For the second of the deep dives into the ‘genres’ (still not sure…) in the course notes I looked at what is described as Personal journeys and fictional autobiographies.
My first comment is that the two halves of the title of this section in the course notes seem to me to mean quite different things:
- Personal journeys implies factual
- and the initial examples given in the text (Nan Goldin, Larry Sultan, Elinor Carucci, Richard Billingham, Robert Mapplethorpe) seem to better fit this part of the category
- Fictional autobiographies overtly self-defines as fictionalised (or at least semi-fictionalised, given the ‘autobiographical’ part)
- and the visual examples given (Lorena Guillen Vaschetti, Lena Aliper) fit this part of the category
These two seem quite distinct to me…
In this genre discussion, ‘journey’ refers to personal experience, a ‘life journey’ rather than physical travel, and it is increasingly common as subject matter for photographic projects.
Without wishing to be over-critical of the course notes, I found some of the examples given here slightly odd: I wouldn’t really consider Goldin or Billingham to be documenting ‘journeys’ (change, evolution, character development) as much as capturing the everyday lives of the people around them, albeit sometimes in non-traditional settings, and the ‘personal’ aspect of it leans towards their relationships with others more than any internal psychological landscape.
Elinor Carucci (motherhood) and Robert Mapplethorpe (homosexual lifestyle) fit the criteria better in my opinion, as the personal, introspective aspect comes across better. Larry Sultan potentially fits in if one considers the ‘journey’ to be observing the ageing of his parents.
Illness and disability, both physical and mental, dominate the genre; the most affecting work manages to give the viewer some understanding of the experiences of the artist, not only the pain and anguish but often also the unexpected ‘highs’ of a life-changing set of circumstances.
There’s a photography project I read about several years ago that I rather maddeningly can’t find any reference to that I remember the details of, but not the photographer’s name, that fits this genre perfectly: it was a man who was suffering from a degenerative disease that made him gradually lose his motor skills, making him fall over a lot. He carried a compact camera everywhere and every time he fell down he took a picture from the vantage point of the ground he’d fallen on (coincidentally this was the first time I understood that photography could be used in a conceptual way, but that’s a discussion for another post).
Whilst the most obvious form of personal journey is that in which the subject is the photographer themselves, sometimes it’s a journey documenting the experience of another, usually a loved one. Briony Campbell‘s The Dad Project (2011) and Rachel Cox‘s Shiny Ghost (2013) both fall into this category, documenting the last days of a father and a grandmother respectively.
The fascinating paradox about personal journey projects is that by making them highly personal one can actually widen one’s audience, as the personal becomes an example of the universal; the viewer can empathise (almost everyone fears death or terminal illness; everyone has loved ones that they don’t wish to lose; etc) and this empathy creates engagement.
I find that my level of personal empathy is a significant determinant of how much I engage with this kind of art. For example, I really like Elina Brotherus‘ 1999 project Suites Françaises as I too have struggled to learn a foreign language, specifically French – but can’t really connect in the same way with her Annunciation series (2011), having not experienced unsuccessful fertility treatment. I can appreciate it but I don’t feel it.
As noted above I see this as quite distinct from personal journeys, in as much as the element of fiction radically changes the dynamics of a personal project. For a variety of reasons the artist may wish to rewrite history, create an alter-ego, investigate parallel lives or change the details of their own to fit the creative intent. Often these projects are fundamentally concerned with aspects of identity, and in terms of traditional genre categorisation, they tend to be self-portraiture of one form or another.
Aside from the examples given in the course notes, I’ve seen this kind of thing done well by other photographers in recent years. Nikki S Lee takes on the physical appearance of an identifiable group (/tribe/subculture) and joins the group for naturalistic snapshots taken by group members or passers-by. She did this in a wide range of groups, in several works with titles such as Hip Hop Project, Senior Project, Skateboarders Project, Exotic Dancers Project, Yuppies Project and so on. The point she’s making is about the mutability of identity.
Trish Morrissey (with her Front project) and Dita Pepe (with Self-Portraits with Men) both do a similar ‘cuckoo in the nest’ thing by inserting themselves into family units to replace the real wife/mother. These seem to add to Lee’s point on the fluidity of identity by overlaying notions of standard female character tropes (wife, mother), making a comment on the expected roles of women in western society.
Whilst most of my examples seem to be from female photographers (who I think are, to generalise, more interested in exploring notions of identity than men are), one male photographer came to mind. Charles Latham has produced striking work based around his “imaginary friend, alter ego, personal demon and doppelgänger” Cyrus (Bright 2010: 26), a personification of the depressive and self-destructive side of Latham’s character. Latham created double self-portraits of Charles and ‘Cyrus’ to externalise negative emotions.
It’s my opinion that this kind of semi-fictionalised but personal work is much more interesting than (realist) personal journeys. It is more concerned with the internal (psychological, emotional, cognitive) realm than the real world, and that in itself makes it more attractive to me.
Application to my own work
At this stage I can’t really see myself going down the personal journey route. I find this kind of project tends to veer a little too close to straight documentary for my liking, and I’m not particularly interested in that kind of personal realism. Given that my overarching theme for Level 3 is memory, one way in which to incorporate a personal journey element would be to photograph evidence of my own memory lapses, but that would almost certainly not be very visually interesting, and I’m also hoping that my own occasional absent-mindedness isn’t evidence of any serious cognitive disorder (I wouldn’t wish that on myself just for the sake of an interesting photo project…!).
I am however already working in the fictionalised autobiographical genre, kind of. My current work-in-progress for Assignment 1 is based on obscuring parts of my own archive of snapshots to simulate forgetting things. In a sense, I’m pretending that my memory is worse than it is – or I’m playing the part of a parallel universe version of me that has amnesia. Something like that…
Bright, S. (2010) Autofocus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.
Casper, J. (ed) (2017) The Best of LensCulture, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: Schilt.
Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.