I have made some new photographs. The first is available to see now, and others will be added in the coming days; clicking the image below will take you to the right page (I’ll probably post them on social media as they are added to the page). Those who know me well might be surprised at the subject material – nudes – but I trust that it is possible to read beyond the imagery to something more meaningful than “just the image” and in that sense, I will be posting the various photographs (I think there might be 5 or 6) without further comment apart from giving them a title. The images speak to me, and really do need to speak for themselves to others; if they don’t do that for you, please just pass on by…
What this is not: a theory-laden exploration of self-identity. Or, at least, not much of it is.
What this is: quite long! 🙂
I have been following various recent discussions on Twitter about creativity between some very different photographers. Seeing the ways in which people have interacted and some of the statements that have been made has been thought-provoking (and at times rather irritating!). The debate initially came about because of another posting from Rob: A poem on a misty morning. One of the people in these debates, Rob Hudson, eventually felt so misunderstood that he sought to articulate his thoughts in a blog posting (helpfully entitled My views on landscape photography – “it does what it says on the tin”, and is worth reading). In the course of all this, he also posted this tweet:
Rob Hudson (@RobHudsonPhoto) November 15, 2012
Do read the article at that link, if you haven’t read it already; it is a well-written and thoughtful piece. To begin with, however, I want to take issue with Rob’s tweet, because I think it can help elaborate on some important issues. I am aware that tweets are often written in haste, and given the 140-character limit maybe not always be formulated in a way that might more accurately reflect the author’s views, but this does give me an opening to reflect on my theme. But first, a story from a different context.
Aspirations and realities
Several years ago, I was in a large meeting of Members of the Iona Community, debating some statement about the Community’s purpose. I have been a Member for many years now, and these lovely people are my friends, in some senses I even regard them as my family. And as with all families, there are some crazy people. Sometimes, the crazies get a bit full of themselves, and I vividly remember several people standing up and in the heat of the debate arguing that we should be describing ourselves as a ‘prophetic community’. Eventually, Kathy Galloway, poet, seanchaidh, theologian and all-round wise woman, stood up and said:
Prophecy is in the ear of the hearer, not the mouth of the speaker.
She then sat down, and the room fell into complete silence for a moment. More sensible discussion then ensued – with that one line, she had silenced the pomposity of the lovable crazies and clarified the terms of the debate.
I think we need to think about creativity in a similar way. I’m not sure we can aim to be creative, instead I think we should aim to be true – true to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves. I’ve written about similar themes before, in less explicit fashion and in other contexts (for example, here and quite a while ago now, here). I think one of the key issues is the importance of reflecting, of thinking, and not just of ‘shooting’, as another wonderful contemporary photographer, Christopher King, expressed it on Twitter a little while ago:
Sony Camera tagline:"Dont think, Shoot!". NO "Dont shoot, THINK" I hate the use of the word shoot with cameras: ad-man, macho bullshit—
Christopher King (@thischrisking) August 31, 2012
One of the issues that arises here is, of course, knowing what and how to think! Working that out can only happen over time, and by doing: I am very aware that I am on a journey with my photography, a journey that has taken me from seeking to make pretty images such as this landscape in Torridon, to images that ‘do’ more, at least for me. This is something that I continually struggle with. It has to do not only with how I understand what that ‘more’ is, but with how I might go about achieving it.
There are, I think, two aspects to this. The first is very simple: learn technical skills. This is rather boring: it is something that happens through making images and learning from what has worked and what has not, learning from other photographers about how they created certain effects and so on. All this is, of course, important to some degree, but it is mostly a bit tedious and I don’t want to waste time on it here.
The second aspect is more complex: if I say ‘we should aim to be true – true to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves’ then the obvious question to ask is ‘what is true to my subject, true to my intention, true to myself’? These are all related and inter-dependent, and I want to elaborate on each of them briefly.
