I said last week in the regular student hangout that I was going to concentrate on my Contextual Studies essay for a couple of weeks and produce a first draft of that. However, I find myself being pulled back towards Body of Work – possibly due to simple procrastination rather than genuine inspiration, who knows? So the essay reading and writing will have to wait a little longer while I give in to this bout of curiosity about the more practical side of my studies…

Thinking time

As mentioned in a previous post, my photographing has been somewhat curtailed by a bout of tennis elbow since December, but I am slowly getting back out with my ‘big camera’ and making new images. Whilst my camera work has been on the back burner, I have had a lot of time for research – more in-depth dives into books and exhibitions, in addition to the usual online research – and reflection.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my intent with this set of images. I had better define that in a little more detail, if only for my own understanding…

What I mean by intent here is:

What do I want the viewer to think or feel while or after looking at this set of images?

As part of my CS work I’ve been reading David Campany’s excellent So present, so invisible: Conversations on photography (2018) and in his dialogue with Daniel Blaufuks the conversation turns to the purpose of art (I’m paraphrasing slightly; the actual wording was around the ‘tasks of the avant-garde’ but I strongly feel it applies to art in general), and Blaufuks offers:

[To] make people think and feel a bit differently than they did earlier that day.

(Blaufuks, in Campany 2018: 41)

In some respects this is such a modest aim that one assumes that all art should be capable of it. Whether it is simple to achieve is a different question. Subjectivity means that some art is ‘successful’ to some people and not others.

Now, a further question is whether you want to influence the nature and direction of that thought/feeling. I don’t doubt that a lot of people will think or feel ‘differently’ after seeing my work or anyone else’s, but a more interesting question is whether what they think and feel is that which the artist wanted them to. This is where the notion of artistic intent gets interesting, in my view.

I increasingly feel that having a clear intent in mind is key to my own practice. I’m not opposed to ambiguity; I believe that ambiguity should fit with the artist’s intent though. Work that is intended to get across a particular message but does not – that seems to be a missed opportunity; work that intentionally gives the viewer gaps of ‘meaning’ to fill in themselves – well I believe that succeeds on its own terms.

I collected some thoughts on intent and ambiguity in an earlier post.

Articulating my intent

Having decided that writing down my intent is going to be useful, now I guess I’d better have a go at doing just that…

[pause for thought, and coffee]

  • I want viewers of this work to think about the fallibility of their own memory

To elaborate on this a bit while I’m on a roll…

  • I’d like the viewer to reach the end of the series with a creeping sense of having observed a deteriorating (faculty of) memory – this will be determined by the sequencing I believe

There are some adjectives that I would be pleased to have associated with the work I am creating:

  • Thought-provoking
  • Poignant
  • Melancholic
  • Elegiac
  • Poetic
  • Disconcerting, perhaps

There’s something more specific about the viewing experience that I’ve been trying to articulate for a while but have only just got to the point of feeling able to describe it in words. The breakthrough was gathering my thoughts on the Pierre Bonnard exhibition of paintings I saw last week and the William Eggleston book I’ve been enjoying for the last month or so.

  • I want the viewing experience to feel more like remembering than looking

If that doesn’t make sense in its own right, I’ll try to elaborate: I want the viewer to get a sense of seeing not photographs of scenes but photographs of memories of scenes.

In quite different ways, Bonnard and Eggleston seemed to me to be adept at capturing scenes that resembled memories. There are a few techniques (I doubt they were deliberate ‘techniques’. more ‘ways of seeing the world’) that I can discern that aid this illusion:

  • Simplification: memories are simpler than reality; they miss out or smooth over unnecessary details
    • This is what I see in Eggleston’s most successful work – an ‘uncanny simplicity’ in colour palette and compositional geometry that gives his street scenes an eerie, otherworldly feel
  • Exaggeration: the key details in a scene that evokes a memory can, in contrast to the unnecessary background details, be amped up to be more significant
    • This is the key to Bonnard’s use of colour: his highly saturated, vibrant colour palette speaks to me of a quite distinctive way of depicting a memory rather than aiming for realistic representation

These two strategies are potentially, on the face of it, somewhat contradictory. But what they have in common is as basic as this: ‘memory’ scenes look different in some way to ‘reality’ scenes.

Now what?

How to incorporate all this reflection into my evolving work?

To start with, I am not confident at this point that the above-stated intent is being met successfully with the images I used in Assignment 3 and the work-in-progress on Assignment 4.

I am concerned that a ‘straight photography’ approach might not best serve my intent. I believe I need to present the work in a way that better aligns with how I want it to be received. I need to do a little encoding to give it the best chance of being decoded how I’d like it to be (re Hall’s theory of communication).

With particular regard to the idea that I want the images to ‘more resemble memories’, I have been brainstorming and experimenting with presentational approaches that might better support what I want to get across.

Put simply there are two practical points to address with my photos:

  • Simplicity of composition and ideally of colour palette will help support my intended message
  • A layer of visual abstraction might be required that takes the images one step away from being ‘just photographs’ and encourages the viewer to perceive them in a certain way

I don’t want to describe or demonstrate exactly what techniques I’ve been experimenting with at this point as I think this merits a separate post upon which I will invite comments.


Sources

Campany, D. (2018) So present, so invisible: Conversations on photography. Rome: Contrasto

Hall, S (1993) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in The Cultural Studies Reader (ed: During, S). London: Routledge

Eggleston W. (2016) The Democratic Forest: Selected Works. Gottingen: Steidl

Pierre Bonnard – The Colour of Memory. Tate Modern, London. 23/01/19 to 06/05/19