Jeff Wall: In order to make a picture

I have a few documentaries recorded on my PVR which I haven’t got around to watching yet, so a few nights ago I made a start. The movie director, Lu Nelson “provides an insider’s look at the work and process of world renowned Vancouver photographer Jeff Wall. The documentary was created as a portrait of Wall working in the studio and on location in the process of making two works: Spring Snow and Woman Covered with a Tray.

Commentaries were interspersed throughout the documentary by Peter Galassi, former Chief Curator of MOMA, Willard Holmes, COO Museum of Fine Art in Houston and former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery and Jean-Francois Chevrier, Art Historian, Curator and author. My notes consist of selected transcriptions, made mainly be these three people and a few quotes from Wall.

Jeff Wall
  • Wall crafts images, gradually building it up. Makes images that transmit and transform – his work constantly responds to the present. Transforms the tradition of the pictorial reinventing it first and transforms it by reinventing it.
  • Wall: “I want to slow photography down – slowing the time down by overcoming obstacles in order to make a picture”.
  • Wall’s compositions were inspired by things he had seen. By ‘seen things’ he was picking up on the famous expression of Victor Hugo: ‘seen things’.
  • The realm of chronicles is completely surpassed in Wall’s work. He re-stages everything, he replays things that there is a work of composition – of re-composition – and this work of re-composition transforms and displaces the ‘seen thing’ and translates the specificity of the ‘seen thing’ into a generic figure and so obviously we can’t speak anymore of the specificity of the ‘seen thing’ because there is no longer any objectivity that one could isolate. There is a process: a process of transformation, a process of displacement, a process of figuration, quite simply.
  • Wall: “Failing in your own eyes leaves a residue of ambition. Not reactive, but making things happen.” He refers to his work as ‘cinematography’.
  • Wall on the difference of an image and picture. An image happens instantaneously. A picture – how it is constructed, holds onto ambiguity. Movement and life are incalculable and photography captures that.
  • Wall: “Every picture is a start-over situation”.
Reference List

Knowledge Network (2017). Jeff Wall: In Order to Make a Picture. Dir. Lu Nelson. The West Films. 45 min 01 sec. [Accessed 15 May, 2017]

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Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity (Walker Evans: Depth of Field Exhibition)

This talk considers Walker Evans’ photographic practice in light of international currents of documentary in the 1920s and 30s. Evans was certainly not alone in balancing the demands of working with state and corporate sponsors in his time. But why were documentary media considered to be such a central technique for political visualization of the era? And how do issues of authenticity persist in documentary practice today? Zoë Druick is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology and Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Vancouver Art Gallery

This was an extremely interesting lecture and I’m so glad it is preserved on video because I will probably go back and watch it later down the line again if I do the documentary module in level 2. Below are some brief notes from Druick’s lecture.

  • We are constantly thinking and talking about a hierarchy of ways of representing reality, some of which we think are more valid and more authentic than others. Take a look back and see how this was also the case in previous decades.
  • John Grierson in the 1920’s developed the origin of “documentary”. He defined it as “The creative treatment of actuality”. Good definition because it is so vague – it can be applied to just about any project. Grierson came up with this idea in response to political thinkers he studied with. American documentary tradition/British documentary tradition/Canadian documentary tradition were kept quite distinct but there was actually quite a flow of ideas and films and photos later between these spaces, also the USSR.
  • There are hierarchies of reality based forms:
    • Educational film
    • Government Information film
    • Industrial film
    • Newsreel
  • Documentary is a more heightened sense of authenticity than any of the other forms.
  • Real goal is to produce something which is geared to the present moment, but that will have some sort of more lasting artistic kind of ambition or accomplishment. This is done by combining information with emotion.
  • Experiments in USSR in art forms: see Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov – non fiction films of post revolution era. The focus was always on the revolution, reform of society – better for the common man, e.g. Rodchenko posters.
  • British films – documentary films took up residence in the Post Office. Made films showing the patterns of modern life, in particular social problems, political solutions e.g. film Night Mail.
  • Mass Observation group in Britain – tried to understand what ordinary working class people were thinking about the monarchy during this period (abdication of King Edward VIII). See Humphrey Spender’s Worktown People Photographs from Northern England 1937-38.
  • Indexical media that could show you something of the real world, to enable you to understand the crisis, to make it more than newsreel and different from propaganda.
  • American case – there was no official state sponsorship initially. However, US government was pushed to provide sponsorships as a result of harsh economic conditions and strife. People didn’t know what was happening across the country re the Great Depression. New Deal established relief agencies to publish information – later became FSA (1935-1938). Photos were circulated in magazines when news stories occurred. The goal was to identify the social problem and come up with a political solution.
  • Walker Evans was always distancing himself from the politics or the idea that his art was being tainted politically or was propaganda.
  • He pursues a non-intimate form of representation where he is always putting people into much larger contexts, either doing that in single images or he is doing that in sequencing of his images. Building little narratives that give you some insight into what people are going through.
Men in front of Savoy Barber Shop Vicksburg, Mississippi by Walker Evans

