Monthly Archives: August 2018

reflection point – on looking out of train windows

How often do you see people walking and reading their texts or on the train and reading their tablet rather than enjoying the view? What are we missing when we do that?

– IaP Coursebook, p.106

In its final chapter – The City and its Discontents –  of Sudjic (2017), the idea is floated that – by burying themselves in a screen – pedestrian city-dwellers lose their ability to navigate their streets deftly, becoming instead less of a citizen and – like (bloody) tourists – more of an obstacle to people who know where they’re going. Certainly, you become less aware of the space you are passing through. Like listening to music on headphones, you become less present, more abstracted. You have ceased to be in the here and now.

When it comes to journeys, I value the sense of time-out  far too much to try and remain engaged with the quotidian of my regular life. I certainly never try to work, unless I absolutely have to. I may read, or I may play with photography from a train’s window, or just to lose myself in the movement and of being in motion through somewhere. Travel takes place in a corridor as  – in the case of railway, literally – you follow a line through the geography of the country, rarely seeing much beyond a few hundred yards on either side of the track.

So, on a journey to Manchester for work, I put down my newspaper and switched off my laptop, forgetting to take a picture for the series I was making for exercise 5.1; Instead I started to stare out of the window, and – in the spirit of Georges Perec – began making notes of what I saw.

25-vi-18 Stuff seen from the Manchester train, looking east.

  • A cluster of 6 or so wind turbines
  • A remarkable banked tilt as we approached (and then went under) a motorway – vehicles, sheets of metal standing like gravestones and – I think – some real beehives
  • Colwich Memorial Garden
  • A park of OpenReach, Thames Water and (orange) RAC vans
  • A blue portaloo at the far corner of a field, after a caravan with a factory (concrete?) in the background
  • Pink-wrapped hay bales dotted over a field
  • Sheep dotted over a field
  • Industry – modern steel shell and victorian brick
  • Farms
  • Pylons, overhead electricity – POWER!
  • People on Platforms, waiting for trains
  • Graffiti
  • Was that a castle on a hill? With a village?
  • Some sort of huge comms mast on the horizon; contrails overhead (photo)
  • -> Arriving in Macclesfield
  • Steel Fences to keep people off the track
  • Stairs so people can get down to the track if they’ve got keys for the gate
  • A pregnant woman in a red and white striped top at Macclesfield; a man in lycra with a bike; a man with an interesting tube/container thing

fig.1 macclesfield

  • Facing forward, I see what’s coming
  • 5 brown cows on a hillside, straddling a path between some trees. How now.
  • Green (grass, trees) – Blue (sky) – Grey (gravel, stone, concrete)
  • Steps up to a green painted footbridge over the railway
  • Stations we don’t stop at; the signs blur past, too fast to be read
  • ‘Polish flag’ signs at bridges
  • Back gardens glimpsed through trees
  • An old(ish) woman in a shocking pink skirt and bikini top in the sun taking down the washing in the back garden of her cubic postwar house
  • Brown brick; grey slate
  • A train whizzing past, going the way I’ve just come
  • Greened up copper on a roof
  • NCP car parks
  • Tethered bikes and golden dried grass like a horse’s mane poking out of gravel at Stockport
  • Chimneys
  • The tradesman’s entrance to cities
  • Regent House Travelodge (blue); Redrock Stockport (red, funnily enough)
  • A rusty metal footbridge – Ardwick – with the Etihad (?) stadium in the background
  • Cranes, construction all around as we near Piccadilly

There are many precedents for taking photographs from trains, and Dyer in The Ongoing Moment makes a strong case for train travel leading to a different, more serendipitous perspective upon a country than the road trips across the USA made by photographers such as Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand in the sixties. He cites Walker Evans’ in some of his pieces for Fortune Magazine or Paul Fusco’s pictures of people lining the tracks, taken from the train carrying the coffin of Bobby Kennedy from New York to Arlington almost exactly 50 years ago.

Beyond photography, I immediately found myself thinking of Phillip Larkin’s poem, The Whitsun Weddings, where the view from a stopping train leads to a reverie on marriage and what it means and on Larkin’s being single when so many people are not. And how Larkin took photographs (and was good at it, too).

fig.2 – from an earlier journey,  heading home from Nottingham

It’s quite hard, maintaining concentration as you watch the country and the towns slip past and make notes; you do end up making connections and thinking about things, based on what  you have seen and how you relate to it. On your phone (more so than reading a book or the paper – I don’t know) you are abstracted from you surroundings, you are somewhere else rather than in the here and now.

