oxford circus as a gallery space
Choose a day that you can spend out and about looking with no particular agenda. Be conscious of how images and texts are presented to you in the real world – on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, and online, for example. Make notes in your learning log on some specific examples and reflect upon what impact the text has on how you read the overall message.
– IaP Coursebook p.79
Pictures on display –
fig.1 – an absense of beaches
The first pictures I see each morning usually are these, hanging outside the bathroom door. They are photo collages, assembled on a photocopier by German artist Ursula Keller and purchased from the accountant I shared with her (or possibly the owner of the gallery in Glasgow that represented her) at the time they were exhibited there (around 1995). The common title of the series – ‘Given the obvious lack of beaches’ – is based on a hopeful quote by Glasgow’s provost, Pat Lally, along the lines that ‘Given the obvious lack of beaches in the city, we need to give our visitors some alternatives.’ Keller had provided some beaches (and palm trees, and sunsets) from elsewhere and added them to Glasgow landmarks like the Barrowlands Ballroom and the University tower. The title opens them up, preventing them from being merely an interesting visual jape and locating them in a place where they can comment on the shift of Glasgow from being ‘about’ heavy industry and razor gangs to being somewhere that was ‘Miles Better’ – a cultural rather than an industrial destination for people who did not live there.
fig 2 – polaroids
Another grouping of pictures in my house consists of four polaroids taken by me of shadows moving around the house’s rooms.
While Keller’s titles are complementary, these have simple date/time titles orientating the viewer to the point in time when these unique traces were plucked from the sun’s progression around the house.
They’re pretty abstract photographs – you need something to anchor them, if only to let you know that you’re looking at moments in time, and the patterns are made by that .
fig.3 – on the way to the tube
Images in the Street –
As I cycle to the station, I see advertisements – on buses, on hoardings and on buildings. I go into Tesco to pick up the paper. The building itself is covered in pictures (to the left of fig.3 there’s a bowl of curry, labeled EASY) and surrounded by words. The text that jumps out here is the one they want you to notice (whether you are going to buy anything or not) – FRESH; it relates easily to the massive bowl of green salad. But it’s not quite as fresh as all that – like most of the food in an ‘express’ (or ‘local’) grocer’s the salad is preprepared, something covered by the small print – “Salad you won’t have to wait for” – this is a fuel stop, not an artisanal bakery or greengrocer. It’s opposite the station so you can pick up something for supper on your way home. But it’s the word FRESH that hooks you and sticks in your mind so you know that it’s an alternative, next time you need it.
fig.4 – you could be this person too (or if not, that one on the other side)
And then, when you enter the shop, you’re flanked by a pair of larger than life people offering you food (they are literally ‘putting food on the table’). One is male, one female. both are captioned with a very personal description of the food they have just made (from FRESH ingredients; from closer to scratch than popping a ready meal into the microwave) – these are ‘Jane’s Fishcakes for two, or one’ – you are invited to identify with these cooks; they are like you, they care about food, they smile invitingly, proud of their efforts. They even have their own signature dish…
They are also at odds with the reality of the inside of the shop of course, but never mind, you can aspire to the sort of life they seem to embody (even if it is possible to infer from that caption that Jane is currently single, and eating double portions to compensate) and maybe even go to a full-on supermarket (a ‘big’ Tesco) at the weekend, and do some proper cooking then.
I buy my paper and cross the road to the station…
On Public Transport –
On the tube (in the tube?) the sort of adverts and the amount and type of information varies according to how you will encounter them. London Underground is a complex machine for processing people and moving them from one place to another. There are places where people are expected to stand (on Platforms) and places where you really don’t want somebody to even break their step (in the concourses) and places that are somewhere in between (escalators, where people will stand – on the right – and move past the walls at a predictable speed). And then on the trains you will be static (sat, or strap hanging) for long enough to read text and even jot down a URL or phone number (or take your own picture with your phone).
I’m not sure whether it is men or women who are supposed to be drawn by the Heist tights’ ad: I quite like a shapely bum, but I’m not going to bet my bottom that my tights are better than theirs. Am I supposed to buy a pair for Fiona? Or do women look at other women’s pirouetting arses and want to emulate them? It has associated the word Heist in my mind with tights; with nice tights that do nice things to women’s bottoms; perhaps this is all it needs to do.
Versace Jeans are hardly evident in the pictures that line one of the station’s halls, but the pictures – black and white, moodily lit, medium sized and in frames- combine with the cumulative display to create the idea of an exhibition in a gallery. Versace jeans are ‘art’ they are a cut above more vernacular jeans. But I’m still not likely to exit the station onto Oxford Street and buy a pair. But, again, the brand has stuck in my head with a set of associations. Boo Hoo (also plastered all over the station) clothing is a bit flash, a bit flirty, a bit young, a bit common; Versace is for people a bit older, with a bit more taste.