Being true to my subject
One of the prompts for the recent Twitter debate on creativity was the recent debacle over the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. I disapprove of such competitions and don’t want to discuss this story in any detail, but in short: the winning image was withdrawn and replaced with another after it became clear it had been manipulated in such a way as to break the rules, which specified minimal manipulation of the image. Whilst there are complex questions around what such representations mean (and I think Jean Baudrillard would have had much to say on this story!), one interpretation of the story is that the photographer had not been ‘true’ to his subject. Some people might say that landscapes can be more difficult than portraits in this regard: Stephanie told me that she likes this portrait, and, as I note on the page that this comes from, she has used a version of this image herself – so it might at first seem as if I am being true to the subject, if even the subject likes it.
However, being true to a subject does not necessarily mean that the subject likes the end result or that something should ‘look like’ whatever was in front of the camera. This next image, from my What Lies Beneath series, did not ‘look like’ this, because we do not see moving water in the way I have photographed it here – and yet I would maintain that it is still a true representation.
Some photographers, such as the wonderful Lucy Telford, create images that sometimes bear only a passing resemblance to what something ‘looks like’. And yet I would argue that Lucy is being completely true to her subjects.
So how do we know when we are being true to our subject? I think it is not enough if someone says they like it and feel it is a good representation, and in some cases, that might even be counterproductive: I have made portraits of people that they do not necessarily like (I’m sure we’ve all had subjects say ‘I look too fat/tired/pale/silly/worried in that photograph’!), but which I think accurately reflects who they are in some way. I therefore think I am being true to my subject. And this takes me to the next point: the photographer’s intention plays a key role in whether a photograph is true to the subject.
Being true to my intention
Some photographs (actually, quite a few in my case!) don’t work out, and at the moment I can only be rather vague about how this relates to being true to my intention: perhaps this is about honing intuition.
Sometimes an image appears to be technically in order, and I might even feel it to be true to my subject – but it doesn’t actually do what I want it to do. After releasing my What Lies Beneath series, I also put some images online that didn’t quite make it into the series. This is an example of the rejects. I was reasonably happy with these images, but none of them belonged in the final set. The reasons varied. Apart from the fourth image, which predated (by a matter of hours!) the beginning of the series in my head, all the others just didn’t evoke the right emotional reaction for me. It is very difficult for me to articulate precisely what that is, and I’m not going to try and do it here. I spent a long time with each image, studying it, letting it work its way into my head, seeking to ‘befriend’ it – a difficult selection process. But some photographs just were not right – they didn’t seem to be sufficiently engaging or they didn’t have the emotional connection I was trying to seek out. Whilst I feel I can’t say much more about this, it does point to the third aspect, because part of what I’m saying is that being true to my intentions involves being self-aware enough to be true to myself.
Being true to myself
I have explained before why I think this photograph does not work. The fundamental problem is that what we wanted was to communicate a feeling of loss and abandonment, and what I have created is an image that emphasises Stephanie’s breast. But I didn’t want this to be about her breasts (and neither did she!), and being true to myself means not using this image (other than to illustrate a point, I mean – it’s not in my galleries or for sale; I feel I want to add that this photograph comes from 2009, and I hope that I would approach it differently now, taking in the entire frame rather than focussing on her facial expression before squeezing the shutter).
Being true to myself means that what I really want to create in every single image is something that is of me – and photographs that focus just on a woman’s breasts are not what I want to create. Portraits of people are in some ways also self-portraits (as Oscar Wilde and numerous others have said), but so are the landscapes I photograph. Therefore, whilst the monochrome portrait of Stephanie above communicates something of her joyful approach to life, it also communicates something about me (despite the faux-grumpiness I often exude, I am mostly optimistic and take great pleasure from being alive!); the landscapes I photograph are meant to do that too. This may not always be obvious to others, but – and I’ll come to this in a moment – I don’t really care what most others think about my images.
