Bourdieu: Photography as an integrative, and alienating, device.

Reading Bourdieu is tough at the best of times, not just because of the (deliberate) obscurity of the language and conceptual density, but also the severity and sharpness of the sociological focus. In looking specifically at photography, Bourdieu and colleagues treat it as a set of arbitrary practices which contribute in some way, as do all other social and cultural practices, to the production and reproduction of social relations (through the creation and reinforcement of distinctions along lines of social class, gender, occupation, ethnicity, status and so on). Anyone with a commitment (professional, recreational, artistic, emotional) to photography is going to find this kind of sociological dissection pretty uncomfortable, which might, at least in part, explain why Bourdieu’s (1990: first published in French in 1965) book ‘Photography: A Middle-brow Art’ is so rarely cited in analytical writing on photography (the title hardly helps, of course). Barthes, without naming the work, distances his approach, and interests in photography, from that of Bourdieu in the following way:

‘Each time I would read something about Photography, I would think of some photograph I loved, and this made me furious. Myself, I saw only the referent, the desired object, the beloved body; but an importunate voice (the voice of knowledge, of scientia) then adjured me, in a severe tone: “Get back to Photography. What you are seeing here and what makes you suffer belongs to the category ‘Amateur Photographs,’ dealt with by a team of sociologists; nothing but the trace of a social protocol of integration, intended to reassert the Family, etc.” Yet I persisted; another, louder voice urged me to dismiss such sociological commentary; looking at certain photographs, I wanted to be a primitive, without culture. So I went on, not daring to reduce the world’s countless photographs, any more than to extend several of mine to Photography: in short, I found myself at an impasse and, so to speak, “scientifically” alone and disarmed’. (Barthes, 1981: 7)

Bourdieu’s extensive empirical investigation of the use of photography (including surveys and interviews relating to everyday, amateur, artistic and professional uses of photography), carried out in the 1960s, might seem dated (with the growth of digital technology, and particularly the pervasive the use of phones to make photographs and disseminate images through social media). Much is made of camera ownership, which now seems to have a very different social and cultural significance. This is not the place, or time, to delve deep into this work, but there are a couple of points raised by Bourdieu and colleagues (who include Luc Boltanski, brother of photographic artist, Christian Boltanski) that warrant some attention in relation to my own project and trajectory.

Fundamental to the work is the assertion that photographic practice is ‘an index and an instrument of integration’ (p.19). Bourdieu documents and dissects the use of photography within the family, including ceremonial uses and as part of the circuit of gifts in the form of images, for instance in weddings, in reinforcing a sense of collective life and an integrated family group. This places the ‘enthusiast’, the person with an intrinsic interest in photography, outside ‘normal’ practice. For Bourdieu, in their interest in photography per se (as an aesthetic and/or technical practice), these ‘devotees’ and ‘fanatics’ (p.44) break with the norms of family photography, and are thus more weakly integrated, or even alienated, from the family. It is both an expression and a reinforcement of weak integration; it is also, from the analysis of Bourdieu’s empirical data, clearly gendered (there is a much higher proportion of male enthusiasts). This is clearly worth revisiting, in the light of both changing technology and associated social practices, and a renewed interest in family photography as a form of artistic practice (see, for instance, Howarth and McLaren, 2016). My interest here, though, will be confined to the personal and biographic, stemming from reflection on an event from my childhood prompted by reading this work. As I have indicated previously (for instance, in my oral presentations) my emotional attachment to, and active engagement with, photography stems from my early work as a child model, and the time spent in and around photographic studios. My godfather, Ray Harwood, was one of two assistants who worked with Cecil Beaton, including the Coronation photographs in 1953.

Ray Harwood (right) and John Drysdale, reminisce about assisting Beaton. Times photographer, David Bebber

Whilst there is a clear class division between artist and technician, this work enabled Ray to go on to work for Conde Nast as a photographer and to set up his own studio. In domestically difficult circumstances, photography for me came to signify the possibility of another life, beyond the family (as did sport, cycling, music and academic achievement). With easy access to film, and using the family Kodak camera (and a kit which included a Diana plastic camera, which I bought with the proceeds from my paper-rounds), I started to take photographs at the age of 10 and learnt to process and print my own work. At the age of 11, a couple of years before my father, thankfully, left home, I part-exchanged the Kodak, without his knowledge, for a camera which allowed greater control of aperture, shutter speed and focus. I still have the camera (a Halina 35X, made in Hong Kong, a copy of the Japanese Ranger 35), though I have never deliberately held on to it or taken care of it, and have never thought (until now) about taking photographs with it. It sits of a shelf by my desk with a number of random books and objects.

Empire Made: my Halina 35X

I cannot remember how he responded (it would have been physical), nor even if he ever found out (I figure that by that time, he didn’t really care). I have never thought to look at when family photographs ceased. There are certainly none from the point at which he left home (my mother, though she had worked for two professional photographers, had no active interest in taking photographs, though has always enjoyed, until she effectively lost her sight through macular degeneration, and valued images), but I figure that photography (certainly as an integrative family activity) stopped a long time before this. I don’t have any of my own photographs from this period. Certainly, my interest in photography at this time is indicative of my own alienation from the family, and desire to spend as much of my time as possible outside the home. The point here is that, whatever the wider value of Bourdieu’s analysis (in its own right and as part of a greater corpus of sociological theory and research), it has raised a number of questions, and ways of thinking about events and experiences, relating to my own biography and trajectory. Selling the family camera, something that I had not thought about until reading Bourdieu’s work this week, probably had far greater significance than I had ever imagined. Working on the significance of objects and object analysis with the UCL BASc students gives me the opportunity to think further about this, perhaps taking the camera as my object (our lecture next week is on the psycho-social significance of objects, which is apposite).