Reference:

  • Sudjic, Deyan (2017) The Language of Cities. London, Penguin
  • Larkin, Phillip (1964) The Whitsun Weddings (in the collection The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, London)
  • Dyer, Geoff (2006) The Ongoing Moment Abacus, London.

 

exercise 5.1: still life

fig.1 – a pair of converse; a couple of summers

Create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people.

You could do this with your camera phone to reflect the vernacular and transient nature of these moments or you could choose to use high-quality imagery to give these moments gravitas, like Nigel Shafran. Your technical decisions should back up your ideas, so write a short reflective commentary detailing these decisions and the reasons for them.

– IaP coursebook p.105

1: Moving House:

For most of the time I’ve been working my way through this module, I’ve have also been in the process of selling my house and buying another with my partner. Last month, after various false starts, all the process turned into reality and we actually moved. I had lived there for nearly ten years and it had been home to Fiona and our daughter Alice for the last five. It’s amazing how much crap you can amass in that time…

I didn’t want to move a load of junk from one house to another, but I didn’t want just to bin it before the move either. I set up a simple plain backdrop (a roll of paper) and lit it with a diffused strobe in my attic workroom. I used this to take photographs of a lot of the things that had been put aside for one reason or another and then even managed to bin some of them. The pair of shoes at the top of this post are one example.

Then,while a lot of the stuff that had built up in corners or on top of wardrobes or in the attic had no real structure to it, other areas had been put together in a considered way. There was the shelf at the top of the stairs up from the front door, the pin board covered in local announcements and post cards sent by friends, the magnets commemorating journeys stuck to the fridge, the galleries of pictures on Alice’s bedroom walls and there was the living room mantelpiece. I wanted to record these carefully, as they had a lot of potential to describe who we were and what we had done while we lived in the house. The living room mantelpiece had the best mix of all of us, so it is the one I include here.

fig.2 – fiona, alice and simon (after mass observation)

This is the mark two (or maybe even three) mantelpiece – I had cleared it before using it as a stage upon which to construct a still life for an early Art of Photography Exercise four years ago and since then the objects on it have shifted and grown in number. I’d tied in the exercise to Mass Observation’s 1937 directive to new observers: REPORT ON MANTLEPIECES which used the objects found on mantelpieces (the idea was you would do your own and then repeat the task with other people’s) as a way to describe the people who lived in a house – picking up on the surrealists’ interest in objets trouve and tying in intriguingly with the idea examined in my previous post of using objects as metaphor. It ended with an exhortion to ‘If possible, also take photographs of mantlepieces.’ So I did.

I wanted the resulting photograph to be detailed and able to be printed pretty much life size. I put my DSLR on a tripod, aligned for a portrait. I fitted my shift lens (which – as well as allowing in camera perspective correction when you’re photographing buildings – allows the lens to be moved to make stitched together panoramas without moving the camera itself. I set up a pair of speed-lights on either side of the mantlepiece, angled fairly flatly along the chimney breast and firing through umbrellas to diffuse the light a bit. I stopped well down to increase the depth of focus and upped the stobes’ output accordingly.

The final, landscape panorama was stitched together from three images in lightroom – one with the lens centred and one each with the lens shifted to the left and the right. You can clearly make out objects and associate them with one or two or all of us. Our new house has no mantlepiece; perhaps this picture could be printed and hung on the wall where one once would have been. Perhaps though, we may just let  a new set of expressions of who we are build up and keep this (and the other photos from Hibbert Road) as a record of what was.

2: Wherever I Lay My Laptop

My main place of work is a ‘hot desk environment’ – when you go home at the end of the day. you are supposed to leave the desk you worked at cleared of all evidence of your having been there, ready for someone else to sit there tomorrow (or later in the day, if people work shifts). I  spend a day a week working at home and when I am visiting my son in Glasgow, that home may not be mine. Sometimes I visit other parts of the UK and work at our offices there; I try to work on trains, or in hotel rooms. As well as my laptop, there is other stuff that is constant: I drink a lot of tea and coffee; there are notebooks containing relevant (and irrelevant) information; if I am not in a  conventional office, I need the single-use code generator that lives with my keys to connect to central servers over the internet. Where these sit in relation to the laptop changes from place to place as I build my working environment each day…