For example, this image from Dornoch Sands communicates something about my state of mind and thinking at the time I made it. It may be that this is a bland blue nothingness to most people who see it, but to me it conveys something very important. There are various factors at work here: the expansive depth of the sands, the sky and the clouds, the distant hills, the magical dawn light – all speak of home to me, though I had never been to Dornoch and the surrounding area before, and had spent just a few hours on this beach. Nonetheless, there was something inviting, welcoming and generous about what I was encountering, and that is what I have sought to capture here. Whether I have done that for anyone else doesn’t really interest me.
Having said that I often exude a faux-grumpiness, it may seem as if there is nothing ‘faux’ about it! I’ve said I don’t care what most people think of my images, I am not interested in whether they generate emotions for others… surely that makes me a grumpy misanthrope?! Far from it…
The question of identity
Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the truly great philosophers of our age, has written a profoundly important book on The Ethics of Identity. He discusses the need for us in the contemporary world to pursue what he calls ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’. This, he argues, is a way of engaging in the world that allows the individual to make a life for themselves (the classical task of modern individuality), but he connects this individuality to the global context we are in and the ways in which we relate to others. We need to understand our own place in the world in order to be able to engage with it. What and who we love needs to be clear to us, because without that we cannot relate to others: ‘no island… is an island’ (p219).
What I want to glean from this relates to the first part of my statement: ‘we should aim to be true – true to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves’. I have explored, briefly, three aspects that I suggest constitute being ‘true’. As should be clear, these are all aspects of our identity, and identity can be formed in numerous ways, for example:
- ascription – to attribute an identity to someone (e.g. ‘you are… [something]’ – clearly, this is often problematic because it silences the voices of others and casts a singular identity upon them, something that Amartya Sen criticises)
- treatment – to act as if someone belongs to a particular group (e.g. ‘women are… [something]’ – but this silences a collective group that may not choose to mark any common identity in this way at all – for example, in certain contexts, being women might not be important to the people concerned, whereas being photographers, for example, might be more so)
- identification – when someone uses particular markers to identify themselves (e.g. ‘I am… [something]’ – this allows individuals to speak for themselves).
We all, of course, aspire to the third of these possibilities – who would not want to be in a position to define themselves, rather than be defined in some way by others?
And yet, this is not easy!
Above all, it requires self-knowledge, self-understanding, self-awareness. We need to know what our roots are before we can engage with the cosmopolitanism of wider (photographic) society, and that means we need to know what we want, what we are trying to achieve, and how we might go about portraying this in photographs. Most of this activity is not about thinking, it is about feeling, about emotion. This happens by listening: to ourselves and to the landscape, for example – it is always possible to force a composition when out somewhere, but to engage with the landscape, to really begin to understand it, requires more. Michael Jackson, who photographs just one beach, is an exemplar of someone who listens to the landscape and himself – and his images convey profound personal emotion.
In the course of the Twitter debates, I have seen the term ‘workshop photographers’, meaning those who go on workshops and produce images similar to those of the workshop leader. Now, I have been on two Bruce Percy workshops and have benefited from them enormously, but his images are not mine. I do not want that photographic identity to be ascribed to me (‘oh, look, you can tell he went on one of Bruce’s workshops’), nor do I want to be treated as someone who makes images in a ‘Bruce Percy style’ (not that I could or would, and Bruce wouldn’t want it either!).
Instead, I want to make my own images that are rooted in my own experience, that come from my own listening to the hills, my own engagement with my subject, my own conversation with the individual I am photographing, my own understanding of my place in the wider cosmopolitanism of the world. My photographs should be about my voice. I need to know what it is that I am wanting to express with my images – and my sense is that I am gradually getting there, gradually finding my own way to express my thoughts in my photographs. Getting there requires a certain level of stubbornness (something I do not lack…!) and the ability to persist with something, even when others have no idea what I’m trying to do.