 

  • Signs in image are giving inter textual points of other information which help give you more context – sign on left reads New Deal Barber Shop. There is no appeal by the people in the image to the viewer – just going about their daily lives – not soliciting pity or concern.
  • Evans uses montage within single images – see A graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania November 1935. One can see the whole life of a town – where they live, where they work and where they dies and it provides this huge overview and then works on two levels:
    • as the document of this particular town;
    • as a larger comment on human life.
  • By way of comparison with the film that was made by the Works Progress Administration (flooding of the Mississippi – see Erosion near Jackson, Mississippi (erosion through over-logging); The Bessie Levee augmented with sandbags during the 1937 flood, near Tiptonville, Tennessee (building up of the levees to contain the river – small people in the much larger landscape) and Forrest City, Arkansas (flood victims).
  • Conveys a current and pressing event at the time – displacement of victims, construction of camps to house and feed them. But at the same time the way e presents them in the larger landscape which includes the layers of the tents and the wood depersonalizes it again, making it into a bigger and universal image of human displacement.
  • Strategies: social problem –> political solution. Case studies – Let us now praise famous men – atypical work for Evans – only work where he names the people and treats them as a case.
  • Another strategy – spatial strategy. Highlighting the multitude of different categories of individuals who are all operating within a kind of bounded spatial location. Evans was very influenced by August Sander and his project, People of the 20th Century. Can see Sanders’ influence in Evans work – Dock Workers, Havana 1933 and Coal Loader, Havana 1933. Full frontal, unadorned form of portraiture with generic titles without sentimentality. Not images that evoke a lot of pathos.

  • Another kind of spatial narrative which Evans was inspired by is typified by the City Symphony film. The spatial organization is the city and usually the time period is a single day in the city. Not political enough according to Grierson. See Lunch Counter and Men Eating lunch on steps.
  • Subway Portraits – don’t establish a relationship between photographer and subject (because of hidden camera) – no communication. Organization in grids – cinematic style of this work – each individual image is reliant on the assemblage for its meaning. Same can be said for Labor Anonymous.
  • Evans had an abiding interest in serial imagery.
  • With regards social problems – Evans rejects politics but he is always interested in people’s struggles and putting working class people into a bigger context. He does use the case study even if under duress with James Agee.
  • Uses a lot of spatial representation. His images are often put into relation with other images that give us a sense of overall multiplicity that is some how synchronized, whether through shared social experiences or shared spatiality.
  • All this becomes a distinctive way in which Evans works through the problem of documentary, which is not just about trying to find some thing beautiful in the every day but also about exploring and trying to convey some larger meaning about what you find.
  • Documentary has come full circle. First were re-enactments, then were shot as the events were happening, now back to re-enactments again. Rarely sponsored by states any more.
  • Documentary is a way and a genre to help us discuss and think through just how we come to know what we know and what we do with what we think we know about the world.
  • Evans show a struggle to establish documentary forms that on the one hand make social statements, and on the other hand and at the same time make lasting works of art, which is a hugely challenging goal.
Reference List

Vancouver Art Gallery (2017) Lecture: Zoë Druick, Documentary and the Politics of Authenticity [user-generated content online] Creat. Vancouver Art Gallery.  8 February, 2017.  1 hr 44 min 11 sec Available at https://vimeo.com/203204777 (Accessed 14 May, 2017)