I could do more of these – there is not a picture made at the new house yet, and there are other premises, in other cities where I sometimes find myself working – but this selection gives an idea of something – my laptop and my view of it – remaining constant while the things around it change. It might be too grand to describe my daily construction of somewhere to work as making a daily sculpture, but there is certain degree of ritual to it and – if someone – an observer – looked at what I was doing, there could be seen to be an element of performance in this. These photographs,  taken with my ‘notebook’ camera – a fujifilm X100s, which lives in my work bag – form a partial record of these daily performances and begin to become a part of it. Continuing to take these over a period of time, a viewer could tell a lot about me; other people who have no fixed location for their work could identify with the viewpoint these pictures are taken from; day by day they would grow into a body of work…


And now, is this a still life?

fig.4 – isolated mantelpiece object #7 

I think it may be.

At the same time I was packing stuff away before moving, I set up a diffused stobe and a paper backdrop to act as a small ‘stage’ for taking photographs of individual objects, stripped of their context. This creature can be seen along to the right in the picture of the mantelpiece. Where fig.2 could be placed towards the documentary end of a spectrum running from found to constructed, this lies at the other extreme, tending towards the status of an advertising pack shot. Similarly fig.1 is devoid of context but perhaps alludes to such ideas as ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ and life as a journey. There is scope for the viewer to inject some of their own sense of self into my photograph, or possibly just to identify something of me and the things I may have done while wearing my battered Converse.

In the chapter on Still Life in Bate (2012) there is discussion of how the blank background of this sort of commercial photography can be seen as representing  death or eternity while the object pictured stands between the viewer and their inevitable demise. I like this as an underlying concept, with its beginning of an idea of what certain strands of my photography may be ‘for’. I think I shall try and develop this further, but probably not during the time remaining to me during this module…

 


Reference:

Bate, D. (2012) Photography – The Key Concepts Bloomsbury, London

Part 5: Research Point 1 – Metaphor and Photography

We are asked to read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ of Charlotte Cotton’s  The Photograph as Contemporary Art and then to consider the following:

To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography? When might it fall down?

– IaP Coursebook p.99

There is not a single mention of Metaphor  in Chapter 4 of Cotton, so I decided to do a bit of clarifying research. I found this online:

‘A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.

Here are the basics:

metaphor states that one thing is another thing

It equates those two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or symbolism

If you take a metaphor literally, it will probably sound very strange (are there actually any sheep, black or otherwise, in your family?)

Metaphors are used in poetry, literature, and anytime someone wants to add some color to their language’

– Alice E.M. Underwood, Grammarly Blog


While I’m not really sure whether a classical rhetorical figure that is primarily concerned with written or spoken language can be applied directly to photographs without some bending and twisting,  to return to Magritte and that pipe that is not a pipe, and the first of Underwood’s statements (‘a metaphor states that one thing is another thing’) every photograph could be seen as a metaphor. What you see is a photograph, not the object portrayed. This just takes us back to discussions of indexicality (the seeming ability of the object photographed to have made its own image) and ontology (what photographs are); but it does not move us any further forward than that.

Then, with a bit more thought, you could take most of the work considered in Cotton’s chapter as the photographer taking a thing (a collection of objects found complete or assembled over the course of the photographer’s day or some action carried out by them) and saying simply ‘This is art!’ or even better ‘This is my art!’ The metaphorical content answers the standard question ‘Why did you photograph that?’ or ‘What is that a photograph of?’

As such, any photograph that is not presented as a documentary record  (another metaphor of course) could be acting out the post-Duchampian  dialogue described by Grayson Perry in Playing to the gallery (2014) – ‘this is art, because I – as an artist – say it is’. Each photograph becomes Post-Modernism in action. Bam! Ka-Pow! (as Roy Lichtenstein might have said).


Traditionally, figures of speech are primarily concerned with the rhetorical use of language, with the creation of specific meaning for an audience. The most obvious way to perform this sort of linguistic task with a photograph is through the titling. The contrast between the words and what is depicted can be used in a way that is productive of a meaning.

As a title,  ‘Quiet Afternoon’ does nothing to tell you what  is literally depicted  (a courgette a carrot and a grater balanced  on a green tablecloth. against a green background) in Fischli and Weiss’ photograph depicted on page 115 of Cotton’s book; it does describe the circumstances that led to its production. As such you can easily imagine the scene – two men, bored, passing the time by making ‘a sculpture’ from things that are to hand. The photograph is a record of their activity during this ‘Quiet Afternoon.’

