Extract from my Independent Project Proposal:
Throughout the last module I feel the ‘Garden Book Club’ work was some of my strongest, helped by my growing knowledge of practice as research. During the module I struggled to pinpoint the practice and now I have done this I feel it would be an important time to concentrate on honing it further through my independent project. I am going to concentrate on exploring it further by strengthening the research aspects and integrating this with a developing practice that holds more purpose when relating it back to theoretical work. The outcomes at this stage will be documented and reflected within a physical sketchbook as well as continuing with my online journal. At present, I predict the work will be presented in book form, most likely accompanied by a group/individual exhibition.
‘The are actions, recognitions, and judgments which we know how to carry out spontaneously; we do not have to think about them prior to or during their performance, We are often aware of having learned to do things; we simply find ourselves doing them. In some cases, we were once aware of the understandings which were subsequently internalized in our feeling for the stuff of action. In other cases, we may have never been aware of them. In both cases, however, we are usually unable to describe the knowing which our action reveals’ (Schön, 1983, pp 49-69)
Reflecting-in-action requires a certain level of existing tacit knowledge upon which spontaneous judgments can be trusted and made. Prior to starting the independent project, I had begun to build confidence in my practice by shifting the worry of the ‘end product’ to attempting to work through my practice questions by making. By doing this, I was able to take risks and essentially ‘take myself by surprise’ with my own practice. Knowing for a long time that I wanted to start to explore research areas such as nostalgia, the photo book as a distribution vehicle and use of the found image but feeling like I had no solid way of confidently researching, I have been making decisions based on my last decision made, and reflecting-in-action as I go, using only past work and a rough research plan as my guide. This has worked well for my progress as a practitioner and the project as a whole, as the creative risks (using a newspaper instead of an exhibition, eliminating other media for the project concentrating on collage) have assisted the ‘overallness’ of GBC as it stands and demonstrates a clear journey from a complex unresolved idea. Reflecting back to this time, it is easy for me to see how it has matured and changed in both content and strength, shaping to fit the areas where my theoretical interests lie.
As a photographer, documentation has generally been a well-debated part of my arts practice and one I have commented on throughout my MA. Documenting photographs in situ didn’t hold much value to me, and as Nelson (2013) comments, I was held with a constant fear my practice will eventually be subjugated to the writing elements leaving visual documentation in a firm second place. As the photographs in the last post show, I have distributed the Garden Book Club newspaper in York and Leeds. Documenting this event was not only essential to the process to prove it had taken place, it also holds value of the newspaper. Rye commented on DVD recordings not being able to capture the essence or magic of an original performance, lessening the event by reproduction. This is the same way I feel about photographing photographs, there isn’t really much value held by doing so. Photographing the newspaper in situ however, does not lessen its value but rather strengthens the outreach it has to further audiences. Furthermore, it did not interfere with the process, distribution or affect any future exchanges of the newspaper between possible readers or viewers. To photograph it taking place was simply to document the overall performativity of the project, a cataloguing exercise for a personal archive.
Nelson, R. (2013). ‘Supervision, Documentation and other Aspects of Praxis’. In. Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances. Palgrave: London pp 71-92
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books: New York.
Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal book Image Music Text:
As for the other meaning, the third, the one ‘too many’, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive, I propose to call it the obtuse meaning. The word springs readily to mind and, miracle, when its etymology is unfolded, it already provides us with a theory of the supplementary meaning
Working with the everyday and generic found photographs, in itself doesn’t cause much concern for interest. However, with the collage works I have most recently received feedback on, the same comments kept coming up. People commented on the fact that the collages were humorous, playful, sometimes a little dark – but they were not entirely sure why as the imagery used was already familiar to them. Separately, a catalogue photograph of a plant is indeed just that, a photograph of a plant. A photograph taken from a bowling technique handbook is under most circumstances, quite a dull image. When paired together, these original, intended meanings still exist but a new, third meaning comes into play. This is the case for a lot of photographic images that are presented in an art context. William Eggleston took a colour documentary photograph of a tricycle from a low angle. I know what the purpose of the trike is, a child’s play thing, and I can understand why Eggleston chose the subject matter for its colour and shape, a nod to childhood and nostalgia perhaps (the obvious meaning). Portraying such a photograph in a gallery at, say, 3ft by 3ft rather than the 6×4 prints we are familiar with in albums, opens up the audiences’ mind to search for a third meaning where they can look beyond the intended narrative and begin to unravel the photograph for themselves. For me, the trike photograph in question not only makes me recall a memory of falling off a trike quite similar and putting all my bottom teeth through my lip, but makes me think of the trike’s owner. Where was he when this photograph was made? Was Eggleston aware of the owner or was it seen in passing? Had he in fact fallen from the trike and sustained the same injuries that I did? Okay, so attaching memory to a photograph isn’t quite what Barthes had in mind for the third meaning but my interpretation of the photograph has taken place because I am presented with such familiar information removed from its original context, in turn creating a third meaning. If you were to see the same image in a family album in the loft, you would probably glance past it as quite a banal image. Documentary photography that seems mundane and dull actually possesses a strong will to draw the third meaning from its audience, enabling them to look round the subject matter, behind the imagery and into the supplementary meaning, due to its more obvious stature to start with.
John Walker writes about the ‘third-effect’ meaning in his essay Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning in relation to text and image within advertising. Having a strong image and adding a carefully selected pun or witty comment can entirely change how the audience views the advert- creating a third meaning from the juxtaposition of the two elements. Habitualisation of elements of life, reinforced by the media and messages we receive make us feel conditioned that things that happen do so through a natural order of things.
When this natural order or tacit knowledgeis disrupted, the mind creates other solutions, other meanings. The collages I create do just this, people should be familiar with plants, and with imagery of people from the past yet they are not familiar with the juxtapostions that the collages become, making them an object of the absurd, turning sense into nonsense. Creating an artificial world is something that photography and art excel at, and begs authors and audiences over and over to question what they think their reality actually is or whether it actually exists in imitation, reflection or stark contrast to our ‘non-artificial’ world and the relationships between. Filip Hotovy discusses the notion of photography’s reputation for representing the real, which was once it’s key selling point. We look at photographs and see a moment we insist on believing that has happened- a connection to the non-artificial world at some stage in time. However, this means we discard the immobilised objects and faces, discard the fact that the world is not in fact black and white and that the photographer’s intentions were intended to be innocent. Where does the realism lie when all this is removed from the interpretation? Contemporary photography has addressed this through embracing the artificial worlds that it can create, leading to a boom in collage and manipulated imagery from Broomberg+Chanarin, Stezaker, Henner and Gordon taking over centre stage from the likes of Capa, Frank, Arbus and Friedlander.
Dutch photography critic Ralph Prins (1969) describes the photo book as
‘An autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film.’
The photo book has been a fundamental means of expression and dissemination since some of the earliest practitioners pasted their images into books where sketches would have once sat. 19th century photography’s place was the library or the archive, as it was seen as a tool for making and recording rather than an art form in its own right. In this archive would sit many prints and contact sheets, as well as photo books. When photography was seemingly accepted into the mainstream art world, these photo books were then pulled apart and separated into gallery worthy prints. Photo books have the potential to be much more far-reaching than exhibitions, and can continue long after an exhibition has closed.
I am interested in exploring the value that a photo book holds as an object, as an art piece, or how it can form a vehicle for exhibition or transporting work to a more general audience. An avid collector and admirer of the photo (and artist) books, I am very much inclined to agree with Prins’ grand statement placing the photo book’s value up there with much loved and well established art forms. When presented on their own, photographs may not work as the creator intended. Many photographers shoot work imagined as a series, rather than a singular image. Photographs may lose character as things alone, but can become the words, sentences or paragraphs forming this ‘dramatic event’ called a book, where their message can be translated in a strong and bold manner (Badger, 2004).
