• Damien Williams

PHO702: Coursework


Memories and Moments - Pre-module Task: A Critical response

The Social Photo

The Social Photo by Nathan Jurgenson is an exploration of the relationship between social media and photography from a social scientists view. How the omnipresence of our camera phones in our daily lives has changed our relationship with how we use and consume photography. This, as an assertion by Jurgenson, should have opened a fresh discussion on how we judge and discuss photography’s role in our lives and artistic discussions (even if he expresses that this not his express intention).


My personal relationship with social media is functional at best. I will go as far as to say I don’t understand it. I have no idea how it works on a mass scale and I don’t understand how it has kept it’s name “social” as most of the interactions I am forced to face with it are quite the opposite. It feels very much like it is progressing towards Public Access TV. Rarely something beyond the experience of a voyeur (with my personal experience being on the outside looking in). A place where people’s view of the world is narrowed by advertising algorithms and their opinions are elevated to 'fact' by ignorance and validated by “singing to the choir”. I will preface this by saying I am an introvert that understands people and the human condition less and less, the older I get. Working within education my awareness of the benefits and dangers surrounding the use of social media, especially to children, teenagers, and the vulnerable is usually focussed on the consequences of the latter. Where I believe only a small proportion of the human race has the skills and control to use this 'social weapon' safely and responsibly. Where those in control do little to protect those who need it.


My use of these platforms is very limited, which poses a disadvantage to my aspirations of ‘transmitting’ my work. Which results in my use of these platforms being to share almost nothing about myself (I think most humans over-value how important their ‘news’ is, or at least fail to curate to bring out the really interesting parts of their days), including my thoughts, image and/or replies.


Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' is more than reference (you could say this book is either written as a response or more cynically 'apes' her thoughts for traction). Jurgenson references Sontag talking about consuming experiences, which more eloquently echoes (the social media irony isn't lost on me) my thoughts on a lack of curation.


needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted
(Sontag, The Social Photo, 2019:38)

I ‘use’ Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn sparingly and for different functions.

Facebook is family and friends and TV (video compilations of sport or entertainment) only. Where I am a passive observer until I am genuinely required.

Instagram is photography, largely for inspiration and learning. Possibly as a business card in future.

Twitter… is such a negative place. I currently looking for a way to use it 'safely as I did for a while find it very useful for Teaching and Learning (Tom Cruise followed my school Film Studies department), but that has been usurped by LinkedIn. The latter two rarely get engaged with during a month. My most used Social media is not known for exhibiting still photography, but has been a valuable teacher for me.

YouTube, which perhaps best reflects my analogy of Public Access TV, is my common form of mobile entertainment and photography viewing and learning.


Another common trend is photography as a mirror... the Selfie! I have no interest in Selfie culture. Neither my own or those of other people. I am as annoyed by the attention-seeking narcissism as I am by the form, composition and spacial proximity. When taking portraits I shoot wide and environmentally, usually. My introvert nature has a lot to do with this. Also, I rarely see myself during the day, so have a distorted perception of self. This narcissism both my own and that of my perception on selfie culture’s influence on society is why I think people fail to show their true selves on Social Media. It is why I don’t have time to create a ‘persona’ and work to maintain it. This surface level persona is ironically reflected in this text what Jurgenson describes


“…that mirror-view, what we see when contemplating our self, considering what we are
(Jurgenson, 2019:55)

This reminded me of Barthes observation in Camera Lucida,


“why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other?”
(Barthes, 2000:6)

Which is an observation that I find myself wondering about other people's posts, as a method curation or self-censoring in my own posts. But as clear as the observation is, I may start to apply this as a philosophy for my work. Starting in the photography stage, but also in the selection and editing.


Jurgenson speaks about whether we are recording a moment…


the effect of the social photo conditions how we experience the world, how we recognise instances within it as significant or meaningful or funny or important or worthy
(Jurgenson, 2019:28)

Are those documenting the moment themselves in the moment?”
(Jurgenson, 2019:78)

The camera provides us with an opportunity to capture a thought or moment, which can make things less boring to us and possibly to an audience, it gives something a purpose and reason. Jurgenson describes


This documentary consciousness gives one something to do, to turn every moment into one that is potentially productive, like a tourist of our own experience
(Jurgenson, 2019:37)

David Bate discusses a similar point in his book Photography: The Key Concepts,


Taking a photograph of something in everyday life is not only simply to recognise it as something of interest but also to make it of interest”
(Bate, 2019:48)


This is also a reminder of Todd Hido reframing images through a car window. Which was a way of reframing the everyday and the banal in a beautiful and compelling way.

