If you’re in London either of the next 2 weekends you can come see some of my new works as part of Sydenham Arts’ Artists Trail 2023. Here’s a link to their artists page (I appear in alphabetical order by my first name with full details of times and venue) and the event main page. Below are images from the series that will be presented at the show. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in the US over both weekends so I won’t be there myself.) Click on any of the pictures below to see them full-screen (you may need to click through via the post-title, above, if you’re reading this in an email or on social media).
Last Fall I read Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, for my MFA course work. It’s a short book, comprised of chapters a few pages long that I found maddeningly difficult to get through. Really a series of semi-poetic musings more than a true semiotic or philosophic work. I’ve ranted about Barthes in these pages before. Here’s one I found in my journal from last November.
A single 250-word sentence from the chapter, The Incident, in Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:
What one can add is that these infinitesimal adventures (of which the accumulation, in the course of a day, provokes a kind of erotic intoxication) never have anything picturesque about them (the Japanese picturesque is indifferent to us, for it is detached from what constitutes the very specialty of Japan, which is its modernity), or anything novelistic (never lending themselves to the chatter which would make them into narratives or descriptions); what they offer to be read (I am, in that country, a reader, not a visitor) is the rectitude of the line , the stroke, without wake, without margin, without vibration; so many tiny demeanors (from garment to smile), which among us, as a result of the Westerner’s inveterate narcissism, are only the signs of a swollen assurance, become, among the Japanese, mere ways of passing, of tracing some unexpected thing in the street; for the gesture’s sureness and independence never refer back to an affirmation of the self (to a “self-sufficiency”) but only to graphic mode of existing; so that the spectacle of the Japanese street (or more generally of the public place), exciting as the product of an age-old aesthetic, from which all vulgarity has been decanted, never depends on a theatricality (a hysteria) of bodies, but, once more, on that writing alla prima, in which sketch and regret, calculation and correction are equally impossible, because the line, the tracing, freed from the advantageous image the scriptor would give of himself, does not express but simply causes to exist.
Barthes, R; Howard, R., trans. Empire of Signs, pp 79-80, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc. 1982
The subject at the outset of this sentence, “these infinitesimal adventures” appears to refer to all the little things that “happen” to one in Barthes’ imaginary Japan of empty signs. “Something always happens.” One must take it on faith that these things are true in his imagined Japan and that his imaginings should hold some interest for us.
In what way does the accumulation of infinitesimal adventures provoke an erotic intoxication? Why can they never have anything picturesque about them? How can the Japanese picturesque (presumably a style?) be indifferent to us? In what way is it detached from modernity? How is modernity the specialty of Japan? Murakami would no doubt be surprised to learn that these things that happen everywhere and all the time can never be novelistic either, because they lack narrative “chatter.” However, they can be read (semiotically, one supposes) and offer “demeanors,” which, as a result of Occidental “narcissism” are signs of a “swollen assurance,” a combination of abstract noun and adjective that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around. You get the idea. This endless run-on sentence, with its incredible syntagm-less asides, parentheses, sub-clauses and ellipses is a meaningless tissue of nonsense. It definitely meets the criterion of ’empty.’ Imagine having to read page after page of this and then declaring it to be insightful!
I’ve been traveling for the last week with no opportunity to post up new pictures. Back soon, with new images from my travels, I hope.
This week was a great one musically although no cameras were allowed in either event. We spent a couple of days in London. On Wednesday evening we were at the Hammersmith Apollo for Shakti’s final London appearance. They gave a rousing performance that brought the audience to its feet after nearly every number (a tiny taste below – if viewing this in email click the post title to go to the browser and see the clip). And to make things even better, the show opened with a performance by Gary Husband and Nguyen Le.
Then, Thursday I was fortunate to be included in a group of English photography students invited to a discussion in a small theatre at the recently re-opened National Portrait Gallery between Stanley Tucci and Paul McCartney about the just opened exhibit of Paul’s pictures from 1964 (you can pay to view a recording of the live-streamed event here until July 6th). Here the secrecy was even greater and we were made to turn off our phones and seal them in envelopes before being granted entry. Tucci conducted an excellent discussion and McCartney was his usual charming, entertaining self. Interestingly, the discussion centered far more on photography and the Beatles’ experience on their triumphant initial US tour than I had dared hope. Below a shot from his Instagram. Two tremendous experiences.
This past semester my photographic practice has been exploring the subject of inequality: wealth and income inequality as well as gender and ethnic disparities. I have been incorporating text from signs into scenes using Photoshop. For the summer, my tutor suggested placing text-based images I create into the landscape and rephotographing them. So before departing on this trip I prepared 3 images. One simply says “Broken Promises,” a famous graffito from the Bronx, another shows mathematical symbols for inequality, “<>” and “≠,” and I also abstracted a sign I saw in the car park of the Palm Springs Art Museum on a trip several years ago that simply says, “Imagine Art Here.” Then I asked Margaret to hold them for me while we were near Golden Cap. I also found places along our walks to place them in the scene. I’m not sure they’re really doing that much for me. Click any image to see them enlarged.