UCL BASc Object Lessons group at the Grant Museum of Zoology, 01.02.19

There are three other thoughts for exploration, two of which are made in footnotes to a chapter on photographic art by Chamboredon (pp. 129-149). Firstly, in comparing the process of production of painting and photography (with the former images requiring time and concerted effort, whether trained or not, whilst the latter can be created instantaneously), he notes that there has not been (and perhaps, could never be, given these differences in production processes) a ‘naive’ photographic artist, in the sense that Rousseau (Le Douanier) was a naive (that is untrained and unsocialised) painter (note 19, p. 201). This, though, is precisely what Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy have produced in the (imaginary) Universal Photographer, in that they have taken historical segments of everyday (naive) image making, and inserted them into photographic art discourse. There is, of course, through instagram and other social media, now a parallel world of naive art photographers, with instagram ‘image-making stars’ created through the operation of a set of alternative (popular) criteria (or, rather, multiple sets of criteria, which act to produce a differentiated field of ‘stars’). I’ve written a couple of thousand words exploring this further, but will keep that for another day.

The second (note 5, p.201) is the question of the extent to which it is the disappearance of traditional crafts (as common modes of production, in the face of automation and mechanisation) that has facilitated the transformation of craft techniques into artistic media (for instance, pottery, weaving, ironwork). This casts an interesting light on the analogue and material turn in photographic art, and on the possibilities of the development of photographic art in the face of evermore sophisticated everyday image making (and distributing) technology, and AI applications. In other words, the increasing marginalisation of the knowledge, skills and processes of photographic practice creates an increased potential for the development of photographic art. Photography, as a specialised practice, is not superseded, but displaced, and the historical development through successive technological advances is temporally compressed into a repository of resources for contemporary practice (evident in, for instance, the revisiting of Fox Talbot’s techniques by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Naoya Hatakeyama and Cornelia Parker, amongst many others).

The third is an observation, pertinent to my own family history, made by Boltanski and Chamboredon in a chapter on professional photography (pp. 150-173; this presents a pretty bleak picture of photography as a profession, including reflection on the ‘uselessness’ of professional qualifications, pp. 152-3). Here they explore the professional aspirations and trajectories of photographers in relation to social class, and identify the means by which photography offers the potential of ‘upclassing’, particularly for working-class entrants (p.161). Interesting to apply this form of analysis to particular cases, for instance, in fashion photography in the 1960s (in relation to both social class and gender).

References

Barthes, R. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by R. Howard. London: Vintage.

Bourdieu, P. 1990. Photography: A Middle-brow Art. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. 2016. Family Photography Now. London: Thames and Hudson.

Photo-anxiety and the ‘poor image’

I made these images in an attempt to disrupt my habitual image making, by introducing a number of technological and human ‘glitches’. All the images were made around the house whilst sorting through and disposing of stuff brought out of storage from my old office at work. The images are incidental and make no attempt to record the process – they are made at the edges. I used a first generation micro four-thirds camera with a CCTV lens. The camera has no viewfinder and no focus assistance, and my failing near-sight made focusing erratic. The lens introduced significant curvature and vignetting. No cropping and no processing. These images are a step on the way to a final artifact, which will be in print form. Not quite degraded ‘poor images‘ in Hito Steyerl’s (2009) terms (maybe explore this later) but a step on the way. Having worked to develop the quality of my images over the past year or so, I felt anxious working in this way, introducing limitations right at the beginning of the process and then working with them. I’m thinking about other ways of disrupting practice, maybe along the lines of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, in which chance application of operations transforms the process of production of images and the outcomes.

Steyerl, H. 2009. ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’. e-flux journal #10, November. Available at https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ [accessed 31.01.19]

Object Lessons

This month I’ve been working alongside UCL Bachelor of Arts and Science students on their ‘Object Lessons’ module. For this, each student ‘adopts’ an object from one of the university museums, collections or galleries. The programme is a mixture of lectures (on material culture, the psycho-social significant of objects and workshops on handling, recording and writing about objects) and workshops involving working with objects alongside curators. Just some initial ‘descriptive’ photos of some of the objects from the Grant Museum and some ‘handling’ in the Petrie Museum.

Thinking about how to develop a project from this, and perhaps how to relate the focus on objects to my work on communities and regeneration (useful discussion with Michelle about this, with lots of references to follow up).

Naoya Hatakeyama: constructing/extracting the future

There are a number of factors that led me to choose Hatakeyama as one of the three photographic artists for this exercise. One is a conversation with a colleague about ‘future heritage’ (those elements of the present or near future that are likely to constitute heritage in the future) and how we identify, represent, preserve and curate this. What of the present will be of value in the future? What do we need to know/imagine of the future to be able to assess this? What is the relationship between attribution of future value in the present and realisation of value in the future? A second factor is the nature of my projected FMP, which involves making images in the present in urban contexts that are undergoing change and development and which thus face an uncertain future (the projected image of which is dominated by CGI presentations produced by developers). The third factor is a shared interest in using images to investigate ‘the relationship between nature and contemporary residential environments’ (Fujii n.d.). Finally, on a visit to Aperture in New York, I came across the newly published Excavating the Future City, a survey of Hatakeyama’s work edited by Nakomori (2018). The title alone made it an essential read. I was also interested in his methods of working and his use of a journal (McLaren & Formhals 2014). In this exercise, I am taking the opportunity to become familiar with a body of work that is new to me, and to relate this to the development of my own practice as a photographer.

