Category Archives: Stephanie Tait

Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! ūüėČ

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful¬†Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.¬† What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.¬† All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

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Musings on my muse

This title was just asking to be used…!

What is a muse? What is a muse for me? I have regularly referred to my good friend Stephanie Tait as my muse, and as I am presently hoping she’ll be visiting the UK again later this year (she now lives in Los Angeles), I wanted to reflect on what it is about her that makes me regard her as my muse, and what that means for me.

Stephanie

Stephanie

I have thought about this at various times over the last few years, and, unusually, I have not spent any time researching the topic by reading about it. What I mean by this is that I have not followed my usual academic-inspired route of studying the question of muses and how they have been seen and understood in the past by artists. This has been very deliberate: although I do, of course, have a general sense of the idea of muses and have regularly come across artists who have seen particular individuals as muses (for example, Harry Callahan photographed his wife Eleanor Callahan extensively: Suzanne Shaheen’s obituary in The New Yorker on 2.3.12 described her as ‘[o]ne of the greatest muses in photo history…’).¬† I have also engaged with artistic representations of the question of muses (narratives such as Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse comes to mind, for example).¬† However, whilst noting en passant that these are mostly gendered relationships – as is mine! – which almost automatically makes them an interesting object of study, I have not sought to actively research muses in a scholarly way.¬† Exercising such deliberate restraint is not that easy for me to do, but I have wanted to write this blog posting for some time, and I very consciously wanted to try and write it in such a way that it would be a reflection of and on my own emotional experiences, rather than a treatise on the place of artistic muses in history.¬† Doing the latter would be easy for me, whilst I knew that doing the former would be more difficult.¬† However, I was also clear that engaging my own emotional experience would be much more interesting – at least for me, perhaps for Stephanie, and possibly for others.

The idea of muses in western contexts comes, of course, from Greek myth: the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who are the goddesses of the arts are the original muses, though I would not have been able to name them all without a reference work (see, the academic in me breaks out after all…!): Calliope of epic poems; Clio of history; Erato of love poems; Euterpe of music and lyric poems; Melpomene of tragedy; Polyhymnia of sacred lyrics; Terpsichore of dancing; Thalia of comedy; Urania of astronomy. There is clearly an inspirational connection here, but until fairly recently it has not been very clear to me how this might relate to my own thinking about muses. To understand this requires a wider understanding of some personal history… indulge me…

My most beautiful model

My most beautiful model

Although happily married to the person I want to be married to, long before and throughout our marriage I have held – and articulated – the belief that one other person can never be a complete counterpart for anyone, at least, not in the sense of being someone who can reflect all their interests, needs and desires: maintaining otherwise is to create an idol of the other, leading to (self-)deception and unrealisable expectations.¬† All long-term relationships are unique creations built on certain mutually agreed foundations between individuals, whether spoken or unspoken, and in this case, this understanding about idolatry of the other is one that both of us in this marriage have always understood in broadly the same way, with a similar sense for the boundaries and parameters (of course, my wife might articulate these things slightly differently, but that doesn’t detract from the fundamental mutuality).¬† This understanding manifests itself in different ways, not least in the form of friends: we have mutual friends with whom we share a great deal, and equally, we both have friends to whom the other has less of a connection or affinity.¬† Exploring varying aspects of our personalities through relationships to other people is completely normal.

So how does all this connect to Stephanie? Without wanting to elaborate on the details, a few years ago, during a particularly stressful and difficult period, Stephanie became someone I found I could rely on and relate to as a good friend: the kind of person who really was there when needed, if that’s not too much of a clich√©.¬† That this happened is all the more remarkable in that she is (and, I hasten to add, was already at that time) a former student of mine – it cannot be taken for granted that a connection initially based on a structured power relationship (such as lecturer-student) can be transformed into one that is more about people relating to one another as equal human beings.¬† She knows that she has my immense gratitude for her kindness to me in this period.

