Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Art History; Lens and Screen, Roland Barthes Essay.

Roland Barthes sought the meaning of photography’s ability to conjure up “that which has been” in a picture of his mother who had died. Critically investigate this relationship between photography (or film) and death, thinking through whether it is still relevant in contemporary culture.

“Cameras, in short, [are] clocks for seeing.”[1]

-Roland Barthes.

Photography creates an insight into the past through its use as a tool to document, usually incorporating an element of truth relating to the subject matter. The camera is a spectator of death, or more precisely, its image. Even though it was more prominent throughout the progression of history, the tie between photography and death is just as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. With the ability to hold and cherish memories with those we have lost, photography gives us this gateway into the past; bearing witness to history and serving as an outlet to view and discuss “that which has been.”[2] Photography gives the ability to produce an image for a consciousness that essentially mourns an absent object or person rather than relishing its presence. Photographs of various objects or people give the viewer certified evidence of their very existence, whether it is in a past or present tense. Walter Benjamin takes this concept further, using photography as a metaphor for memory and history; “having the ability to be present in another form, in another time and place.”[3]

Within Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, photography is redefined. As a medium unlike other forms of aesthetic expression, photography has an independent relationship between the operator, the photographic image and the physical world. The camera is a kind of clock for seeing, in Roland Barthes’ terms, “a memory machine that shares many of the vicissitudes of the conscious and unconscious mind,”[4] capturing events in time and storing them as visual history. The taking of a photograph involves selecting a moment and literally “slicing it out of time.”[5] The way in which memory and reality relate with one another is complex; an image is always likely to be interpreted in relation to other images and reality is always relative to the subject: it depends who is doing the looking. “A photograph is not only like its subject, homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of that subject.”[6]

While viewing an old photograph of his mother, who had recently passed away at the time, Barthes made the connection between the studium; the general view, and the punctum; the unconscious or imaginary element or interpretation that may arise for the viewer. “It is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” [7] Finding photography as a memorial element, the very essence of the medium was seen as a “spectral conjuring of death-in-life.” [8] Photography can falsify reality by implicitly arguing for individuals semiology; the ability to know others, or those within or connected to the photograph in question. There is a fine line of distinction between fantasy and reality, between truth and its interpretation; this interpretation is driven by desire, the desire of the operator, the subject being photographed and the viewer looking on. The different relationships between these positions can change the meaning and connection had between yourself and the image. Barthes presented an alternate understanding of photographs as both incarnate and transcendent. "The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence ... The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest shared hallucination (on the one hand 'it is not there,' on the other 'but it has indeed been'): a mad image, chafed by reality." [9]

What fascinated Barthes was not only the return of the dead, but of evidence, of memory not as mental imagery was about and took its attraction from, the “light of an idea.”[10] Such a memory of the forgotten may be accessible, at last, through the medium of photography. “The photographic picture reveals to our eyes no more than a primitive drawing could reveal to a primitive man.” [11] In saying this, Barthes most important example of his theory was the portrait of his mother at a young age. Due to his own personal relationship and connection with the image, the Winter Garden Photograph was not reproduced for viewing; as there would be no recognition and no studium would reveal to us the picture’s punctum. Instead, the writing of Barthes creates the mothers image from within his eyes. “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture... in it for you no wound.”[12]
Even through his studies, Barthes writes to her memory, allowing him to compile what is invisible to us; the punctum that marks the love of a son in mourning leaving his mark for a lifetime throughout his writing, while “looking for the truth of the face [he] had loved.”[13]

The theme of mortality has always been relevant to photography, ranging from the Victorian mourning portraits such as spirit and/or aura photography to Barthes interpretation of his own portrait of his mother. Referencing death and the process of mourning, “the photograph helped to turn grief into belief, and enabled the bereaved not only to come to terms with their loss but also to know with certainty that the great divide that separated them from the departed could be bridged.”[14] With its origins set against the backgrounds of life (and death) during the American Civil War (1861-65), the business of spirit photography was evidently popular throughout this period, also referencing to the amount of casualties caused by the war. Giving an extra process to the ability to mourn and grieve over lost loved ones, spirit photography doesn’t differ far from Barthes approach, embedded with metaphors, speaking strongly of faith, desire, loss and love rather than gullibility.  “In their time of loss, friends and relatives desperately need these spirit pictures, and they see in them what they want to see in them.” [15] Spirit photography opens up the “cameras indifferent eye and unerring ability to arrest the truth”,[16] not necessarily taking form of truth in regards to how these images were constructed, but the truth in which lies behind the imagery, and the historical context of the era that made spirit photography so successful. “A photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled from the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” [17]

What photography is taking pictures of, in short, is time itself. The theme of death goes hand in hand with photography, as it stops time and captures a moment for eternity. Barthes is interested in both the natural history of death and its automatic transmission. In photography history becomes hysteria again, it turns “hysterical: the photographic picture is constituted only if we look at it- in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it.”[18] In reference to war and photojournalism in contemporary culture, photography has beared witness to some of the most disastrous scenarios, causing us as the viewer to become unattached from such confrontations, numbing us to the violence within the world. “Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened.”[19] In Barthes writings, the photograph is caught in a struggle between the banalities of the media code and more authentic forms of visual experience. The studium could not convey trauma, only the punctum, which wounds, was appropriate to the experience of traumatic loss which was at the heart of the photographic experience. “Certain images might shock in the short term but they “shout” rather than wound. The punctum was bound to feelings of desire and love: without emotional investment, no trauma affected the viewer as real.”[20]

