Human Choices

Berger once said “a large part of seeing depends on habit and convention” This was especially true in the days before photography when the visual art form was channelled through the medium of a painting, or sculpture.

The artist’s ability to recreate a scene and display that to an audience was celebrated as a way of conveying stories visually. Such stories heralded from all over the globe and throughout the reaches of time. Art in its true sense was often thought of as the honest witness to world events and individual stories through millennia. Driven largely by religion and power.

But until the invention of photography, such creative ability was very much fixed in whichever context it was being displayed, enjoyed by a limited audience and subject to a fixed compositional view of the artist. Oil on canvas is just that, its inherent chemical makeup forming an image which is rigid in both physical and often metaphorical ways.

Berger describes this as a ‘perspective’, where the human eye is at the centre and the appearances of art (especially European pre and post-modernistic genre) travel to the eye in a directed and uniform way. The argument is such art can only be in one space at any one time – i.e. you go to see a painting on the wall – and the human eye can only see this art in such space and in no other. Therefore art, no matter how emotive, was seen as static, enslaved to a singular physical existence. Its spiritual narrative took away by the viewer, where it evolved within the imagination.

That was the contextual approach to visual imagery until the first photographic image was taken in 1826, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was at this moment that art changed forever.

The camera, within all its capabilities, can now reproduce art and such reproduction can be available anywhere at any time. No longer bound by physical confines of space, the image we now take for granted has become ethereal. The chains of perspective now removed.

Art now travels to you, where ever and whenever you want.

Berger’s views on this resonate very well with my own photographic practice and this (along with others) form the foundation to my creative work.

Throughout his BAFTA award-winning, BBC series – Ways of Seeing from 1972, Berger revolutionized the way that Western art is understood. Arguing that art – especially fine art – can be seen as property, such property that human nature seeks to own and profit from.

Berger argues that the illusion of protection such ownership provided gave a secure feeling to those few who owned such works (and still does today). This ideology leaves the many to see such art as ‘beyond their reach’ – both physically, metaphorically and intellectually.

Berger also argues that photography, on the other hand, is, at its most simple, a record of things seen. Reproducible into unlimited numbers and distributed anywhere across the globe at any time.

Photography, therefore, could be described as ‘the people’s art’.

But the question I have asked myself repeatedly over time is .. am I an artist or a photographer?…..Is photography art, or something else? Am I indeed following the great fine artists of the past, or am I cutting a new path through the creative jungle?

I am often struck by Dziga Vertov, who approaches cinema as an art form and shunned traditional or Western narrative in favour of images from real life. He wrote:

“I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only the machine can see it. I am now free of human immobility. I am in perpetual motion. I approach things, I move away from them. I slip under them, into them. I move toward the muzzle of a racehorse. I move quickly through crowds, I advance ahead of the soldiers in an assault, I take off with aeroplanes, I fall on my back and get up at the same time that the body falls and gets up. This is what I am, a machine that runs in chaotic manoeuvres, recording movements one after the other, assembling them in a patchwork. Freed from the constraints of time and space, I organize each point of the universe as I wish. My route is that of a new conception of the world. I can make you discover the world you did not know existed.” – Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye Manifesto (1923)

Like Vertov in the mid-1920s, I have grown bored of the mainstream commercial approach photography now seems to have adopted. The drive by many to produce technically excellent images, before they deem it ‘photography’ – in my view, often loses the very essence of the practice.

This direction, to me, is on the same path as the great fine artists of history. Their progression within fine art was very much fixed on the production of technical perfection and static composition of an image. One that had to be credited in all senses before it was deemed fine art. Although admittedly this was often after the death of the artist.

Whilst I don’t deny that such photographic methods have their place and often give very visually stunning pieces, I do feel that this path is not for me.

Like Berger says,

“A photograph is effective when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as about what is present in it.” – John Berger Understanding a Photograph – 2013.

This ability for the image to speak is something that holds great power in the context of my own practice, as it was also the mantra of my grandad. During his film career, he worked with the British director Lindsay Anderson. Both men started out on their film journeys together.

In 1948 they made Meet the Pioneers, a documentary on the production of conveyor belts as well as their usage. My grandad pioneered documentary filming methods that are still in use today. I grew up listing to his stories and learning how powerful a single image can be.

Anderson went on to become one of the most credited British film directors of his time. In the 1950’s he and others developed the Free Cinema movement with its mantra:

  • No film can be too personal.
  • The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
  • Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.
  • An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude

(Dupin, 2019)

For me, this mantra summarises my photographic practice and also my filming one. As a photographer and filmmaker, I see myself very much as a storyteller.

My journey through my MA has now opened the door for me to understand this and realise that this is who I am in terms of my contextual and photographic practice.

