Visiting Lecturer

Tutorial with Joanna Lowry

Today’s one-to-one hour long lecture was with Joanna Lowry, leader of the Photography MA at the University of Brighton.

Discussions were centred around the Brittany project Le Loup… When asked to describe what was drawing me to document the area, I found it difficult. Much of what I recounted was personal, my reaction to being there, rather than anything specifically interesting about the area itself, which prompted the recommendation that I should think about “the place” rather than about “myself in the place”. This should help make it more accessible to others, less personal.

Isolation, charm, otherness, toughness/resilience, a step away from modernity, nostalgia were all things I came up with. There is a resistance to the stereotypical French “chic”, it’s less ostentatious (unless we’re comparing tractors).

Whilst it’s perfectly possible to photograph a bus stop (as with the photograph Kroas ar Hars), what does it mean? In order for the series to gain further meaning, I need to deepen my “understanding” of the area (rather than simply “knowledge”) – history, stories, myths, political attitudes, etc. Such things might help the various threads intertwine, to trigger something with the viewer. Help it mean something, even if I don’t know yet what that “something” is.

Kroas ar Hars
Kroas ar Hars

There was talk of contemporary photographic practice. I spoke of specifically not wanting to produce work like David Chancellor’s Huntress with Buck – I’d rather not take photographs at all (as good as it may be, it’s simply not what I want to do). Alec Soth was mentioned, also something I do not wish to pursue, although closer than Chancellor. I spoke about the lack of people (and the reason), and a fear that it might end up looking like after the zombie apocalypse. I thought about John Darwell’s Chernobyl photographs – I need to look at these again.
Work by Sarah Pickering was mentioned in relation to An Uhelgoad, although I think this may have meant to have been Steffi Klenz’s Nonsuch in Poundbury. As was Peter Fraser’s Welsh Valley work and William Christenberry’s American houses (later posts will undoubtedly look at these).

An Uhelgoad Poste
An Uhelgoad

Talking around the various words, “empty” “resistance” and “history” kept on coming to the fore, which then tied in with a possible thread of depopulation – approx. 30% of houses in a local village are owned as second houses (much as is mine), a place to go for holiday. There are photographs of graffitied signs: “Free Bzh” is clearly aimed at the English, but there are also attempts to reclaim Nantes from Loire Atlantique. It’s something to explore further. There are already several layers of politics (with a small “p”) that I’m aware of and undoubtedly subconsciously influencing my work.

The aesthetic was described as “melancholia”, which fits my personality and completely apt for me. This aesthetic might become more “interesting” because of the politics. There are transitory signs of disquiet. History might be seen as emptying out of a place, with something “other” taking that place.

Size was discussed; I personally don’t believe that, as of right now, there is any need for these images to be particularly large (many, not all, are photographed with a medium format digital camera, so could perhaps support larger prints). A book might be the primary goal, with a curated narrative and careful layout choices, but the gallery should also be considered.

This was an incredibly useful talk, helping to bring vague thoughts into the real world by having to voice them to someone else, and then to have that person, a photographic theorist, bounce other thoughts, threads and hooks around is great. I feel like I’ve taken much from it, lots hope it sinks in and I action the discussion too.


Intersections, with Helen Rousseau

Helen Rousseau is not a name I was familiar with. She’s not a photographer, so she is already off my normal “radar” in terms of who I look at (I can be a little too insular some times). The work she does create is perhaps a further step off my radar too, at least that’s the case with the work she showed during the presentation she gave as part of the series of visiting lectures. That’s not to say that Intersections – connecting and disconnecting the dots wasn’t interesting. There were certainly aspects I was drawn to, not least her discussion about language and its connection (whatever that might be) to art.

One of the first mentions of language was that making is her starting point. She begins to work with the material, negotiating with it, rather than from some preconceived idea that has been defined within a coded language. The work takes shape in its own language, unfettered by the limitations of a constraining system of words and meanings. This is something that I’ve adopted when approaching a long term project, such as Le Loup… I find it difficult to pre-visualise what the project might become; I don’t know what I will see in 5 minutes time, never mind what I will see in 12 months. And then there’s the question of what I have seen will mean to me by the time I try and construct the finished article. With shorter conceptual pieces, this is clearly less of an issue though…

Allow the body of work to grow organically and then see what it means.

I think that’s about the crux of it anyway, and it’s certainly what I took from it, and from what others had said previously; Rinko Kawauchi, the Japanese photographer, said it about Illuminance in an Aperture interview (I think) several years ago (she gathered the work, photographing what she saw then had “conversations” with the images), it struck home at the time and completely changed the way I was thinking during the BA in photography I was doing at the time. Having no clear endpoint from the outset offers up a greater range of possibilities for the outcome… or to use a quote from the presentation:

“The decisions about how to start and conclude are choices that shape the very identity of a piece. It is only by concluding in a particular way that the piece establishes its own standards of completion and demonstrates why it had to be the way it is.”

(Jan Verwoert, The Beauty of Latency, Exhaustion and Exuberance, Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform.)

This idea of coded language perhaps seemed strange though. Rousseau spoke about problems paving the way for the work with words, but then the presentation was peppered with quotes. Art might be considered a language of its own, but we seem to feel the need to wrap it in syntax, to explain it in what might be considered a reductive way with quite limited signs and signifiers, rather than just exist in its more free-wheeling form as art, that can speak on different levels and say something different to us all.

Later, a small group discussion centred around the idea of sculpture, what it is, what it means to us. Things like 3D came up, the physicality of the object, interactions of touch and space. Are Carsten Höller’s slides a sculpture? Are they installation? Is there a difference? Do we become part of the sculpture (assuming they are) when we pass through them? The Marionettes of Nantes – a series of sculptures or merely a form of entertainment?

Monika spoke of some artists from the Biennale in Venice, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Pamela Rosenkranz, whose sculpture moved through the audience, or the audience moved through it. Rousseau spoke in turn of ultra high speed photography of balloons bursting and the temporally fixed moment of the water retaining the shape without a bounding surface.

I myself thought about Richard Wentworth, a sculptor in his own right but also someone who photographed things that happened naturally as a form of sculpture – a glove on a fence, tyres leaning on a wall. Mundane items in mundane situations but they become something else by chance, by the act of recording them. Then there’s the likes of Lorenzo Vitturi, a contemporary photographer who has created assembled elements to photograph and juxtapose with the images, as with Dalston’s Anatomy. Still life pieces, props, sculptures? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

It would have been fairly easy to remain closed and detached from the lecture, but no, there was discussion and much procrastination. Will it change things with the way I work? It’s unlikely I will start making Vitturi-esque still life images, but I do relate to the constraints of language, and even the idea of deliberately using the constraints of language to deflect and divert meaning from being too… obvious, I guess.