Pop art and installation artists challenged the photography medium’s autonomy by using it as a merely one creative tool among many. In its capacity as an art of the trace, photography has served as an important model for a broad range of contemporary art. This status has made the medium a focus of ongoing debate and controversy in contemporary criticism. The things we take for granted, such as our family portraits hold importance to those to which they belong to. Once memory or tragedy hits, these images are then turned into keepsakes, reflecting on the past and the intangible objects that period of time possessed; such as post 9/11 mementos or memorial sites on the side of the road. From that point in time, we see the unseen truth within the images we have captured;“Whether or not the subject (of a photographic picture) is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe”.[21]

[1] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[2] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[3] Mora, G 1998, Photo Speak: A Guide to the Ideas, Movements, and Techniques of Photography, 1839 to the Present, Abbeville Publishing Group, New York.
[4] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[5] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[6] Marsh, A 2003, The Darkroom, Macmillan Publishers, Australia.
[7] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[8] Marsh, A 2003, The Darkroom, Macmillan Publishers, Australia.
[9] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.
[10] Batchen, G 2009, Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida, The MIT Press, London.
[11] Marsh, A 2003, The Darkroom, Macmillan Publishers, Australia.
[12] Price, M 1994, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space, Stanford University Press, California.
[13] Marsh, A 2003, The Darkroom, Macmillan Publishers, Australia.
[14] Harvey, J 2007, Photography and spirit, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, p.58.
[15] Kaplan, L 2003, ‘Where the paranoid meet the paranormal: speculations on spirit photography’, Art Journal, vol.62, no.3, pp.18-30, viewed 17 April 2011, ProQuest Full Text.
[16] Harvey, J 2007, Photography and spirit, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, p.176.
[17] Sontag, S 2008, On photography, Penguin Books, London, p.154.
[18] Marsh, A 2003, The Darkroom, Macmillan Publishers, Australia.
[19] Berger, J 1980, About Looking, Pantheon Books, New York.
[20] Meek, A 2009, Trauma & Media: Theories, Histories and Images, Routledge, Hoboken.
[21] Barthes, R 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Art Critique: Sue Ford; Time Machine.

Sue Ford; Time Machine.

Currently being shown at the Monash Gallery of Art, Sue Ford’s exhibition ‘Time Machine’ consists of a range of works, mainly focusing on a number of series revolving around mortality, time and the existence of life and death. 
With a large feminist approach to her work, Sue Ford was aware of the role of a female, especially in relation to her own personal life and the historical and social significance of women. Her series ‘Self Portrait With a Camera’ (1960-2006) documents herself over a number of years, presenting the gradual effects of aging of her physical appearance, which was continued after being diagnosed with cancer, until her untimely death in 2009. Along with this series, a number of smaller series are presented from her personal achieve, ranging from the 1960s-1970s. Ford’s work demonstrates the shift that took place between this period, using the camera’s eye as a witness. 

This body of work shown within the exhibition recorded the development of her ideas; acting as a tool to help women tell their own stories and relate to her imagery. Even though there are some beautiful colour photographs within the collection, the consistent use of tone and grain within Sue Ford’s black and white photography grabs the attention of the audience, creating a dominant presence within the room. Branching away from her self portraiture, her ‘Untitled’ series caught my attention, illuminating Ford’s wider interests including street and fashion photography.

‘Untitled [Street Scene]’
c 1961-2.
Collection: Sue Ford Achieve.
Selenium toned gelatine silver print.
Printed 2001.

Consisting of five prints, Ford’s ‘Untitled’ series revolves around photography, politics, community and history, whether it be from a personal, local or national level. These images revolve around a more naive approach to documentary photography, while maintaining a politically engaged, feminist practice.

The main image I focused my attention on out of the ‘Untitled’ series was the first image; ‘Untitled [Street Scene]’. Drawn to its classic juxtaposition and depth of field, I found this image to be the most captivating out of the series. Set in a busy street in the Melbourne CBD, this image contained dated surroundings; setting the scene for it’s1960’s backdrop. With rich blacks and gradual tones, the image is given a romantic feel, creating a sense of timelessness and beauty. The wet weather present within the image gives the piece mood and emotion, using reflections upon the wet foreground to draw the audience into the image. Fords use of thirds is evident within her work, which creates a dominant frame within her imagery.

Ford’s ‘Untitled [Street Scene]’ is extremely successful in how it has been composed, shot, printed and displayed. The depth of field creates movement within the image, as you follow the direction of the path; ranging from out of focus into the main area of the photograph where the figure is present. The image is based on familiarity, consisting of scenes from the everyday; however, her images bring a sense of warmth and beauty to something that could be so easily ignored.