Vancouver Art Gallery (n.d.) Video Documentation [online] Available at: http://vanartgallery.bc.ca/events_and_programs/videos.html [Accessed 14 May, 2017]

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Artist’s Talk: Wolfgang Tillmans

In October 2016 Wolfgang Tillmans gave a lecture at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I was unable to make the lecture but was very pleased to see that the lecture has been recorded and posted on the Vancouver Art Gallery’s website. The Canadian Art Foundation, in partnership with the Vancouver Art Gallery, hosted this talk with  Wolfgang Tillmans. Tillmans was joined in conversation by New York– and Toronto-based writer and critic Tom McDonough, a lead contributor to the recently published monograph Wolfgang Tillmans: What’s wrong with redistribution? (Walther König).

One of the most influential artists of his generation, Tillmans has radically redefined how photographic images are made, exhibited and encountered.

Vancouver Art Gallery (2016)

This talk was Tillmans’s first visit to Canada in more than 20 years.

I made brief notes while watching the video as he presented images from numerous bodies of work.

  • Clothes are great interest to him. What fascinates Tillmans is the air between our clothes and our body. The clothes are like a membrane between us and the outer world.
  • Borders: visible and perceived borders. Always shows his large scale photos as unframed prints.
  • Approach to his work – asks “is this possible?” Experimental approach works on conceptual, technical and contextual levels – looking at what colleagues have made in the past. Find architectural landscape fascinating.
  • “What’s wrong with redistribution?” exhibition. Truth study installation centre – table top installation consisting of 28 hollow-core doors, raised glass with space between photos and glass. Makes pictures with light-sensitive papers. All centred around truth or claims of truth e.g. articles of weapons of mass destruction in 1990’s.
  • Times Mirrored series – today is history – it is not so far away.
  • Distinguishes between his lens based work and non-lens based work. With his non-lens based work he likes to evoke associations of reality within the brain (with light sensitive papers).
  • Has an impure approach to the idea of authenticity. His work was often described as authentic pictures of youth (ref his nude photos taken in his 20’s) but he didn’t have a documentary approach or needed to be a chronicler. Mixed stated/unstaged and found/unfound situations. Doesn’t distinguish between them. Saw sexuality as the centre of the problems of the world. Doesn’t want sexuality to be sensationalist, just wants it to be part of normal life.
  • Doesn’t categorise his work into subject matter. Different subjects are treated as parallel. Always resists the paradigm of the serious.
  • Explained his Brexit campaign (image and text). Originally made posters typographically (no pictures), then realised they would be more emotive with images. Launched a campaign – something imbued in the pictures – ideas of a border. Intentions behind the camera go into the picture and become visible.
  • Installation strategy: Photography sits wonderfully on pages or in a magazine, but it can’t allow for spatial experience. he wants to make contemporary pictures in spaces – amazing laboratory. Never felt the reason that everything should be arranged in linear format. Uses floor to ceiling. Matrix that he has been using for the past 25 years is 10 x 15 cm then 30 x 40cm then 50 x 60 cm and then the large format prints. A page is flat. The interest in the gallery is showing the object of the print. What is often misinterpreted in the beginning as a grunge or slacker, careless attitude of just taping the prints to the wall, was actually an exploration of how he could show the purity of the naked sheet of photograph in a room without hiding it behind perspex or window mount or frames and he has always considered prints as very, very shallow cubes that have a dimension off the wall. They have space.
  • Some reoccurring questions regarding his use of space cropped up in the Q&A session. He emphasized that one has to have an awareness of the space – see if it touches or not, does it have a tiny bit of air or does it squash – depth is not often resolved in museums. One needs humility in front of the object. He doesn’t control everything. Observes cause and effect. The only thing in art that matters is the question “how is it made?”

The moment you think you have mastered something, you have lost it.

