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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Les Monaghan’s oevre, The Desire Project, is quite similar in concept to Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say Not What Others Want You To Say. Both bodies of work reflect the thoughts and concerns of the subjects. Both Wearing and Monahan’s work encompasses the public vs private persona of the individual. However, where Wearing has chosen to photograph her subjects in a variety of places – on the streets, in alleys, in the malls, Monaghan has chosen to photograph his subjects in about four consistent locations which lends more of a coherence to the work. He has also photographed all his subjects from a lower angle so that they are looking down at him slightly, which seems to empower them. This was further emphasised in the exhibition which was held in the Frenchgate Centre in Doncaster where the prints which were enlarged to almost life-size and hung high on the shopping mall’s walls.
Monaghan’s images are captioned with answers to one question posed to them, namely, “What do you want?” The answers to this question range quite a bit, but most people just want happiness, peace, health and a better world.
“Political and societal changes have rendered us all as individual consumers, those portrayed have been photographed alone, but when exhibited they are grouped together and their desires for health, happiness and a better world coalesce.
“We want the same things, we want to get along, we want to be social, we want community.”
Les Monaghan, BBC News
Gillian Wearing made her first major work in a busy area of South London. She stopped pedestrians and requested them to write down what was on their mind and with photographed them holding their statement.
As indicated by the title of the work, Wearing has written that this collaboration ‘interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.’
Gillian Wearing (Tate)
Wearing made her series in the 1990’s when economic conditions were quite different to what they are now and this is reflected in the thoughts written on the signs. Back then there was no social media and the ordinary man in the street didn’t really have a public voice. In making her body of work Wearing affords the man or woman in the street of whatever class or station in life, an opportunity to voice their concerns.
There is a feeling of randomness running through Wearing’s work. This is probably due to the variety of poses, crops and background that occur in her work. I can see now why my tutor has been urging me to try and keep the same shooting format and distance as I do think it makes for a cleaner presentation.
Anna Fox is a Professor of Photography at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham. She was shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2010 and in 2012 for the Pilar Citoler Prize and one of the organizers of Fast Forward: Women in Photography conference at the Tate Modern in 2015. She has exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and the Tate Modern. She has also published a number of photobooks – Cockroach Diary and Other Stories, Resort 1 and Resort 2 and is also co-author of Langford’s Basic Photography and Behind the Image.
I did attempt to watch the Anna Fox video that is on the OCA website, but unfortunately around 50 minutes the video just blacks out with an “Error in playback” message. However, I managed to jump past this mark and the video plays fine after that. Some of photos from Work Stations were discussed. One of the takeaways I got from the bit that I was able to see were that Fox research quotes as a separate exercise to put with the photos. After she has collected the quotes she quickly chooses which quote to go with the photos.
As Anna Fox states in the video, this series is a conglomeration of various styles that influenced her work, from Martin Parr and Paul Graham to the US colourists and other photographers she was studying while at college. I find it interesting that it was shot in a very snapshot type of style.
I was attracted to it because it’s such an ordinary subject and hardly anyone had ever photographed office life. We couldn’t find any photos. So it was considered a nothing subject. The subject with zero importance to photographers, writers, filmmakers must be interesting, because it’s part of our lives.
Anna Fox (FK Magazine)
It was important to Fox to use colour and flash for this project because of the feeling of immediacy that both give, she related to the ASX team in an interview. She also wanted to tell a story that combined images and text to relate the social conditions of the Thatcher era and she wanted to use humour to engage her audience.
I was more interested in politics, society and power structures within the working environment of the office and particularly in Thatcher’s Britain as the period later became known.
Anna Fox (ASX Interview)
The use of flash is on camera, creating hard shadows around the subjects, people’s heads are chopped off and various paraphernalia litters the edges of some of the photographs – all of which would be deeply censored at any photography club meeting.
However, it is these imperfections that make the photographs believable. Having started my assignment 3 and shooting in my work place, I too am finding it is pretty much impossible to have a clean background, or foreground as these spaces are cluttered at the best of times.
Above all, Fox’s images come across as honest, even though some of them may have been staged in that the participants knew they were being photographed. She has managed to capture real moments of office life.
The use of captions that she gathered from various business articles and magazines are not edited to fit the narrative, but loosely chosen to match the image. These captions help drive the narrative along and the sequencing is further aided by some time stamps instead of captions.
Fox was also kind enough to explain in the video that she does not mind people using her images especially for studying purposes or for blogging, so long as they are not used for advertising.
My tutor advised me to take a look at OCA tutor, Les Monaghan’s work, who also happens to be her husband. The particular oeuvre she was referring to was his ongoing series on the RAF’s survival exercises. She provided a bit of a backstory which definitely helps in the interpretation of Monaghan’s images. Monaghan was granted permission to shoot the RAF during their survival exercises, but was not allowed to interact with them. The result is at times, quite poetic and at other times has an element of surveillance.
There are numerous blog entries on Monaghan’s blog about this work. In Moortrek – July 2013 The images are dominated by tall trees as the exercises take place in the forest. The RAF trainees are at times difficult to discern due to the camouflage of their uniforms which lets them blend in seamless into the environment. This results in the viewer searching through the trees for clues. Sometimes the subject(s) is at quite a distance from the photographer and this invokes a feeling of nostalgia. A sense of anticipation develops within the viewer. These tiny figures so dwarfed by the massive trees convey a sense of awe and fatalistic resignation to the elements of nature.
The images are quite dark as well, being shot in the forest. I could be wrong, but it seems that Monaghan mainly made use of natural light. Occasionally splashes of bright red from the survival equipment provide the only colour variance from the otherwise overwhelmingly greenish/black palette.
In contrast, Moortrek – December 2012 takes place during the winter, in snowy conditions. (See links below for photos as there are a few Moortrek – December 2012 entries). In these images the RAF trainees no longer blend in with the surroundings. The forest is no longer such a dark, mysterious place. The snow on the forest floor and trees has brightened the images and the RAF trainees are now quite visible in their outdoor surroundings.
The mood changes in Moortrek – September 2012. There seems to be a more personal element emerging and this is confirmed in Monaghan’s statement: “As the training follows similar lines each time and I am not interested in a documentary enquiry, I am free to overlay my feelings on the scene.” It is interesting to notice that in the earlier images in the Moortrek series – those of 2011 – the photographer is closer to the trainees. He is almost participating in their activities, but not quite. As the years go by, he seems to distance himself more and more from the troops, and a more personal nuance begins to become apparent in the work.
Les Monaghan directed me to the statement which accompanies this body of work, which I am posting below (click on statement to enlarge). I particularly like the dual format: the bold text of each word beginning the line serves as the title to the work if read vertically, while the horizontal text forms a free form poem about the work.
I really do like this work and am trying to think how this approach might work in my assignment. I think it might be rather difficult as office spaces (which is where my location is) are usually quite cramped and restricting, but there might be a few instances where I can apply some of these techniques. I’ll keep an open mind. Of course over the course the ten years that I have been working at the university I have taken hundreds of photos of staff, faculty and students, but unfortunately will not be able to use any of those images. But it might be worth considering doing a side project by using the archive at a later stage.