Stephanie

Stephanie

As I have described here, it was Stephanie who first suggested I might work on portraits, and she has been a source of inspiration to me ever since (it’s interesting to me that this was a hurdle to her too, but she didn’t give that away at the time – I think she knows that would have intimidated me even more!).¬† Given that Stephanie is a script-writer, film-maker, and film-scholar, it is perhaps appropriate that she reminds me of Radha Mitchell’s Syd in one of my favourite films, Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art.¬† For sure, it is rather presumptuous to compare myself to Ally Sheedy’s Lucy, the photographer in the film, but my comparison rests loosely on the inspirational role that Syd plays in relation to Lucy.¬† Long dormant, Lucy rediscovers her desire to pursue her photographic life through her encounter with Syd, although this has tragic consequences for the main protagonists of the film, especially Lucy and her partner, Patricia Clarkson’s Greta (I’ll say no more, but I do highly recommend the film!). I don’t think I had realised how much I wanted to photograph people until Stephanie more or less made me photograph her.

Now, I’m aware that this perhaps sounds a bit like a teenager’s first proper kiss, with Stephanie taking the role of my first true love!¬† That is not what I’m seeking to suggest here.¬† Of course, at the risk of veering into psychobabble, all relationships also involve some form of physical connection, and it would be completely na√Įve to pretend that didn’t exist: yes, I see Stephanie as a beautiful woman, and in other circumstances I may well have been very attracted to her – but that is not really the issue here.¬† I encounter a great many people that I think of as beautiful in one way or another, both male and female, but I don’t want to pursue physical relations with all of them.¬† In that sense, I tend to take a broadly conservative attitude to my marriage! ūüôā

Stephanie

Stephanie

Furthermore, I have photographed many other people, and I have enjoyed the engagement with both friends and professional models who have been tremendously forthcoming in their openness to my photographic ideas.¬† I very much want to continue to do this.¬† But… but… photographing Stephanie is somehow qualitatively different to all of this.

Initially, I can identify two significant elements that make photographing her such a different kind of experience for me.  Firstly, I have an intimate relationship to Stephanie based on our profound empathetic encounter from a time of adversity that fosters and encourages an almost totally free exchange of thoughts and ideas (insofar as such freedom is possible; even if it is, some ideas are never meant for sharing, even with the most intimate of confidantes).  Secondly, her role as my muse is an active one: she is herself an incredibly creative person who brings her tremendous energies to bear in all areas of her life.  Photographing her becomes an active process of cooperation in transforming ideas into photographs.

These two elements – her profoundly sensitive nature and her own rampant creativity – mean that when I’ve described ideas to her, or developed ideas that she has brought, they suddenly seem totally natural, no matter how crazy they may have seemed at first: I feel as if she intuitively and intimately understands where I am coming from and what I am trying to do, often without too many words needing to be spoken.¬† Injecting her own personality into the process, she is, for me, an inspirational woman who engages in intimacy with me on a level that makes the attempts to create something just work. The end-result may not always quite reflect the extent of the initial vision, but that is probably down to my technical failings rather than her lack of engagement or understanding.¬† So Stephanie is not only one of my best friends.¬† Stephanie is also, for me, an inspirational goddess, a muse: the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place.

Stephanie

Stephanie

There is, however, a third element beyond the intimate empathy and creativity Stephanie embodies: when I say she is “the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place”, I find I want to ask both how this manifests itself, and why it might be the case.¬† When I seek answers to these questions, I find that they are, unsurprisingly, dialectically related to one another.¬† For a long time, I wasn’t completely clear about this.¬† However, what has recently helped me understand this is a very simple realisation: whenever I have an idea about something I want to do that involves a model, it is always Stephanie who first comes to mind.¬† As I seek to try and envision an image, she is the one I imagine posing, she is the one I imagine wearing whatever garment I am thinking of, she is the one who is asking the questions about how and why something should be done one way and not another…¬† I suppose I am conducting long conversations with her about my images, even when she isn’t there.¬† She may not be the person who appears in the final image – and given the distance between us that is increasingly unlikely! – but she is always the one I am thinking of initially, to the point where my sketchbook of ideas is, in fact, largely a collection of sketches of her.¬† In so many ways, she is not only a model for me, she is my model model, as in: my model for other models, irrespective of gender or appearance.

