Category: Exhibitions & Books

Vilem Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography – Book

I was intrigued by the quotation on the course material from this book so thought it would be worth reading.  It turns out though not to be quite I expected.

Although quite short it is pretty heavy going and requires the taking on board of a new language, or at least new meanings of already familiar words that are used throughout the text in a very particular way.  Fortunately there is a glossary at the back!  I had expected a work of theory but it is in fact pure philosophy.  As such it is not about photography  as such, not as an activity or practice but it addresses the significance of photography and the underlying role it plays in the modern world.  The book is, I suppose, more than anything a critique (post-Marxian?) of post-industrial capitalism.  I will not even try to summarise the argument but photography is effectively presented as being used by that capitalism  to control society and is a precursor for the increasing robotisation of society.

Oddly, for all that this is an important role, the camera is nevertheless described as a plaything rather than a tool, but one that effectively controls the photographer.  This is I suppose true to an extent in the case of fully automatic cameras, and indeed of any camera that has certain functions that do not require the active agency of the photographer for them to be applied.

Also oddly, for all of the significant role that photographs play, Flusser is pretty scathing about their quality, their banality, and of photographers in general.  To that extent this is not a book to read if you want to feel good about your own photographic practice!

I do not agree with all of his points, particularly where he seems to suggest that cameras have an active agency of their own, almost a will of their own, nor about photographers’ reasons for taking pictures (a search for immortality), but I have to accept that this might be more due to the fact that I might not properly have understood all of the argument.

The overall picture that he paints is similar to the Matrix movies.  What we as photographers perceive is not true and we are working, without knowing it, within a reality that is actually a construct of the system.  We are in a way slaves to the system as whole and to the camera.

What I take away from the book is the idea that as photographers we need to be more aware of what we are doing and the pitfalls that we might otherwise stumble into, producing images that are effectively worthless, though serving the system.  This is I suppose summed up by the quotation in the course book – what we need to do is try to produce images that have not been seen before.  What I also get is the importance of not being a slave to the camera, not to let it make all the decisions – keep out of automatic mode!  Technology being what it is, the way it is constantly developing and becoming more opaque to the ordinary user, and as camera manufacturers are at in a sense at the heart of the system, this is going to be hard and I cannot imagine that we are now all going to give up completely our all singing, all dancing digital cameras.  This idea does though chime with what I have recently been thinking about in connection with going back to experimenting with film.  My large format camera is about as far from the digital world as it is perhaps now possible to get and as I have written elsewhere it is sending me back to basics and first principles.  I am already intrigued by the artistic possibilities this opens up, and am heartened by the increasing number of artists (people whom I suspect Flusser would regard as real photographers) who are suing film make their images.

The world is in chains: we cannot though smash the system.  Perhaps though we can still find our own spaces where we are not a shackled to the system.

 

Flusser, V, (2000).  Towards a Philosophy of Photography.  London: Reaktion Books.

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Rinko Kawauchi: Illuminance, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow – Book

I have become really intrigued by the work of Rinko Kawauchi since encountering her in connection with this course.  I had not otherwise heard of her before.  Is it not interesting how sometimes you can come across an artist who appeals deeply quite by chance and you are left wondering why you did not know about them already?  The same thing happened to me with Hiroshi Sugimoto.  I discovered him, even more by chance, walking past a gallery in Edinburgh where there was a show of his seascapes, and went in with a simple sense of curiosity.  From that moment I have loved his work.  (There, it is not just American photographers who appeal!)  Kawauchi-san falls into the same category, partly because her work seems to resonate with that of Sugimoto.

This book was originally published to accompany an exhibition of her work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 2012 and draws on work from the three series in the title, together with the works Iridescence (which was the originally proposed title for Illuminance) and In a Box which I understand were put together for this exhibition, so offers a good overview of her work.

What I find particularly appealing is her sense of light.  Much of the work is overexposed, as with the flower in Illuminance, so that it is tentative and sometimes a little sketchy, but nevertheless subtle and with a strong sense of (subdued) colour.  Although often very pale they never seem cold.  Many have a strong sense of intimacy.

The photos apart, what particularly caught my eye is a couple of comments in one of he accompanying essays which speak of Kawauchi-san’s approach to image making:

“I don’t make works that are documentary , or true-to-the-fact in nature.  Every time I make a book, I leave out any elements that indicate a certain location.  Actually, I consciously choose motifs that are devoid of obvious clues to locations seen when photographing.”

“…the photographs transcend the flow of time.  They present images that are timeless and placeless, they contain the reality that I personally see.”

(Both, page 125.)

I had not read any of this before I wrote my previous post in which I considered her work but it seems from this that my assessment of and reaction to her work was not too far wide of the mark.