I have found that there are many people who would look at an image such as this from Tolastadh Chaolais and ask why I pointed the camera downwards instead of seeking to capture the fantastic hilly vista cliché visible from the road. Part of the process of finding my own voice has been to differentiate between (a) the people who say that, and (b) those who ask what it is that I am trying to do, or find something for themselves in the image. That is what I meant by not caring what other people think – if I pander to the beautiful hilly vista people and produce clichés, then I miss the stones and grasses under the water that actually speak to me, if I take the time to listen. Being true to my subject, my intention, myself is what creates my identity, and enables me to be rooted in a wider – cosmopolitan – context, and this identity-construction is, of course, an on-going process. I’m not, in the words of Rob’s tweet, trying to be creative, I’m just trying to be… me.
Two final thoughts
Firstly: doing all this is about being whole people. Photography is not my ‘hobby’, in the sense that it’s something I do in my spare time for pleasure (I’m reminded of the Edinburgh-based artist, Trevor Jones: ‘Whoever says painting is relaxing isn’t doing it right’). It’s an integral part of who I am, as is my academic work, and my engagement in contemporary Middle East issues – and all of it needs expression. That is one of the things I was trying to communicate in my What Lies Beneath series, and it is also why it grates and irritates me that a student resource page I used to have on this site had to be moved due to administrative managerialism (see e.g. Richard Roberts’ article on this, summarised in a short blog posting here) in case students – who are not as stupid as the university’s managers seem to think they are – thought the university was endorsing my photography. All of these things are part of me, and I seek to live out my identity in my academic work, my writing, and my photography.
Secondly: all of this requires effort, and in some ways, courage. Many of us are conditioned away from listening to ourselves (‘scientific medicine’ has often led us to ignore our bodies and seek a ‘fix’ for ailments, for example). It is, of course, immensely rewarding to do so, but the effort is a strange one. Much of the time I find the effort is about the need to stop trying to constantly do – it is about being still and listening to the inner voice we all have. Letting that voice come to the fore is a risky business. We may find things out about ourselves that we would rather not know, or rather not share, and doing so can involve courage. We are, after all, exposing something of ourselves to others, and that makes us vulnerable – it’s like becoming naked. On the other hand, it is only through allowing ourselves to be touched at our core that we can truly be who we ought to be.
Finally, one last thought from Christopher:
Don't worry about whether the audience will like your work, or even understand it. I many ways work is more interesting when misunderstood.—
Christopher King (@thischrisking) November 18, 2012
Warm thanks to Rob Hudson for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this text.
I want to return to some issues relating to responsibility in portraiture that I have touched on briefly before (for example, here and here). In particular, I want to offer some reflections on the photographic portrayal of nudity, or semi-nudity. This posting is to be read as an expression of impatience with what I see as the self-deceit and hypocrisy of many practitioners of what is often called ‘art nude’ photography. I’ll steer clear of explicit discussions of critical theory… but it’s there if you’re looking for it! 🙂
Let me ask to begin with: what do these two images bring to mind?
The first is a photograph I am extremely attached to, for reasons that are very personal: it does what I want it to do, and the model is a good friend who is largely responsible for making me realise that I enjoy creating portraits, and that these can even be rather good. I think of her as my portrait muse (that’s a topic for another day!). It’s not a perfect image by any means, as I have acknowledged in my description, but it is special to me. The second image is part of a slightly mad photoshoot: as I described here, this woman is a professional model who wanted a ‘different’ kind of snow shoot for her modelling portfolio, and all the images from that day are… well, ‘different’ snow images.
Neither, of course, are completely ‘normal’ photographs: both models are revealing more of their naked skin than they might normally do in these settings. The lilac dress doesn’t fall away quite as much in other photographs from this shoot that I’ve published, and the other snow images include a couple more bikini shots, but are mostly of the model wearing dresses (albeit light summer dresses in order to contrast with the snow). However, it would be very naive to suggest that these images do not also involve a sexual element – especially because of the poses and the fact that both women are revealing more of their breasts than we might expect – and in both cases that’s part of the intention behind the images.
