Third effect: When sense becomes nonsense

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.


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“What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Roland Barthes

RIP Pat Butcher, Forever in our hearts.

I, in turn do not blame Mel Gibson and his films for all the hurt and despair in the world, although I do hold Patricia Louise Evans (nèe Harris; previously Beale, Wicks and Butcher) somewhat responsible for the co-existence that resides outside of reality. The cross over; in that we find ourselves so immersed with fantasy lives other than our own, possesses some people to purchase and send condolences cards to the BBC for a character that never actually existed, let alone died. Sending these gifts to the BBC rather than the fictional address in Walford where Pat resided, shows a definite understanding that the character isn’t in fact in real, causing a strange in-between limbo land where neither reality or fiction is present.

Is this in fact our gateway to dealing with reality? In 1995, over 24 million viewers watched Pat Butcher run over a teenage girl. With no consequences. No voyeurism charges, no inappropriate viewing of a tragic accident. Fantasy reality is our window to seeing these things happen and being able to go to bed knowing you will sleep soundly. As Richard Flood states in the opening essay of Unmonumental,

“Reality is a collage composed of whatever grabs our attention and the competition is limitless”

Which can directly relate to the issues surrounding dealing with us in the now. Watching other people’s lives play out in exaggerated misery and frequent tragedy not only allows audiences to disengage with themselves, their families and their immediate lives, but allows their direct stare to be cast into both the past and future, avoiding the present.

“Photographs…an imperfect means by which we fill the voids of memory in modern culture, to preserve the remnants of a world that has disappeared” (Lippard, 1997, pp 56)

Living in such a digitally sound age, with the opportunity to share any thought, image or memory to the eager key tapping world has taken away the enjoyment of the current and replaced it with an over consuming fear of not being to recall the moment in the future. Ironically, these digitally posted reminders exist solely on an network of non-existent data which in fact, could disappear at any given time- making the events we recorded for the future probably less concrete than before. We no longer enjoy an art gallery, we scout for the ‘no photography’ sign before loading up our iPhones with captures of the artworks, to relay later. A bad substitute at best. The photographic work of Hattie Coltrane makes is hugely guilty of this, capturing the memories and emotions she is so desperate to cling onto. Instead of immersing herself in the time, thoughts and feelings, she casts it to one side for future referral- causing in turn, a huge catch 22.

Working within everyday themes and in particular with banality and objects, the work is often a little too abstract to recall the initial intentions. Baudrillard states:

“Not to say all objects are mechanically substituted for an absent relation, to fill a void no; they describe the void” (Baudrillard, cited in Keller, 1994, pp 22).

This is particularly interesting when thinking of the photograph as a tool for recalling memory or emotion. As soon as the emotional intensity of a situation has been left, or forgotten, it cannot be recalled. A photograph will never take you back there, however it will act as a constant reminder that it wasn’t dealt with properly in the first place or at the right time. Continually boomeranging through time with perpetual strings tugging onto the past and future causes an awful dismay in Coltrane’s earlier works.

So how can this limbo between reality/non-reality, presence/memory, past/future, and photographer/photography be dealt with in a successful way? Coltrane seems have begun investigating this, by intervening in an existing visual culture. Many traditional photography users, when asked by nosy intruders “why do you still cling on to analogue when digital is easier/quicker/better etc?” reply with “because I enjoy the process”. That isn’t in fact a loaded answer, but the truth from somebody who doesn’t enjoy the instant but enjoys the reflection. Shooting a frame onto film that cannot be discarded until way after development helps to assess the choices that have influenced the frame in the first place. An inspiration, an emotion will be captured onto perhaps, an abstract representation of that particular moment and can be reflected on days, maybe weeks or even months after shooting. The analogue camera then becomes the driving force on recording the world, without placing a brick wall in between enjoying the time in the present and also looking at it again in the future. There is no digital screen to ponder over whilst missing the next inspirational scene, no slight camera error that becomes the powerful force towards the delete button. Instantaneous reactions such as this, disallows the artist to go back and change their mind in a new light, leaving such mistakes a distant memory. How ironic, when chronic photographers are attempting to record every single minute of each living day for recollection in the future.

The camera is a tool, and can be manipulated in any way both during and after processes. But what happens when the scenes become less awe inducing, less commemorative? The camera then becomes less used and more of a hindrance, a constant reminder of the growing negativity surrounding our society today.

Existing imagery can be a catalyst for creativity in photographers. They know good photographs, and if their imagination cannot be expressed entirely in their own photographic practice, perhaps it can be sought out in that of others. This idea of intervening in a visual culture that already exists is a way of sitting firmly in the limbo, but making your own comfortable unique seat in the process. Becoming the forward slash in an established image heavy world can then produce a new, refreshing way to highlight the post postmodern culture we deal with today. Adapting imagery taken from sources published over 30 years ago, can cut the photographic middle man from the equation, who ever tries to seek out the perfect photograph to speak for them, by already presenting a platform of political/philosophical representation, ready for manipulation for us in the now, without letting it pass us by. The world still turns; everything is fine. It is a quick way of working, a way of photographical vomit that splurges our creative desires without turning our backs on today.

“Simultaneously tantalizing and unsatisfying…struck by their [photographs] unbridgeable distance, consistent failure to represent what I really want to see and know about the past- it seems if all the ‘wrong pictures’ were taken” (Lippard, 1997, pp 57)

The selection of imagery that already has had its decisions made for it can begin to throw up another set of theories and intrigue. Surely, there must be some subconscious way how the imagery is selected, whether it is content, colour or statement. Gender, in particular women, is a theme that rears itself in this work and in quite a suggestive manner. Sexuality, the woman as an object and domestic roles are all seemingly apparent in the finished manipulation, but was that the intent in the first place? Barthes states:

“..Pulls subjects apart until you forget about what you were describing in the first place” (Barthes, 2009, pp 131)

The difference in initial selection and the finished piece are reminiscent of that mentioned earlier. Shooting a photograph digitally, takes away the time of musing, control and change by thrusting it straight into the operator’s hands and potential threat. Forgetting why you originally selected an image to intervene in visual culture with isn’t a problem, but the themes that rise can link back to the issue with dealing with reality and yourself in the now.

Hiding in limbo can thus, maybe be just as bad.

Revisiting old friends

With my practice taking a somewhat backwards  (circular, maybe?) turn towards the processes and fundamentals of photography and image, I thought it may be relevant to re read some key theoretical texts that first inspired me when establishing my practice. These texts; such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Victor Burgin, were both an inspiration and prevalent whilst learning about the darkroom, the processes involved  in making an image and thinking of ways to personalise the practice. I feel almost like I have gone full circle from these first few experiences- shooting predominantly in black and white, moving onto colour, digital forms and then now back to the darkroom experimental techniques. I want to further examine these texts for new meaning, and hopefully be able to relate a little more to them now I have gone through the motions myself. Roland Barthes- Image, Music, Text, and Camera Lucida are up first. One of the first texts I read in my University seminars.