I made a conscious decision to get cracking on at least a draft version of Assignment 1 before doing a significant amount of research into other photographers, as I wanted to produce some initial work without outside influence.

It now feels like the right time to familiarise myself with existing work so that I can begin to place my own work in a wider context.

My research of other practitioners for this particular assignment falls into two main (not mutually exclusive) categories:

  • Subject matter: work examining personal memory
  • Formal techniques: work that incorporates an element of defacement of the photograph

The former area is vast and will probably be covered continuously throughout my remaining studies, though I will make a start on this soon (I have a list of names from my tutor Wendy, plus some from other Level 3 students).

For this post I will focus on the latter: work with a similar visual concept of defacement to my own work-in-progress – specifically literal defacement, as in removing or covering human faces.

youtube artifact

The unusual starting point for my fascination with defacement isn’t a photographer at all but a Twitter account that vandalises stills from random YouTube videos! The account @youtubeartifact runs some kind of image manipulation to glitch video clips then tweets out selected images:

The effect is strangely painterly, although the very contemporary settings (mostly standard YouTube backdrops – domestic rooms, cars etc) makes for an interesting visual juxtaposition. I really like the way that the subjects are recognisably human but not recognisably individuals. I’m not sure they really inform my work regarding photography and memory but they are a memorable aesthetic.

Recent exhibitions

Gideon Mendell‘s Drowning World was one of my Arles 2017 highlights, and not really for the flood victim portraits that got most of the attention, but for the images of flood-damaged photographs rescued from houses.

Aside from the aesthetic (coincidentally not dissimilar to @youtubeartifact’s output) I found these to carry a deeper significance to my own current work, as they are personal memory artefacts that themselves bear scars of a traumatic incident – it’s almost as though the way the flood water has affected the photos is analogous to how the floods affected the people. It’s not quite the same idea as mine (fragility of memory) but it’s a close cousin.

Norman Behrendt‘s Brave New Turkey and Mari Bastashevki’s State Business were part of the New Discovery Award group show at Arles this year and although it was only one image from each set that relates to my subject, they sparked my imagination.

In both cases the reason for obscuration is anonymity rather than memory issues (or identity, of which more later) but both visual effects stayed with me and influenced specific executions in my work-in-progress to date.

Nina Korhone

Again this is one specific photograph but it’s a striking one. Her work is broadly concerned with memory, particularly familial memory, and this image is a painted portrait of the artist’s grandmother, rendered by her grandfather, from which the subject’s face has been cut out (not by Korhone; she found it like this).

nina-korhonen-painting-without-a-face-new-york-800x800
Painting without a face, New York, 2002 by Nina Korhone

The visual effect is strong, and made even stronger with the mysterious backstory of why the picture was defaced. Part of my current dilemma is the risk of negotiated interpretations of my own work which is intended to suggest a gradual, passive fading of memory rather than a deliberate intervention – this is definitely the latter.

Sam Ivin and Seba Kurtis

Ivin’s project Lingering Ghosts and various connected projects by Kurtis both look at refugees and both use variations on visual obscuration of their subjects, for slightly different but related reasons. Ivin’s portraits emphasise the combination of the suffering and the loss of individual identity that being an asylum seeker brings.

For Kurtis one of the messages is how these refugees are ‘invisible’ – hiding, stowing away, off-radar, undocumented.

In both instances the overriding effect, particularly with the accumulation of a series of images, is to dehumanise the subjects.

Rachel Smith’s The Materiality of Images lecture

Last year I attended the OCA’s Photography Matters symposium in Doncaster and one of the papers was by Rachel Smith, about the materiality of the photograph, including how much physical aspects of the image-object can influence the interpretation of the image itself. This included some discussion and examples of image defacement for particular artistic intent.

Not surprisingly on my recent rewatch of the lecture a couple of the practitioners mentioned jumped out as employing visual treatments associated with my own experiments.

John Stezaker applies overlays onto archive portraits that juxtapose features in a surreal, often witty way. They come across as visual pranks rather than any serious meditation on deep philosophical issues, but they look great.

Sabato Visconti works with software glitches on digital images, producing visually interesting images that are aesthetically the most directly similar to some of my own recent experiments.


Main takeaways

Beyond the connecting thread of visual treatments, what struck me is the different reasons people have for using defacement in photographic projects. For most it seems to be about identity in some form – meditations on personal identity, anonymity, loss of individuality, dehumanisation. I haven’t yet found many examples of people using this kind of visual treatment with regard to the fragility of memory.

Now, this observation could be interpreted one of two ways!

  • I’m risking negotiated readings if viewers generally associate such defacement techniques with identity issues rather than memory issues
  • I’m breaking new ground and should persevere!

As ever I suspect the real path ahead lies somewhere between these two poles…


EDIT

I’m indebted to Helen Rosemier who commented below to remind me of the classic case of photographic disfigurement that I’d inexplicably overlooked, that of Roy Stryker taking a hole punch to FSA images he didn’t approve of.

art_08242016_baker_mr._tronson_farmer_near_wheelock_north_-1366x1708
Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, 1937 (detail)

Whilst this wasn’t intentionally an artistic construct, the reappraisal of this images in the 21st century places them in the wider context of how defacing photographs can be a valid artistic approach, and it makes one wonder about reasons why images get defaced in the name of art. The opening line of the linked Village Voice article is this:

“The defacement of an image is always violent, a stand-in for the harming of flesh or obliteration of ideas.” (Baker 2016)

Whilst one can disagree with the “always” (I’m not a big fan of absolutism), this sentiment certainly rings true with how I’ve come to think about photographic defacement, particularly the physical interventions on prints I’ve been experimenting with; I see how problematic and easy to misread some of my attempts were, which is the reason why I moved towards less violent and more subtle interventions.


Sources

The Materiality of Images https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/video-resources/materiality-images-rachel-smith-lecture (accessed 26/09/2017)

https://www.villagevoice.com/2016/08/24/disfigure-and-ground-how-defacement-became-art-in-the-twentieth-century/ (accessed 01/10/2017)

British Journal of Photography, September 2016