[image and citation]


Whereas the addiction that is social media leads me to reflect and feel that this virtual life is superseding reality. This created reality is breaking down society as we know it, particularly how we view the world. Is it not that we need to frame images and now real life with the multiple screens we use to alleviate having to be present in every moment?


[Gallery] watching gigs and performances through our devices.

I believe it is less about the use of photo as a medium or aide memoire than simply the gear and our willingness to maintain a persona. This discussion does not serve to further photography, rather is a self-validation of a media puppeteer to elevate and justify his cause by ‘attaching’ it to the writings of Sontag and others.

Jo Spence said it best when she discussed the family album being propaganda. Surely, Social Photo is an extension of this. Less misogynistic than Spence asserts but equally as exclusive of truth/reality.


Bibliography:


Barthes, Roland, et al. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London, Vintage Books, 2000.


Bate, David. PHOTOGRAPHY : The Key Concepts. S.L., Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019.

Hido, T


Jurgenson, Nathan. Social Photo : On Photography and Social Media. Verso Books, 2019.


Sontag, Susan, and Penguin. On Photography. London, Penguin Books, 2008.


Figures:





Week 1: The shapeshifter


How do you feel about this ability for photography to shapeshifter through context?

It takes the power away from the artist, whilst empowering the art as an object - immortalising it beyond it's original meaning.


"One doesn't need to know the artist's private intentions. The work tells all." (Sontag 19??:??)

When considering the nature of photography and it's meaning being abstracted or repurposed there are certain considerations. The scope of the intent and the ethical responsibility of the message are the primary considerations for me when I think of this image. Most of which is contingent on the reading of the image. Context, location and source are important to the meaning derived. 'Reading' images in a different context of consumption (as Barthes would say) definitely shifts the meaning.


Fig 1. Fig 2. Fig 3.


The participants (David Kirby's Family) meant for the tragic death to have meaning beyond the life-span of the David himself. So meaning has been maintained in some way. Context from one image to the other has definitely changed but the legacy of their son reached a larger audience. You can see/feel the perceptual difference even in the way it has been presented and branded. The original in black and white is a much more intimate image. Whereas the colourised version with a more cinematic aspect ratio is much more reminiscent of a fictional narrative... somehow. Less intrusive. Which defies the gravity of the moment that a life ends.

In theory, meaning only shifts if the original is not known by the viewer. However, the technical aspects beyond the control of the photographer shifts the context of the meaning more than the core basic events in frame.


If the overall goal was about raising awareness however, then it is ethically sound.


Even from the colourists intention the meaning doesn't convey fully.

Ann Rhoney the colourist brought in by Beneton Colors magazine in an interview with TIME. relayed


“The whole idea of colorizing it was to make it look realistic, so there was a lot of pressure to deliver that. To just miss the mark by a shade would have been a complete disaster.”

Whereas the colour and the crop makes it less realistic and more painterly. The issue of colour making something more realistic is a discussion for another day.


Bibliography:

Sontag

Barthes

Beneton story website


Figures:

Fig 1. The Face of AIDS, (1990) Therese Frare.

Fig 2. The Face of AIDS, (1990) as seen in LIFE Magazine. Therese Frare.

Fig 3. The Face of AIDS, (1990) as seen in United Colors of Benetton

United Colors of Benetton; Photograph by Therese Frare / Colorization by Ann Rhoney







Week 2: The Index and the icon


What, if any, sort of truth do you think photography can or might offer us?

Truth is a subjective concept which affords us the ability, as humans, or rather the opportunity to either justify or create our own truths. Photography is considered indexical by nature, which was true at it's conception and is usually used as verification of truth/reality of things having happened. Very soon after it was used for constructing fallacy and falsehood very soon after. Even before propaganda in the political form used photography's indexical qualities for social and political change. Having been party to discussions about 'The Social Photo'; new propaganda or should I say social media is now always on the lookout for images that will 'break the internet' or form something iconic.


It is both impossible and possible to capture truth in a single frame. Even when constructing photo essays or series of images to form a narrative the room for interpretation is vast. When Wolfgang Tillmans mined his archives of photographs to construct 'constellations of images' assembled for the gallery environment he was forming truth derived from memory and perceived experiences... not necessarily his own. This was, and is still, a manifestation of truth even without the viewer's interpretation. His installation at MoMA (1986–1998) comprised staged and candid photographs of friends and tableaus from his life, in a mix of colour and black and white printed at various scales and sizes.


Fig 1.