Increasingly, it seems to me, women’s breasts are seen solely as sexual symbols (and capitalism exploits this to great effect – think back to the Wonderbra advertisements with Eva Herzigova, and many similar advertising campaigns). This frequently goes to extreme lengths: breasts are abstracted from the rest of the body to the point where they are all that matters (and the taste/level of violence employed in the endless terms used to describe breasts goes rapidly downhill from the almost-endearing language of ‘boobs’). They become fetishised objects in and of themselves: so-called ‘lad’s magazines’ (like Zoo and Nuts) feature endless photographs of naked breasts, often without the women’s faces or the rest of their bodies (interestingly, these magazines are regularly left on the train I take to and from work, so their viewers – I really cannot bring myself to call them readers – presumably don’t want to be seen with their purchases when they reach their destination). Breasts, big breasts, are what men want – apparently – and photographs of such breasts are meant to link directly to thoughts of sex (though in general I suspect they just lead to lonely acts of masturbation). The women the breasts belong to are often only valued in terms of their (abstracted) breasts. This is simply pornography – depictions designed to arouse and elicit a sexualised response. Although I’m happy to debate the artistic merits of almost any human creation until the wee small hours, I do not see such depictions as art in any helpful or meaningful sense.
However, abstraction doesn’t need to be as dramatically obvious or deliberate as the pornography I’ve just mentioned. Although the first image at the beginning of this post reveals more of the model’s breasts than might be expected, I think it does work, whereas this second image of her does not (which is why I have not published it before). She wanted to create an image that communicated feelings of loss and abandonment: she described it in terms of being deserted at a party. The high heels she is holding, the partially-visible but unopened bottle of champagne, the downcast look – all were meant to be a part of this, along with appropriate post-processing (that I have not carried out). But her dress did not co-operate: it fell away from her breasts too easily, and her pose, leaning to her right, means the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to what happens to be at the very centre of the image: her almost-completely naked breast that her left arm, reaching across her lap to hold her shoes, is inadvertently pushing out of the dress and towards the camera. With the almost-naked breast the (unintended) central feature of the image, all the other elements become secondary, and so the image as a whole just doesn’t work for either of us. It’s not that the model is ‘too naked’ or ‘too sexy’, it’s that the way the nakedness is created defeats the original intention of the image, creating an abstraction of her breast that then detracts from all the other elements of the photograph. I don’t want to create abstractions of breasts like that: after several attempts, we knew at the time of shooting that this idea would require her to be wearing a different dress. Neither of us wanted to create an image designed solely to offer titillation.
Of course, there are whole genres of photography that deliberately reveal much more naked skin. The term ‘art nude’ is often used in this context. I am deeply sceptical of much of this genre. It is surely no coincidence that an awful lot of ‘art nude’ photography involves older men photographing pretty young women, and no matter how technically accomplished the photography is, much of what pretends to be ‘art nude’ is simply stylish pornography: the focus on particular body parts seems designed to titillate more than anything else. This is very noticeable on photo-sharing sites, where comments regularly descend into raucous objectification of the models’ bodies or parts of their bodies. Such images are everywhere: a cursory look at the constantly-updated ‘popular’ collection of images on 500px.com will easily demonstrate this (I am a member of this photo-sharing site): it is a rare day indeed when the first page or two of ‘popular’ images do not include breasts, often cropped in such a way as to exclude the model’s face. This phenomenon is also observable in some ‘analogue process’ contexts: images of naked women made using Victorian wet-plate methods can be just as abstracting as ones made using a top-of-the-range digital Nikon (as an aside, it seems to me as an outsider to this field that much of this ‘vintage photography’ is really rather tedious, consisting of repetitive motifs displaying little artistic imagination or compositional ability, and though there is a great delight in the method, the process of achieving an image in and of itself does not give the end result artistic merit; nudes photographed with antique cameras still need to communicate more than just the abstraction of a breast etc.). I don’t see any point in linking to more examples, but I would nonetheless maintain that much ‘art nude’ photography is simply stylish (stylised?) pornography – a form of imagery whose primary function for the photographer or the viewer is to elicit a sexualised response.