Nakamori (2018), setting the scene for a major career retrospective at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, gives a comprehensive account of the development of Hatakeyama’s work. This includes an analysis of the influence of western photography (predominantly American) and theory (predominantly European) on Japanese photography in the 1970’s and 80’s, when Hatakeyama was studying at Tsukuba University. There are distinct differences in western and Japanese conceptions of ‘landscape’. Hatakeyama, influenced by the New Topographics approach gaining attention in Japan at the time, sought to subvert the traditional Japanese association of landscape with national identity in his exploration of the relationship between the land and human activity. This is most marked when looking at the relationship between his photographic studies of lime quarrying around his home city of Rikuzentakata, and his work on urban development in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Blast (#05419), 1998.

A key characteristic of this work is the implied inter-relationship between the violence done to the rural landscape by extraction and rapid urban development in Japan. These become two intertwined processes.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Untitled (#52810), 1997.

He works at two levels in both settings, rising above the landscape and city in the Lime Hills and Untitled series, and excavating below the surface in the Blast and River series. Through this work he charts the subtle changes taking place over time in the city, whilst acknowledging the immanence of the future city in the processes of extraction and growth from that which exists below the surface in both rural and urban settings. In this sense, his work can be seen as ‘excavating the future’, with the camera as the instrument of extraction. This places Hatakeyama a substantial distance from the Japanese tradition of celebration of the landscape as an expression of national identity and spiritual unity. To a degree, his work can be seen as an environmental equivalent to the social and cultural subversion of the Provoke movement.

Naoya Hatakeyama, River Series (#004), 1993-4.

The tragedy of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami took Hatakeyama back to his hometown, which initiated a new era in his work. Over a period of 8 years (to date) he has has portrayed the rebuilding through human endeavour of a town almost completely destroyed, a body of work which he describes as a ‘biographical landscape’. This builds on his earlier work (though it is very different in terms of method and timescale) on the relationship between landscape (nature) and city (human) by tracing the lifecycle of a city regrowing out of devastation, in a way that transcends the particularities of this one specific place, and addresses more generally the topographic transformation of Japan, and associated global environmental questions about the relationship between the land and human activity. As Nakamori (2018) notes, this also marks a distinct shift in the position of Hatakeyama as an image maker, from a marked distance from the rural landscape and urban cityscape to one of intimate engagement with managing the present and imagining and shaping the future city.

Returning to a theme introduced in my discussion of Sugimoto’s work, this recent work by Hatakeyama, albeit in tragic circumstances, exemplifies the process of entanglement with the world, and the place that image making can play in making sense of this. The flow of extraction and urban development is interrupted and thus becomes open to analytic scrutiny. Instead of having to dig down beneath the land and the city, the city is opened up and we are forced to engage in its rebuilding in full awareness of its precariousness. The sense of hope and optimism is remarkable in a body of work (comprising, to date, of over 8000 images) arising from a catastrophic event, in which Hatakeyama’s family home was destroyed and in which his mother lost her life.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Takatachō-Morinomae , from the series Rikuzentakata, 2011

Whilst each of Hatakeyama’s series of photographs is tightly framed conceptually and methodologically, serendipity (see Bird series, in which the flight path of a small bird is traced through several frames from the Blast series) and experiment (see Slow Glass series in which he designed a large format camera specifically to explore photographing cityscapes through rain) also play a part.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Slow Glass (# 063), 2001.

He keeps a daily journal, which whilst not explicitly concerned with the development of his projects, charts the development of ideas, and acts as a resource on which to draw in the evolution of his work. The section on Hatakeyama in McLaren & Formhals (2014) Photographers’ Sketchbooks provides examples of the sketches and notes produced in the development of the camera for the Slow Glass series and about the logistics of one of the underground shoots, giving insight into his processes.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Journal (from McLaren & Formhals. 2014:119)

Further insight is given by Hatakeyama’s own writing on photography. In ‘The Photographer and Architecture’ he reflects on his current practice:

‘I walk. As usual, there are things in the field of vision before me. As I walk, they change in size and shape. Light and space, as sensation, not only exists before me, but also envelops me, moves me, and makes me happy. The, important faces and words suddenly come back to me from the past. I put my camera on a tripod, direct the lens towards a thing, and think, ” There are so many things in the world that cannot be photographed.” Yet, I release the shutter, because if I didn’t take a photograph, I would not have known this very fact. Photography is like a ship carrying light and space and heading toward the future.’ (Hatakeyama, 2018: 266).

