Category Archives: ownership

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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Exciting news – book cover commission

I’ve had some very exciting news – the author of the book mentioned in my last posting likes my proposal and the image that I created, and it will therefore be on the cover of his new book.

A friend of mine, Simon Barrow, is involved in a publishing house, Shoving Leopard, and a new book by Kevin Scully is due out shortly (shortly being… a launch on 2. July!).¬† The book is called Imperfect Mirrors, and although I’ve not had the opportunity to read it, Simon has talked to me about it, and the advance blurb gives some indication of the book’s contents:

What can be brought to the liturgy by the disciplines of dramatic performance? How are the respective theatres of daily life and worship to be seen and experienced together? East End priest, playwright, actor, writer and broadcaster Kevin Scully is very well placed to tackle these issues. In this eagerly awaited forthcoming title from Shoving Leopard [he] does so with insight, humour, a sharp eye, and a well-crafted turn of phrase.

What the author wanted was something that represented the idea of an imperfect mirror as a way of thinking about how theatre might impact on the church.  Simon initially asked if I had an image he could use, but nothing really suitable came to mind: an image I sent him of a church reflected in a lake received a lukewarm reaction when sent on to the author.  So something else was needed.

For quite a while I’ve had an idea I wanted to play with questions of how we understand and interpret reality.¬† I imagined someone looking into a mirror, but whilst the pose would be identical (I had thought of applying make-up or brushing hair or similar) the mirror image would not be an exact reflection: from the back they would be naked/dressed in one way, but in the mirror they would be dressed/dressed in something completely different.¬† From this it was a short step to suggest to Simon and Kevin theatrical clothing of some kind for the image from the back, with a reflection of the same person in a clerical shirt in the mirror.¬† But what kind of theatrical clothing?¬† What would obviously communicate drama when all that was visible was the back?¬† The back of most clothing is often rather boring… The obvious solution was to think of something with representational detail on the back, so some kind of vintage dress with ribbon ties at the back seemed like a good option.¬† But aside from being potentially rather expensive, I thought a full dress might detract from the image in the mirror, and so I decided that a corset would be better: (a) it would leave naked skin visible above the fabric providing more of a contrast with the clerical shirt, (b) the ribbons would contrast with and provide shadows on the skin, and (c) the suggestion of sex that a corset makes would contrast nicely with the power of a clerical shirt to kill off any sensuality on the part of the wearer.¬† After visiting the wonderful Armstrong’s Vintage in Clerk Street I was the proud owner of two different vintage-style corsets.¬† The clerical shirt was even easier to procure as I’m married to a church minister!¬† My friend Fran Whitton, who quite a while ago said she would be happy to model for me (though we never quite managed to organise it), was happy to be drafted in at short notice, and with a little bit of help from my friend Photoshop, she makes for a perfect corset-wearing actor as well as a church minister (warm thanks to Mabel Forsyth who acted as my assistant, and to my wife for helping Fran with the clothes as well as assisting me):

Imperfect mirrors

Imperfect mirrors

Interestingly, after sending a first version of my image to Kevin Scully, he told me that he had suggested Ren√© Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite to Simon a while ago as the basis of a cover image – though Simon had completely forgotten to tell me about this.¬† Though I had come across it years ago, I had not consciously thought of it at all in my plans.

Of course, I’m delighted that my image is going to be used for a book, and I can’t wait for it to come out (and then read it!).¬† But one of the interesting issues for me here is the question of inspiration and ownership.¬† Whilst Magritte’s painting must have been buried somewhere in my subconscious memory, the idea for such a reflected image had been with me for a while. Kevin Scully’s book – even though I haven’t read it! – provided that last little prompt to come up with something a bit different.¬† I keep my browser’s internet history for a year, and on skimming through it there is nothing that looks like this.¬† But there are clearly multiple sources of inspiration in each image we create, and in this instance I am happy to acknowledge Ren√© Magritte’s painting, Kevin Scully’s book theme, and Simon Barrow’s blurb writing skills – and of course, Fran’s posing.¬† Whilst in western thought we have created an ideology of ‘intellectual property’ that means this photograph is my copyright, the inspiration and ‘intellectual ownership’ for almost everything we create surely belongs to a much wider circle of people.¬† A reflective little essay on inspirations is beginning to come together for release here.

P.S. I’m sure someone will add a comment with a link pointing to an image that does just the same kind of thing with distorting reality in a mirror… if you know of one, please do add it below! ūüôā

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.

 

Ownership and responsibility

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 Рthey 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.

Stephanie looking a little coy

Stephanie looking a little coy

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.

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

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!).

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

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!