“Growing up in the ’80s, questions of style and music and youth culture all seemed inherently political. . . . So in that way, I was so excited about the connection between our private lives and politics.”
(Tillmans, 2012)

Do you think the photograph is different to other forms of visual representation? Why is this, or not?

Photography is different to other forms of visual representation because of how we interact with it. This relationship is changing as we speak. Although the human ability to discern what is captured and which is manipulated is becoming more and more contextual in terms of the environments we consume our images, but the techniques being employed to produce digital imagery are becoming so refined that it is getting harder to commit to truth in the old-fashioned sense. Validation of the source of the image is becoming more and more important rather than simply the image itself. Which leads me conveniently to having to be certain of my intent narratively and ethically. Clear in my methods of relaying the narrative in the appropriate voice, certain of the scope of the narrative and commit to in-depth research.


I'm still not sure of what I wish to do?!


Bibliography:

Tilmanns

Figures: Fig 1: [Tillmans image and citation]






Week 3: Constructed realities

Photographs are all illusions. Let’s take into consideration the fact that they are representations of something that has been captured through machinery. A frozen moment in time that we would find almost imperceptible, without the aid of the camera. Yes, this is not reality. A common argument is that candid photography captures what we cannot see but what actually exists. If it wasn’t in the real world we couldn’t photograph it. This is almost correct in my opinion however if you abstract a single syllable from a word then it ceases to hold the same meaning as the word. The single ingredient does not define the cake in all situations. Also if we look at candid photography as documentary, the untouched image is merely the arrangement of a frame from a wider view of reality. When we talk about portrait photography, directing, lighting and environment (studio or environmental) everything in that frame (mise-en-scène) is part of the narrative. We derive meaning from all of it. Therefore constructing a whole narrative and controlling all of the elements within the frame is simply autistic control. This is the DNA of fashion photography, studio photography and the constructed realities of Gregory Crewsdon it’s just part of the same family of techniques and ideologies.

Fig 1. Fig 2.

[2 Gregory Crewsdon images and citation]



Fig 3. Fig 4. [Lucy Levene 2 images and citation]

Lucy Levene's work although less cinematic than Crewsdon is very 'Film4' Ken Loach televisual. I am really drawn to work of this kind. Not being able to tell if it is documentary truth or constructed truth (documented) directly from the image does not worry me in this context. There is a responsibility to disclose this but when the artist chooses to disclose this is, surely, part of the performance.


What issues do you think that they raise about an assumed truth of the photographic image?


"Truth doesn't exist, it's only perception"
(Elias Daughdrill, 12/2020)

The above quote comes to mind about truth in general. I believe that any interaction forms a narrative. Photography objectifies to paraphrase Susan Sontag which means any intervention is subjective truth that is asserted by the artist(s). So in some ways the assumption of truth is a valid assumption and in another way; truth is a subset of perception. It is just that photorealism presents it in a way that allows the viewer to easily believe, without scrutiny. This will soon not be the case as the ability to generate convincing "deep-fakes" will hopefully encourage greater scrutiny from the viewer in how to read images and research beyond them.


Bibliography:

6 most popular types of documentary: Elias Daudrill Site accessed...


Figures:

Fig 1. Fig 2. [2 Gregory Crewsdon images and citation]

Fig 3 & 4 [Lucy Levene 2 images and citation]







Week 4: Into the image world


Roland Barthes as one of the leading theorists of semiotics usually follows (or reacts to) the structuralist approach of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

The study of signs is linguistic device that allows the practitioner to move beyond simple composition as a tool for arrangement but move to the dimension of challenging meaning on a personal, cultural and conceptual level. The majority of Barthes’s writings, thematically, were concerned with the importance of being careful how we use and interpret words and other signs, culturally and cognitively.


Barthes distinction between signifier and signified (which also follows Sassure's theory) is crucial to his 'reading' of advertisements and imagery.

The signifier is the image used to stand for something else.

The signified is what it stands for outside of language and/or social construction.


My previous work was heavy on denotation (the signifier) and left little to interpret. As was required both in terms of reading an image and as I work in schools for safeguarding. If you are taking images of vulnerable people with connotations contained, then you as the photographer is not suiting the function of your job. Ethically it could be seen as exploitation (depending on the context).


This change of emphasis in my work has shifted my thoughts towards more open interpretations. The space for the viewer to sympathise and imagine is contained in that space. I have to balance my expectations and how I 'lead' the viewer. In the last module my feedback was that my work wasn't evocative enough. That must be the teacher in me. Too much show and tell! Working in abstracts is out of my comfort zone but forces me to not be lazy and to not rely on cultural cues or advertising tropes.

Did you feel stereotypically positioned as a consumer of these images that we have looked at in these sessions?

