Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur‘s work “Stranger” is about Dubai, connecting its past and its present days. While she was researching for this project during her artist residency in Dubai, she found out about a shipwreck incident in Dubai in 1961 and lots of people died. One of the families believed that his son never died from the incident and that he is still alive in present days. Using this story as an inspiration, Stranger is about telling the city of Dubai through this imaginative character – what if he’s still alive now, how and what would he see?
Although she was trying to see it from the point of view of this character, the book encapsulated a feeling which is universal for outsiders coming to the place – a sense of isolation and loneliness as well as strangeness to the things that happen and exist in the city. From the book, she also collected quotes and extracts of conversations that she heard. For the final words of the book, she extracted from what she found out from the divers – that people were in their life-vest and pockets full of gold – to use as a metaphor for a city that draws people in with its promises of riches and full of workers on all levels of society, saving something for a life elsewhere.
The design of the book was also carefully thought out to represent “Stranger”. The book was printed entirely on transparent paper creating these new double or sometimes triple compilation images which gives a sense of confusion from the layering of the past with the present. This somehow matches what Olivia imaged the survivor would feel when walking around the city.
image courtesy to Olivia Arthur
This series by Clare Strand is a simple and a brilliant analogy about communications in this era. How information nowadays can be miscommunicated and misinterpreted – be it positive or negative, whether deliberate or accidental – has an ever-increasing and overwhelming effect on our everyday life. These failures of communication can lead to minor confusion, fantastic revelation or global outrage, depending when and where they occur. Her inspiration came from the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the 1971 film adaptation, Mike Teavee says: “You photograph something then the photograph is split up into millions of tiny pieces and they go whizzing through the air, then down to your TV set when they are all put together in the right order.” However, what Mike fails to foresee are the complications and disruptions that can occur in the act of transmission. When Mike transports himself via Wonka Vision he is indeed broken into a million pieces, but when put back together again he is a 10th of his original size.
Strand asked her husband, Gordon MacDonald, to select images from her archive and create a grid. They became this human machine for transmitting information of an image from one person to another. From there, he would communicate the sequence of numbers depicting the tonal code (ranging from 1-10) of each photographic element on the grid and Strand would then paint the code on the corresponding large-scale grid she had drawn up in her studio. This method was actually forseed by George H. Eckhardt during the pre-internet age where he discussed the potential for transmitting a coded photograph via telegraph to produce an accurate representation of the original image.
This work reminds us the very physics of photography and what it used to be – chemicals, papers, chemistry and shapes. And how using such primitive methods can translate to visual representations about issues happening nowadays.
I came across Dave Heath’s work when I was reading The Photographer’s Gallery newsletter about images and wellbeing. To me, photography and heath has always been closely linked as many artists and photographers I know have used photography as a channel to release their emotional turmoil, and to use it a a therapy to make sense of the world. Dave Heath, an American photographer who was abandoned by his parents at the age of four, had a difficult childhood and spent his years in orphanages and foster homes. At fifteen, a photo essay in Life on a young orphan in Seattle, “Bad Boy’s Story” by Ralph Crane, was to have a decisive impact on his future: “I immediately recognised myself in this story and photography as my means of expression.” Photography became a way for him to enter the world, it was not a matter of choice, but a necessity.
His work “Dialogues with Solitudes” captures moments of individuals in their solitudes and vulnerabilities. Although photographs are taken at a distance, the work has an opposing effect of tenderness and sensitivity as if the photographer was standing next to the subject hugging each and every one of them. “There is a range of care within the frames. What is further striking about this viewpoint of alienation is that not only that Heath took portraits of extreme empathy, but that when doing so, he nearly always managed to avoid eye contact with his subject. What could be construed as voyeuristic is instead in the very rare case of Heath about the empathy needed to let his subjects be themselves without his intervention.”
A lot of the photographs were crops of the original frame, all of which was done afterwards in the darkroom, plus editing to low key visual forms showing the isolation and loneliness of individuals, magnifying each and everyone’s emotions and expressions. It was his intention that “almost all of his photographs give no indication of location, date, or action – Dave Heath sought to translate an intimate experience of the world, something lived and felt: tension, in the city streets, between the constrained proximity of bodies and the isolation of individuals, as if they had lost their sense of self. He focused on isolated figures in crowds, and filled his frame with their “absent to the world” presences.”
His work reminds me of the recently published work by Christopher Anderson’s APPROXIMATE JOY, which is also capturing portraits of people from Shenzhen and Shanghai and their China dream. Similar approach but giving off totally different vibe. One is sensitivity and care, the other is ethereal and fantasy.
I don’t know much about this book. Actually I shouldn’t really write about it until I’ve read this book. But what intrigues me so much about this work is that it’s talking about family (which is a topic of my interest) and that it uses playwright and other forms of medium to weave into the narrative, talking about one’s struggle in life being pulled by different directions. References and talks about this book has lifted my interest higher. Especially it is shortlisted for Aperture and Paris Photo photobook award 2017. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.
