Friday, March 13, 2009

Recent Meanderings in Photography: some things I'm thinking about, iii.

There is a sort of narrative created by a photograph. It begins with the unique perspective of the photographer and that photographer’s interaction with his/her subject matter (the subjects chosen, and how they are portrayed). It is set in the historical and even the “factual” moment by the medium used (a photograph taken with a certain kind of film, printed on a certain kind of paper). And the narrative is continued—or completed—in the “life” of the photograph after it has been processed.

Take this photograph, for example, which I found at the site of a homeless camp that had recently been bulldozed. Even without this information, there are several things that might be assumed about the “story” of this photograph, beginning with the portrayal of the subject itself (or himself): photographed from below, he towers over us, shirtless, tattooed, young but intimidating. Is he a gang member? The photograph is a Polaroid. Was it taken in prison? Beyond the image itself, two main things present themselves. The first is the writing on the front and back of the image. “To my Angel + 3 Boys: I think of All 4 of you every second of every day! ♥ Always DADDY,” with a similar message on the back. The second is the dirt residue on both sides of the image. The text serves to soften our impression of the photograph’s subject, and also expands the “story” of the photograph, makes it sadder. Where is this man, I ask, that he can’t be with his children? The dirt (whether or not the viewer knows about the homeless camp) furthers this saddening effect, because it shows that the photograph was left behind, neglected, and this neglect further threatens in the viewer’s mind the relationship between the subject and his “Angel + 3 Boys.”

Besides writing and dirt, there are other things that can be done to the surface of a photograph which change our perception of it, change its story. Puncture holes may indicate that an image was prized enough to be tacked to a bulletin board or cubicle wall. Creases can indicate either neglect or constant use. Was the photograph left on the floor, carried in a wallet, folded and put in a pocket? All these actions have physical effects on the photograph which tell part of a story.

When two girls I know were young, their mother married a pedophile. I don’t know much of what happened while their mother was married to him, but I do know that after she divorced him these girls cut him out of every one of the pictures he was in. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer describes what he calls “homeopathic magic”:

“Perhaps the most familiar application of the principle that like produces like is the attempt which has been made by many peoples in many ages to injure or destroy an enemy by injuring or destroying an image of him, in the belief that, just as the image suffers, so does the man, and that when it perishes he must die. A few instances out of many may be given to prove at once the wide diffusion of the practice over the world and its remarkable persistence through the ages” (28).

I doubt those young girls were consciously wishing the death of their stepfather when they cut him out of their pictures, but you never know. At the very least, I think they were attempting to symbolically cut him out of their memories. It speaks much for the power we invest in the photographic image.

Another example of this that comes to mind has to do with a discussion I had once with the man at the photo lab. He was working on a project for a funeral; a young man had died, and the family didn’t have any photographs of him with his two children. This man's job was to use a photograph of the dead man with another family member to create two new photographs (in Photoshop) of the man with his two children. He said this was a fairly common assignment, but it seemed so strange to me. It was as if this family was trying to create a past that didn’t exist, a past in which the dead man had been present in his children’s lives, and it seemed to be implicit that by creating a photograph in which it was so, it would be so.

It was all these factors that go into the creation of the found vernacular image, as well as the language of the vernacular image itself, that I attempted to syncretize in order to create my own “fictional” vernacular images. In order to achieve this, I did several things. I began by switching from the 4x5 camera I had been shooting with, to a green plastic 35mm that I found in the closet of the house I was renting. Then, attempting to quash my years of photographic training, I set out to emulate the style of photography I saw in the vernacular photography I had been studying and thinking about. After this, I scanned the negatives, and in Photoshop edited them so that their dimensions, borders, and colors mimicked those of the vintage images I’d found. (It should be noted that two of the images I used were photographs I’d taken when I was about ten. In hindsight, this was inconsistent with the process of the other images, and it would have been better if I’d simply taken new photographs, imitating my ten-year-old aesthetic.) Once I’d edited the images in Photoshop, I printed them, worked the surfaces of the images with pen, soiling, defacement and wear, scanned them again, and reprinted them large, creating new images with a sort of “story.”

What I was doing, self-consciously taking photographs that reference the photograph and the act of photographing, and doing so in a way that is intentionally un-artistic, has been referred to by many as “deskilling.” In the essay “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art,” Alex Klein discusses Jeff Wall’s essay “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art,” in which he described the effects of Conceptual Art on contemporary photographic practice:

“In Wall’s account, the modernist concerns of self-reflexivity and medium specificity are ultimately realized in conceptual artists’ deskilling and amateurization of the photograph. For conceptual artists, photographic depiction is detached from representation and thus points to what Wall calls the “experience of experience.” In this account, conceptual artists’ images are consciously employed and constructed as the antithesis of the highly skilled modernist photograph.”

For William Jenkins, curator of the 1975 exhibition New Topographics, the photographs in that exhibition (by artists such as Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Bernd and Hilla Becher) “were characterized by their banality and lack of style” (Klein), a description that it seems could be aptly applied to my “vernacular” images as well. In the exhibition catalogue, he acknowledges that some of the artists in the exhibition were likely influenced by “Ed Ruscha’s deadpan photographs” (ibid.), but states that the chief difference between Ruscha’s conceptual work and that of the New Topographics artists “is the difference between what a photograph is ‘about’ versus what it is ‘of’” (ibid.).

From 26 Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha

This leads me to a question: “In my images, is it more important what they are about, or what they’re of?” And I think that the answer is that that yes, like Ruscha’s work, it is more important what they’re about, it’s about the process and the aesthetic, the act of photographing and the language of the vernacular, not so much the specific subject matter of the photographs. And I think I’ll have to leave it there for now.


  1. Wow Gretchen,
    This is really fascinating stuff. I love listening to the way your mind, your brilliant mind, works. You are truly an artist. Where did you and Paul get these genes, and why was I left out?

  2. Thanks, Cin! So much :) As for genes, I'm not so convinced you were left out. For starters, I think you have a deeper appreciation of poetry than either Paul or I...