Reflecting on Hatakeyama’s practice in relation to the development of my own work, highlights a number of issues. Hatakeyama’s background and education in the arts, at a particular time in the cultural and economic development of Japan, enables him to position what he does both in relation to major artistic movements in the west and their recontextualisation at a particular point in time in Japan. His close relationship with architecture and the centrality of the theme of urban development makes his work fundamentally inter-disciplinary. This gives a complexity to his work. Though I share a number of these core interests, my background and context is very different, and I need to consider how I position what I do as a photographer in relation to these other aspects of my practice and expertise. Hatakeyama is able to achieve a high degree of consistency of image making and conceptual coherence in each of the series he has produced since completing his formal education in the arts, something that is lacking in my work. Whilst this is understandable in terms of maturity of practice, it is an important aspiration and requires development. Hatakeyama’s work is also impressive in the extent to which the successive series of photographs are distinct (in form and context) but related, marking out a clear (but not over-determined) trajectory. In an interview with architect Rob Hutchinson (published online in 2015, but the interview was conducted in 2010, before the Tōhoku earthquake) Hatakeyama explicitly explores the issue of consistency and coherence of artistic practice. In response to a question about the relationship of the Slow Glass series (which involved experimental development of a large format camera – see notebook extract above) and his other work, Hatakeyama says:

‘That is a very good question. Because that is a question of consistency of artistic practice. Viewers always expect a consistency of work from one artist. Some artists are repeating only one thing every day. Like Roman Opalka from France, he is just drawing the same number every day, and he makes a self portrait every day, for 45 years or so. It is so wonderful in a sense, but I am not the kind of artist of that type. My interest is having, or creating, my own vocabulary of photography, as many as possible. So from my young days, I was always trying to do that. In 2002, I made a one-man show in Germany. After the hanging of all of the works, to my eyes it looked like a group show, not a one-man show. I had many different works. So my impression was, “oh, this is a kind of group show!”. And I enjoyed that. So maybe I am trying to make my vocabulary richer. And maybe I was trying to write one poem, or one short story, with those vocabularies some day in the future, at the end of my life’ (Hatakeyama in Hutchinson 2015).

His most recent work, which is marked by a more intimate relationship with the environment, and community, following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, represents a new phase in his work, drawing on and extending this vocabulary.

Hatakeyama also presents his own writing alongside his images, and this is also explored in the interview with Hutchinson. Hatakeyama sees writing and photography as two distinct, but inter-dependent, modes of expression, with primacy placed on language. He states that:

‘words and images are different things, I know this. But they support each other. And if we don’t have words, we cannot see the world, we cannot even have the image’ (Hatakeyama in Hutchinson 2015).

The proposal for my project anticipates use of a range of media, including text. Exploration of the relationship between text and image is something that I intend to explore further over the course of this module.

References

Fujii, Y. n.d. ‘Naoya Hatakeyama’. Ocula [online]. Available at: https://ocula.com/artists/naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

Hatakeyama, N. 2018. ‘The Photographer and Architecture’. In Y. Nakamori, Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture:259-266.

Hutchison, R. 2015. ‘A Conversation with Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama’. Interview, 24th September 2010 at Taka Ishii Gallery, Kiyosumi, Tokyo [online]. Available at: http://robhutcharch.com/blog/2015/1/31/a-conversation-with-photographer-naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

McLaren, S. & B. Formhals. 2014. Photographers’ Sketchbooks. London: Thames & Hudson: 118-125.

Nakamori, Y. 2018. Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture.

Fay Godwin: photography, environment and activism

There are a number of reasons for choosing Fay Godwin (1931-2005) as one of the three photographic artists in this exercise. I have a longstanding interest in her work, especially her photographs of Romney Marshes (Godwin & Ingrams 1980) and the Saxon Shore Way (Sillitoe & Godwin 1983), having grown up in East Kent.

Fay Godwin, Reculver Abbey, 1983.

Through this exercise, I want to both reassess her work in the light of subsequent shifts in photographic theory and practice, and broader political changes particularly in relation to the environment, and consider whether, and how, her work has influenced my own photographic practice. Godwin, like me, came to photography from another professional field (publishing in her case) and did not have any formal training in photography or the visual arts. In a 1983 interview, she stated that:

‘I don’t have an academic approach to photographs, and I’m not very interested in theory. I’m much more interested in working. The old question about whether photography is an art is a silly question. I’ve been called a Romantic photographer and I hate it. It sounds slushy and my work is not slushy. I’m a documentary photographer, my work is about reality, but that shouldn’t mean it can’t be creative.’ (quoted in Fowles 1985: xii)

The primary means of dissemination of her work has been in books produced collaboratively with writers. In this analysis of her work, however, I am going to focus particularly on two volumes which foreground her photographs, and where the text plays a supporting role: Land (Godwin 1985, based on an exhibition surveying her work and published as a book with an essay by John Fowles and introduction by Ian Jeffery) and Our Forbidden Land (Godwin 1990, for which Godwin provides her own substantial introduction and text alongside the photographs, with poems by other authors, and which highlights her activism around access to land in her role as President of the Ramblers Association). I have particular interest in the relationship between photography and writing, and also on the use of photography in social action and advocacy. Here, though, I want to reflect on how Godwin’s approach and photographic sensibility might be re-contextualised from predominantly rural to contemporary urban contexts, in which the ownership of and access to the land have become a particular concern. I also want to position the work in relation to contemporary debates about the relationship between art and environmental activism (see, for instance, Demos 2017)

Fay Godwin, Stones of Stenness, Orkney, 1985.

As Fowles (1985) points out, many of Godwin’s images play with time, juxtaposing the timeless landscape with present day (or earlier) evidence of human activity (buildings, infrastructure, artifacts, vehicles, detritus, but never people), but in layers or in proportions that convey or create tensions.