The London Transport adverts (posters) encouraging approved behaviours in us, the passengers, are obviously drawing on Gillian Wearing’s series from 1992-93 showing people with placards, but without the tension between the words on the placards (which in TFL pictures are printed, so official, rather than the handwritten interior statements in Wearing’s) and the appearance of the person depicted. Again there is a reference to art, but its effect here is to comfort: the people holding the placards smile; if we all did as the words say, the tube would be a nicer place.
(Interestingly at Euston, the same pictures have been modified – presumably by station staff – with the addition of glued on, handwritten statements, like “Welcome to Euston”; these instantly seem less corporate and more personal; I wondered if the particular TFL staff members in the altered pictures worked at that particular station)
Heading home from Oxford Street, who wouldn’t fancy a holiday, somewhere warm with a pool? Heading home from Oxford Street after a had day’s shopping, feeling a bit skint, who wouldn’t fancy a chance to save some money on that holiday? Don’t the kids look happy? don’t they seem free (as well as ‘free’)? Doesn’t the water look cool? Wouldn’t you like to be anywhere else but waiting for your train home?
And then, sitting on the train, you have time to look at the pictures arrayed above the heads of your fellow passengers. Often they have exemplary people, ready for you to identify with them and to find out more by reading before signing up to realise your dreams through education or through buying clothes or through guaranteeing your family’s prosperity by insuring yourself before you die and leave them in penury or through investing in some sure-fire winner.
One of the things that is odd about the ‘Beach Body Ready?’ ad discussed on the OCA Blog is that it is confrontational rather than aspirational. The Rodchenko-esque (another borrow from art) man looks off, like the woman who has realised her bold dream, into some future-tense middle-distance; the woman in the bikini looks at you daring you to eat her protein-rich whey powder and get into shape for the summer.
And I do wonder whether all the borrowings from art are to make the advertising people feel better about themselves and whether they are dropping in a bit of Rodchenko here, a bit of Gillian Wearing there as a way of nodding to the people who know like me (or you of course most likely if you’re reading this) that they’re capable of more somehow, like an actor saying ‘I don’t have to do this rubbish you know – Larry thought most highly of my Laertes…’
In the Newspapers –
I’ll be writing more about news pictures and their relation to their captions and headlines in a later exercise, but I’ll say something here about layout on the page and the cumulative effect of groups of photographs.
While i’ve been collecting newspaper pictures, there have been two stories that have been illustrated by galleries of faces – London knifings (in the Sun) and the Guardian’s investigation which kick-started the reexamination of how the home office treats immigrants. In both cases you are presented with a typology you don’t want to be a part of. In the first you have the victims of knife crime and in the other, the members of the Windrush generation, caught out by their lack of the necessary documentation and so threatened with deportation.
The knife victims’ pictures are obviously not taken by a professional – everything about them screams ‘cameraphone’; they are dead; the pictures have been provided by relatives or combed from social media sites. The pictures remind the viewer of other galleries – of the world trade centre dead or British armed forces’ personnel killed in Iraq, or last years victims of knife crime in London. You read the headline to find out about the specifics of the story, but you already know its outline.
The Windrush pictures on the other hand have been taken by a professional. Their arrangement still says ‘victim’, but there is still the chance of the shared situation they find themself in improving. After all, they’ve a newspaper and a professional photographer on their side. You read the text to find out who they are and what has been done to them. You hope that something will be done.
Specific, Technical Pictures –
We are in the middle of the process of selling my house and buying another one. We have now reached a point where we are poring over the survey of the house we are buying. It has a number of directly illustrative photographs, showing details of points that are described in the text:
‘a previous masonry paint finish has been removed in recent years and defective bricks have been sensitively cut out and replaced (see fig. 10 which shows such a repair)’
…and that is exactly what you see when you look at the photo. Taken on their own they would seem a strange set of seemingly randomly chosen details; with the text the are of one thing and of that thing only. Later in the survey, it comments that another described detail is visible on Google Street view which is offered as evidence that a a specific crack has not got worse since the street view pictures were taken in 2008 and so appears to be long-standing and not anything to worry about.
In the survey the pictures are of things you – the emptor – should consider carefully as part of your caveating. There, look – we’ve told you; we don’t think it’s serious, but – if it turns out to be – don’t say you weren’t warned…
You can contrast these tightly composed pictures with the expansive wide shots of my flat (or indeed the house that we are buying) from the estate agents’ sales brochures. There the pictures are about conjuring up as much space as possible and drawing you in to imagine living in such a place with ‘high ceilings’ and a ‘large kitchen diner’ opening onto a ’50 foot garden’… Yes please!
Most of the pictures I see in my day-to-day life are presented to me as hooks, designed to get my attention and draw me into reading some text. That text tends to tell me what it is I’m looking at, particularly if there is any potential ambiguity in what the image ‘is of’.