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.
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.
Our course manual, after briefly discussing William Eggleston’s interpretations of his surroundings, his way of making photos of found objects over and above those containing people, emphasizes that these types of photographs ‘become fictionalised and transformed, telling a story that somehow stems from a ‘real place’ yet becomes other’ (OCA Identity and Place Course Manual p 94). ‘The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art’ (OCA Identity and Place Course Manual p 95).
We are asked to reflect on the following points:
Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?
Do you tend towards fact or fiction?
How could you blend your approach?
Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?
Eggleston was inspired by Cartier-Bresson, but after frustratingly spending time in Paris trying to emulate Cartier-Bresson, he realised that he had to try something new. For him new meant photographing shopping centres – no one was photographing malls at that time. So Eggleston started photographing the banal and ordinary things that get overlooked and taken for granted. He never took more than one photograph of a particular subject and very often shot from the hip, which “resulted in images that were “rebellious, unwieldy, uncomfortable, and thus not easy to decipher” (ArtsyNet).
Coming back to the first point above, I think that by nature a story teller is a history writer (and vice versa). Making photographs of found objects is, in a way, making a historical record at that particular moment in time, a building up of an archive. The objects in the photograph create their own story, whether it be fact or fiction is really up to the viewer to decide.
I would probably have to say that I tend more towards fact than fiction. For me fiction would be a completely staged, scenario with subjects in costume, in a made setting or set in a specific location as I did in C&N’s assignment 5. Of course, I’m also aware that most photography is staged, even if the subjects are not being directed, they might be fully aware of the camera and so there are behaviour changes. I think this would be the ideal way of blending the approach – having a scenario where the subject is aware of the camera but is going about his/her day as it it wasn’t there.
“The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion ….” – Richard Avedon
Avedon’s quote above really sums up my departure point for wanting/needing to depict reality. I am not overly concerned whether my images are depicted as fact or fiction. Prior to my studies at OCA I probably would have been deeply concerned if my images were not interpreted the same way that I saw them. I’d like to think that I’ve moved on from there after three years of study. All photos have an element of reality in them, after all the subject matter stands in representation of the actual thing/person that was positioned in front of the lens. But is that the actual narrative? After all the photographer instills his voice or imparts a piece of himself when making the photograph and how that adds to the ‘reality’ viewed by the viewer can only be left to the viewer’s authorship.