Of course, there are notable exceptions. In some ways, photographs of men can subvert such understandings of the ‘art nude’: these (from Redbubble, another photo-sharing site I use) play too much into the über-masculine virile alpha-male understanding of masculinity for my liking (though note that when shown, the penis is flaccid rather than erect). However, the photographer also includes nude images of herself in her portfolio, and so I presume these photographs do speak to her, at least (interestingly, she doesn’t include identifiable faces in these images, but her photographs don’t focus simply on breasts or genitalia). More interesting to me are attempts to subvert classical images of masculinity, as Alex Boyd has tried to do in his fourth image here, for example (I have tried similar images, also using myself as a model, but I wasn’t happy with them; perhaps I should revisit this theme). Another form of subversion is the inclusion of scars and visible disability: it seems to me that this photographer’s work (also on Redbubble) is pushing at the boundaries of art nude, but it intrigues me nonetheless – a woman, over 40, using herself as a model, including scars from her breast cancer surgery in her image-making. Of course she is still beautiful with the scars, but this kind of imagery confounds the heteronormative stereotypes of beauty and the traditional ‘art nude’ style of photography that I have described above.
I am not, of course, saying that images should never elicit a sexual response. It is when that is all they do that I think they descend into simply being pornography. What I want is for an image that elicits a sexual response to also do more than that. This is not necessarily difficult. For example, this image, that I created for a book cover about worship in churches, uses a corset to communicate something radically different to the clerical shirt that is depicted in the mirror. The corset communicates something about sex and intimacy and perhaps does so even more obviously from the back than it would do if we could see the model’s breasts and the cleavage created by the corset: her naked back and the elaborate ribbons are – I think – suggestive enough of an alternative milieu to the church’s clerical clothing (it has even been suggested that she looks like a ‘working girl’ – perhaps the term ‘sex worker’ was too much for that commentator – I was present when the model was told this, and she thought it was hilarious!). Here, a suggestion of sex is created through a combination of partial nakedness, and the contrast between the corset and the stuffiness of the church ‘uniform’.
If you’ve managed to read this far, you’re perhaps wondering if I have some kind of problem with nudity and sex. I don’t think I do, or at least, no more so than most. I see myself as having very broad and liberal understandings on these questions: nudity can be completely wonderful and liberating on many levels, as a physical, emotional and even intellectual expression of self. Sex can be exhilarating, intimate, varied, generous and completely appropriate in a multiplicity of contexts, and the source of great pleasure to those involved. So I am not criticising nudity and sex in photography as such, rather the frequent objectification of a stereotyped image of women’s bodies.
Such objectification is almost always also an abuse of power: abstraction of particular body parts such as breasts or genitalia denies the model’s personhood, their identity as a whole human being. If feminism has taught us anything, it is that power distorts relationships, and performing gender (to use Judith Butler’s language) with a clothed older man wielding a camera in front of a naked younger woman almost invariably leads to asymmetrical power relationships, especially when the focus is simply on certain body parts rather than the individual as a whole. I think photographers and viewers – especially men! – who think otherwise need to reassess their understandings of relationships, and think long and hard about the reasons for wanting to make or view such images.
Because of the pornographic nature of much of what is supposedly ‘art nude’, the exceptions can be dramatic when we encounter them: there are the examples I have given above, but I have also written before about the brilliant image by Richard Avedon of Nastassja Kinski naked with a serpent: ‘Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked…’. A friend of mine is in the process of making a series of female and male nude photographs that primarily communicate mystery and longing: very human emotions. And this is what photography should be about: I want it to elicit some kind of emotional response – and an erection doesn’t count as an emotional response! If a photograph only elicits titillation for either the photographer or the viewer, then we should call it what it is – pornography and not ‘art nude’. If it does more than this, then we can see it as moving into the realm of art.
A little bit of honesty here is all that’s needed.