After watching the video of MACK and Clare Strand making this photobook, it got me interested to look into what the book is about and who Clare Strand is.
Clare is a conceptual artist based in Brighton. This photobook is based on a very simple idea of her conflicting love and hate of snakes. She as a person is terrified of snake yet she collects images of people, especially women, holding snakes since 30 years ago. Clare found this notion very interesting, she said, “It strikes me as rather perverse to collect what I despise.”
The book plays around with the magnified fragment of the original images, showing the intensity of the relationship between the hand and snake, followed by the original images (sometimes snakes held by women, sometimes just the snake on its own), and then a poetry which is automatically generated from the written stories on the back of the collected press images and tweeted by Strand. “Bound in a faux-snake leather cover, the book fits comfortable in the hands—its size suitably intimate. Combining dramatic full-bleed images with full-size reproductions, the book moves in and out of the images—drawing us close and then pulling away. Love. Hate. ”
On the surface, we see the book is about the relationship between girls and snake, yet deep down, the book also reflects the momentary power that women have over the snake, that split second when there’s a balance of control. As Strand mentioned in her website, “the relationship between snakes and women has a long history, which Strand acknowledges through her discussion on the work. “The snake has been the subject of allegory and metaphor since biblical times, signifying eternity when holding its own tail; suggesting cunning and temptation to Eve; the agent of suicide for Cleopatra, and even the symbol of health and healing in the rod of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The snake can represent both good and evil, wisdom and cunning, rejuvenation and death, and, of course, sexuality and the phallus.” This book is more than just about girls and snake. It can also represents our inner conflict tug of war between good and evil.
What interest me as well about this work is that we can see this work flourish from start to end. From the concept and idea to how the book is made, how the ideas and concepts are translated into book form. And then, how that same idea and concept is translated into forms of exhibitions, showing how the same concept can be played and manipulated with different forms of publications. In the “Girl plays with snake” exhibition, the poetry are instead boldly imprinted on top of the enlarged fragment of original images. “The result is an overt and graphic interplay between text and image. Alongside the framed works, another automatic poetry generator, constructed for this exhibition, is projected onto the walls of the gallery, creating new random arrangements of Strand’s poems. The automatic text is printed out as a snaking ticker tape for the audience to tear off and take away.” This is something which increases the interactions between the artwork and the audience that can be only done in the form of exhibition, but not in a book form.
Her more renowned work about digital misinterpretation “The Discrete Channel with Noise” will be discussed next.
This is a good documentary video about how Clare Strand, a conceptual artist, worked with MACK publisher on her book “Girls plays with snake.”. From concept, to developing into a form of a book.
What I love about what MACK said was, “the book is an ideal translation of the ideas and concept from the author. Avoid excess of design, causing the ideas to be a distraction. As long as the content is good then it’s easy to make a good book.”
Aaron Schuman is an American artists based in the UK. I came across his work because I love books from MACK and his new book “Slant” caught my eye. Only then when I started studying about his work that his previous work “Folk” was listed as one of the best photobooks in 2016 by Alec Soth, and that he has also been a curator and educator for years. Well his “Folk” work I will need to spend another morning looking into and studying, but what “Slant” interested me is that it features the little police reports from a small town in Amherst, Massachusetts and they are just hilariously ridiculous. These succinct and “extraordinarily anticlimactic” accounts of crimes, suspicious activities, events and non-events newspaper cutting from 2014-2018 are cleverly diptych with photographs made around the same town. The photographs are poetically matched with the text showing a “slanted” way fo rhyme, drawing this inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all truth but tell it slant”.
Each of the image pairing was carefully made with many layers and meaning, providing a third space for the viewer to imagine and create possibilities. Quoting from what Aaron says at an interview from photocaptionist, he explained thoroughly how 2 images have been carefully thought out with different added layers:
“in the case of the fig tattoo photograph that you mention, there are many layers. Firstly, I should explain that I grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts – eight miles from Amherst – which is the home of Smith College… … it’s Program for the Study of Women and Gender continues to be one of the most important and prominent within academia, and attracts feminist scholars from around the world. Furthermore, Northampton is often referred to as ‘the lesbian capital of America’, as its population includes the most lesbian couples per capita of any city in the United States… …. it is considered one of the most liberal, left-leaning, ‘open-minded’, ‘alternative’ or ‘countercultural’ communities in America.