Wolfgang Tillmans (2016)

Reference List

Vancouver Art Gallery (2016).  Artist’s Talk: Wolfgang Tillmans [user-generated content online] Creat. The Candian Art Foundation and Vancouver Art Gallery. 5 January, 2017. 1 hr 47min 05 sec Available at: https://vimeo.com/198274114 (Accessed 13 May, 2017)

Bill Owens

While I was researching Karen Knorr, the one article I referenced mentioned the photographers and conceptual artists who inspired her. One of them was Bill Owens, so not being familiar with his work I decided to check him out. Owens is an American photographer, born in San Jose in 1938. In 1983 he started up a brew pub, Buffalo Bill’s which he operated for 11 years. After selling the brew pub he then went on to publish the magazine BEER and established The American Distilling Institute (ADI), the largest organization that represents independently owned distilleries in the United States. Throughout all this time, Owens still continued to make and exhibit his photographs.

I found Owens’ work resonated far more loudly with me than Knorr’s did. It is more down to earth, and has a touch of humour to it, which I welcomed. He has a number of projects on his website, but the one that I like the most was Suburbia which was first published in 1972 and later reissued in 1999. He gently pokes fun at middle-class America, rather like Martin Parr, highlighting aspects of the growing phenomenon of American consumerism and the strive to complete the stereotypical all-American dream of having a house in the suburbs and everything that goes along with that.

From some photos of his exhibitions, it seems that the caption is displayed at the bottom of the photo within the frame, whereas on his website he has the caption alongside the image. I think that either way they complement the image. Owens’ brilliance occurs with his careful phrasing of the text, taken from recorded conversations with the subjects.

His photos took me down a trip to memory lane –  seeing fashions from the 60’s and 70’s like the mini skirt paired with the granny boots, Tupperware parties, bri-nylon quilted dressing gowns, the gaudy patterned wallpaper and carpets of that time and the non-politically correct sidebars.

Sometimes when you photograph a person, they have something completely opposite to say…you find contradictions.

Bill Owens (Art a GoGo Interview)

Reference List

Bill Owens [online] Available at: http://www.billowens.com/index [Accessed 12 May, 2017]

Lang, Doug (n.d.) Photographer, Brew Master, Publisher: Bill Owens Comes Full Circle [online] Art a Gogo. Available at:  http://www.artagogo.com/interview/owensinterview/owensinterview.htm [Accessed 12 May, 2017]

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Karen Knorr

Karen Knorr’s project Belgravia was inspired by the ideas of Roland Barthes on the different possibilities of the relationship between image and text. These series deals with themes of social class and wealth in British Society. My commentary is on the use of the text.

Belgravia by Karen Knorr

Knorr uses a square format for her photos in both series. The photo is placed quite high on the page with lots of white space below for the text. Her text is centred between the margins of the image and the style of capitalising random words in the sentences also harks back to Dickensian times, emphasizing the stuffiness and pretentiousness being conveyed in the images.

‘Belgravia’ was her reply to intellectual debates of the 1970’s, to what was subsequently called ‘political representation’.

L’Oeil de la Photographie (2016)

Gentlemen was shot gentlemen’s clubs in central London with accompanying text taken from speeches in parliament and the news. These gentlemen’s clubs were closed to women who were only allowed to enter by invitation. According to the men who belonged to these clubs, this is where the real business was discussed.

The club became a symbolic space reflecting the ideology of power exerted by men, as representatives of a privileged class.

L’Oeil de la Photographie (2016)

Gentlemen by Karen Knorr

Gentlemen, which was made in the 1980’s during the Thatcher government, investigates the patriarchal values of English upper class society. “The commentaries  contain obvious allusions to English literature from the days of the British Empire” (L’Oeil de la Photographie, 2016). Certain haughty and pedantic tones are conveyed in the captions of Gentlemen which reflect the surroundings of the subjects in this series.

Once more I can see how crucial the choice of words and text layout is to the presentation of the work. Knorr has used quite a formal and slightly old-fashioned layout for her work to be in keeping with her subject matter. This format would be totally out of place in Helen Maurene Cooper’s Painted and Polished.

Reference List

L’Oeil de la Photographie (2016). Moscow PhotoBiennale 2016: Karen Knorr [online] L’Oeil de la Photographie. Available at: http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/2016/04/15/article/159899873/moscow-photobiennale-2016-karen-knorr/ [Accessed 12 May, 2017]

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Helen Maurene Cooper

Helen Maurene Cooper is another photographer that my tutor suggested I look at with regards usage of text and imagery. The specific body of work she was referencing is Cooper’s book Paint and Polish. It is a project about specialty minority-owned nail salons in Chicago’s West Side. The book features  essays and oral histories in the form of conversations with the nail salon owners and artists. She found that this was a community of mothers and daughters “connected by both birth and mentorship, who have found long-term financial stability through craftsmanship and entrepreneurship” (NewCityArt).

