In this weeks material we are looking at the semiotics of advertising images. Within this we can experience three types of reading:
- Dominant reading - what the advertiser wants
- Oppositional reading - directly conflicts against what the advertiser wants
- Negotiated reading - partially confronts or is at least plausible and understandable to us
When exposed to advertising images for a period of time, consumers get used to metaphor and develop a much more sophisticated visual language therefore are more open to Negotiated reading. I remember in Latvia in the early 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union we started to get western adverts on TV and our minds were blown away by all the sparkly, gorgeous, extraordinary products. I remember watching the advert for Mars bar and it was the most desirable, magical and delicious thing I had ever seen. I learned later that it did not look quite as sexy in real life. It didn't taste quite how I had imagined it either.
I guess we were quite naive and took these advertisements at a face value. An old lady in the neighbouring farm destroyed her Palmolive soap bar with scissors in search for the essential oil she saw being pored in on TV. She didn't find any.
My example of an Oppositional reading is not entirely an advertising image in the traditional sense, but it is the header from The Guardian Facebook page posted during the 2017 General Election.
Initially this might look like a straight forward image of a British newspaper portraying the Prime Minister and the opposition leaders. However, on closer observation there are many subtle messages that are being communicated here, whether this is deliberate of a left leaning paper, is unclear. Theresa May in the warm glowing light, holding important Brexit papers, looking calm, controlled and quite large, taking up half of the image. The opposition don't get to have colour or hold important papers in their hands. They are ghostly and much smaller in scale, decreasing depending on their opposition status; blue and cold with awkward expressions, grouped together like the unwanted other they represent. Big Ben is erect, hard and reassuring, glowing warm in the evening sky, even though it is slightly toppling over, so who knows.
These portraits were photographed early on before having a clear idea or particular strategies to use for this body of work. I am pleased with these aesthetically, the stillness and timelessness in expressionless, blank faces is what I was hoping to convey. I feel that the studio portraits are perhaps stronger than the naturally lit ice cream photo, which stands out from the rest.
On reflection I became aware of couple of issues.
- Compositionally my images look very similar. Poses are almost identical, central to the image and facing the same direction. When it comes to strangers, I have not been very creative in asking them to perform in a particular way.
- Using 35mm full frame in portrait stretches the image making them look squashed in. I had a portfolio review with Michelle Sank and I was suggested using a different aspect ratio to visually create more space around my sitters. Also, I might use 35mm lens instead of 50mm I have been using so far.
- I could be more adventurous in creating narratives in my pictures. Perhaps I need to plan my shoots better, coming in with clear ideas rather than improvising in a moment.
After the f2f event in Falmouth I have come away with much clearer ideas in where to take this project further. I received a lot of great and constructive feedback which I found very helpful.
- I should be photographing political youth in all parties, not just young Corbyn supporters. Now it seems like such a no-braner. I have emailed Manchester regional Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP calling for participants. I am hoping to get responses from all.
- It was suggested I should photograph young farmers, an idea I like very much and might explore during the next module, but currently would be a logistical nightmare as I am not near any farming communities.
- I have to be more considerate with my framing; firstly by changing the aspect ratio of my photos and secondly by considering the edges of my photos. Even though I think I have come a long way in constructing my images, I know I can be hasty when photographing, becoming too excited by the sitter and forgetting about things in the background and around the edges. I need to slow down, look and observe.
- I should look at paintings for composition and consider fashion in my photography. I have since visited Manchester Art Gallery and looked at people in paintings, compositions and poses I could translate in my photos.
I photographed young Corbyn supporters during Manchester Momentum Valentine Day's Party. I found the nightclub setting difficult due to low lighting, location restrictions and the crowd. I took portraits of few participants, but feel happy only with the one above. Aesthetically I am happy with the composition and the positioning of the sitter in the photo; whilst the other portraits are more formal in their setting, this one is more relaxed and therefore more informal.
Even though I like a challenge, I learned that in order to achieve the esthetic I'm after, I will need to work 1 to 1 with my sitter. This will allow for a more negotiable relationships and connection between myself and my sitters.
This week we covered constructed approaches to photography looking at photographers such as William Eggleston, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and Tom Hunter.
I have always been interested constructed imagery and tableau photography. My own work is staged and performative in nature. I am particularly interested in the crossover between documentary and staged image, similar to Tom Hunter’s work, I feel that my project ‘Turning of the Sun’ is both – documentary and staged.
I love images that carry a narrative and have the potential to develop into something else; the cinematic images that are tense and ambiguous, of impending doom, creating narratives in our minds. I was trying to achieve this in my images during the micro project week in Positions and Practice module and would like to take this further in my future work.
I think that preoccupying oneself with the ‘truth’ of the photography within contemporary art is unnecessary. It is important in reportage photography, but not so much in documentary photography. Tom Hunter’s images are no less real in what they represent only because they are staged.
Jeff Wall’s describes photographers of being either the hunter or the farmer. The hunter tracks down and captures their subject matter as pray. The farmer cultivates, constructs and tends to his image over time. (Wall, in Horne, 2012).