Fay Godwin, Large white cloud near Bilsington, Kent, 1985.

Godwin resisted being seen as a landscape photographer, preferring to be considered a documentary photographer. Her interest is not in the landscape per se (and thus, she has no interest in producing conventionally aestheticised landscape images: in a 1986 South Bank Show interview she states that she is ‘wary of the picturesque’), but rather in human engagement with, material impact on and use of the landscape. Ian Jeffery (1985) highlights the bringing together in the frame of the wild and the cultivated, and the antagonism and discordance, in Godwin’s work, between the land and the human, between the wilderness and habitation. Encompassing the formal arrangement of elements in the frame, the subtlety of symbolism and the careful sequencing of images, Jeffery demonstrates how the work presented in Land clearly goes beyond documentary into the domain of photographic art, drawing out resonances with other photographic artists such as Paul Strand and Walker Evans. The images are not immediately arresting, but do draw in the viewer and repay active engagement, with, as Jeffery notes (South Bank Show 1986), any romantic elements of the landscape (such as clouds and distant hills) offset by, often foregrounded, practical and everyday elements. Unlike Sugimoto’s work, discussed in an earlier post, there is no apparent underlying conceptual basis to discrete series of images in Godwin’s work (if the corpus is to be divided into series, then each would be geographically defined, rather than conceptually, with the exception of the later, environmentally focused work), there is a clear orientation to the landscape and visual sensibility, which constitute Godwin’s artistic vision. There is also what Fowles (1985) identifies as an emerging moral dimension to the work, though this might equally be described as a political dimension, which relates to private ownership, the abuse of the land by agribusiness and public use and access. This dimension is brought very clearly to the fore in Our Forbidden Land.

Fay Godwin, The Duke of Westminster’s Estate, Forest of Bowland, 1990.

Margaret Drabble (2011), reviewing the exhibition Land Revisited, describes Our Forbidden Land as ‘an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside’. The introductory essay extends far beyond the landscape as addressed in earlier work, and includes critical analysis of nuclear power, transport policy, the military, climate, housing, pollution and the use of pesticides. These themes are reprised in the text that accompanies the images, which themselves are more clearly focused on the human abuse of the land, and play a role in making this abuse visible. An overarching theme is the alienation, and exclusion, of the public from the land, whether it be by the military, agribusiness, corporate ownership or heritage industry.

Today these issues are of even greater concern, and with respect to the access to the land that is available to photographers wishing to explore these environmental and social questions, Drabble observes:

‘Since her death in 2005, photographers have been finding their access to both public and private land more and more problematic, more expensive, and legally restricted. In Our Forbidden Land she wrote about the dilemma of access to Stonehenge, a site mass marketed by English Heritage which charges substantial sums to everybody, from individual artists to wealthy advertising companies. She foresaw a time when “the only photographs we are likely to see of the inner circles of Stonehenge will be those approved by English Heritage, generally by their anonymous public relations photographers”. Our common land would be the copyright of others’.

In my own exploration of community engagement with urban regeneration, I have assumed that I will progress from photographing the changing environment to an exploration of the lived experience of residents and other stakeholders. Engagement with Godwin’s photography and writing, and commentaries on this (in particular, the essay by Fowles), has led me to reassess this, and to consider how I might develop my urban environment image making further. Questions of access are even more pronounced with concerns around terrorism leading to suspicion of photographers in urban areas, and the private ownership of land by developers, with sophisticated surveillance technology, placing severe restrictions on where photographs can be taken. In assessing my own work and planning for the development of my project, I also want to consider how my work, one part of which has explored the meeting of the built and natural environment in urban settings, and the traces of human activity that are left in urban edgelands, has been visually influenced by Godwin’s images, and how I might develop this in urban settings over the coming months.

Fay Godwin, Summerhouse Hill and Channel Tunnel works, 1990.

Whilst Godwin’s photography may not have a strong explicit conceptual basis, reinforced by her rejection of theory in preference to getting on with the work, her image making does have clear intent and is consistent and coherent in form. It can also be understood in relation to environmental art of the late twentieth century (for instance work by Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy) in that the photographs engage with being in the landscape rather than being representations of the landscape. They are the products of walking across the land and being part of the landscape, rather than standing apart from the landscape. The work can also be understood in relation to forms of contemporary environmental activist art explored by Demos (2017). Godwin collaborated with environmental groups in the production of images, for instance with the Council for the Protection of Rural England concerned about the affect on the environment around Dover of the dumping of spoil in the construction of the Channel Tunnel. She eschewed the gallery system, preferring to publish books, and produced images and texts that demonstrated an understanding of day to day life in rural areas, whilst being clear about corporate and government sponsored action that threatens the environment, from nuclear power through to the manner in which English Heritage and the National Trust “have copyrighted our heritage” (quoted in Jeffery 2005), exemplifying her distinctly anti-authoritarian position and commitment to a critical role for photography.

References

Demos, T.J. 2017. Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Drabble, M. 2011. ‘Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum’. The Guardian. 8th January [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/08/margaret-drabble-fay-godwin [accessed 30.12.18].

Fowles, J. 1985. ‘Essay’. In F. Godwin, Land, London: Heinemann: ix-xx.

Godwin, F. 1985. Land. London: Heinemann.

