Photography Matters

One of the triggers that set me thinking about the day was Rachel (object not presenter – see later) and this notion seemed to be confirmed with Derek Trillo’s search to comprehend how a building might best be described – which was, I think, the point of his presentation.

However it was Keith Roberts’ work with a “jobbing photographer’s” archive that set the idea into flow. Roberts has inveigled his way into a Liverpudlian archive and has been working to find ways to interpret/investigate its meaning/purpose as it relates to contemporary practice. In amongst the long dogged hours of cataloging and re-presenting these portraits and landscapes emerge relationships with people both dead and alive. Stories of ‘unseen’ relatives, new ‘views’ of people long lost or never known. Tears shed at faces no longer recognised but connected undeniably by catalogue number. ‘Yes, that is your son/brother/lover/husband lost at sea, crossing the Atlantic during the war’. Never mind that you don’t ‘know’ him, this effigy re-presented, probably on a screen via email (I’m thinking of Rachel again), ‘is him’. And so this new vision is accepted and perhaps re-mourned over, dredging memories from the deep past and replanting this new perspective into a memory alongside others that have no doubt been refreshed.

In considering this reaction to an archive, which again re-states the reliance society places on the indexical nature of the photographic image, I recall my current research into ‘false memory’. These ‘untrue memories’ are introduced into a subject’s memory with nothing much more than a photograph or, as other research has shown, by a willingness to believe another account of one’s personal history (which can equally be benign or malign).

Roberts presents portraits in a selected sequence, and that mediation directs the audience to project a narrative flow – was it a story about the war, was it a story about gender representation? Questions were also raised by the way in which the edits were further illustrated by Roberts’ own creative work within the archive. The ‘work’ leading us, the audience, to question the narrative behind the monochrome façade re-invigorated by the salvage work in the laboratory.

So who were these people? We are informed that quite often there were several images from a session in the archive and that some subjects came back many times over the years for additional portraits to be made. Maybe in the war years lots of identity papers were needed.

I wondered about the notion of a ‘false indexicality’, the idea for example that the catalogue number invited the viewer to conceive that the ‘new’ photograph was indeed that ‘long-lost loved-one’, even though on inspection they weren’t recognised. The possibility that someone unconnected to the viewer had developed an identity through innocent deception and the concomitant understandable emotional desire to be connected.

Rachel (not Smith) is a fiction, a fiction that perpetrates further fictions as part of complicit commercial arrangement between client and consumer. Dawn Woolley introduced Rachel Wong as a “micro blog celebrity”? I may have that terminology incorrect, however the idea is that pseudo celebrities create pseudo validations for products. These messages are deemed ‘innocent’ recommendations and therefore free of commercial influence and appear via social media – Twitter/Facebook and no doubt other places. I remember very well when I first started to work in China and being introduced to Lucy in the office as my internal contact. All went well until a few months later I called the office as usual and asked for Lucy and was told that Lucy didn’t work there anymore. I couldn’t understand this at all, had she been fired, moved to a new department? However after a short pause I was informed that my new contact was Susan and my call would be put through to her. Well it turned out that Susan was Lucy, or perhaps vice versa and a little while later I was informed that it was quite common for people in China who ‘faced’ the West to reconfigure their identity with a western name. This identity flipping was based on any number of ideas, but most often it was the latest screen or pop idol to appear from the West.

Rachel was almost certainly a construct, a fiction for consumption to drive consumption, much as the ‘hysterical selfies’ described by Woolley are fictions, perhaps delusions designed to accommodate themselves into a society of their own selfish illusion.

Les Monaghan’s work was on the one hand a project about existentialism, about providing a voice to people who are largely overlooked. In a project that incorporated a democratic perspective by providing a similar platform of image projection. The volunteers of Monaghan’s project were all asked to say what they would like. The subjects seemed to answer the question in the first person ‘I would like…’ And whilst Monaghan, who clearly has a wider perspective on this work, suggests a ‘collective reading’ can be gained I was concerned by two things. Firstly it seemed to echo so much of what the consumer society is suggesting that we can all have we want, as Adam Curtis so articulately describes in his documentary “The Century of the Self”. And secondly how these subjects become, to a certain extent, identified by their expression, creating a fictional construct of the viewer’s making between image and text. These portraits becoming fixed in an archive to be ‘mined’ for meaning by a future Keith Roberts perhaps?

I was fascinated by Rachel Smith’s paper on Materiality and whilst identity was in question when, for example, the digital portrait disintegrates creating someone ‘anew’, it was a paper that questioned other aspects of photography which I have yet to come to terms with.