What I find fascinating about that particular ‘Police Report’ – ‘A man reported that he was uncomfortable with a protester standing at the intersection of Amity and South Pleasant streets with a sign stating “kill feminism”.’ – is the protest itself, and the fact that today, within Trump’s America, such an ultra-conservative sentiment has become a part of public landscape, even within the most progressive of places. But I’m also interested in the fact that the police were contacted because the protest was deemed threatening; that within this extremely liberal environment, someone’s public expression and protest via ‘free speech’, albeit of their very conservative beliefs, was deemed aggressive and provocative to warrant police attention, and met with such a conservative response. Also, the fact that it was a man who reported that he was ‘uncomfortable’ with this particular act of ‘protest’ is rather intriguing. And furthermore, there’s the irony of the street names – ‘Amity’ and ‘Pleasant’ – which imply certain, very American aspirations on the part of the original town planners, but which are somewhat undercut by the activities described as occurring on those streets today. So the text is already incredibly loaded in so many ways.
Then, there’s the story behind the photograph… … I knew that the fig had all kinds of symbolic meanings, Biblical and otherwise – the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves during The Fall, the fruits own sensual and sexual suggestiveness, and so on – so after the tour was over, I went over and asked her if I could photograph her arm. She guardedly said yes, and afterwards I asked her, “Why a fig?” – “Its kind of embarrassing”, she said, “It a reference to The Bell Jar. You know, Sylvia Plath?”
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet”. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963
…the photograph of the giant foot … … In the collection, I actually have multiple Reports from over the last three years in which the police were contacted because someone asked to photograph the ‘victim’s’ feet (as you say, it could be a prolific local foot-fetishist, or more likely several undergraduate art students trying to fulfil some brief given to them by one of the surrounding colleges) … … I passed this bizarre foot sculpture on the outskirts of Amherst – it was in the parking lot of a local ‘winery’ (something to do with squashing grapes with bare feet, I guess, as the area is certainly not known for its wine production) – and it was just too good to be true.
The whole spin of the work “initially, in 2014, I simply found these newspaper ‘Police Reports’ quaint and hilarious. But today, in 2017, I actually find them both unexpectedly poignant and painfully disturbing; they seem to reveal certain worrying undercurrents in America, psychological or otherwise, that point to a particular loss, at least in terms of being in touch with reality.”
The work itself is layered, complexed and highly informative with different insights coming together after each read. Attractive and simple at first, but hidden with deep meanings with metaphors relating to politics, media and psychology. I personally find this book is a jewel.
Italian photographer Federico takes poetic and free-form images for his work La Vertigine, which means Vertigo in English. Vertigo means – a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.
The poetic photographs connects one and other, somehow spinning your head from here to there, in a soothing and free way. There’s this sensation of freedom and openness, leading the viewer to imagine what’s not there. The tightly cropped images allow a lot of free associations when combined together in a book. It creates a tension between what is shown in the image, and what could be outside. Clavarino is drawn to shadows, hands, and the spaces in between things, he said “There is a very active frame in all of the pictures. It’s more about that than the actual things I photographed.”
Photo courtesy to the artist: Saskia Wesseling
Saskia Wesseling is a Dutch photographer based in Hong Kong, who is a finalist of 2019 WMA awards. This year’s theme is “opportunity”. Saskia used this opportunity to talk about the education system here in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.
Visually the work is simple and straightforward. Images are portraits of children in their uniform, with exercise book or text books covering their faces, symbolising a lot of different meanings. It can be interpreted as the system only cares about children’s achievements, they don’t even want to know their “faces” ie. the child as a whole. The age of the children ranged from kindergarten to teens – showing that, this corrupted system starts from such young age. Postures of the children are very stiff and meticulous, indicating the indirectness of what the education system is doing to children, whom are meant to be free and creative, boxing them into exactly the same “robots”. Amongst the series, one of the photos indicating a boy with lots of medals around his neck, plus other other in the background, showing that education system emphasises on successes by achievements and awards, and regardless of children’s emotions or individuality.
There were two more photographs with a group of children standing on each step of the stairs with same posture and uniform. Saskia wanted to portray that if following what the system is providing and do so accordingly (visually indicated by the stamps), the children can take one step at a time to higher status. In one of the two photographs, a westerner child rebelled and left the “line”, so then in the other photograph, she was placed in much lower status of the stairs, which indicates that the system is rigid and there is no flexibility for creativity and the potentials for individuality.
All in all, the work is easy to understand and visually straightforward, so that even for those who doesn’t have art background can easily grasp what the topic is about, and what it is questioning. I’m not entirely sure why some photos are in black and white and some are in colour, maybe to indicate that the problem isn’t just a contemporary problem, but it grew from a long history and it is still happening now, with no changes.
The work is inspiring in that we both care about the same topic, but personally I am not too fond of the visual language used. Maybe it’s the mix of colours or images with selective colours. For me I think the visual form can be stronger. Maybe the use of light can be better but maybe she wanted to present the work in the most ordinary way. But definitely, work from film could be totally different and to a higher standard. It is what digitals can’t do.