Warm thanks to Alex Boyd, who read an early version of this text and offered feedback; I am, of course, entirely responsible for the end result.
As always, I welcome comments, but please do not include links to supposedly ‘good’ ‘art nude’ sites – I will not approve them. Thank you.
There are some images that I just know need to be monochrome, even before I squeeze the shutter – I think that is perhaps the case for many photographers. And if I have my film camera with me and it has black and white film in it, then I try to compose and visualise accordingly. But sometimes I create a colour image and then come to the editing stage and find I have an image which could be either, and it’s not clear to me which one is ‘better’. This is especially the case when I have a series of images, and I wonder if a monochrome development of one or two individual images might be good.
For example, this image of Ngoni is a case in point. I have a number of these images of her on the bridge in the snow (in her bikini, in a dress, and in a coat), and this one seemed quite strong when converted to monochrome, emphasising her dark naked skin against the white snow and white bikini, with the bridge playing a less significant role than it appears to in the colour version (of course, that’s also an editing question). I did eventually put the monochrome image on RedBubble for sale – and you can see a larger version of the image there – but I’m not wholly convinced this is the right one to have used. The tones (values) of light and darkness are what make or break a monochrome image… and I find I’m not completely sure if this is quite right when examined under these criteria (and you may think this is because it’s not a particularly strong image, despite what I think!). Of course, in the ‘old days’ a camera would have had either colour or black and white film in it, and composition and visualisation would have been guided accordingly, but in these digital days (even with scans of colour images from film), conversion to monochrome is always an easy possibility – and perhaps this makes life a little bit harder. Thoughts on all this in the comments section below are most welcome!
And, of course, these questions apply not only to portraits… they also arise when thinking about landscapes.
I’ve struggled with this before…!
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 – that everything is political, that all images have an ideological context etc. – and 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’t 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?
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 – partial nudity, sex!), and sometimes it will require context and interpretation (as with the Mosque – occupied 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.
Nikon introduced the first zoom lens before I was born, which was a 43-86mm lens – by all accounts an absolutely horrific piece of equipment. It was so unbelievably bad that it gave zoom lenses a bad name: I, for one, grew up with the idea that all zoom lenses were terrible, which they are not. Even by the time I was aware of zoom lenses (mid-late 1970s), things had actually moved on substantially, and there were many great zoom lenses available.
Ever since I began to take my photography more seriously, I have used zoom lenses, and I have mostly enjoyed using them. One of the latest ones, that I really like, is the 18-200mm, which is fantastic as an all-round lens, even though it produces slightly ‘saggy’ horizons when used wide. It is great for portraits as well as a good travel lens. But… but…
I also bought a prime last year, the gorgeous little 35mm, and it is so light and produces such beautiful images that it is a joy to have on my camera (it’s about equivalent to a 50mm on a full 35mm frame; the same as I have on my FM2). I find I use it more and more frequently. The aperture goes down to f1.8 to produce lovely blur in out-of-focus areas. I’ve also now invested in a 50mm f1.4, which for my D90 is about 75mm. This I expect to be great for portraits, especially with the wide aperture; on the basis of a few sample shots, I can already tell that it produces really creamy blur with naked skin. But I can also see that it will also be useful for certain kinds of landscapes.
There is something about the simplicity of using prime lenses that I find really attractive. Zoom lenses make me lazier, but with a prime, if I want to frame something in a particular way, I need to make myself get up and move to another location, to walk closer or further away, to think differently about how I approach a subject. It makes for a more interactive engagement with the environment I’m in and that – for me – is a very appealing aspect to photography. I tend to think that it’s not really about taking a photograph, but about making an image, and making requires much more personal engagement than taking!
At some point, you can therefore expect to read about the purchase of a wide prime too… (but unless I win the lottery that I don’t play, I expect this to be in the very distant future, given the high prices of these lenses!).
Susan Sontag, in her famous book ‘On Photography’, describes three forms of acquisition of a photograph, of which I want to discuss two here (the third perhaps another time):
…a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject. It is a part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.
