The brief for this exercise is to create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people.
My husband and I were on holiday in Mexico these past two weeks and I decided that I would do this exercise there. I only had my DSLR with me so used that for the images. Life in a holiday resort in Mexico is transient in nature and I decided to focus on aspects of room service. I decided to convert the images to black and white because they represent nothing more than a past memory to me now. While the photos reflect traces of the occupants of the hotel suite, they also carry nuances of the waiters, servers and maids that cause room service to happen and make the guests’ stay a pleasant one.
Do your own research into areas you’ve been inspired by in this project; delve deeper into the areas that interest you. Continue to think about how this might inform your own practice.
I have to admit I am not a particular fan of still life photography and I would have to clarify that I’m talking about a staged/table top arrangement, be it rhopography, xenion or the meal on the table type of photography. I am however, drawn to found objects or arrangements that happen “naturally” for example Nigel Shafran’s Washing Up series, Richard Wentworth and Elliott Wilcox’s works, as well as that of Susan Lipper. I probably chime best of all with Wentworth’s work.
I have over the past few years discovered that I do have a strange fascination for alleys and can see myself exploring this area in more depth when I do the landscape module. The objects, signs and colours that can be found in alleys are in a world of their own and totally different to what is on view to the general public from the road. The dilapidated fences, overgrown vegetation, moss covered roofs and discarded objects placed in the alley provide such interesting narratives. I did do a brief exploration into some alleys at the start of this module in the Square Mile exercise.
Julia Nathanson (a Canadian photographer) also is quite fascinated by laneways/alleys and I can really relate to her images because we are in the same country. The similarities to what she sees on the eastern side of the country to what I see on the western side are very prevalent. Her In the Lanes project can be seen here featured on LensCulture. Another photographer photographing the back end of properties is Mariko Hino, a Japanese photographer, also featured on LensCulture. I’ll do a more in-depth write up on these two artists when I return from vacation.
Susan Lipper’s series Bed & Breakfast, 1998 was a commission for PhotoWorks’ Country Life which was a project initiated by Val Williams in 1995 where artists would take as their reference point the photographs made by West Sussex photographer, George Garland (1920s to 1960s). Garland’s photographs were images of Sussex country life – weddings, fêtes, political rallies and so on. His photographs were representative of a calmer way of life, away from the frantic hustle and bustle of modern city life.
Lipper is an American artist and as such her views are those of the outsider, focusing on the small details of items encountered that strike a disharmonious chord with her while staying at various Bed & Breakfast residences.
Lipper’s small details and fragments of events and scenes remain disconnected as though part of some indecipherable language or ritual.
There is a strange mix of items in the image above: the bone handle knife (which takes me back to my childhood – my mother had a cutlery set very similar), the Chinese patterned side plate juxtaposed to the wavy plastic apricot table mats atop two linen table clothes and mix of other stainless steel cutlery, the crinkly paper serviette and the little basket of jam and butter. The place setting has been quickly laid as evidenced by the position of the fork – the handle resting carelessly on the side plate. The items are very eclectic and there is a sense of discord: the exotic mingling with the everyday. The decorations in the rooms are floral and fussy, very reminiscent of the 60’s – all striving for the “olde world charm”.
For those people not familiar with English B&B’s, the images will definitely strike a chord of disharmony, but for those who grew up with them, or encountered them on their travels, the images constitute a sense of nostalgia, representing times long gone and bringing old memories to the forefront once again. Lipper’s account of Sussex is an entirely subjective one, as it represents her reaction to a certain way of life.
Hemmed in by petty-mindedness in peach, this testament to curtain twitching reverberates with tongue tutting and tradition-lite.
In contrast Penny Klepuszewska’s series Living Arrangements documenting the home in old age is very focused and less ambiguous. All her images are shot against a black background rendering them very studio-like. Her images all shout out loneliness, and isolation, from the single plate with the residue of baked beans resting on the spoon, to the single plastic tumbler next to the wireless, to the single set of clasped hands on the table. There are no extraneous factors that can distract the viewer’s attention from the subject. We are forced to face up to the solitude emanating in this images and question our own lives, or that of our aged parents. Is this what we want for them (or us)?
According to Nigel Shafran his Washing-up 2000 series didn’t start out as a concept, but was just a close-by subject that gradually evolved into a series. This is the kind of impetus that a lot of his work springs from. Shafran always tries to build in ambiguity into his work so that the interpretation is left open to the viewer.
If I have a mental picture of what I want it is never really open-ended enough for me. If you just let go a bit and accept how things are, the possibilities become completely infinite. There’s a quote that I have probably got wrong that says, ‘to concern yourself with art, the subject is lost. To concern yourself with the subject, the art is found’.
Nigel Shafran in Interview with Charlotte Cotton
His photos show the viewer the everyday-ness of domestic life, giving the humdrum activities, that we all perform without any depth of thought, another dimension. Shafran’s photos could be considered worthy of a time capsule to show people what the world looked like in the twenty-first century.
In contrast Sarah Lynch’s work is very much concept-driven. Lynch takes fragile objects like blades of grass, paper, cotton and builds sculptures with them. The objects are engineering works of balance and tensile strength, but throughout all the works the main theme that comes through for me is the fragility of life.
I really admire the effort that gone into the setup to make this image. There must have been a lot of trial and error to achieve this sculpture.
I have to admit that my goal of making people stop and pause for a while is a relatively new one, I used to say I wanted to save the world. If I go by my old benchmark I haven’t succeeded yet!
I looked at Laura Letinsky’s work when I was doing the Art of Photography, my first module. As back then, I still don’t really relate very well to her work. Yes, its all about the light and trying to copy the Dutch Renaissance painters in moods and tones – that I do get. I think when she lost me was when she started combining food with magazine cutouts in some of her oevres.
