I received Source Magazine the other day and the question posted on the front cover was “Who is the Photographer?”. The whole magazine seemed very relevant to the issues that I am exploring around how artists communicate specific values, ideas and or meanings through their work. It is one thing to create something with specific intentions, but wholly another to have them received in a similar way, as the receiver’s values and outlooks are largely unknown to the photographer/artist.
Emma Campbell’s article Sexism on Show answered the question like a scientist. She produced tables that indicated the percentage of women photographers included in exhibitions, magazines, and galleries and how this had changed (not a great deal) over time and shed populated the article with historical photos that reduced women to very simple stereotypes. So Emma’s answer was very clear. Photographers – or at least important ones – are largely white men. But the article that really stirred me was Laura Guy’s article Queer in Practice. She asked a different question: is there such a thing as “queer photography”?
The article traced some key issues – such as the reclamation of language by the Gay community but the main point for me was her identification of some key issues gay photographers presented as they constructed vistas based around their identities that created a very different world to that identified by Campbell’s article. Guy sighted Anthony Luvera’s Not Going Shopping (link) as one example and a photo from Asa Johannesson’s Belonging series (link) as another. Their images were very different from those created by white heterosexual men. Indeed it was the following comment by Guy that really resonated:
“Utilising codes of the documentary genre, they play subtly with the natural” (page 21, Laura Guy op.cit.)
Guy recognised that Johannesson’s work carried with it a risk of not being interpreted in the same way that lead to its creation. But it is the very ambiguity of the imagery that makes it so powerful. So maybe I should worry less about how my imagery is received and interpreted and concentrate on it’s creation. But I do think a key word is subtly. Take this more obvious image below.
I like this photo as I hope it makes the viewer work at looking and understanding what the frame is about. The photo shows the end of my bed, the lower part of my legs, a wall cupboard in the background and leading from the lower edge of the left hand side of the frame is my leg bag with its end sitting centrally within the frame. I used a wide aperture to isolate the leg bag mechanism so most of the frame is soft, but not so soft as to be unidentified.
The aim of this image was to share a part of my start to the day and suggest that work has to be carried out to get me to this point as apposed to just jumping out of bed. However this approach is wholly about impairment and is too obvious for what I am trying to articulate. Compare it to this image below.
At first sight this photo shows nothing extraordinary some kit in a bathroom. But there is something different – the grab handle by the bath. In this image I am not trying to share issues about my impairment and its management in a way that is wholly about that but rather suggest or hint that some lives are different and indicate some of the specific differences between some people’s lives and mine. I think this more subtle approach requires a set of images to show different facets of difference and build up an awareness and way of looking within the viewer. I don’t think I can expect them to “get it” in one photo.
So while project 1 tried to answer issues of evocation and connotation through either digital distortion that hinted at issues around disability or double exposures that were more explicit in their evocation through the inclusion of subject matter, I want to explore a different aspect of the physical environment in this project – the domestic sphere through a more subtle approach. The reason for the change is that the challenge is making the images explicit enough for people to read the disability discourse in them and creating interesting pictures, and so I have moved the focus from the general physical environment to a much more person one – my home. This makes the subject matter less general and more specific to me. In that way the ambiguity of the imagery is still present but the outlook is wholly personal.
I aim to begin this without using obvious digital manipulation. I may come to that later but for now I want to begin shooting straight and rely more on gestalt than anything else.
Gestalt suggests that as individuals perceive the world, we try to make sense of it by looking for patterns and associations within our field of view (and beyond). One way we do this is by for example, eliminating complexity and using past experience to assume associations and fill in visual gaps. Different centres espouse between 6 and 8 Gestalt Principals but there appears to be consensus around 7 key areas:
- The Law of Segregation or Figure/Ground suggests that an object needs to stand out from it’s background if it is to be perceived.
- The Law of similarity suggests things that appear similar are grouped together.
- The Law of Proximity suggests that things close together are grouped together.
- The Law of Closure suggests the mind tends to form an outline shape around things roughly arranged together.
- The Law of Good Continuation suggests the mind tends to continue shapes and lines beyond their ending point.
- The Law of Simplicity suggests the mind looks for simple visual explanations such as points, lines, and curves, preferring symmetry and balance.
- The Law of Common Fate suggests grouped elements are assumed to move together and act as one.
Some people also include the following two principles:
- Emergence: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- Multistability: objects invert spontaneously when there are insufficient depth clues.
Gestalt is a German word meaning essence or shape of an entity’s complete form. Gestalt theory was developed in the 1920s by group of German psychologists aimed at describing how people perceive and process visual information.
 J Duncan and R West (eds) Source: The Photographic Review Issue 79, published by Photoworks North, Summer 2014
The issue of ambiguity has been something I have been grappling with all throughout my Body of Work. At times I was heading in a very direct, personal interpretation of what I wanted to say, but accept now that this is a very Modernist approach with it being all about the photographer. Clive has been guiding me towards a more ambiguous approach, suggesting, as you do, that this can add strength to the overall message. I am still struggling with this though as I keep asking: “why communicate if nobody understands?” I will, therefore, enjoy seeing how you grapple with this and come up with an answer 😉
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