I am not a fine artist – I am not a mainstream photographer – I am simply a storyteller.

Like Berger, photographs for me are a recording of what I see, be it objects, humanistic activity, natural behaviours or events. My choice to take a photograph is governed, not by intent for technical perfection or compositional integrity, but by a will to tell a story of that given moment. It’s up to the audience to decide if such an image speaks.

Within my own practice, my journey has been an interesting one. Taking images since I was old enough to hold a camera, I wanted to capture moments that stayed with the viewer. For example:

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Fig 1 

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Fig 2 

I see both of these images as representing my documentary practice. They were shot in a split second timeframe and there would have been no way to recreate this as if working in a studio.

For me, the quick un-fussy reactive nature of these images gives them a greater impact than had I spent time looking for perfection. They also represent what I was seeing at that moment and convey an honest reproduction.

Other examples of ‘when it worked’ include:

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Fig 3

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Fig 4

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Fig 5

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Fig 6

All of the above were taken during the last module.

The above images to me, all convey a sense of achievement. I am generally pleased with them and my MA is only succeeding to push my practice higher.

The issue with these images is that they could be pushed much much further. The image of the leaf, for example, is my take on autumn, but this could be evolved to be a more detailed narrative on the seasonal changes.

In terms of my MA, my practice focuses on telling the story of my local river. My aim is to do this in a way that speaks to the viewer of worlds within worlds that you often don’t get to see.

Influences for this work include:

The work of Chrystel Lebas and pinhole cameras. These have led to some very effective images that portray movement and the passing of light and time. I do need to further the metaphorical and contextual approach to my practice and I find such works, exampled below, as helping me with this direction.

Moving Landscape 3

Fig 7 

The pinhole camera is a very good witness to the passage of timeHowever, it can be argued that the process of placing the camera and waiting for results goes against my practice of reactive documenting. Or counter-argued that the random nature of placing such a camera and the inability to see the actual viewfinder fits with my ‘devil may care’ attitude to composition.

To this extent, the work and story of Vivian Maier intrigue me greatly. An accomplished photographer, her work – estimated to have included some 150,000 negatives had gone unknown and unnoticed for her lifetime. It was only in 2008 and by chance that some of her work was rediscovered and published. Maier’s work finally gained recognition in 2009 (the year of her death) when some of the images were posted to Flicker.

Maier excelled in capturing fleeting images of people going about their daily lives. Often without their knowledge. Her images speak of such moments, leaving us with scenes that compel us.

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Fig 8 

For me, the fact that Maier and indeed many other photographers go unnoticed and unrecognised is itself recognition that the industry can and often is fickle. Often success and failure are almost indistinguishable.  Recognition is often achieved through luck or the right connections, rather than artistic flair.

That said, Maier was a storyteller for the love of being a storyteller, A silent witness to a world that was rapidly changing. Had it been the success she was seeking, we may not have ended up with such a treasure trove of works as we do today.

Filming wise, my influences are as wide as within photography. My aim is to explore film and its applications on the river for this new module through the creation of living photographs.

This could be a very viable way to further my practice and the story of the river. My last module submission included a film, this is a good example of my narrative:

No music or audio is used as I believe this is something the viewer can generate on their own.

One big influence for my practice is Bill Viola. He has produced a range of living artworks involving film as the main medium. One such pice is The Raft by Bill Viola

I see film as a medium to further the metaphorical approach to my practice. The river is moving, as is all life on, within and under. This, in turn, has an influence on the creation of moving imagery to further enhance my work.

My plans for further development within the PHO702 module include:

  • exploring more effective ways of telling the story of the River Otter with the worlds within worlds context
  • further improving my academic and research abilities and making more effective links and discussions with influencing practitioners
  • further exploring how film and the moving image can be used to enhance this project
  • capturing winter into spring as a theme for my work in progress portfolio
  • gaining clarity as to my direction for my FMP

 

References

Images used:

  • Fig 1 – Jones, R. (2018). Stonehenge 2018. [Photograph].
  • Fig 2 – Jones, R. (2017). Snowdon Summit. [Photograph].
  • Fig 3 – Jones, R. (2018). Dragonfly. [Photograph].
  • Fig 4 – Jones, R. (2018). Autumn leaf. [Photograph].
  • Fig 5 – Jones, R. (2018). Underwater. [Photograph].
  • Fig 6 – Jones, R. (2018). Wolf in summer sun. [Photograph].
  • Fig 7 -Lebas, C. (1999). Moving Landscapes – The Alps 5 – 1999. [Photograph]                http://www.chrystellebas.com/Moving%20Landscape/moving%20landscape.htm.
  • Fig 8 – Maier, V. (1954). Street 3. [Photograph] New York, NY: http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-3/#slide-12.