I have not managed to find any other online sources featuring this book other than the link that my tutor sent me. Click on the picture of the publication to access a few pages inside.

Paint and Polish by Helen Maurene Cooper

Cooper’s captions are flipped 90 degree and are vertically oriented in the margins of the pages. On the pages where she doesn’t have a full bleed image she employs a margin of approximately 1 or 2 inches to accommodate the caption. On full bleed pages the text is simply overlaid over the image. Of course it is obvious that the text orientation is mimicking the long nails that the subjects are displaying. It seems that most of the captions consist of the names of the various nail salons, but occasionally there is a smaller, longer line of text below the salon name, but unfortunately I was not able to discern what this was referring to. She uses black as a background colour for the margins and text pages and this makes the text pop.

In the essays and conversations sections, the text is orientated normally. She uses a sans-serif font throughout the book. On some of the pages she has created a transparency overlay effect with her text, in that the colour of the text varies throughout the page, echoing the vibrancy of the nail art featured alongside. I do have to wonder though, if that would affect the ease of readability of the text.

Paint and Polish by Helen Maurene Cooper

I would expect that the pages are glossy as well as this would emphasis the vibrancy of the photographs. The photos that I have managed to view are awash with colours and the closeups are incredibly detailed. I feel like reaching out and touching the decorations on the nails. Looking at this body of work though, makes me realise that the way text is used in each project is vital to the overall message the photographer wants to convey. Where text is needed or used with images it should be carefully planned – the entire look and feel should be consistent and enhance  and not detract or overwhelm the images.

Reference List

Cooper, Helen Maurene (2017) Paint and Polish [online] Onomatopee. Available at: http://www.onomatopee.net/project.php?progID=3aeacd7195c415e05a925c68cb7b9f50 [Accessed 12 May, 2017]

Rigou, Vasia Nailing It, Chicago Stylehttp://art.newcity.com/2017/02/02/nailing-it-chicago-style/ [online] NewCityArt. Available at: [Accessed 12 May, 2017]

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John Kippin

One of the photographers that my tutor has recommended I take a look at with regards to use of text with images is John Kippin. Kippin studied Fine Art at Brighton Polytechnic and at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. He introduced text into his images to challenge the realist paradigm which underscored documentary practice. Kippin focuses landscape photography and allows him to investigate encoded meanings and ideas while at the same time referencing traditional landscapes and juxtaposing them with reflections on cultural and political change in Britain (British Council Visual Arts).

I first looked at Kippin’s work without reading up on his background or methods and was a little puzzled as to his use of text. He seems to float just a word or sometimes a phrase across the image, very much like a watermark. The word seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the photo at all – at least this was my impression. But obviously there must be some hidden meaning attached to which I’m oblivious to at the moment. It might be a cultural thing, not being British and not being familiar with the landscapes and various political changes that have occurred since the 1980s as someone local might be.

Photo by John Kippin

Even though I’ve now read a little background on his methods, I still don’t really get it. The images are wonderful, beautifully executed, but most of the images that had text left me with the question “What is ….. (supply the word on the photo)?” Take the photo above as an example. I can see it is a lake with some kind of structure protruding out of the water. The word “invisible” is watermarked on the lower centre third of the image. I then noticed the word “Kielder” as a caption to the image and googled it and came up with some information that Kielder is a man-made reservoir, the largest artificial lake in the UK. And after more googling I discovered that the structure in the water is the dam valve tower.

Without the use of internet, this image would not have much meaning for me and I wonder if some of the text is too obscure. But Kippin made me work at this image, so I suppose he has achieved his goal. I’m left feeling a little ambivalent with this particular usage of text with images.

Reference List

British Arts Council (n.d.) John Kippin (1950 – ) [online] British Arts Council. Available at: http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/collection/artists/kippin-john-1950 [Accessed 11 May, 2017]

 

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