Create a series of work which in some way reflects upon the ideas surrounding identity and place that you’ve looked at so far in this course. Use the written word to play a part in its creation.
Write a short reflective commentary describing how your chosen words have informed your series of images.
The Identity and Place module has been undertaken during the period covered by the Covid19 lockdown. Partly as a personal challenge and partly through lack of choice, I decided to complete the whole unit from the strict confines of my house. Given that there were only three of us available to photograph some creativity and imagination was required – and despite that, it feels very samey to me.
My mother came to live with us on 15 March 2020. I haven’t lived with her for more than 40 years. So it was an interesting experience for both of us. As the days past, we settled into a routine which for my 97-year-old mother, Audrey, involved a prawn sandwich for lunch around one o’clock. Despite my best efforts to vary her diet she was insistent that it was a prawn sandwich. Every day.
After a few days, I decided to photograph the occasion, adding a little humour by cutting the crusts off her sandwich and leaving Gill with the leftovers. Using my iPhone I photographed it and sent it to my family. Much amusement. And so I repeated the process the next day. And the next day…
At the beginning of May I watched Alister Sooke’s BBC programme Museums in Quarantine which featured the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern.
I was captivated by Warhol’s ’60 Last Suppers’ and was even more so once I had seen it at the Tate earlier this month (see blog)
One interpretation of Warhol’s work, repeatedly reproducing the image of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, is that it, in its resemblance to a columbarium, represents the 1980s AIDS crisis which caused the death of so many of Warhol’s contemporaries. Warhol’s images don’t portray a linear story instead it’s simply a repetition: a repetition of AIDS-related deaths.
My story is not the same. Each individual photograph, although similar and repetitive, is unique and displayed in strict chronological order. It tells its own story of our lockdown experience over nearly two months. It speaks of Audrey’s simple contentment, her acceptance of her new circumstances. Of the relationships within the household during this unusual period. And of the impermanence and finality of our lives.
Images – creative influences and choices
Clearly Warhol is the dominant influence for this work. But I’ve drawn upon the typological work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. My professional career involved the comparison of numbers and so to compare images seems a natural extension. As Hilla Becher said:
By placing several … side by side, something happened, something like tonal music; you don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences (1)
And its the differences that tell the story which I have called ’54 Last Lunches’.
As regards the creative choices, given the relatively large number of images involved clearly the presentation on-screen is problematic. Warhol’s work spans some thirty feet. But to tell the story I feel as though I have no choice but to include all images. In some senses there is a darkness to my images: a sadness and finality can be inferred. So I initially chose a high contrast black and white NIK conversion to mimic Warhol’s work (image one below). The disadvantage of this conversion is that detail gets lost to the extent that interpretation is hindered. So despite fundamentally preferring the black and white version I have tried the original colour version (image two below). My views on colour at the moment is that it can be distracting. For example the blue cloth in row three, column seven takes my attention.
So finally I tried a basic, less dramatic, Lightroom conversion (image three below). It is much clearer than the NIK version and contains no colour distractions and feels appropriate for showing on screen. This is the final image for the Assignment.
I am also unsure whether to include the first and last images (an empty settee). Obviously the point of doing so is to punctuate the series by showing no one there at the beginning and no one there at the end. However, I do acknowledge that it’s quite distracting and disturbs the aesthetics.
Reflective commentary on the choice of words
The brief suggests allowing for the ‘viewer’s interpretation to be opened up rather than shut down by the image/text pairings’ – always a conundrum. I shall discuss some alternatives.
Currently on show at MoMA is a Dorothea Lange exhibition called ‘Words and Pictures’. I have read the accompanying book of the same name (3) and An American Exodus (4). Lange makes clear her attitude to ‘captions’ in her June 1965 letter to MoMA’s John Szarkowski (2:158). Preparing for her 1966 retrospective at MoMA she writes:
I’m working on the captions. This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings. They are the connective tissue, and in explaining the function of the captions, as I am doing now, I believe we are extending our medium (2:158).
An example of Lange’s captioning from ‘An American Exodus’:
This contrasts starkly with Walker Evans’ severe presentation in his book ‘American Photographs’ released in the same year, 1939, covering a very similar subject:
Another pair of books ostensibly covering identical subjects but again with different intensions are Leonard Freed’s ‘Black and White in America’ and Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’.