Derek Trillo’s presentation was on the one part about identity – that of a building and how to represent it – but it was a curious meandering around the subject for me that seemed to flounder for lack of foundation. Representing architecture – in architecture magazines – is surely about the commodification of buildings? Whether designed by Le Corbusier, FLW or Wimpy! As remarked from the audience, food photography doesn’t taste very good, its not meant to. The same with buildings for advertising purposes; they may indicate their potential as spaces with the absence of habitation and users, but their identity for a consumer society will unlikely stray far from displaying their fictive potential in it.


10 thoughts on “Photography Matters

  1. We ask a lot of our photography, John, don’t we. Mark Durden commented towards the end of yesterday’s event that we’d steadily headed towards a kind of dead end with Photography’s ‘failure’ to represent buildings. But we’d hardly expect the same of verbal communication – sum up a building (or even everything you want in life!) in a single sentence. I’m increasingly struck, when attending, listening to, participating in, these kinds of discussion by the plurality (or is it polysemy, can’t recall just the right word … another linguistic failure!) of our medium and how challenging it is, even for a group of intelligent, well-informed and well-meaning individuals to resolve it. Though, as artists, we’re more interested in the questions than the answers, as always.
    I like the way you’ve elicited the help of ‘Rachel the Fictitious’ to thread it all together.


  2. Thanks Stan, Rachel was a gift in relation to identity, though I suspect you got a lot out of Rachel Smith’s paper? The question about photography’s position in respect of architecture left me quite puzzled, but then it was the last presentation…..


    • “… a paper that questioned other aspects of photography which I have yet to come to terms with” – I noted that in your post & wondered to what it referred. Rachel’s (the real one!) paper was referred to as ‘rich’. It had a density that I could more or less follow but I struggled to take detailed notes, which is a pity. Her reference to ‘disrupting the process’ and there being ‘evidence of disruption’ interests me & is relevant to some of my own work. I wasn’t quite sure about the proposition that images in digital form do have a form of materiality. She seemed to relate it to the actual physical ‘objects’ that form part of the presentation of a digital image in order for us to see it – all of which certainly intervenes in our reading of it. But (back to my original comment) there are still a lot more questions than answers around what the digital distribution and presentation of photographic images ‘means’. And there’s something to be said for going back to Walter Benjamin – lots of parallels with ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’.

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      • I’m looking forward to the video of the day and Rachel’s talk in particular. I did have the advantage of discussing with her during the lunch break about ‘materiality’ and whilst she still views the analogue process as a vital component of photography – she no longer has a darkroom for example – the talk seemed to focus on her investigation of materiality in contemporary practice as it relates to the ‘digital’ environment? (something for me to check). As she explained (either to me or to the group – I can’t remember now!) the digital framework is material, it is comprised of ‘stuff’. 1’s and 0’s are physically transported around machines in vast quantities and produce objects in a manifest form which are transposed to an altered state. Something I have considered for sometime is the periphery of the digital/analogue paradigm whereby both emanations appear such as a print or screen image, but also when things start to break down – as all digital process will, given time & temperature or, as I’ve just found out today when software ‘upgrades’ make archives redundant and invisible!!!


      • Good point, the video will be very welcome. On digital/materiality, I’m not sure how much it matters (to me, at least) that the 1s & 0s have some physicality to them (any more than I can get excited by the idea of sniffing developing fluid!). The screen/print/other manifestation feels more significant, though (to me) and (ref Benjamin) the extent to which the ubiquitous screen (even in a gallery) may bring the (art) images closer but at the same time impact (negatively?) on the viewers’ experience. There were very few screens, for example, in the FOAM Talent exhibition that we’ve referred to in my blog – just a couple of light-box presentations (one of which was propped on the floor, in a corner, hiding the cabling; and the other had three wall-mounted light-boxes, each with its trail of cables beneath that I couldn’t help noticing ..).

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      • Yes, another interesting read, John; and I hadn’t seen the Jos Jansen work before & it, too, is interesting. But it raised a question in my mind as to just what it signifies … particularly when Francis Hodgson discusses it in the context of indexicality and also compares it to some other photographic work to do with dirt on the back of vans. Jansen has made the images by setting up some careful studio lighting and, one imagines, experimenting with the making of the finger marks on the phone screen. Think of him wiping his finger across his brow in the heat of the studio lights and re-tapping, re-swiping, re-flicking the phone screen … looking for a composition that works but also looks casual enough. In other words, not unlike a painting, the significance perhaps lies in the making as much as what he is (perhaps) seeking to represent.

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  3. A lot to think about here that sent me off on internet searches. Keith Robert’s work fits very much with my ongoing interest in archives and found photographs. I’ve downloaded his papers as well. thanks for setting me on this investigation.
    Is Rachel Wong a real person or a fictitious person? I can’t find anything about her.


  4. Rachel Wong is, most likely, a construct so please do t waste anytime trying to find her other than on Twitter where, of course, she is as real as anyone.


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