This can sometimes have interesting and slightly strange repercussions: I have a small series of images in mind that picks up on something important that has happened to me, but I very much want to ask Stephanie to be the first model in that series.¬† I haven’t spoken to her about this yet so she doesn’t know what I’m thinking of – that’s something I’ll describe to her when I see her – but I have already partially created the second and third set of images.¬† What is rather strange about this is that I feel I can’t show these other images until I have created the first one, ideally with my muse, my inspirational goddess, addressing issues of pain and beauty that are very personal for me.

Incidentally, I have long been enticed by her online name: in various places, such as her blog and her Twitter account (do read and follow!), she uses “Queendom of Mab” to identify herself. From Shakespeare’s description of a fairie who comes to lovers in Romeo and Juliet, to some of the stranger usages by other authors, there is something about the inspirational, unexpected, and supernatural in her usage of this moniker that really appeals to me – but perhaps that’s just my own view, coloured by the emotional attachment I have to my friend.

I would like to think that this muse-relationship will continue: that when we’re both old and rickety, even though we will perhaps still live on different continents, I might see Stephanie every once in a while and want to photograph her – and she might continue to be happy to be photographed. We’d spend time discussing and gently exploring our way forwards in the mutual transformation of a particular vision into a photographic reality – and we’d enjoy doing it.¬† After all, the inspirational goddesses don’t stop inspiring just because time progresses…

Stephanie

Stephanie

Before concluding, I think it is important to note that muses can take many different forms.¬† For some, it is a person, for others it can be a place: I don’t know if he would use the term ‘muse’, but a landscape photographer I know has spoken of a particular hill that he has photographed in numerous different ways almost as if it were a person.¬† When I look at his photographs, which are connected to poems, I feel as if I am eavesdropping on an intimate conversation he is having with the landscape.¬† It seems to me that ‘his hill’ is a place that he ascribes with conceptions of intimate refuge, occasional struggle, and substantial creative energies – perhaps it is a kind of muse to him?¬† There are undoubtedly many different forms that such inspiration can take.

Stephanie, muse

Stephanie, muse

I’m interested in other people’s understanding of their muses…

Photographic narration – narrating photographs

Stephanie, icon of the silver screen

I have begun to rework some of my image galleries, which I thought were becoming somewhat stale and not very helpfully organised.¬† In addition, I began to feel that just ‘dumping’ a series of images in a gallery was no longer what I wanted to do.¬† Photographs should both tell a story, but there is also a story behind most photographs.¬† So my galleries are now organised by type: land (land- and cityscapes), models, events.¬† Within these broad categories the galleries will hopefully offer more of a sense of the story behind the photographs, as well as – in part – perhaps suggesting ways in which the photographs might be interpreted.¬† Of course, this latter approach is broadly about how I understand my own work, and that isn’t necessarily how others see it! ūüôā

In the first instance, I’ve done some work on the models galleries.¬† There are several reasons for this:

  1. there are a limited number of galleries making this a task that was more easily manageable!
  2. for a while now I have felt I wanted to pay homage to Stephanie, who has been a profound influence on my portraiture.¬† In the introductory narrative to the models section, I describe her role to me as a photographic muse (and I’m already thinking of the beginning of a new series of photographs that I’d like to start with her when she is next in Scotland, whenever that’s going to be).¬† I have therefore written what are almost little photographic essays about our first two portrait sessions that might be of interest (do start with the Edinburgh narrative and then move on to the London collection!).
  3. although I was very aware that I would have to put a lot of work into these particular narratives, I don’t expect many of the other galleries to involve quite so much work.¬† This means I am better able to gauge the task, but also see how a detailed textual accompaniment would work.