Godwin, F. 1990. Our Forbidden Land. London: Jonathan Cape.

Godwin, F. & R. Ingrams. 1980. Romney Marsh and the Royal Military Canal. London: Wildwood House.

Jeffrey, I. 1985. ‘Introduction’. In F. Godwin, Land. London: Heinemann: xxiii-xxix.

Jeffrey, I. 2005. ‘Fay Godwin: Photographic chronicler of our changing natural world’. The Guardian. 31st May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/may/31/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries [accessed 30.12.18].

National Media Museum, Bradford. 2011. Fay Godwin: Land Revisited. Exhibition. 15 October 2010 – 27 March 2011 [online]. Available at: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/fay-godwin-land-revisited [accessed 30.12.18].

Sillitoe, A. & F. Godwin. 1983. The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye. London: Hutchinson.

South Bank Show. 1986. Fay Godwin. Season 10, Episode 6, 9th November [film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/4JE8I44Ak7o [accessed 30.12.18].

Looking back into the future to the end of time: post-humanism and the photography of Hitoshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto is a significant figure in contemporary photographic practice. From his New York studio, the Japanese born photographer has produced several series of photographs that are widely represented in major collections and regularly internationally exhibited. As an art photographer, he has been hugely successful, and has combined this with a range of architectural projects, multi-media installations, collaborations and public works. Notably, his work has a strong conceptual basis, as well as being technically highly accomplished (he works in monochrome with an 8 by 10 camera, producing very large prints, and relentlessly experiments with methods of producing images and prints). Conventionally, analysis of his photographic work has concentrated on the capturing and manipulation of time, and on the dialogue between eastern and western epistemologies. My analysis will draw on this valuable and insightful work, but will depart significantly in exploring Sugimoto’s photographic work in relation to post-humanist theory (that is, theoretical work that seeks to go beyond humanism, for instance work by Rosi Braidotti 2013, Donna Harraway 1991 and N. Katherine Hayles 1999). In particular, I will explore Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s (2017) notion of ‘midhumanism’ to sidestep a linear view of time in favour of the vortex, and to dispense with the seemingly inevitable grind of passage from pre-(x), to (x), to post-(x), where we languish waiting for a new episteme to gestate. The theoretically stultifying effects of this ‘progression’ are particularly marked in the analysis of photography, which having moved with tide of western theory away from its modernist origins (as a representational technology), consigns the ever-increasing population of art-photographers to the post-modernist hopper (for sorting and labelling).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Paramount Theater, Newark, 2015 (Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

It should come as no surprise that Sugimoto started his professional life as an antiques dealer (and continues to deal in antiques to this day), given that, I would argue, his work synthesises antiques from (and thus, in terms of cultural commodities, adds value to) the present. For instance, Sugimoto claims that his Seascapes Series seeks to show parts of world as the ancients saw them (Sugimoto, 2018a). He seeks out fragments of the present that can be claimed to be invariant across the human era (and, as Sugimoto observes, time is itself a human construct), and represents these in investable, portable (see Henning 2017, for exploration of the portability of photographic objects) and tradable form (limited edition large format prints). The blurred photographs of modernist buildings in the Architecture Series decouple the aspirations of the architects from the image, and allow the buildings to live on as a cultural commodity without their modernist baggage.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fagus Shoe Last Factory – Walter Gropius, 1998

As Molinari (2015) observes, the blurring seeks out an enduring core to the buildings, which are thus allowed to escape the ravages of time. In no sense, then, is the photograph a record of a point in time; it is in not a representation of what the building once was, or will ever be, except in this particular rendering. For me, the photographs in this series are durable cultural artefacts (and thus commodities), synthesised in the present from a physically and conceptually unsustainable past. Related arguments can be made about other series. The printing of Fox Talbot paper negatives finds in the present lost moments from the past that were never realised in positive, material form, but remained latent (in a process akin to way that Sugimoto as antique dealer scours markets for artefacts). The Diaorama and Waxwork photographs allow imagined and constructed pasts to be rendered portable and available for exchange in an enhanced indexical form (a photograph), invoking and subverting the modernist aspirations for mechanical representation. Whilst Sugimoto’s account of his own work differs in many ways from my reading, he clearly recognises the subversive potential of his work, and the ironic dimension to not just stopping time, but bringing the dead back to life and turning time back on itself.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, 1994

‘In my picture, Wellington seems to have come back to life, while Napoleon remains very much dead. I know it is unlikely, but should I win a place in the pantheon of great artists, I have this crazy fantasy of someone adding a wax figure of me taking a picture of the two great men with my large-format camera to the existing scene!’ (Sugimoto 2015: 28).

My positioning of Sugimoto in relation to post-humanism is based on a reading of his commentaries on his own work (in print, for instance Sugimoto 2015, and on film, for instance, Nakamura 2012, Sugimoto, 2011, 2018a, 2018b). In his writing on Fox Talbot, which includes reflection on his own photographic work, such as the Photogenic Drawings made from Talbot’s paper negatives, and his experimentation with static electricity in the Lightning Fields series, Sugimoto celebrates Talbot’s humanism. For instance, he notes with surprise that Talbot studied ancient languages, conducted research on Babylonian cuneiform characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and was translating Macbeth into Greek verse.

‘Talbot, I realized, had a deep understanding of the spirit of those ancient civilizations, when man (sic) first lifted himself out of ignorance’ (Sugimoto 2015: 34).