So why do the artists adopt such radically different attitudes to captioning?
It seems to be a matter of intention. Lange’s intention was to give voice to the underprivileged. In the foreword (3:6) she says ‘ Many whom we met in the field vaguely regarded conversation with us as an opportunity to tell what they are up against to the government and to their countrymen at large. So far as possible, we have let them speak to you face-to-face’. In Freed’s case, it was an interest in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Writing the foreword to the book Brett Abbott highlights the juxtaposition between US black African military service and the Civil Rights issues. He says ‘While working in Germany in 1962, photographer Leonard Freed noticed a black American soldier guarding the divide between east and west as the Berlin Wall was being erected. It was not the partition between the forces of communism and capitalism the captured Freed’s imagination, however. Instead what haunted him was the idea of a man standing in defence of a country in which his own rights were in question’ (5:3).
In circumstances where the photographs are intended to influence public opinion, there is little room to allow for misunderstanding.
The works by Evans and Frank have a different purpose. Theirs is not campaigning rhetoric. There is no urgency to their message. They are commentaries on contemporary American life and as such can afford to leave space for the viewer’s interpretation – although in both cases the photographic sequencing seeks to provide some context.
So where do I stand in this discussion and how does that position influence my thoughts on the text used for this Assignment?
I currently support the view of Philip Lorca diCorcia. When discussing the elliptical nature of his image-making he says ‘I’m supposed to give you as little information, in my mind, as you need to be intrigued, but not enough to finish your experience’ (2). Two examples where the absence of text makes interpretation difficult are:
Without understanding that this set was designed to represent Bates Hotel from the movie Psycho would Crewdson’s tableau ‘Birth’ reveal its true meaning?
Without extensive research would Esther Teichmann’s work ‘Untitled from Heavy the Sea , 2018′ mean anything?
The different text options I considered are as follows:
The Frank version
Provides no context whatsovever. Although to be fair to Frank his images were part of a series in The Americans where picture sequencing was essential.
The Warhol version
54 Last Lunches
Once again insufficient context is provided in order to understand that we are in lockdown.
The Walker Evans version
Fareham, UK. 2020
This offers little more than Frank. But once again in Evans’ case the images were part of a tightly controlled sequence in ‘American Photographs’.
The Lange/Taylor version
Woman in isolation enjoys her prawn sandwiches. Fareham, UK. 2020
This effort is more useful to me. Now we know the context (lockdown, isolation). But it doesn’t necessarily make clear that each image is an individual lunch. Also given the global nature of the pandemic to give a geographical location is pointless. These issues apply globally.
The Teichmann version
Home is customarily remembered as a cove of mental support and comfort, forgetting that it can also be a prison in which feelings that stew in a confined space turn into despair (YiFu Tuan)
But attending to the infra-ordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed (Campt)
Teichmann’s approach would be more psychological. These words (included in the style of the Carol Mavor essay) draw on thoughts of Tuan and Campt. They add to the story by suggesting that lockdown could lead to dispair but if one could ‘attend to the infra-ordinary’, in other words, accept life’s small ‘gifts’ then perhaps lockdown would be bearable. I like this idea but I feel it shuts down individual interpretation.
54 Last Lunches
Audrey’s isolation. Lockdown. 2020
My reasoning for this choice is as follows. The ’54 Last Lunches’ firstly implies it is a series of lunches, hopefully prompting the viewer to see them as a linear story. The word ‘Last’ alludes to some finality, perhaps future death or departure. The second line gives some context. We know its Lockdown in 2020. The name Audrey focuses the viewer on only one of the participants perhaps inviting contemplation on the role of the others. For me, this text satisfies the Lorca diCorcia criteria.
(1) Collins, M. (2015). Hilla Becher obituary. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/15/hilla-becher [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].
(2) Lorca diCorcia, P., 2020. Tuesday Evenings At The Modern – Philip Lorca Dicorcia. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zs8z9DCVrYA> [Accessed 4 April 2020].
(3) Meister, S., 2019. Dorothea Lange Words And Pictures. 1st ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
(4) Lange, D. and Taylor, P., 1999. An American Exodus. Paris: J.M. Place.
(5) Freed, L., 2010. Black In White America. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum.