Photography Reviews

The Unforgetting – Peter Watkins

I’ve read much about this book The Unforgetting by Peter Watkins, from Tim Clark at 1000 Words and Brad Feuerhelm at ASX to being mentioned by a few as top favourites of photobooks 2019, to be honest, I didn’t quite get it at first other than the captivating cold black and white images of object assemblages and memorabilia. As Tim Clark mentioned, “the work is spared of sentimentality: objects are catalogued and composed in a manner that evokes early scientific photography or evidence gathered at a crime scene.”

The work is based on the history of his own family marked by the suicide of his mother when he was nine years old. The heart of the artist’s project is his reconciliation to that loss, through an examination of their shared German heritage.

“This is a work that explores the machinations of memory in relation to the experience of trauma,” says Watkins. “The culmination of several years work, The Unforgetting is a series made up of remnants, as well as the associated notions of time, recollection and impermanence, all bound up in the objects, places, photographs, and narrative structures circulated within the family.”

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Self Portrait (2011), an image that pictures the artist stripped from the waist up and seated on a hard wooden chair. His face is cast down, fist clenched, shoulders hunched. Numerous large circles scar his smooth skin: the legacy of cupping, a well-known Chinese treatment for depression. Source @ 1000 Words

© Peter Watkins, from the book ‘The Unforgetting’; Source @ Peter Watkins

What really inspired me about this work was that the work has taken several different iterations since he began in 2010. He started out quite differently, with more of a documentary approach, visited the place where his mother had died, and filmed the village where she grew up, and interviews with family members. “What I came to realise was that everything seemed too literal to me, it was too sad and too sentimental and obvious somehow. I noticed from the filmed interviews that my family’s recollections had somehow blurred and merged into a kind of unified narrative as if the passage of time had stripped away any sense of complexity and subjectivity from each individual’s experience.”

“I didn’t want the project to feel sentimental in the way that projects about this subject so often tend to feel. It was about finding a balance between thinking and feeling. e.g. the Super 8 canisters contain home movies of my mother and her family on holiday. Instead of using those kind of seductive Super 8 images, which carry an unavoidable nostalgia, I came to think of that one picture as a way of conflating all [of the others] into one single, mysterious image that resists that kind of sentimentality. It’s an important part of the work, that resistance to the obvious or the overtly emotive.” he says.

References:

https://fotoroom.co/the-unforgetting-peter-watkins/

http://www.1000wordsmag.com/peter-watkins%E2%80%A8/

https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/06/show-peter-watkins-the-unforgetting-at-the-webber-gallery/

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/13/peter-watkins-photography-ghostly-reflection-on-grief-and-loss

https://americansuburbx.com/2015/02/peter-watkins-the-pain-of-loss-is-a-motherfucker.html

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Photography Reviews

Entrance to Our Valley – Jenia Fridlyand

“Entrance to Our Valley” was one of the picks from Photobookstores as one of the best photobooks 2019. Jenia Fridlyand, a Russian photographer, photographed with a large-format camera the 200-acre farm in the Hudson River Valley that Jenia and her husband bought for them and their entire family. The beautifully poetic black and white images of this place, which was purposed for a multi-generational home – “for our parents, who are now living more than five thousand miles from the place of their birth; for my husband and I, both first-generation immigrants; and for our children, so they could have the privilege of coming back to a place where they grew up.”

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© Jenia Fridlyand, from the book ‘Entrance to Our Valley’; Source @ Fotoroom

Her work reminded me of photographic works by Raymond Meeks, Mark Steinmetz, Bryan Schutmaat, Jonathan Levitt etc. To me, they all possess a similar type of visual aesthetics which is intimate, calm and subtle that feels timeless yet still contemporary. Maybe it’s the everydayness that I like about these works, as it is not context-specific which everyone can easily relate to. I can easily resonate with most of the images here even though I am not a Russian, nor do I have a farm or live in the States.