In an interview with Aperture Magazine Letinsky states: “still lifes … interests me as a genre in the same way that concepts of love interest me—its association with the feminine, its characterization as “less important,” its affiliations with domesticity and intimacy” (Aperture). She goes on to say that her work is about looking at something and other bodily experiences. Personally I do have to wonder what “other bodily experience” I should be having when viewing the image below.
I do see slight nuances or new takes on the Dutch Renaissance painters in some of her work. But whereas the Dutch still lifes reflect new discoveries, opulence and abundance, Letinsky’s seem to reflect waste, mess and disposable garbage. I’m still not sure exactly how the octopus fits in in the image above or what he represents, apart from weirdness.
I wanted there to be a palpable absence, this feeling of something missing–like it’s the end of the play and the curtain has not only fallen, but re-opened, and now they’re sweeping out the theater.
Mouth to Mouth
Susan Bright in Art Photography Now claims that the fruit in Letinsky’s images “is not laden with the symbolic meanings of painting, but act in a more metaphorical way, hinting at the delicacy and frailness of domesticity” (Bright p. 110).
Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now (2nd edition). London: Thames & Hudson
We are asked to read Chapter 4 of The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton and comment on the following statements:
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?
Course Manual Identity and Place p. 99
First off, I have to admit that I did read this chapter by Charlotte Cotton again, having first read her book when I was doing The Art of Photography module. I still find her method of writing a little tangential. There is just too much thrown at the reader in the way of artists mentioned, (which is great to be introduced to all these photographers, make no mistake) but then she falls down on providing the meat to go with them. I find the critiques of the works rather fleeting and superficial. I would really prefer more depth than just scratching the surface.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “metaphor” as:
“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”, or “A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else”. We all use metaphors in our everyday speech without even thinking about it. Life is a comparison. We are forever comparing something to something else, especially when we are referencing intangible concepts. Metaphors subtly shape the way we view the world.
Obviously using objects or environments as a metaphor can be extremely useful. The photographer doesn’t have to rely on the availability of a model(s) and can either stage the still-life or visit the environment. However, it still remains up to the viewer to ascertain the significance and meaning of the the image.
An image’s evocative power can, like speech, be described as poetic. …Factual or poetic, whatever the ambience and mood recognized, it is not due to the object as such, but is rather the consequence of a formal arrangement.
If one looks at still-lifes by Irving Penn for example, one can see how much thought has gone into the staging of the metaphors within his images. In the image above, we can see that all the elements are touching each other. The elements are very deliberately arranged: the number 64 die rests above a dice showing a 6 and a 4. Six and four add up to ten which is represented in the domino balanced on the sherry glass. Compositionally the photograph is arranged on a horizontal and vertical axis. The red liqueur in the glass correspond with the red game pieces and ace of hearts card while the black dots on the domino match the lettering on the number 64 as well as the dice and chess piece and black coffee. The two green playing cards provide a unifying vertical axis. The yellow chip is the only item that does not have a corresponding equivalent.
The detritus in the image (burnout match, stains and cigarette ash) is representative of life – the passage of time. These items add some texture to the scene of an otherwise glossy perfection.
However, uniting all the games is their expressing the duality of human life.
The various games represented in the image reflect the various stages of mastering one’s life. Chess, the ultimate game of strategy is symbolic of intellectualism. The card and dice games reference risk and chance. The domino is symbolic of the eternal search to fit in, while the yellow chip could be seen to represent the investment that is risked in life. Common to all the games is the need to think, to be one step ahead.
The image subtly points towards the questions of life – those of the luck necessary to survive in life as in a game, and those of the risks one is willing to take.
In light of this brief exploratory analysis of the image above, it is clear that to be a successful image, the still-life staging and arrangement needs to be very carefully planned and thought out. This is something that I will have to pay close attention to, because I really struggle with still-lifes.
There probably isn’t a better time to look at Sarah Pickering’s work than now, just shortly after the attack on London Bridge, the Manchester bombing and the Westminster episode. Pickering’s Public Order is a body of work depicting the training ground used for police riot training. I reviewed Pickering’s work during Context & Narrative and my initial impression then was as follows: “This sign of past activity (or is it a future activity – it is up to the viewer to decide) juxtaposes with those images which are more sterile, with deserted clean streets and boarded up windows. … As we look deeper into the images, more layers are peeled away” (Lynda Kuit, Context & Narrative).
There is a strange dichotomy present in her images. On the one hand there is the reality of the aftermath of some kind of violent action, albeit a rather sterile aftermath, and on the other there is the fact that these dwellings or structures are fake. But on first glance, one doesn’t realise that this is a set. The absence of people is immediately obvious and quite disturbing. Post riot scenes usually are full of people milling around, disorientated and distressed – the vocality of the image shouting out from the photograph. But there is no sense of noise in Pickering’s images. They are strangely silent, like silent witnesses, yet we know someone, some people were there.
Pickering’s project Incident features images shot in a training venue for fire fighters, learning to use their breathing apparatus and move and detect the source of fire in heavy smoke conditions. The prints are in black and white which helps to emphasis the sooty conditions and residual heat of the fire and subsequent dampness.
The contrast between bright light and its dark absence indicates the frantic motion of fire and human that must have occurred there.
Pickering describes the materiality of the large scale prints as being very seductive, the surface mimicking the carbon covered surfaces in the training building (Photoparley).
Both bodies of work are a depiction of the work of public safety officers and the training they undergo to do their daily job. The training is rigourous – it has to be. The real life situations that these police officers and fire fighters will have to encounter will be worse than the training scenarios, which are necessary to ensure that these men and women are mentally and physically able to do the job required of them. As much as communities depend on them, they depend upon each other in their line of work, each person linked to the other for safety and moral encouragement.