Photography is acquisition in several forms. In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects. Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. (Penguin edition, 1971, 1974, 1977, pp155-6)
This makes for quite some responsibility. Of course, the idea that by taking a photograph of someone a little something of them is taken is one that many people are familiar with (Sontag discusses this on p158ff). Indeed, my understanding is that in (parts of?) medieval Europe, the eyes were thought to function almost as projectors – they sent out an image for the other person to see. So by looking, you were literally taking something of the person or object you were looking at.
Sontag points to this in a different way. Of course, a photograph can communicate emotion. These two images of Stephanie clearly communicate something about her – and however one evaluates the technical aspects of the photographs themselves, it is clear that she is communicating different emotions in each of these images. We have here two different elements of the same model, or in Sontag’s terms: two different ‘surrogate possession[s] of a cherished person or thing, … possession[s] which … [give] photographs some of the character of unique objects’. In looking at her, we take something unique and intimate of or from Stephanie, something that she has willingly shared with me, her photographer.
Her willingness to share that element of herself obviously demands respect and responsibility from me, but also from you, the viewer – whether you like the images or not, your viewing of them involves you partaking of Stephanie’s willingness to (metaphorically) ‘undress’ herself to some extent, to open part of herself up to be viewed (or consumed, as Sontag might say). And so your ‘surrogate possession of … [this] cherished person’ demands responsible viewing. Sometimes we say that someone – even if they are wearing clothes – becomes ‘naked’ for the camera, and being offered nakedness is something to be honoured; we might reflect on this most dramatically in contemplating sex, but of course it applies in other contexts too, ones that don’t necessarily involve the removal of clothing but the dismantling of barriers to a person’s inner life. Perhaps the best example of this is Richard Avedon’s famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe: she is more vulnerable, more undressed – and more beautiful! – in this photograph than in any nude centrefold she ever did (it goes – almost – without saying that nudity doesn’t necessarily represent vulnerability: earlier this summer Avedon’s ‘Nastassia Kinski and the Serpent’ sold at auction – I think Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked… of course, placing a serpent on a naked woman is far from unproblematic – but I’ll not go into that now!).
Whilst the idea of taking ownership is not necessarily widely acknowledged, I think some sense of responsibility towards photographic subjects often is. But Sontag picks up on more than this: ‘Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs.’ Interestingly, I think this applies as much to the making of photographs as to the photographs themselves. After all, every photographer is also a viewer – a consumer – of other people’s photographs. I read today that in western societies urban dwellers see approximately 3,000 (yes, three thousand) brand images or advertisements each day – we cannot but be influenced by other photographs! I took this particular photograph on Mull, on a jetty. Seeing these crates piled high on the jetty reminded me of other photographs (and even Rothko paintings!) I have seen that play with lines and colours – and that is how I ‘saw’ this image before photographing it. Essentially, my visualisation of the photograph I was going to take was in part my own experience of being at that spot at that time – but it was also connected to events that were part of others’ experience and which I had consumed. As Sontag says, there was a link to consumership: the experience of things I had not experienced, if you like.
So if ‘acquisition’ is an integral part of the photographic process, we need to deal with this responsibly. It seems fairly obvious how to do that with photographs of people, as discussed above. But what about the second aspect Sontag mentions? Perhaps I, or even photographers in general, need to be clearer about our debts to the creators of other images. Yes, our photographs are communicating something unique and different in a person or a landscape – after all, this particular moment in time has never been captured on film before and can never be captured again – but our photographs often also acknowledge the consumerist element of our membership of wider society. In taking a photograph, therefore, we are also dealing (usually subconsciously) with the thousands of images we see every day and that lend themselves to being re-imag(in)ed in a new setting – as happened with my crates at Fionnphort. That is also part of the artistic process.
PS On a more frivolous note, I can’t resist sharing this Lego version of the Nastassia Kinski image… quite brilliant!