The last 2 weeks of May we went on holiday, walking in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, averaging about 7 miles a day (see mileage below). I shot over 1000 frames and have been attempting to winnow through them. As a lifetime city boy, I was probably more struck and enchanted by walking through fields with various animals: cows, horses, sheep; flowers, and simple earthly beauty than someone with a more rural upbringing would have been.
So over the coming weeks I’ll be posting sets of images, attempting not to be too repetitive or cliché. But forgive me if there’s just too much pretty landscapes and calendar or postcard-type pictures. It was a remarkable experience and I’m indebted to my wife, Margaret and her good friend Marta, for organizing and arranging it, as well as for hazarding driving on the left side of the road, through endless roundabouts, and down narrow, hedgerow-bound single lanes of 2-way traffic – without them this wouldn’t have been possible.
In the same camera-making class mentioned in my last post, Peter Renn turned the room itself into a camera obscura (a dark room) with a large single lens you can see in the first image. It has a focal length of something between 1000 and 2000mm, casting a massive image circle. In the first picture above you can see the lens and part of the image on the floor. In the next couple of images you can see different parts of the image transmissively through a large, hand-held roll of tracing paper bringing different parts of the image into focus by moving back and forth. Next we used a large foam stage flat, and I took pictures of different parts of the image projected onto it. Click any of the pictures to see them all full-sized.
We had a fantastic camera-building workshop with Peter Renn a couple of weeks ago. I had bought a cheap 135mm, f/4.5 projector lens in a charity shop for £10 and brought in a shoe box to mount it on. The first two pictures show the final product. The cardboard flaps in the first image allow one to slide the imaging screen backwards and forwards to focus. The next picture shows the inside, a focusing screen which is simply some tracing paper in a cardboard frame. The next 2 pictures I took with my phone through a hole in the back. I made the hole the size of my Fujinon 23mm lens so I can photograph what’s on the focusing screen and maintain a pretty good light seal. The 5th picture is a shot my classmate Marilyn took of me using the camera and the bottom right picture is the first image I took digitally. Click any of the pictures to see them all full-sized.
In New York, for the last several years, early Spring has been heralded by hordes of tulips (I don’t remember when this became a thing; it definitely wasn’t when I was growing up). In Farnham, it seems to be daffodils which, unlike NYC’s daffodils, are growing wild everywhere you look.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Modern galleries always have vast expanses of white space, (often) neutral white light, and interesting geometry to photograph. It strikes me there’s something about the capitalist hegemony of the art world about this, a set of signs or a sub-text letting you know your place in this sacred hierarchy but beyond the obvious fact that such space in the poshest parts of the patrician cities of the world is terribly expensive and therefore you are being suffered to be allowed in, I’m not sure I can articulate it precisely. Certainly the way gallery staff ignore hoi polloi is a sign of something.
Almost 100 years ago, Alfred Stieglitz famously published a series of photographs called “Equivalents” of clouds. I never quite got them. Walker Evans said of them, “Oh my God. Clouds?” according to Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. He describes them as not being meant to document the sky at the time Stieglitz photographed them but, rather, they were equivalents of Stieglitz’s interior state. Dyer contrasts this with Richard Misrach’s Non-Equivalents, which specifically do document the state of the sky. Many others have riffed on the Equivalents, including Vik Muniz. So, I’ve never quite gotten pictures of clouds. Then on a 5-mile walk, under a cloud-laden, leaden sky, I saw these skies like Bob Ross was showing you how to paint the sky with a big soft brush and I thought they were imminently photograph-able. You be the judge.
Last week we conducted some group tutorials on our projects. I showed various things I was working on, including some of my seesaw inequality images and explained why I was dissatisfied with them and not sure they were worth continuing. Suggestions from my group included:
- Use Photoshop to lengthen the seesaw and dramatize better the gap between my capitalist and proletariat.
- Re-shoot in London with skyscrapers behind – a graphic illustration of the inequality that exists there.
I’m not sure any of those is really having the desired effect but I took a stab at them in Photoshop, crudely lengthening the seesaw and then inserting a shot I had taken of skyscrapers in London last spring into the background, a couple of different ways. It was fun to play with, though still not quite as clear as what I was hoping for:
My internal debate about how deliberate and composed I want my images to be continues. One purpose of planned pictures for me is that they be overtly political, in the sense that they make a contribution to the betterment of life on Earth (unlike my working career, spent helping companies wring dollars out of pockets).
Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment remains indispensable, with an encyclopedic knowledge of (Western) photographers. Commenting that Walker Evans was explicit in his policy of “NO POLITICS whatever.” Dyer then footnotes Cartier-Bresson saying in the 1930s, “the world is going to pieces, and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks.”
There’s a point for the deliberate politics side! On the other side, of course, there’s always Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.
After setting up yesterday’s post on my foray into ‘intentional photography,’ I came upon Geoff Dyer’s* The Ongoing Moment at school. So whilst I am busy aiming at intentional photography, Dyer quotes Dorothea Lange to the effect that, “to know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting.” A page later he quotes John Szarkowski saying Garry Winogrand’s best pictures “were not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge.”