Yes, and it encouraged me to absorb (passively 'read') the images.


How natural or obvious were they to you, and did you experience a dominant, oppositional, or negotiated reading of them?

I usually read in a dominant fashion but I am surprised by the extent at which I was being manipulated or rather how ingrained my reading of the tropes were. However, luxury goods were negotiated readings, strangely. I just must not react to them and have not reacted to them in the past... so does class have an impact? Almost certainly.



What do you think is the relationship between image and text, and can you think of any more contexts in which a shared understanding and a shared interpretation are most important?

I think the relationship is a parasitic one. There is always one side of that equation that subjugates the other. Usually text dominates but images can, on occasion be the dominant text. Images are subject to formatting too, the layout in a magazine and size/crop will also impact much more. Humans will contextually go to whatever gives them the information quickest. Bibliography:

Barthes: Elements of Semiology

Sassure






Week 5: Gazing at Photographs


When does an inquisitive gaze become a lingering, rude stare? At what point does representation become fetishisation?


Think about the way you 'look at' the world though your photographs

After looking at the work of my peers, and battling with what I thought on the surface, I initially believed that my view of the world was that of a White middle class male. Which is somewhat problematic as I am not White. My travel photographs have a tremendous sense of other and very much appeals to the people in my 'environment' of White middle class teachers. Although I wish to leave that practice behind, I can only do this by understanding it. So with many conversations with a small group of my MA peers, I was posed the question of


"Is it white that you are seeing/reading, or is it privilege?"


This was such a great question because not only does it challenge my photographic and critical preconceptions, but it also challenges me to examine privilege and consider the concept of Black privilege and the responsibilities as a human and artist, that comes with it.


I am fully aware that Black privilege is not the same as White privilege but the differences are subtle. Maybe, the differences in how I see and process things do make my work unique (as long as I can 'realise' those ideas in my work). This dynamic will be important to the truth and my audience. It may lead to me finding a way to communicate with my audience in a more intimate or raw and honest way. It frees me to believe there is already truth in my work. As I have spent the week concerned that my imagery does not represent me. Which would prevent me from connecting with an audience in a meaningful way. This may even mean I'm not communicating as a voyeur and more as a participant. The wider context of my practice is another matter. The more I get to understand my role in the society I am part of, the better my work will get I'm sure.


I believe I am a voyeur in my own practice. This is where the gaze of 'other' allows my work to have balance. Now I am aware of it, I am able to represent 'other' rather than just view and present 'other'. Diane Arbus viewed the world as beautiful and unique without making judgements over conventional beauty and celebrating the differences. She sought to find ('other') misfits in everyone that she photographed. This is a motivation to me one that I plan to explore and a philosophy that I intend to use in my work moving forward.

In Nan Golding’s series the ballad of sexual dependency is she being voyeuristic by putting a self at the centre of the work? Does this make her images a cognitive experience or sensorial one? The question of participation, distance and motivation in voyeuristic photography has taken on a new life due to social media. Nan Golding showed a very intimate side that relied a lot on the observational documentary of things that people don’t see very often. This isn’t very different from the Instagram feeds of celebrities. Are these empowered works of art rather than just the edifice of the candid as they are portraying themselves to be? This curation of all that is celebrity is intimate, however it is very contrived and with it being displayed with the subjects editorial control is it really voyeuristic? However I believe people are viewing it and gaining the voyeuristic pleasures.


I partially agree with the assertion that we still view the land as 'female other', as there are some practitioners evoking that use of Edenism, or present their vision as an expression of femininity, (Bill Brandt, Edward Weston). However if we include cityscapes in topological photography the imagery is of largely phallic content, rarely yonic. It can be argued that the gaze is still male but not in it's historic form (using the female form for the pleasure and edification of the male viewer) rather as a compensation for feelings of inadequecies (celebration of virility) or even the emasculation of feminism.

Fig 1. [Title and citation]


Is it merely a metaphor or simply aesthetic in most cases? Jo Spence and Terry Dennett is working with a metaphor as commentary to initiate shock to open a dialogue. It works on more than one level to use this inverted male gaze as a way to invite the viewer to enter the image using the image to enter the discussion.

Bibliography:

Diane Arbus

Nan Golding

"Edenism"

Jo Spence and Terry Dennett


Figures:

Fig 1. Jo Spence




Week 6:Tutorials

Working on my presentation this week, which has realistically continued my questions of where my gaze originates and how to start to steer it as I become more aware of it. Which decisions can I make technically and aesthetically to support it? What choices can I make to leverage my life experience more consciously?