My next task will be a little tidying up and adding to for the events section, and then I’ll begin to work on the landscapes – this looks as if it will be the most work because there are more galleries and images, but as noted above, I don’t see myself writing quite as much as I did for the two long Stephanie essays.¬† I’ll be splitting the land galleries up into countries or regions, and will also include some of my photographs from the Middle East.

Of course, this is a bit of an ongoing project for the moment, and so I would be very interested in any comments Рgood, bad, indifferent Рabout what I am trying to do here.  Please either use the comments sections below, or write to me directly using the contact page Рthank you!

My most beautiful model - see the Galleries, Models page for more information

My most beautiful model – see the Galleries, Models page for more information

The wonder of film

This evening I needed to be in nearby Musselburgh, where I would be waiting for half-an-hour at the harbour. Musselburgh has a lovely small harbour, and at the moment all the sailing boats are ‘parked’ in the car park round the harbour (in spaces that are marked ‘dinghy parking’!).

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

On the way out of the house, I took my camera, tripod, spirit level, filters, a 28mm and a 50mm lens – and looked forward to capturing some of these boats and the harbour scenes. I took my favourite film camera, the old Nikon FM2, with one of the last three rolls of Fuji Sensia that I have: this is a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, since I used to use Sensia a lot before switching to Fuji Velvia for colour landscapes; Fuji have recently announced they are stopping the production of Sensia so I have just bought three rolls of it to play with for the last time. It was fairly dark when I arrived in the harbour, and as I took my bag out of the car and began to set up, I realised that I had left my light meter at home – since the FM2’s slowest shutter speed before getting to the bulb setting is 1 second, the camera’s meter would be useless and I would have had to more or less guess all my exposures… so, sadly, I packed everything away again and went to buy a newspaper instead. Next week, when I expect to be there again, I’ll remember the meter!

I’ve read two nice postings on other people’s websites recently about using film. The first one was from the great Bruce Percy, who discussed how much he enjoyed using a particular kind of Kodak Portra film for a recent trip he made to Ethiopia and then, referring to Canon’s 5D digital camera, noted:

I get a lot of correspondence from people wanting to know how to get the same look with their 5D. You can’t.

If you want the look of film, then shoot film.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that! The other piece I’ve come across is more of a short essay by the wonderful Max Marinucci (though the second part describes how he develops film, so you may want to skim read that bit if you just want to pick up on his philosophy about film):

…patience and parsimony are virtues to be cultivated and nourished. When shooting film, you immediately accept the fact that it may be a little while before you see the fruits of your work and, by living with this, you will become a more disciplined shooter, which will in turn carry on to your digital side as well. It also means that shooting everything in sight without any thought into basics like light and composition is out of the question since you only have 24-36 shots in a roll of 35mm and it makes no sense in spending time/money developing simple, careless snapshots. This is a valuable exercise in restraint and it brings us to actually THINK before we shoot. Would you have taken a picture of your toes with film just because you can? I sincerely doubt it.

Although I use my Nikon D90 digital camera a lot, there is something wonderful about film that cannot be beaten by the more ‘clinical’ nature of digital… and it has to do with all these key components of photography that often go missing in the techno-madness that camera manufacturers obscure from us as they add ever more silly functions to their cameras: patience, composition, light, perspective… I’m not a dogmatic film shooter: of course digital cameras have their place (I couldn’t be involved in the same way in the African film festival if I wasn’t using digital, and I do like my D90). I think it is just a question of being reminded of that at times, of using film and digital in different circumstances as appropriate, and above all, appreciating film for all the wonder it can bring to the craft of photography.