But does this mean I should simply continue wandering about with a camera capturing sights that look interesting? It seems to me anyone can do that (and with excellent phone cameras most people do!). My pictures might be slightly better crafted than theirs, based on my years of experience and technical knowledge, but not necessarily any more interesting to an audience than their own pictures already are to them. What’s the point of an MFA if all I’m doing is capturing ‘new knowledge’ that I don’t ‘know ahead of time [is] what [I’m] looking for’?
I’ll continue to ponder this dichotomy, perhaps in these pages. Stay tuned…
* I was already highly favorably inclined towards Dyer after having read his novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi – highly recommended.
This semester I wanted to start work on much more deliberate, composed subjects. Most of my photographs, for the last 50 years or more, have been just what I happen to have seen. Now I want to create work that shows my intent, leveraging my skills. My subject is inequality both economic (wealth, income inequality) and social (ethnic and sexual inequality). The first scenario I came up with was to have a capitalist (think of the Monopoly Man) at the top of a seesaw, held there by the labor of proletarians at the other end. The shoot was a couple of days ago.
Needless to say, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I had asked classmates to join as my models and many agreed. However, the day of the shoot our all-day workshop was cancelled due to teacher absence so I had to reschedule since many people were not on campus. I had planned to shoot with the Pentax 645 film camera as well as the Fuji digital. For lighting I planned to use 2 flashes on light stands, triggered independently by transmitters on the cameras, the Pentax tripod mounted. In the end, I couldn’t get the extra flash I needed for the Pentax. I tested the trigger for the Fuji at home the night before but on the day nothing I did would get it to work, so I wound up shooting with the flash on the camera. We started the shoot around 5:00 pm as I wanted it to be somewhat gloomy and the sky cooperated, however it was quite chilly, which was rough on the models (and my hands) and the ground was quite muddy, limiting what I was prepared to ask them to do. Here are a few images from the shoot and notes from my journal on what could be better (click any image to see them all enlarged).
- Lighting. Obviously, not getting any of the flashes or triggers to work is a big problem but more significantly I need a much better understanding and control of how the light is falling. In the shots above I’ve had to reduce the highlights on the faces significantly and introduce a diagonal linear gradient for the bottom right of most of the images to reduce excessive light on the grass and mud in the foreground. There is also the problem of the shadow under the seesaw and in a few other places, suggesting the need for some reflective fill.
- Costume – compared with, say, Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen and Belgravia, this looks childish and amateurish. I’ve used unsubtle masks to darken the Capitalist’s red sneakers to black (in some of the images) but it’s either obviously blackened or the white trainer laces are showing. Really need to think about the capitalist attire as well as the proletarian attire.
- Models – Again, using Karen Knorr’s work as a model, I should use professional models in appropriate attire. Need to think about how the models can represent the ethnic/sex aspects of inequality, too. I can probably still use students, but I’ll need to wait for finer weather and really choose models and attire carefully and deliberately in advance to meet the picture requirements.
- Composition – Lots of problems here. The seesaw isn’t long enough for the height difference needed to dramatise inequality, so the idea doesn’t come across. So, either the concept doesn’t work at all, or I need a much longer, higher seesaw, which will introduce another set of compositional problems. The angle of the shot might need to be entirely different, looking up at the capitalist from behind/beneath the proletarians, for example, or looking down from his end. There’s not enough room at the low end of the seesaw for all the people I want, so they’re spread out, again weakening the gap between the 2 ends. The muddiness also meant I couldn’t really ask my classmates to get down as low as I might have liked.
- So, a disappointing outcome but a lot of learning…
So progress continues on the projects and I hope to have some work to show here soon. In the meantime, there’s no harm in continuing to document my peregrinations around Farnham and the occasional foray further afield. But I think we’ll start up with just 1 post a day, rather than the 3 I’ve been managing for the last 10 years or so…
I was struck by the light shining through my recycling bin-liner.
As my photography grows more deliberate and less what-I-happen-to-see-passing-by-in-the-street, there will probably be less of it. At the moment, for instance, I have no new images to share.
On the one hand, I’m sad not to be maintaining my practice of frequent, daily posting, based on my deliberate habit of carrying my camera in hand almost everywhere I went; on the other, I look forward to producing much more intentional work. Stay tuned. As the current semester takes off I’ll be posting progress here.
The Centre for British Photography opened just last weekend so I went up to London to see it. Our course leader, Anna Fox, had one of her books featured (My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words), as well as a role in the exhibit you see upon entering, curated by Fast Forward, of which she’s the Director.
It was an interesting mix of strong conceptual work and, in the basement a more traditional set of documentary photography, The English at Home, by well known names in British photography (like Martin Parr). I was particularly taken and inspired by the Jo Spence exhibit and Heather Agyepong’s Wish You Were Here. If you’re in London it’s well worth a look.
Last leaves of Autumn
Against the clear, deep blue sky.