attempt such questioning. His position is that it does not – that, in fact, digital photography does not exist.

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This essay appears in Solomon-Godeau’s Photography At The Dock collection. It deals with a number of post-modern photographic artists, explaining their work, and situating it in opposition to the established canon of modernist art photography. It is deeply critical of many of the fundamental assumptions of modernist photography that would have been elaborated in the work of critics such as John Szarkowski.

Solomon-Godeau begins by noting the extent to which the use of pastiche, in the sense of the appropriation of previously existing styles and work, has become dominant in both the art world and in popular mass media. In tandem with this, much criticism has been leveled at previously sacrosanct notions of the value of originality and authorial autonomy, and many artists are using pastiche as a means of questioning and probing these issues. At the time of writing, not much of this had reached the art photography world though, where most work was still reliant on traditional modernist notions: a key one being that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. The reason for this can be thought of as an insecurity at the heart of art photography. It had only recently received full status as an art form, and having done so on the back of precisely those modernist notions that post-modern artists are currently questioning. It is therefore reluctant to abandon, or even question, those notions that were integral to the elevation to its current lofty status.

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Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice is a meditation on time and tense in photography and cinema. It deals with issues regarding what sorts of temporal experiences can be embodied within both forms and how the viewer’s means of engagement impacts upon this. The essay was first published in 1984 but later included in Liz Well’s 2003 book, The Photography Reader.

Photography is inextricably bound up with time. A photograph stops a moment and preserves it as a fragment of the past. The moment captured is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. By contrast, the spectator’s ‘now’ is of no fixed duration – the spectator can spend as long as he/she wishes, looking at the photograph. This contrasts sharply with cinema where the spectator’s experience is of fixed duration and often only available at set times.

Wollen applies these observations to Barthes, and claims that this temporal distinction between photography and film explains Barthes’s love of photography and antipathy towards film. Barthes privileges what the spectator brings to the work over the input of the author (as evidenced for example in Death Of The Author), and hence favours a medium like photography, where the spectator is in control over the time and circumstances of the viewing of the work, over film, where that control is ceded to the author. As Wollen puts it: ‘Time, for Barthes, should be the prerogative of the reader/spectator’. The implication of this is a bias against an author-imposed narrative structure and a preference for a freer, more interpretative approach controlled by the spectator. (more…)

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John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.

Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (more…)

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Why Photography Matters As Art As Never BeforeI became interested in Michael Fried’s recent tome of photographic art criticism after reading an interview with him in Aperture magazine. I thought it would serve as good overview of the work of a whole assortment of contemporary  photographers. It certainly did that – and much more besides.

In 1967 Michael Fried published a controversial essay called ‘Art And Objecthood‘ where he trenchantly criticised the minimalist art of the time. His main concern was what he saw as the art world’s slide into theatricality. By this he meant the inclusion of the viewers experience of viewing an artwork into the meaning of the artwork itself – the explicit acknowledgment of the role and presence of the viewer (or beholder), and the shift in emphasis away from the intentions of the creator. Fried instead championed art (mostly Modernist and Abstract) which effectively ignored the role of the beholder, was complete in and of itself, and which functioned as a direct vehicle for the aesthetic concerns of the artist.

He went on to develop these ideas by way of a series of art history books which revealed the same concerns to be at the heart of developments in 18th century French painting. In particular, the anti-theatrical tradition sought to produce art which denied the presence of a beholder by producing work that portrayed people in states of absorption – turned away from the viewer and engrossed in some activity that demands their complete attention.

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Roland Barthes

This essay is a classic semiotic text where Roland Barthes analyses an advertising image and uses it as a means of teasing out how different messages are conveyed by a system of signs. The ad he uses is the Panzani advert, within which he finds a rich layering of meanings.

Barthes commences by remarking that the word image stems from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and then poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function of conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else. Do they really constitute a language, and if they do, how does meaning work within this language? He uses an advertising image to analyze these questions, as advertising images clearly have intended meanings. The image used is the Panzani ad which is reproduced below.

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After finding aspects of Stuart Hall’s text difficult to grasp in parts I turned to a chapter from Photography: A Critical Introduction (edited by Liz Wells) to try and get a better handle on the relevance of psyschoanalytic theory to photography criticism. It explains Freud’s take on voyeurism and fetishism clearly and concisely.

Representations of the human body have become a central part of photographic practice and consequent critical discussion since the 1980s. Numerous issues have driven this – body politics, feminist challenges to the representation of the female body, the AIDS crisis, censorship struggles and the foregrounding of issues around gender and sexuality. Henning’s piece discusses how the human body is represented photographically, both in a historical and a contemporary context.

She commences with a description of some historical attemps to use photography to read the human body. Physiognomy and phrenology were employed from the mid 19th century onwards as a means of classifying people according to social and racial types, with photography acting as the key enabler of this. While these ideas have long been discredited, both John Tagg and Allan Sekula have pointed out that they continue to be used as a form of social control by way of photographic police archives. The implicit racism of these 19th Century ideas were later made explicit via Nazism, with its insistence on the moral superiority of certain races and classes. (more…)

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This entry discusses an extract from the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In it, Stuart Hall examines stereotyping and how this practice is employed to construct negative representations of people and groups.

We routinely make sense of the world using types – broad categories of things with common characteristics. This allows us to categorise things in a meaningful way, and in turn draw conclusions and extrapolate information about something based on previous experience of things of the same, or similar, type. This is commonly done with people and is not by definition negative. For example, we assign certain traits to roles such as parent, businessperson, pensioner and so on. Stereotypes on the other hand, while classifying people in a similar manner, reduce the person to those simplified and exaggerated characteristics, admit no possibility of change, and insist that these characteristic are natural. Any complexity is ignored and denied, and it is implied that everything that is necessary to know about the person can be known by referring to the traits of the stereotype. In essence a stereotype declares “this is what you are, and this is all you are”.

Stereotyping also deploys a strategy of splitting – where those who do not fit society’s norms are excluded, and their exclusion is copper-fastened by fitting them to a set of stereotypes deemed unacceptable – the ‘Other’. This denies the possibility of any meaningful discourse about them or with them, and ensures their continued exclusion.  This proves most effective when gross inequalities of power allow the dominant group to employ the strategy without challenge. (more…)

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