On patience and time in processing

Stephanie: an intimate moment

Stephanie: an intimate moment

This is not going to be a long piece about patience and time (I have neither the patience nor the time for that – haha!).¬† Rather, it’s about taking the time in certain contexts, specifically when it comes to editing.¬† On looking at the tag cloud on this blog, I notice that I’ve written several times about the need to take time when seeking to capture images, but yesterday I found that after much time I had finally managed to get an image edited the way I wanted it to be – an image that I took in June 2009.¬† Now, 15 months later, and after several different attempts at edits, I’m finally happy with the end result (a previous version that I still like, but isn’t quite ‘right’, is here).

Sometimes, I just need to leave an image alone for a while, sometimes different edits need to be tried out, sometimes it will take a long, long, long time to get it right.¬† I can remember taking this image ‘in-between’ shots – Stephanie wasn’t really posing as such, but this seemed to me to be a gentle moment of some intimacy, and I wanted that to be reflected in the processing… and to my mind, that is reflected in this final (for now…) edit.

Stephanie in the sea

Stephanie, relaxed

Stephanie, relaxed

At 5:30 this morning, I collected Stephanie and we went to Gullane Bents, a lovely unspoilt beach east of Edinburgh, in order to take portraits in the soft light that comes at sunrise.¬† When I first discussed this with her she almost immediately said ‘yes’, despite my warning of the cold temperatures. She now lives in Los Angeles, where the average temperatures lie considerably above those in Scotland.¬† Theoretically she knows this, having lived here for several years…

The plan had initially been to create a narrative sequence, but the water was much colder than Stephanie had anticipated, despite my warnings, and we couldn’t complete the sequence – which would have entailed her being immersed in deeper water!

But it doesn’t matter, because some beautiful images were created, and Stephanie, despite the cold, managed to concentrate and pose, even, I think, looking positively sensual in between the temperature-induced screaming from being almost naked in the cold sea!!

Afterwards, much warm water was poured over her, much hot tea drunk, and many layers of clothing added.¬† I understand that in the meantime she has regained sensation in her limbs and has remembered that she does still have feet attached to the bottom of her legs…¬† I appreciate her tolerance, patience and courage in the face of the climactic conditions and thank her for posing this morning.

(More images can be seen here, and one or two are for sale on RedBubble.)

Some reflections on representation

In my day job I have rather reluctantly found myself teaching on a course entitled ‘Global Cinema and Visual Culture – Looking and Subjectivity’ – not my specialist field at all, though I find some of the issues extremely interesting.

The first session I took was based on an essay by Homi Bhabha, which appeared at first to be saying interesting things about stereotypes and imagery, but on more thorough reading, was mostly vacuous waffle (an extremely generous statement!  I have found certain older texts by Bhabha interesting and useful, but this essay is certainly not in that category).

Thankfully, the second and third sessions are proving to be much more stimulating, and involve more substantive theoretical texts.¬† The themes are broadly centred on gender, sexuality and race, and are welcome new approaches to this subject material for me (Jackie Stacey and Jane Gaines being the main authors involved).¬† In this context, I’m also ‘teaching’ three films: All About Eve, Desperately Seeking Susan and Mahogany (a first for me, since I’ve never taught film, and actually agree entirely with Stephanie, my 2009 muse (see below!) and brilliant film-scholar friend who derides many academics’ desire to ‘teach’ film just because they enjoy watching films – my excuse is that I had no choice in the matter!).

What this long-winded introduction is leading to is a comment about how interesting I have found it to compare and think about issues relating to films/movies and the way in which these are represented, and the connection to photography and the way in which it is represented – it reminds me of a recent discussion I have been part of.¬† I sell my art through RedBubble, which is also an artistic ‘community’ – artists can comment on each other’s work, and there are diverse interest groups.¬† I recently joined a new group, called ‘Religious Architecture’.¬† A common pattern for many groups is to have little symbols (called avatars on RB) to mark when an image has been ‘featured’ each week.¬† This new group created a challenge to decide on a new avatar for this purpose.¬† Now I am no good at creating this kind of icon/avatar, and know it. But all of the entries in the competition bar one were of Christian churches – at the time I wasn’t sure what this last image was.¬† So I raised this as a concern, and questions of representation and interpretation ensued in a way I had not expected.¬† You can read the full forum discussion here.

