‘Out of Focus’ Saatchi Gallery, OCA Study Visit on 14th July 2012
Part 2 : A twist of the kaleidoscope – making sense of that ‘bit of a mess of a show’
A reminder of the objectives of the study visit:-
Gain a personal perspective on the work of a wide range of photographers
Reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery
Network with other OCA students
Moving from ‘depression’ to reflection
I wrote in the previous post of coming away feeling depressed because my immediate response had been that nothing resonated with me. Reflecting now I think this was more to do with not allowing anything to resonate with me once I had had that reaction to the portraits in the first gallery. Something was stirring beneath though and it grew strength once I was back home, and more able to reflect and read further with more objectivity.
The Exhibition book was very helpful. Out of Focus : Saatchi Gallery (W.A. Ewing, 2012). It doesn’t have page numbers, an index or show the images in alphabetical order of photographer – so not easy to navigate. The texture of the paper nowhere near does justice to the works and it also had a strongly unpleasant smell for me as well which still lingers – hard to describe but reminiscent of strong paint. That apart, it is very useful as a reference point and Ewing’s Essay, The Focal Point was helpful in assisting me to make some sense of it all. One thing I didn’t learn was why these particular photographs were acquired by the Saatchi Gallery – personal taste of the Saatchi’s/curators/benefactors etc. (see below in relation to is photography art?)
In writing of contemporary photography Ewing reminds us that, “ …photography covers a much broader field than that what is found on museum or gallery walls” and acknowledging that, “… makes us more appreciative of the very special nature of that small niche called, rather awkwardly, ‘art photography’. He refers to the World of Photography and describes its Nations: Commercia, Documentaria, Amateuria, Artistica (a small continent on top of the world), a republic envied for its liberties and under threat from an influx of migrants from the land of Artcontemporanea. So far as Ewing is concerning this World, “amounts to a very dis-United Nations, which leads the young (!) image-maker to ask, “Am I a photographer, or am I an artist? Or am I both? Well, that’s a debate which seems to have been going on since the dawn of photography! I’m minded as well of The Bauhaus where photography was seen as a science rather than an art. Whilst not addressing the question as to whether or not photography can be considered art, Ewing goes on to give examples of ways in which image-makers describe themselves. Some photographers, like Hannah Starkey, describe themselves as just photographers. Others described themselves as using photography as a medium to express their art.
This leads Ewing to look for some common ground to find order in the chaos, and to propose looking at the ‘show’ through the lens of a kaleidoscope. He gives various shakes of the kaleidoscope which brings up patterns such as ‘The Body Politic’ – the human body (Katy Grannan fits into that one of course). Then there is ‘The Face’, “Landscape’ – now human depredations breakdown the sublime, and Mitch Epstein straddles both positions. Ewing then widens the aspect of ‘Landscape’ to ‘A Sense of Place’ which then extends to ‘Mind’ as a sense of place is a mental construct, and some artists ‘turn away from observing and recording the material world to a mental remaking of it”. The final shake of Ewing’s kaleidoscope brings up ‘Bonds’ – family/social order/disorder.
Overall, Ewing provides examples of the ways in which the various artists can move in, and out of and straddle classifications (for want of a better word). For example, Pinar Yolacan’s female portraits may be supposed to be about women but they are about our unacknowledged animal nature rather than about gender. This can be hard to grasp for someone who is struggling to understand contemporary photography and put it into some kind of order but at least it provides a classification which we can then debate, discuss and argue about. I think I’m beginning to understand how landscape as ‘sense of place’ slowly moves over into social documentary.
I’m currently reading a couple of other books which address the categorisation of photography, both of which sidestep the photography/art issue – so far as I’ve read anyway.
The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Charlotte Cotton, 2004) divides contemporary art photography into seven categories which are concerned with, “ ..the ideas that underpin contemporary art photography rather than style or choice of subject matter (p. 7, 2004). Cotton points out that conceptual art emphasized the fact that it was the act depicted in the photograph that was of artistic importance, not craft or authorship and this circumvented the need to create a ‘good’ picture. I suppose this is where they idea stems from that ‘anyone can be a photographer/we are all photographers’ now’ which I think damages the concept of photography as art and downgrades the skills of photographers.
Cotton’s categories are photography as a record of actual reality; constructed stories (a preconceived focus}; objective views of the world; intimate details of private lives; documentary and a repository of personal, social and cultural values.
- The degree to which focus has been preconceived by the photographer (p.8).
- Narrative distilled in a single image: similar to C18th and C19th Western figurative painting. Hannah Starkey’s photography is referred to here by Cotton. I also thought of Noemie Goudal and her man-made Cascade.
- Deadpan: neutral in the sense that the subject is paramount and, to feel their impact, clarity and large print size are needed. Normally I would think of photographers such as Thomas Struth here, but I also started to wonder about Katy Grannan’s portraits.