(Many years ago, during our long summer vacations, my friends and I would sit in the back bar of the Queen’s Hotel in Kirkwall, making towers of our empty beer glasses. A photograph of the tower, could be titled ‘An evening with friends (1983).’ As such, it could be far more evocative than any photograph we actually did take at the time. Other people would be able to extrapolate from it what had been going on and what was depicted. I wish I had taken the time to make that picture, then. Now, in the unlikely event of finding myself in similar circumstances, I hope I would.)

The title ‘Untitled’ takes this one stage further, inviting the viewer to provide their own title and association for what it is they are looking at.  The empty bed depicted in Felix Gonzales-Torres’ 1991 untitled billboard invites your own metaphorical meaning – it becomes a picture of absence, of someone who is no longer in the bed, of the effect AIDS had on beds all over the world. Or there is the ‘Untitled’ of William Eggleston’s Memphis (and elsewhere) prompting the viewer to help in the creation of his semi-fictional 1960s American south…


This is all quite dry and cerebral – I could be over thinking things again – so, by way of an example: in May this year, I was over in Belfast for a couple of days’ work and had the evening to myself. As is my wont, I went for a walk with my camera. I passed an Orange Lodge and a park named after a Presbyterian minister. A number of gable ends had loyalist murals painted on them.

I photographed the murals in passing but knew I would probably never do anything with the pictures. They would form another layer of digital silt (a metaphor, by the way) on one of my hard drives. From time to time, I might see them in passing and then move on to something that would hold my attention for longer. If I am honest, I take a lot of photographs like that.

Then the way the light was falling on some litter in a carpark caught my eye.

There was some tangerine peel. And it was orange!

fig.1: majority – belfast

A bottle, caught by the low light, was very green standing out against the neutral grey of the compacted gravel!

fig.2: minority – belfast

I changed my angle to put them together within a single frame  getting an awkwardly balanced composition!

fig.3: power sharing – belfast

And then of course, as I add the pictures to my blog, here, I give the pictures apposite titles. I don’t anchor the text, instead I try to create a relay. Let the viewer find the links. And there you are!

I have succeeded (I think) in capturing and presenting a train of thought. Which is of course, yet another metaphor. There is also the tension between what is actually depicted – rubbish, waste, redundant packaging that has been discarded – and the still all too current (undiscarded) associations of ‘green’ and ‘orange’ in Belfast. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but nor is it the worst.

You can do quite a lot with three images and some words, if only you can find some way of activating their possibilities. Rhetoric and figures of speech can be a way of doing this.


The potential weakness with all this lies in the way that any metaphor’s meaning is both historically and culturally determined. They seldom achieve either universality or constancy over time. If the metaphor’s comparison is outside the viewer’s frame of reference it may go unnoticed or possibly simply be misunderstood. I’m sure there are things in Daido Moriyama’s photographs that I do not pick up on, because I simply don’t know enough about Japanese culture at the time they were produced. Also, metaphors – like radioactive elements – tend to have a form of half-life as they decay and lose their impact with the strangeness that is an important part of their impact dissipating into cliche.

In 1991, Gonzales-Torres’ billboards may have chimed with an atmosphere of AIDS-awareness messages; now, twenty seven years later, that isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of (and Cotton, half-way between then and now already needed to make this association explicit in her book). Meanings change over time; so do associations.


In the end, a metaphor is just another possible punctum consciously placed there for the viewer to find. It may work for individuals, but is unlikely to grab and hold everyone. Over time it may lose it’s impact, becoming a dead metaphor (black sheep of the family is a nice example of this). A metaphor’s strength sis derived from its strangeness. Over time clashing ideas may cease to chime in a viewer’s head; in the end the vivid rhetorical image may lose its tang. After the passage of enough time, you might end up with the photograph just being a photograph…


Sylvia:

‘Colin – your muscles are like bands of steel!’

Colin:

Your similes will get you nowhere, Sylvia – it’s metaphors or nothing with me…

Sylvia (Later, after some research):

 Colin – your muscles are bands of steel!

Colin:

‘My Darling…’

 

Part of  a lesson on figures of speech given by George Rendall to class 1E at Kirkwall Grammar School, c. 1977. From memory.

If I remember aright, Colin was Colin Liddle and Sylvia, Sylvia Aim.


Reference:

  • Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson
  • Underwood, A E.M (2015) Metaphor. Post On Grammarly Blog (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/metaphor/) accessed 26/7/18