Project 6 Picture of Health: is it sublime or grotesque?

One of the perspectives I need to consider in this project is just how expressive I want it to be. I tend to shoot with quite a straight style that offers viewers a sort of cold hard impression rather than use dramatic lighting or lots of distortion to present my discourse. Yet I think much of my material could be described as sublime or grotesque.

Take these examples below. I suffer from bleeding a lot both because I have to take a blood thinning drug and also because I manually evacuate my bowels and this creates trauma and bleeding. But if I stop taking the blood thinners I risk clotting and death or a Stroke, and if I take them I risk bleeding out. This first photo shows the toilet pan after a shit. The effect of the view is that I live in fear (and some fatalism) constantly. Not so much fear of death – that offers a welcome release in some ways – but more the fear of having to manage the situation of a big bleed. This would require hospitalisation and a transfusion. But being paraplegic means that general hospital pose real risks and so the issues if complex and pressurising.

The second photo shows the stitched up wound sometime after the operation. Here, I was trying to offer a commentary not only on the nature of my skin and the trauma its (I) was going through but also one more broadly focused on living with paralysis and the constant coping with the failure of the body. These images are not in a typology – but I could create one…

Big Bleed and New Scar, Peter Mansell, 2011

One photographer who did focus on shit and used a typological approach is Andreas Serrano.

Shit 2008image

Serrano’s focus, at least in some of his earlier work, was focussed on the body. They were mostly tightly focussed shots that offered very little or no contextual information. The focus is always on the nature of the object in question. For example, in his Morgue series he offered viewers insights into the textures and colours of dead skin, the Shit series offers – some of which is shown above – offers clear comparisons between the types of shit and is reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher while his images of blood and piss in another series takes the focus so narrow as to move away from representing the object and to transform it into a sublime abstract image.

Sublime beauty
Sometimes my situations can offer a type of beauty in the imagery even though the subject matter is horrid or horrifying. Take these two versions of the same photo shot recently. This incontinence sheet measures 55cc by 55cm and is very absorbent. Thus when I look at a sheet like this in real life fear and fatalism take hold because of the volume of blood.

Blood, Peter Mansell, 2015
Blood 33

But when I create images of the blood and shit the vista becomes transformed. It becomes at one both blood and shot and also an abstract shape. Of course, the photo reminds me of my vulnerability but it offers me something else like a horrific sort of beauty or spectacle.

Blood and shit, Peter Mansell 2015 Blood 18

Such imagery isn’t sublime in the traditional artistic sense of of large landscapes, indeed this approach is very narrow, but it evokes a very similar sense of the sublime for me and in that sense it shared more with Serrano than it does with the Bechers. Indeed, others seem to agree.

“Serrano was reluctant to give up the hook of beauty, which is a key tool of his art”. (Hobbs 1994)

Yet the author made no mention of use of the term sublime in the work. But to me this is exactly how I would describe it. The images are not beautiful in the sense of a picturesque landscape or painterly portrait: the content repels. Yet the images offer a type of frightening appeal.

“The flip side of beauty is the sublime, a special case in which we experience a sort of fascinated delight at scenes and situations that are overwhelming, vast, or even terrifying.” (Freeman quoted in ephotozine)

Maybe my images of blood would be better described as grotesque.

The Grotesque in Photography
A.D. Colman, a writer whose work is old but still very readable and applicable today produced an interesting book on the grotesque; just flicking through its pages gives an immediate sense of his view of what the grotesque is – distortions of the body. Every single image in the book is either of or representative of the body.

There are: Victorian images of dead children dress up in their finery taken as mementos and keepsakes; images of faces and bodies distorted with lenses; images of dwarfs and people with physical deformities; images of hangings; there are surreal images; fetish images and highly sexualised images. Many of the photos selected are from well-known photographers such as Edward Weston, Weegee, Ellen Carey, Kertesz, Bill Brandt, William Mortensen as well as many other photographers less known to me.

Coleman notes the dictionary definition of grotesque and then applied this to photography by recognising how the approach was less to do with one very narrow photographic style and much more to do with the discomfiture the range of images provoke. He recognises his book isn’t the definitive study of the grotesque but more a starting point.

For my part the grotesque in photography seems to play a very traditional role of the photograph in that it is a form of spectacle. Spectacular vistas have always been an important part of photographic imagery and grotesque images are part of that tradition. Whether its photos of dead Civil War soldiers or lynching in the USA all the images offer a form of spectacle.

Maybe one of the main differences between the traditional spectacular and the grotesque is that in the latter evoke a sense of the hidden and secrecy. It is rather as though the viewer is acting as a Peeping Tom and seeing things they should not whereas traditional spectacular imagery does not evoke that feeling.

The production values of the book are that all the images are monochrome and I’m not sure whether this is an intention of the photographer in every single case the availability of technology in every single case or the fact that the book isn’t income isn’t printed in colour.

So, after considering some of Coleman’s views do I still consider some of my work sublime or would be it better categorised at grotesque? Take this shot below.

Emotional response, 2014

I don’t think this photograph is sublime. There is no beauty in it. Moreover even using a typological approach to this subject matter would not create a sublime set because the approach invites analysis rather than reaction and response.

Moreover the nature of the fluid I plan to show (urine) isn’t life-threatening in the way blood is , and my approach will be straight and documentary and so I think project 6 will offer just more a cold frank look at things that indicate health to me that I’m sharing.

However I will experiment with my approach to the set of images I am currently creating and see what they say. That will be the subject of my next post.

Hobbs, R. (1994) Andres Serrano: The Body Politic.” In Andres Serrano: Works, 1983-1993. Published by Philadelphia Institute Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Coleman, A. D. (1977) The Grotesque in Photography, Published by Summit Books


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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2 Responses to Project 6 Picture of Health: is it sublime or grotesque?

  1. rhiannon evans says:

    Strong stuff!
    Certainly making visible what most people choose to ignore.
    I went to see Imran Quoreshi at the Ikon recently and this had powerful impact though it was paint not blood.
    Beautiful intricate flowers visible on close inspection.
    I do not like these images but think what you are doing by making them is excellent.
    I like the incontinence sheets.
    As photographs of course we cannot experience the other factors of odour etc and this makes it even more interesting I think because we know they exist and these photos make it obvious that we cannot sense some of the things we are aware of.



  2. anomiepete says:

    Thanks Rhiannon. I think the images lack the aesthetic quality I am after but the urine bags should have that. 🙂


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