Other references:

https://collectordaily.com/jenia-fridlyand-entrance-to-our-valley/

 

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Photography Reviews

Apple – Zhang Xiao

Zhang Xiao the star photographer from China who’s best known for his work “coastline” has been making works rigorously ever since (as he shared on the projection night). The installation work “Apple” was one of the main exhibitions showcased at the Lianzhou Museum of Photography during the festival.

Using apple as the anchor point, the work talks about how the cultivation of apple from the west brings in apple industrialisation in his hometown, Yantai and how that impacts on local people as well as the environment.

© Michelle Chan, series ‘Apple’ by Zhang Xiao at 15th Edition Lianzhou Foto Festival 2019

The work presented was a multi-media work with photographs, polaroid emulsion prints, videos and a apple tree sculpture installation that narrates the story from how apples are collected and industrialised to markets and other trading centres, to the effect it has on the environment and the society. The progression of the exhibition goes from photographs and a video of how apples are processed in the factories to a wall of meticulous yet beautiful photographs of death birds. Zhang uses birds as the channel for the storytelling because many birds are trapped in-between electrical fences that were built to protect the apples in the factories. The way they were photographed felt very much like corpse photographs but also photographs of specimen where the choice of printing on acrylic or glass reinforces the feeling of preciousness of these corpses. The very last piece of artwork was created from a collaboration with the local people putting fake apples printed “Gong Hei Fat Choi” onto winter trees, symbolising their wishes for prosperity for the coming year. This work shows how the value of apple as just a simple type of food changes according to human impacts.

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Photography Reviews

Tales of the Invisible – Yanxin Guo

A hidden gem from the Lianzhou Foto festival was the series by Yanxin Guo “Tales of the Invisible”. Stamping from her personal experience when she returned to China last summer where she witnessed the biggest typhoon yet and 13 people died, it strikes her that the invisible can become something powerful and one should never overlook.

© Yanxin Guo, from the series ‘Tales of the Invisible’ ; Source @ Yanxin Guo

Her series of photographs are images which hints the invisibles through the visible. Clean, poetic and sentimental images transcend this strong feeling that there is some magical power in the nature which is stirring behind e.g. an image of a gush of water in the ocean pairing with the boy curling up, or the lite up trees at night pairing with a portrait of a Chinese girl with her hair blowing.

© Yanxin Guo, from the series ‘Tales of the Invisible’ ; Source @ Yanxin Guo

The images are subtle, which combined with the fragmented story written by Guo reinforced further the concept of “Tales of the Invisible”. The series is highly metaphorical yet could be easily felt and filled the room with mystery.

© Yanxin Guo, from the series ‘Tales of the Invisible’ ; Source @ Yanxin Guo

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© Michelle Chan, series ‘Tales of the Invisible’ by Yanxin Guo at 15th Edition Lianzhou Foto Festival 2019

 

The book will be printed soon so watch out for this one.

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Photography Reviews

A Long Day of a Certain Year – Li Lang

“A Long Day of a Certain Year” (某年某月某日) by Chinese photographer / artist Li Lang won the Puntum Awards at the Lianzhou Foto Festival 2019. This photographic installation encompasses pictures he systematically took out of the window while on a round trip on a high-speed train across China. The work was installed as a 5 multi-channelled video with an image displayed for a second at a time, starting from the first channel and rotating to the next channel throughout the whole video. The idea was to recreate the space of the train carriage, in which windows display the projected slideshows and voice interviews, mirroring the feelings of one looking out of the window on a train and thoughts running by.

© Li Lang, from the series ‘A Long Day of a Certain Year’ ; Source @ Jimei x Arles

His works uses the images from the train window to juxtapose with recorded voices of about 50 online volunteers about their lives and social realities. He wanted to show through the work that the things that are going on in society are like the view we have from the train: constantly changing, random, contingent, and uncertain. The scenery is familiar yet unfamiliar to everyone. However, the train will come to a halt eventually and sending its passengers back to their reality. This is a metaphor for the relationship between people and society: whether watching or being in it, you cannot leave.

