Another essay completed, thankfully out of the way for Christmas, and then I have to start planning a dissertation, for which I have no ideas at all. I do, on the other hand, now know a bit more about propaganda photography in WWII – how useful. Interesting, though. What go me into the latest essay was this strange picture from the archives of the US Office of War Information:
Alfred T. Palmer, Woman Aircraft Worker, 1942
documenting the increased involvement of women in industry during the war. What is this woman, apparently dressed for a day out, doing with filthy oil-stained gloves and a pile of electrical wiring? The propaganda was aimed at recruiting women into war work, and the message is something like ‘you can work for the war and still look a woman’ (or at least like the conventional stereotype of a woman). Lots of comments about this image on Flickr suggest that she is a model, not an actual industrial worker, but that is extremely unlikely – it’s just not the way these photographers worked.
Girl in a Glass House, US recruitment poster, 1942
Another image by the same photographer was made into a poster. In his caption he describes this lady as a ‘girl in a glass house’, neatly summarizing the patronizing attitudes behind the propaganda, and giving me a catchy title for the essay.
Stranded at home by a minor infection and pervading tiredness, once again I haven’t made it to the Frieze Art shows, and I’m left with reading up for the next course seminar – still on Victorian portrait photography. John Tagg’s relentless emphasis on the development of photography as an instrument of social control and a reflection of changes in class relations is frankly rather tiresome and while it’s sound enough in its arguments, he’s clearly more interested in the impersonal sweep of social change than in the lived experience of people. Carol Mavor, on the other hand, is so personal and involved in her subject matter that one wonders about her academic objectivity, as when she comments on another historian’s exposition of female masturbation: “This makes me blush.” (it made me blush too) – but then she segues into erudite discussion of Lacan and Merleau-Ponty, removing any doubt on her credentials. It’s a fascinating description of a particular manifestation of sexuality; I’m less sure how it fits into photographic histories. The pictures of Hannah Cullwick and the description of her strange relationship with Arthur Munby are fascinating and disturbing:
Carol Mavor’s book summarises their relationship from Hannah’s point of view, and there is a good summary of her life here.
Here she is uncomfortably posing as Mary Magdalene, with a chain around her neck to which only Arthur had the key – a striking contrast between her muscular frame and the submissively feminine posture – and below cleaning the kitchen grate.
In her diaries Hannah writes about her cleaning work, positively revelling in getting filthy with soot etc., especially when Munby (her “Massa”) is aroused by her appearance. For me Mavor’s account, and the various issues it raises around gender and class relations are more thought-provoking by far than Tagg’s meticulously loaded arguments. In the end, they are both writing about the ways in which photography can be used to articulate power relations, one by focusing on a specific, rather extreme example, the other by analysis of impersonal social forces (Althussser’s ‘ideological state apparatus’). The extent to which these two writers personify a ‘male’ and ‘female’ approach is interesting; would I respond to them in the same way if told that the authors’ names were actually Joanna Tagg and Charles Mavor?
John Tagg The Burden of Representation – if you are studying photographic history, this may well be required reading – if not, count yourself lucky.
Carol Mavor Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs – a good read,with multi-layered analysis of photographic practices, and a remarkable amount of personal involvement in the stories she tells.
The research project is finally done and submitted; by the end I was, I now realise, quite sick of it, having perceived that it’s not really much good, not what was asked for, and has probably destroyed my chances of a good degree at the end. Cheerful thoughts. But still we soldier on. Now I am starting on the next module, entitled ‘Photography and the Index’, which covers some of the same issues I was dimly wrestling with over the summer – I can’t help feeling it would have been better to do these modules in reverse – such as the theoretical and practical difficulties raised by the apparent fact that a photograph is necessarily an image of something that actually exists. There is an enormous assumption that this in some way limits the scope for photographs to have meaning, or to represent the world in a meaningful way. By way of attempting to query this assumption, here’s a picture I took a few weeks ago. By all means ignore the caption, it’s not meant to be definitive.
Do you recognise this man? Call us now.
The research project is proving hard to control, and keeps going off in different directions. The hardest thing will be to write a coherent account of it. Just now I am considering the fact that the word ‘documentary’ appears to have different meanings – several different meanings – depending on [a] whether we are discussing photography or film and [b] what historical period we are discussing, and [c] which theoretician we are reading. Plenty of choice. The point that got me into this avenue (cul-de-sac? maze?) of research was a quotation from the Scottish film-maker John Grierson, who is said to have first used the term ‘documentary’ in relation to film. While most people would probably define a documentary as a film about real life, or something like that, he called it ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ – a definition superbly illustrated in his 1929 film Drifters, a documentary about the British fishing industry, shot in multiple locations, then edited to create the illusion of a single narrative in much the same way as a fiction film (apart from not using actors, but ‘real people’):
The film is about 50 minutes, and the music (not, I should say, the original accompanying music, but a sort of jangly musak) is a bit irritating, but it’s well worth watching – I particularly like the swirling masses of fish – as a poetic exposition of man’s struggle with nature and its commodification.