In my photographic practice, I am definitely the farmer. My intention is to invent motives, create narratives and explore the new realities I have created, even when the imagery is subtle in its nature. I don’t find the idea of hunting for the image or the ‘decisive moment’ interesting or exciting, I find that type of photography very masculine.
As part of my research I have looked at photographers who have also engaged strangers in their work, creating portraiture that explores the complicity between photographer and subject. Taking into consideration these different approaches to photographing strangers, I aim to employ similar strategies in my own work.
For her series Sugar Camp Road, Katy Grannan adapted a strategy of posting advertisements in local papers to find her models as she felt uncomfortable approaching strangers on the street. She then photographed her sitters in their chosen locations that were charged with dark histories or illicit activities. All these elements create a tangible tension in Grannan’s otherwise quiet and picturesque photographs.
Erwin Wurm’s Instructions on How to Be Politically Incorrect is a body of work that engages strangers (or volunteers as he calls them). In his work, Wurm approaches his sitters by asking the curator to put an advert in the paper calling for the participants to take part in fictitious scenarios, usually in public places, that challenge social norms through performance and absurdity. Wurm describes the process as collaborative as he welcomes and explores ideas from the participants. The final images are playful, yet uncomfortable to view as they challenge our cultural perception of the private boundaries of the body.
In contrast, Shizuka Yokomizo in her series Strangers, never actually met her sitters in person. Her strategy was to initially identify suitable locations for her photographs - accessible ground floor windows of domestic buildings that could be photographed from the street. She then sent letters to the inhabitants of the houses inviting them to be photographed at an appointed time in the evening, subsequently getting their consent for being the subject of her voyeurism. The body of work consists of nineteen unsettling portraits of strangers looking out of the window at night in anticipation to be photographed by the unknown photographer.
The photograph as an object is real. It often represents the real thing, but not necessarily in a realistic way. An image is indexical of the recorded ‘thing’ whether it is obvious or not. Beyond the physicality of the image, it is merely a representation of what was there in front of the lens. Authenticity of this representation is a different question. In documentary photography and news imagery, it is expected that images depict reality as it happened and digitally manipulated images are frowned upon. Yet framing alone manipulates image so there will always be photographer’s choice in how the event was portrayed. For example, these two images are of the same scene photographed from different perspectives (full article here) . They both depict reality.
My practice does not directly consider these questions. My work is mostly negotiated and staged, this doesn’t make it any less real, yet it is representational. My recent portrait of Hugo taken in an ice cream café does not ask questions of reality, e.g. ‘Who is Hugo?’ The importance of this photograph instead lies in its concept. Hugo is a complete stranger who has agreed to be photographed by me. We read visual clues from the image, observe the scene and consider the aesthetic of it. The aesthetic of ‘looking real’ in this instance is important as we are more likely to engage with the photograph’s narrative. It makes it relatable.
In Camera Lucida (1980: 89) Roland Barthes states that 'In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation'.
Barthes was saying that the power of the photograph is that it authenticates something, yet what it represents comes secondary. For example, questioning the truth of Cappa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ didn’t mean that people weren’t actually dying, but the preoccupation with the authenticity of the image portrays the complexity of photography as a medium. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ depicted another war, yet this symbolic representation didn’t raise the same questions of the authenticity of the events it depicted.
Personally, I am interested in the meaning of the photograph or what it represents, rather that the actuality or authenticity of the circumstances in which the photograph was taken. We live in a Post-Truth era where people still see photography as authentic despite knowing how easily images can be manipulated. This belief is exactly what recently has helped to spread fake news on the internet.
In my own practice, I chose representation over authentication and digitally manipulate images for greater aesthetic impact.
With a practice based in documentary, portraiture and performance, my current work focuses on strangers and the relationship between the photographer and sitter. I am interested in the balance of power between photographer and sitter, and how this relates to the depiction of someone’s identity. Furthermore, I am interested in the photographer’s intention behind taking the portrait and the participant’s intention for sitting.
As part of the project development during the previous module I posted an advertisement on a Facebook group set up for cat owners in my local area, offering free portraits with their pets. My aim was not to make work about cats per se, rather the animal fulfilled an important role as a strategy to gain access into strangers’ homes and possibly learn more about the people who had little more in common than owning a cat. I photographed cat owners at seventeen separate locations and each portrait I took was a negotiation and a collaboration with my sitter.
Even though I created some interesting images, I feel that this work inevitably became about cats, not so much about the strangers. I was hoping to comment on cats as the great distraction that is taking over the internet and detracting from the issues that actually matter, yet it did not translate through my images. I also wanted to make serious work that had weight and edge and even though my work holds the potential of being both, having cats in my images would always be misread as something quite cute.
To develop my practice further I have decided to move away from the cats and focus on a different group of strangers. I am interested in millennials as they are the damned generation. Labeled as useless narcissists, they hold difficult futures ahead of them. I am particularly interested in the Momentum movement and the young people that support Jeremy Corbyn, coming together in a movement which is about a community and looking after one another.