- The transformation of even the slightest subject into, “an imaginative trigger of great import”. I don’t recall anything here in the ‘Out of Focus’ Exhibition – maybe Anders Clausen’s Picture 35 .
- Human Intimacy : This seems missing in ‘Out of Focus’. The works of Elina Brotherus and J.H. Engstrom might hint of this but they are more about loneliness, self and vulnerability.
- Utilisation of the documentary capacity of photography “to present allegories of the consequences of political and human upheaval” or “to counter or aggravate our perception of the boundaries of documentary-led photographic conventions”. Michael Subotzky and Mitch Epstein’s work.
- Photographic practice that centres on and exploits our pre-existing knowledge of imagery. There were a lot of examples of this in the Exhibition in terms of photomontage etc but someone else who came to mind is Yumiko Utsu who I have referred to already. An old painting of a woman has had its head replaced by a pearly octopus. I thought it was cleverly done. An initial glance makes it look like a beautiful portrait until a closer look reveals the shock of the head. Ewing cites Utsu’s influences as being from the mad fantasies of Western artists and he writes also of octopuses having a long tradition of union with women. Actually, my mind started to wander upon older stories – the Gorgon with her writhing snake hair and the goddess Kali. I also thought of something more modern – Pirates of the Caribbean and Davy Jones.
Cotton points out that many of the photographers and works in the book can fit into other categories than those in which they appear and, “the pinpointing of one project from a photographer’s oeuvre belies the full range of his or her expressions”. I think this latter point is very important to remember when going to an Exhibition. I could be completely wrong concerning the categories in which I place some of the artists in ‘Out of Focus’. However, doing so has really helped me to increase my understanding and examine some of the idea which underlie the work.
I was going to go on to write about Geoff Dyer (The Ongoing Moment 2006) and his description of attempts to order photographic variety – going way back to Walker Evans and the FSA. However, as this book covers a much wider spectrum of photography than just ‘contemporary’, I’ve decided to leave it to another time.
What have I learned overall, so far?
I still have a tendency to take an immediate like/dislike to photographs and react like an ‘ordinary woman in the street’ rather than ‘a photographer’.
It’s easy to get quickly swamped with too many different images. I need to remember to allow the impact to sink in and then have another look with a more analytical eye.
There are many different ways to classify/categorise artistic work. If we use the same categories then, at least, this gives us a platform for discussion and debate.
The use of categories (whatever they might be), help us to make sense of what we see.
This Exhibition was more like a review of contemporary photographers than an in-depth look at the work of individuals. Another Gallery might well have shown a different selection.
Images on a monitor can look very different from in real life, on a wall, in a Gallery. I know this really but I keep forgetting and equates to ’be aware of my audience when I’m presenting my photographs’ and ‘pictures as I imagine them can also be different from their actuality’.
Questions for me to consider
- How do I argue whether or not photography is/can be Art?
- Is art a social construct? If we say that photography is art enough times then does it make it so and so that becomes a social construct too.
- Who decides whether a work is art or not? Interestingly, W. Ewing refers to sending in scouts, “… (first curators, then critics) to get the lay of the land….. As for the artists, they can’t wait around for that map: they have to forge ahead,” I looked up Ewing and found that he is a well known curator and writer on photography, I couldn’t discover whether or not he is an actual photographer. Charlotte Cotton is also a curator and Geoff Dyer is a writer.
- Leading on from the above why is it that those who are more observers of photographers/photography than practitioners are the arbiters of quality?
- Does giving yourself a different description as an artist lead you to create in a different way?
- If I want to tell stories with my photographs then do I describe myself as a narrative photographer or a photographic narrator? Does this give the ‘telling’ more prominence?
- Narrating goes with writing. Does this mean I have to be a skilled writer as well? Do I have to write anyway or can I just let the images tell the story for me. The cave artists didn’t write but they must have had a story in their heads when they made their paintings.
- Is an ‘insider’ view different from an ‘outsider’ view in terms of informing me more about a subject.
- Some people say that you should be able to read a photograph just by looking at it. Others say that you need to understand the intent of the photographer first before you can appreciate it. The issue there is that often the intent they mean is the one they think that the photographer intended (rather than that written or otherwise stated by the photographer) and then that becomes a matter for discussion and dispute. The meaning of a photograph then becomes the possession of the viewer. Does this change it in some way so that instead of one unique photograph there are thousands, like identical siblings scattered in a universal consciousness. Like Ewing’s photographic kaleidoscope.
5th August 2012
Cotton, C (2004), the Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.
Dyer, G (2005), The Ongoing Moment, Abacus, London
Ewing, W.A. 2012 The Focal Point, in Out of Focus : Photography, Saatchi Gallery, London