From a pragmatic viewpoint, photo books need a number of elements in order to make them work as an object in their own right, or indeed give succinct reason to why they are presented in such a way. The work inside the book should be able to work as a ‘concise world’ (Gossage, 2002) as well as be complimented by intricate and detailed design decisions to encourage an ongoing interest. After beginning my research into this area, I began to think about what it was about photo books that I loved and why I was insistent on presenting both my photography and collage work (Ducks Nanny, Paradise, Garden Book Club) in such a way, right from the making stages.
Photography viewed in galleries excites me, but at the same time is a little daunting. It seems almost too serious to have your work framed and placed in an empty white space. When visiting shows, I more often than not get annoyed with my own reflection in the frame glass whilst attempting to press my nose up to seek out detail. Photo books do not fill me with this annoyance or feeling of daunt. More often than not the extra detail (or no detail, in some cases) presents me with new information about the ideas of the photographer and how they really want to show off their work. Colour choices, images, text all play an extra part in the photos that are offered up in a photo book. Photography is a mass medium, and one that is exploited each and every day. Photo books manage to carry this mass medium at the same time as embracing both technical and aesthetical aspects of the character. They are tactile objects designed for handling, for owning, for putting on your shelf and reading for reference whenever you see fit. This separates exhibition and publication for me- as nice as seeing shows is, I always want to take them home and remember them forever. Ask me about a show I didn’t manage to get the catalogue for… I won’t be able to tell you much about it. You are encouraged to handle photo books (how else would you read them?) something highly frowned upon in the gallery setting, where barriers or glass often set you apart from the work.
Through my exploration of the history of the photo book as an object, I found that artists in the 20th century embraced cheaply made, easily distributed photo books as a way to free themselves from the ‘deadening of museum culture’, a trend that has continued on and has become an option for replacement of the standard photography show. Photo books can be seen to bridge the gap between the aesthetic and the contextual, linking art directly with the mass medium.
Most contemporary photographers use both exhibition and photo book (of some description, whether it be catalogue, zine, magazine or artist book) to disseminate their work and ideas. At some point in the making of a project, they will ask the question of book or wall, when considering the execution of it overall. In a field where there are countless outputs for work, the final outcome will affect the making of the work to some degree, with photographers gearing their style and project towards huge mural style prints, or using lo-fi technologies with the intention of photocopying their prints into a limited run zine, Daido Moriyama style (Tate, 2012). By deciding these factors, practitioners are also affecting what type of work it will be, whether it will be geared towards a high end commercial gallery or unlimited fertility through production of a book.
The collage work I am producing at the moment begs the question of display. Printed too big, the work becomes advertising. Printed too small, the technical aspects of the pieces are sometimes lost. I have always enjoyed the transferability of a book: between people, between places and making people talk. Presenting my photographic practice as exhibition has always posed issues, as I feel the actual outcome never really meets the expectation of desired outcome in my mind, whether it is due to financial or space restrictions, or time restraints imposed by deadlines. As aforementioned, photos can often be lost as singular images (although sometimes their effect is more powerful alone) and by presenting my current practice as a photo book; it becomes a much more strong and constructed project as a whole. In previous blog posts I have discussed my work being more concerned with the process than the outcome, and by producing a photo book I have managed to encompass both elements by being entirely in control throughout, and being satisfied with the outcome at last.
Badger, G., Parr., M. (2004). The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.
Gossage, J. (2002). As cited in Parr, M., Badger, G., (2004) The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.
Prins, R. (1969) In conversation with Cas Oorthuys, quoted in Bloom, M., Suermondt, R., (2002) Photography Between the Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photo Book After 1945. Fragment Uitgeverij: Amsterdam
Tate Gallery (2012) Daido Moriyama Printing Show. [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/music-and-live-performance/daido-moriyama-printing-show accessed 6th May