I have a funny feeling about this work that is hard to put into words.  Coming across Kawauchi-san’s work is not quite a road to Damascus experience for me but nevertheless it does feel significant from the point of view of the development of my own artistic voice.  There is something in her work and her approach to and philosophy behind her photography that is particular appealing and seems to resonate with me.  I am still trying to make sense of this but there is a clue in another of those odd coincidences, chance encounters, that I talked about in the opening paragraph above.  In the same essay in which the two passages quoted above appears Kawauchi-san mentions that she thought of the possible title of Iridescence having come across the word when reading a poem by Kenji Miyazawa.  Miyazawa is perhaps not well-known in the west but after Basho is probably the most important, and best known poet from Japan, certainly the most important of the 20th century and widely read in Japan.  He was very much influenced in his writing by that characteristically Japanese approach to Buddhism, Zazen, and it was through the practice of Zen Buddhism that I first became aware of his work.  The key focus in Zen is on the moment – in its own right and on its own terms.  It is a moment out of time and eternal.  Applied to photography, an image captures that very instant, that eternal moment, free from narrative and from context.  Of course, in so many ways this goes contrary to what this course is teaching but nevertheless this is something, a philosophy of photography, that I find deeply appealing and ‘true’.

As I say, I have a funny feeling about this work and expect that it is going to have an important impact on my own work.  That is not to say that I propose to emulate the pictures that Kawauchi-sensei (as perhaps I should now address her, recognising her influence on me) makes but there are elements of her approach that I can see having an effect on what I do in future.  Already she has helped to shape some of my ideas about Assignment 5, which I am now beginning to work on, and of which more later.

Kawauchi, R (2012).  Illuminance, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow.  Kyoto: Seigensha Art Publishing

William Gedney: Only the Lonely, 1955-1984 – Book

It seems my love affair with American photographers is to continue!  My latest discovery is William Gedney, whose work was completely unknown to me until I came across an article in The Guardian recently (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/05/william-gedney-documentary-photography-kentucky-san-francisco) and naturally I had to buy the book.

I have not yet read the essays included in the book but just looking at the pictures I am struck by the influence of Walker Evans, not just in the views he adopted and the images he made, but also in the humaneness of his gaze:  many of these photos are really quite tender and touching.  I get the impression that this was a man with soul, someone it would have been nice to have around.  Some of the photos are also reminiscent of Robert Franks, in so far as some of the subject matter is similar, but gender is much more sympathetic and less judgmental in the way he looked at his subjects.   Some also make me think a little of William Klein, but again they are much gentler and lack Klein’s edginess.

I find the pictures from the series The Farm and Kentucky to be particularly attractive and affecting.

Interestingly, there is perhaps unusually for an American photographer, a hint of HCB, particularly in the photos he took in India – not so much Decisive Moment but a sense of composition that feels familiar.

He was evidently a great friend of Lee Friedlander but I do not get as much of a sense of his possible influence.  That might be though because, although I like Friedlander’s work I do not actually have a sufficiently wide familiarity with it, something that clearly needs to be corrected at some point.  (At some point I am also going to have to think a bit more critically about what it is about these American photographers that appeals so much.)

A lovely book, great pictures, and a mystery why such good work has been under almost everyone’s radar for as long as it has.

Mora, G, (2017).  William Gedney: Only the Lonely, 1955-1984.  Austin: University of Texas Press

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/05/william-gedney-documentary-photography-kentucky-san-francisco

The Photographer’s Playbook – Book

As I referred to this book in a previous post I thought I would add a separate brief note about it.

I cannot now remember how I came upon this book but I am jolly glad that I did!  It is subtitled “307 Assignments and Ideas” and is presented by way of a series of short, sometimes little more than aphoristic, contributions by some of the best photographers and writers on photography around today.  Some of the contributions are ideas for assignments, some offer advice and insights into working methods.  All challenge your thinking.

Not all of it you will agree with: I, for example, profoundly disagree with Mark Sealy’s injunction “Forget Berger and read Fanon.”  If I want to know more about post-colonialism and national liberation I will go to Fanon, but I struggle to see what his political and philosophical views can tell me about photography.  Berger’s politics were similar but he brings an artists eye to the subject rather than that of a political theorist.  Nevertheless, it is just the sort of thing to stop you in your tracks and think again.

In so far as we are supposed to be developing our critical thinking on this course, not just our technical and visual skills, this sort of confrontation can only be a good thing.

I have not gone through this book from cover to cover yet.  Nor have I tried any of the specific exercises that are offered throughout it.  Nevertheless it is something that I have found to be useful to dip into from time to time – almost like consulting the I Ching! – to break stuck patterns of thought or to look for another way of approaching a task or idea.

If one had the time it could be used as a sort of Thought for the Day giving a fresh idea for most days of the year!

 

Fulford, J, & Halpern, G, (eds) (2014).  The Photographer’s Playbook.  New York: Aperture.