Week 7: A Sea of Images


Fig 1.


"Sometimes the vernacular images we take, have interest to friends and family, but sometimes, only to the author"
(Manovich, 2017: )

I rarely take 'ordinary' images. I tend to use photography as a creative tool or an aide memoire. I generally take fewer images than most of the people around me, unless I am compelled to make something. I also share very little and rarely. For most of my time with a camera it was a functional recording device used for marketing. However, I take images that are for me in a very timeless and personal way. Of things that are full of Punctum and growing Studium from my perspective. Usually those of my closest family. These are images of my family. I am the family (inside the home) documentarian. As Barthes said in Camera Lucida...


I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound
(Barthes, 19**:73)

My wife is the (phone) photographer on trips (I don't mean that insultingly, I have tried to find a camera which suits her but the phone is her preferred weapon of choice) sharing activities, trips, birthdays etc.. I, instead, capture watching TV, mealtimes and going for walks, riding bikes etc. using a 35mm film camera. These vernacular images never get shared online, other than a shared private album on iCloud with grandparents. The world would be indifferent to them and the is what I like about them. Unless you were there, they are diminished in meaning. Which in turn amplifies their meaning to those involved. They are so vernacular, I'm sure friends would not be interested. I am, in some way, responding to Jo Spence and her assertion that there is a need for a "'counter-photography' of the family" (paraphrased). With an aim representing rather than commemorating the normal and ordinary aspects of my family's life as expats. Life for my children is overly full of commemoration and 'special' as we call it. We find comfort in the ordinary.




[images of ordinary in gallery... incl. Theo consoling Jocelyn]


When we visit family abroad for the school holidays the images (and lots of them) are taken by whatever device is at hand. They end up being a slideshow that is located as a screensaver on our TV. We have abandoned regular photos in frames as they get broken when we move.

(Yes, I understand this goes against my photographs as objects, especially as most of them are digitised from film negatives... being hidden on devices... but as travellers, we needed the children to see their life in order to give them an emotional anchor and as we listen to music through the TV and the slideshow is on during that it works really well).


[Images of Holidays 120mm]


Nonetheless, I always pack a point and shoot film camera, 35mm or 120mm camera as well as my digital Mirrorless camera (almost as back up). The point and shoot is sometimes handed to my children to record what has happened. So it's not just 'Daddy-propaganda'. Also, aesthetically film grants me the nostalgic and timeless quality that I really enjoy, especially 120mm Tri-X.


In the context of the work I am producing for this portfolio. Timeless is a quality that is required for it to work. I have recently thought about making them into objects, or rather printed on objects in order to make them unreproduceable without loss of originality. Charlie Schreiner did something similar when he produced Plate in Distress (Female Nude with Finger Prints), 2004/2004


Fig 10.


Where he created a Daguerreotype (3/4 plate) (in glass mount) with the imperfections as part of the work. It is not lost on me that a Daguerreotype is also an object, unfortunately it is way out of my budget to produce a set of images this way. Vinyl or aluminium may be more affordable.


With that said, I do agree with Walter Benjamin's assertion that 'the meaning of the work is changed when it's reproduced'. I do however think it is contextual. If a 'product' is made to be reproduced then it is fulfilling part of it's function and then meaning is maintained.


Bibliography:

Walter Benjamin:

Barthes: Camera Lucida

Manovich


Figures:

Fig 1. 24 Hrs in Photos, 2011, by Erik Kessels www.erikkessels.com

Fig 2-9. Family photos

Fig 10. Charlie Schreiner Plate in Distress (Female Nude with Finger Prints), 2004 Daguerreotype (3/4 plate) in glass mount






Week 8: Responses and Responsibilities

We are desensitised to images of war and conflict. Which does make imagery for positive change a greater challenge as we have seen so many images in our lifetimes. I don’t believe it is just over exposure to war photography that has caused this. The proliferation of images and narrative sources has a massive impact on how we interpret what we see. The fact that as a populous we watch so many fictional narratives that draw inspiration from these real life conflicts is problematic to say the least. Let’s take the issue of police brutality. If I talk about police brutality (setting the context of a documentary exposé) with an account of a single police officer doing whatever it takes and bending the rules in order to get the job done through, let's say, force, it sounds like the police officer is ethically or morally compromised, a thug. However in the context of a television series or film we will routinely celebrate that use of force, the maverick, and engender sympathetic responses for what we would call the protagonist rather than antagonist. So consider moving from that medium to consuming news (which is 24 hours) on the same medium (or context) and the cognitive response required to sympathise with the victim rather than the now antagonist.