Sugimoto’s work is strongly humanist in its orientation, having collapsed time, extracted the past out of the present, projected it into an unknown future, and related his images to a supposed invariant human spirit. Central to this orientation is recognition that time is a human construct, and a sense of the passage of time requires a human consciousness. The desire to stop time, which he sees both in the work of the founders of photography and in his own work, is thwarted by that consciousness: while there are humans, there will be time, and our attempts to stop time will always be in time. He states that

‘The day when mankind will realize our deep-seated desire to bring time to a stop is coming inexorably closer. Time exists only through the agency of human perception. Only when mankind vanishes form the earth can we truly claim to have halted time’s progress. It is not long now.’ (Sugimoto 2015: 40).

In this distinctly post-humanist statement he recognises both the limitations of the aspiration to stop time, and the fruitlessness of the desire to produce timeless artefacts. Sugimoto has taken this further in his 2014 show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive), in which he imagines the end of the world. He claims ‘Imagining the worst conceivable tomorrows gives me tremendous pleasure at the artistic level. The darkness of the future lights up my present.’ (quoted in Searle 2014).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca, 1993

Whilst the Seascapes Series might help us to imagine we see the world as the ancients saw it, it will not enable us to see the world as it is, or was or ever will be. We, ourselves, are in, and entangled with, that world, and can only imagine (assisted by photographic or other technologies) standing apart from it (in the same way we can only imagine photographing Wellington viewing the corpse of Napoleon, or a moment that captures the duration of a film). Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s idea of midhumanism provides an interesting and potentially productive way of understanding, and appreciating, Sugimoto’s work. In this, human-centric narratives of history (that everything has a birth, a life-course and a death) are abandoned (Cohen 2017). The human is entangled with, not apart from, the world (though may aspire, and continue to attempt, to rise above the world). The human is enmeshed in and continuous with the world, and in striving to manage that embeddedness ‘all kinds of becomings are possible, and are not harnessed to trajectories of commencement and termination’ (Cohen 2017). This is the ‘midhuman, where human is difficult to tell from world, macrocosm and microcosm entangled rather than parallel’ and where we have to ’embrace the problem of human middleness, explore its implications, stay with it, stay with the world, think rigorously about the unexpected environmental consequences of human actions, midhumanism’ (Cohen 2017).

Sugimoto’s work, in its subversion of time, does not have, or exist within, a life-course enclosed by commencement and termination, except in the invocation of the end of humanity. The various series of photographs do not constitute a progression, and, although distinct, the series remain open, with the possibility of adding further images. His experiments (for instance, with static electricity) do not represent progress towards more advanced knowledge, but rather resonate with and supplement the experiments of the founders of photography. The images subvert the linearity of time and thus thwart human-centric western enlightenment, and modernist, aspirations, whilst potentially enriching our sense of entanglement and continuousness with the world.

In looking to my own practice, Sugimoto’s work is instructive in its conceptual clarity, and the manner in which successive projects develop rhizomatically from earlier work. From this, he is able to construct an overarching, unifying account giving the total body of work a high degree of coherence, with each series having a distinct visual (in terms of both the formal composition of the images and the method of production) and conceptual identity. Sugimoto has also been able to construct an exemplary contemporary (distinctly male) artistic persona, contextualising and positioning his work (artistically and commercially) and creating a network of interlinked activities which cross seamlessly between western and eastern cultural practice, each casting a light on the other.

References

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cohen, J.J. 2017. ‘Midhumanism’. Critical Posthumanism. Available at:
http://criticalposthumanism.net/genealogy/midhumanism/ [accessed 30/12/18]

Searle, A. 2014. ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto: art for the end of the world’. The Guardian, 16th May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/16/hiroshi-sugimoto-aujordhui-palais-de-tokyo-paris-exhibition [accessed 30/12/18]

Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henning, M. 2017. Photography: The Unfettered Image. London: Routledge.

Molinari, L. 2015. ‘Space: timeless architecture’. In Hiroshi Sugimoto, Stop Time. Milan: Skira, 22-40.

Nakamura, Y. 2012. Memories of Origin: Hiroshi Sugimoto. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/NhZJF4IPXcw [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto, H. 2011. Becoming an Artist. Art21, Episode 141. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/JCsbxVCdDtA [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto,H. 2015. Stop Time. Milan: Skira.

Sugimoto, H. 2018a. Between Sea and Sky. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/JWh4t67e5GM [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto, H. 2018b. Advice for the Young. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/TvO2WL-jGac [accessed 30.12.18]

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield, Fotomuseum Den Haag, 15th December 2018

It is difficult to come out of this exhibition, produced by the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, where it was first shown in 2017, feeling good about life.

The exhibition maps out work by Greenfield over the past 25 years, focusing on the effects of rampant consumerism and affluence, initially amongst youth in Southern California, and subsequently more broadly around the world (latterly amongst the new super-rich in China and Russia). The exhibition is arranged around a number of themes (for instance, New Aging, Sexual Capital, Dream Home) and comprises of images presented alongside short interviews with some of the people featured in the photographs.