What exactly Grierson meant by his definition has been much debated, and is related to his philosophy of idealism, a topic I plan to develop further – it also raises the question, what is actuality, actually? Is it what is actually there, or is it a culturally conditioned interpretation of our perceptions? Answers in 140 characters please.
Clearly this blog is not living up to its name, as I seem to have left it unposted and unloved for almost five months, neither subjective nor disciplined. I could argue that I have been so absorbed in my studies that I have simply not had time for it, but that doesn’t wash. So, back to the blog. For my research project (Tom Hunter and tableau photography) reading up on Vermeer led me to 17th-century ‘descriptive realism’ and then to Velazquez. I knew some Velazquez, such as the baffling Las Meninas, and a postcard of the Immaculate Conception has a permanent place on my desk, but this was a revelation. Within half an hour of seeing it on my screen, I was checking out flights to Madrid:
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez – The Spinners, or the Fable of Arachne (1657)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
This astonishing work, combining the portrayal of ordinary people at work with an allegory of artistic endeavour and the jealousy of the gods, was painted in 1657 (about 13 years before Vermeer’s allegorical masterpiece The Art of Painting). It contains, uniquely I think, a picture within a picture within a picture, showing the weavers in the foreground, their tapestry of Arachne’s ill-fated challenge to Athena, and within that the tapestry of Europa’s abduction by Athena’s father Zeus, which so enraged the goddess that she turned Arachne into a spider. More on the Prado website.
My interest in Baroque music continues, there is so much to explore that I am constantly coming across new things I love. This week I ventured into opera, with English National Opera’s current spectacular production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée. It was indeed rather long (over three hours), and the first two acts a bit too tongue-in-cheek – the couple next to me left at the first interval – some reviews found this a fault, but I think it was probably quite authentic. But from the third act, as Medea’s rage and desire for revenge on her faithless lover builds to a horrible climax, it got more intense and emotionally powerful. The set design was terrific – the polished floor and dramatic lighting made it look as though the cast were walking on a giant mirror. From the cheap high-up seats I could see each character and their full-length reflection – maybe I had a better view than the vastly more expensive seats in the stalls – at times it was hard to tell where the floor actually was, as if the cast were suspended in a glittering box, enhancing the fairy-tale atmosphere. Checking for reviews afterwards I found these excellent photographs from the ENO Flickr pages, which give some idea of the effect, although I do think the photographer could have explored the view from the balcony where I was sitting:
Medea in anguish
Spirits dance as Medea prepares the poisoned gown for Creusa
Jason discovers the dying Creusa
Medea disappears into the clouds as Jason clasps their murdered child
All photographs © Clive Barda
My research project is (almost) officially under way, I’ve even got a title for it, Creating the Moment, which I’m rather proud of, and a brief summary of what it’s about, which I am due to discuss with the stand-in tutor tomorrow (he’s fine, it’s just a bit confusing having to deal with more than one). It will be on the subject of ‘tableau photography’ which I mentioned in a previous post. Along with Tom Hunter, I am planning to look at some Jeff Wall images, such as this one, a very clever (too clever?) mix of photographic trickery, self-portrait and art-historical knowingness.
Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979 © Jeff Wall
Here’s the summary for my project:
‘Tableau photography’ – photography of staged scenarios – is relatively recent in photographic history (unless it can be seen as descending from 19th c. ‘art photography’ and/or early 20th c. pictorialism), and contrasts with the general majority view of photography as the representation of reality. Its characteristics can include: more or less direct references to historical artworks; narrative content (explicit or implied), whether wholly fictional or illustrative of factual scenarios; carefully planned and constructed images (making it more of a collective exercise than many other genres of photography).
In his essay ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’, Barthes describes the ‘perfect instants’ or ‘pregnant moments’ which characterize epic theatre and cinema, linking them to Diderot’s conception of the tableau as a type of artwork. Taking this essay as a starting point, this research project will consider selected photographic works by Tom Hunter and Jeff Wall, with the aim of accounting for them in the context of photographic history and theory.
Tom Hunter, Jeff Wall – given the time available, these will necessarily focus on a few key works.
Avenues of Research
Research will focus on some of the following topics within the time available:
- Defining the tableau – narrative content: the ‘perfect instant’ / ‘pregnant moment’ (Barthes)
- Photography as fictional narrative vs. ‘realism’ / ‘the decisive moment’ – can a photograph be ‘fictionally competent’?
- The tableau in aesthetics and art criticism – e.g. Diderot, Lessing’s ‘Laocoön’
- Social, political and moral messages in the tableau – are these a necessary feature of the tableau image?
- Tableau images in photographic history – e.g. 19th c. “Art Photography”, Pictorialism – are these comparable to the case study examples?
- The tableau in film and theatre – e.g. Brecht, Eisenstein – are tableau images equivalent to film stills or photographs of stage performances?
- Art-historical references – e.g. Manet, Vermeer, Pre-Raphaelites – how and why do these add meaning and/or value to the image?
- Making the tableau – planning, actors, props and scenery, digital construction