What amazed me was the unreflective nature of so many of the comments.  Understandings that for me are part of the norm Рthat everything is political, that all images have an ideological context etc. Рand that are with me almost every time I squeeze a shutter, appeared to be completely absent for most of the other correspondents, as exemplified in comments such as:

  • ‘This is a simple group of artists.’
  • ‘I am here to show my art, not to get into a religious argument because I might offend someone because I am a white protestant.’ and later: ‘You should realise that Redbubble is an ART site, and not a platform for dismissing other peoples cultures, religions, and beliefs.’ (not, of course, that I was doing the latter – quite the contrary!¬† It is worth looking at some of the symbolism on this person’s RedBubble home page for more clues about his attitude to such issues…)
  • ‘I don‚Äôt think most of us are thinking that deeply on the subject…’
  • and so on.

In the context of this short exchange, I was amazed that several very naive views on the place of art in society emerged: the idea that art can exist in an ahistorical and apolitical context is surely not that widespread, or am I just very out of touch with the vast majority of people?!¬† Even if not everyone would articulate it in this way: don’t people realise that all images are always linked to questions of gender, politics, identity, race etc., and are contingent upon historical circumstances?¬† For example, the image I had just submitted to this group was of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and there are clear political and religious elements to such a photograph, not least since the mosque itself and the vantage point I used to photograph it are in illegally occupied Palestinian territories held by Israel since 1967 in contravention of international law; Israel restricts Muslim access to worship, and forbids many Palestinian Muslims from exercising their right to pray there.¬† How can my image be properly appreciated for what it is without reflecting on the political and religious circumstances that surround it?

Stephanie in the garden

Stephanie in the garden

Or take this image of Stephanie from last summer, on which I have recently been carrying out some post-production work.¬† This photograph is undoubtedly about voyeurism, the male gaze and even quite overtly, sex… Stephanie’s closed eyes, her pursed lips, her naked shoulders, the tight necklace (actually a bracelet!), the playing with her hair, and her stretching are all elements in an explicitly sexualised pose, emphasised in various ways by the way in which the photograph has been taken and then processed.¬† These elements reflect a certain dynamic between the model and the photographer: there is undoubtedly a sexual tension here, and although this was obviously ‘just’ a photograph, there is an awareness of all the complications that result from such an approach.¬† You, the viewer, act as voyeur with me, her photographer, as Stephanie exposes more of herself than she might normally do – questions of responsibility, ownership, permission etc. arise (see also this posting).¬† I have been hesitant about making this image public for precisely these reasons, and have only done so after showing it to her.¬† Yes, she likes it, and yes, she is happy for it to be made public, but it is still a revealing image, one that communicates gender and sexual identity issues in a very overt way, as well as telling us something about the trust and openness in the relationship between photographer and model.¬† Awareness of and reflection upon such issues is something I take for granted, but clearly, if the sample of photographers commenting on this RedBubble page is anything to go by, I am in a minority.

And yet, the place of conscious reflection on imagery, whether in a film such as All About Eve or in still photographs such as the two I have mentioned here, is so vital to appreciating and comprehending what we think we see.  There is much that can be read into and derived from an understanding of the signifiers in an image, and to ignore this is not only to perpetuate ignorance, but also to deprive oneself of the further delights that an image is offering the viewer.  Sometimes this will jump out at you (as with the image of Stephanie Рpartial nudity, sex!), and sometimes it will require context and interpretation (as with the Mosque Рoccupied beauty).  Not only is such an understanding conducive to assisting in the appreciation of the image and the values it represents in the first place, but it also gives us insights into the photographer, her or his subject, the approach, the relationship between photographer and model, and so on.  And this, in turn, is about being aware of our own place in the world as conscious human beings.

I find it sad – and even rather frightening – that awareness of such issues does not seem to be important to some who engage with photography and artistic creation in a serious way.