Looking at Photographs
I have considered which images have stuck in my mind over the past 24 hours. A harrowed and tired Theresa May and a picture of the Queen at a steering wheel and a photograph of young Arsenal players from 2013. I believe they stick because Brexit is a big issue at the moment and May is a focal point of the mess we are in. The Queen is a novelty and personal interest story in that she is to cease driving on public roads. The Arsenal youngsters will all have left as Aaron Ramsey departs to Turin and have been a big part of my hopes and dreams for my team.
Most photographs pass through my attention in a millisecond. In the above examples they stick because they interest me. The subjects they represent matter to me and they help me understand something about the subject. For the photographs I take my goal is for people to hold their attention and be interested in what they see.
Francis Hodgson proposes the need for a measure of quality to be able to critically define the photographs that matter. In my own practice I get some satisfaction out of taking a photograph and then further satisfaction out of looking at some of the results. Now that I am taking my photography further as a discipline, critical theory becomes essential to establish if my work has sufficient quality to meet the higher standards I seek. One measure will be obtaining a Masters. Another would be creating an audience that is interested in my work and find that it matters to them. For me this is a new access point to my work. To date success has been through likes on social media and individual responses to my web site.
Responding to Photographs
My own reactions to the work of Sally Mann and Tierney Gearon appear contrary to me. On the one hand I can appreciate them as works of art. Sally Mann’s work in particular fits with this. However, they both make me very uncomfortable. The discomfort relates to the exploitation of young children to increase the photographers’ audience. My interest is captured because there is a sexual nature to the photographs and a feeling built in to who I am that says this is not something that should be shared in public. I realise that as I write this I am projecting meaning and behaviours on to the photographers.
Tierney Gearon’s article in the Guardian ‘Where is the sex?’ does not change my reaction. I would say she is being naive if she does not understand the impact these images are likely to have on audiences and eventually on her children. Her defence is that her intent was innocent. A friend asked her to document her family, the friend bought a picture and then puts on a show. She gets recognition out of this, interviews and articles and establishes a reputation. I agree it is us the audience that is the problem with work like this being exhibited but there is also a responsibility for exhibitors to weigh the shock value of what they are doing with the harm it may cause.
Sally Mann’s Exposure article in the New York Times also does not shift me. The balance of letters she received and the comments to the article show how polarised views are. Is it art? Is it pornography? It depends on your point of view. I am left thinking I would not show such photographs of my family.
Tierney and Sally are both accomplished sellers of their trade. To sell the controversial nature of their work they must know there are a range of audiences that are going to respond is different ways. I believe it is unlikely the show and sales of this work would have been successful if there were not the volume of outrage criticising it.
Talking About Photographs
We all have a combination of emotional and cognitive responses to photographs. My own personal reaction to looking at a photograph is usually emotional first. If it appeals to me aesthetically I will continue to look and enjoy. Another reaction is curiosity if I can’t instantly make out what the picture is ‘of’ or ‘about’. With these images I will seek to make meaning using cognitive processes.
Hodgson makes the point that photographs need to matter or they risk being trivial. Barthes talks of punctum and studium with the former having significance for the viewer.
These perspectives make me think about my own processes of talking about photographs. I understand that my approach today has been low level and lacks a detailed critical consideration of what I am looking at. Looking now through a lens of what is the photograph ‘about’ or ‘of’ and does it ‘matter’ or what does it ‘mean’ are all helpful to deepen my own understanding of the image and its impact on me. Equally understanding the emotional response is important.
For my own practice I think about what motivations are at work for me to take photographs. There are a number of steps…
- There is a subject that interests me. It could be a landscape, like Tuscany or a local beach. It could be people doing something the masks at the Venice Carnival. I will choose subjects that align with things that please me like being in the open air or telling stories.
- I then have an idea of how to photograph that subject. I will look at the way others have captured the subject. I will consider what I like. I will then form a view of what it is I want to get. I will have an eye for originality that excites my eye.
- I will then plan the shoot. What kit do I need? When should I go for the best light and action I want? Are there any safety issues? How many times will I have to go.
- I then go out and shoot usually having put the shoot at a time and place in my calendar. Much of my pleasure from photography comes from the looking on location and composing the image.
- I will then review images and a very small number make it for further consideration for editing and dissemination. Currently dissemination is to social media and friends and I get some satisfaction if I get favourable comments and likes.
- To improve my practice I look at how others represent the subjects I am interested in. I travel with other photographers, look at their photographs and talk about photography.
As I think about my research project I need to add in a critical review process to what I want to do and then to the work I produce. This needs to include my own understanding but also to seek as much input as I can get from a wide range of people. This needs to include people who have an established critical reputation.