The images are strong, and can clearly stand on their own, but the text gives additional insight into worlds that will be unfamiliar to the majority of viewers. Many of the images are shocking, and motivate viewers to read the text to learn and understand more. It’s an exhibition that demands time. It’s not a sociological work, and doesn’t attempt to explain or provide answers. It’s impressive that Greenfield has been able to build up a coherent body of work (visually and conceptually) over an extended period of time whilst working as a photo-journalist. Much to be learned, for me as a photographer, about presenting this kind of work in a way that maximises engagement and impact. There is a documentary, Generation Wealth (2017), which opened at the Sundance Film Festival 2018 and is available on DVD (and which was screened as part of the exhibition). Reviews of the film raise again for me the differences between film and gallery as modes of presentation, explored in an earlier post. Whilst the exhibition provides an engaging and stimulating experience (in which the work is not expected to provide explicit analysis, that’s a task for the viewer who negotiates their way around the gallery, rather than being driven forward by the temporal direction of film), the documentary is seen as failing to strike a position and provide an informed analysis. A book containing 650 photos and 150 interviews has been published by Phaidon. Again, whether or not the book is seen as a success hinges on the extent to which the reader is able to see it as a stimulus for their own subsequent investigation, or whether some kind of formal analysis is expected. We are in a place here where questions are raised about what art can and should aspire to achieve, and how work is positioned in relation to social critique. The show at Fotomuseum Den Haag is the first time the exhibition has been seen in its entirety in Europe.

Greenfield, L. 2017. Generation Wealth. London: Phaidon.

The Universal Photographer

Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Projects Gallery, 15th December 2018

A one room exhibition dedicated to the ‘universal photographer‘, a project by Dutch photographers Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy.

They have aligned found images with trends in photography over the lifetime (1955-2016) of the fictional universal photographer, who becomes the embodiment of responses to changes in photographic technology, an unfolding life-course and trends in art and photography (practice, theory and critique). The primary outcome of the project is a book, which includes extensive quotes from the work of major theorists, commentators and artists relating to the forms of photography covered, and fictional quotes about the work of the universal photographer and their work alongside a biography of the universal photographer (the pdf of the book can be downloaded here). It’s an impressive and entertaining project, and an exemplary exercise in post-modern irony. The project guides the viewer through the development of art photography and theory over the past half century, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric art and everyday life (the images are very much ‘everyday’ and naive, but articulated with the evolving art practices of the time) and rendering both faintly absurd, and strangely engaging, in the process. The project thus speaks both to the gallery visiting public and the to art world, questioning the relationship between the visual products of both. In presenting the work of the the universal photographer as art, the work also pulls art into the everyday and opens it (and the associated academic and artistic commentary and analysis) to common scrutiny and assessment.

In looking at the images, it is not a case of ‘we could have done that’; we actually did do it – these are our images, from our photo albums and boxes of family, event and holiday prints. In my own project, I have created a degree of insulation between forms of image making: this work removes that insulation in a gallery space and plays with the distinction between the sacred and the profane. And it’s all shot through with dry humour and parody. In the development of my project, it’s clearly important to the think about other mechanisms for bringing these different domains of practice into the same space and into constructive critical dialogue.

Geene, A. & A. De Nooy. 2018. The Universal Photographer. Rotterdam: De Hef.

Literacies and photographies

Steff’s use of (and preference for) the term ‘photographies’ (rather than photography) in the introductory webinar brought to mind the genesis of the use of ‘literacies’ rather than literacy. It also resonated with my concern (expressed in earlier posts) about the tendency to abstract the idea of photography from the contexts of production and circulation of images, with the effect of treating very different practices (for instance, casual mobile phone images of events on the one hand and commissioned photo-journalism on the other) as the same (in the sense that they are both ‘photography’). This tendency is particularly marked (and unproductive) in debates about the threat posed to professional photography by the ubiquitous production and circulation through social media of high resolution images, and the development of AI systems to select and edit images.

The dismantling of a singular view of literacy began with the exploration of social literacy, through social anthropological style studies of how, and where and for what, people use literacy, or engage in ‘literacy practices’ (see, for instance, Grenfell, 2012; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). The study of literacy in practice brings to the fore the multiplicity of forms of literacy, each distinguished, and shaped, by the social context and the purpose of reading and writing. The study of literacy in different cultures and contexts not only raises questions about the extent to which a single term adequately describes a multiplicity of forms of practice, but also makes clear that these (literacy) practices involve engagement with and production of more than just text (sound, image, video, media, gesture and so on). So we have multiple literacies both in relation to the uses and contexts of literacy and in relation to forms of literacy (beyond just text). Hence, literacies, not a singular (cognitively defined and culturally invariant) literacy (commonly called the autonomous model of literacy, see Street, 2003) .

Likewise, photography is used in a variety of ways, in different contexts and for different purposes (culturally, socially and economically). Forms of photography (in terms of modes of production, technology and circulation) have also diversified. Hence, photographies.

This immediately raises the question of the relationship between different photographic forms, contexts and practices, the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies within and between these forms and the need for critical visual (photographic) literacy (for both consumers and producers of images). The point of this post, though, is to reinforce the idea of multiple photographies, and to form synergies with the study of the social basis of other areas of practice, such as literacy. My project proposal involves three forms of image making, which in themselves constitute three different ‘photographies’ (as social research tool, as advocacy and as art) and therefore provides a context for further exploration of these relationships.

Grenfell, M. 2012. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. London: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. 2003. ‘Autonomous and ideological models of literacy: Approaches from new literacy studies’. Current Issues in Comparative Education. 5. 1-15.

Street, B.V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.