Here’s the artist statement of the work (which I think reads well into the work):

其實一代又一代的人都是這樣的。

————《某年某月某日》畫外音

某年某月某日是一個確定的時間,不僅是日常生活中的昨天,今天和明天終究將會屬於某年某月某日。周而復始的某年某月某日構成生活的全部。

我乘坐在一趟往返有四千六百公里的高速火車上,以統計學採樣的方式拍攝窗外景觀,跟隨火車縱貫這個熟悉而又陌生的國度,穿過城市、鄉鎮、農村、丘陵、平原和荒野。當我木訥地望着窗外,火車前進方向的景觀迎面撲來,然後轉瞬即逝地消失在身後,我突然產生幻覺,未來就在前方,未來被運動所挾持,在我毫無知覺間,未來已成為過去。對我而言,此時此地的現在仿佛是缺失的。只有等到火車抵達終點,我走出車廂,才感受到現在的存在和回歸喧囂的現實。​

現實是什麼?

面對這個問題,我和眾多的志願者一起,聊起身處的現實和現實對我們的影響。話語間滲透着講述者對生活最直觀的感受。我再次成為坐在火車上眺望窗外景觀的旁觀者。在生活中,普通人都是現實的旁觀者。

在毫無知覺中度過無數個周而復始無趣的日子之後,我們慶幸自己生活中的平安,暗自慶幸那些不幸的事沒有發生在自己的身上,就像始終坐在火車上觀望着窗外和我們沒有任何關係的景觀一樣。因為我們習慣做為一名安全的旁觀者。但是別忘記,火車終究將會到達終點,我們這幫旅客終究將走出車廂,回到現實。千萬不要覺得現實就像窗外的風景一樣,寧靜無聲。其實,我們只是聽不到外面的聲音而已。

The work is so simply put yet it speaks to such a wide range of audience. They can so easily resonate with the feeling of future uncertainty and the social reality that we face everyday. I extremely adore how he brings the everydayness into his artwork which can also be interpreted more deeply with the current social and political affairs.

Here are the 2 interviews he did (both in Chinese):

https://news.artron.net/20191002/n1062004.html

http://www.artdesign.org.cn/article/view/id/31919

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Photography Reviews

Another Black Darkness- Saiko Nomura

I remember seeing Saiko Nomura’s work at the HKIPF Provoke show last year 2018. And her’s stands out the most because of the experimental way of printing.

“Another Black Darkness” is Nomura’s first experimental series created through solarization. The book, which consists of black ink oriented on black paper, has been highly praised for being the most experimental out of all recently published photo collections.

Would love to get my hands on this book!

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Photography Theories

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this BAFTA award winning documentary series about art and images. But every time I re-watch this again, something new inspires me. This is the magic of really great work.

Episode 1 – John Berger talks about the reproduction of images due to the invention of photography and new media e.g. television. How this has an impact on how we appreciate art from the past.

In summary, he talks about how art was appreciated within context – the frame, the place displayed which creates the whole aesthetic experience subject to that piece of art. And art was unique in that sense – one piece one place one time. With the invention of photography, art becomes trasmittable – we no longer need to go to a particular place or travel to a certain country to have this experience. The art pieces can be delivered on prints, on television, in the context of our home. But will this experience be the same?

Berger argues that how we see the original art piece is entirely different to how it is being transmitted and displayed in front of our eyes. In some way, you are able respond to the original art piece by choosing how to see and appreciating the authenticity of it; in contrast, with the transmitted work, how the art work is arranged (e.g. zoom in or out, panning left or right, what music to play in background) is entirely coded to what the presenter wants us to see. The art can become easily manipulated and diverge from its original meaning. It has become like words rather than holy relics. He emphasised at the end that we need to be sceptical of how these images and meanings are arranged.

 

Episode 2 – he talks about the differences between being naked and nude – where the former is about being seen as oneself, whereas the latter is presenting oneself as an object, being on display without clothing. This refers to the portrayal of the female nude, an important part of the tradition of European art. Berger examines these paintings and asks whether they celebrate women as they really are or only as men would like them to be. Photography has elevated this issue to raising beauty in the public image of women and how this influences how women see themselves today.

 

Episode 3 – in this episode Berger examines where the value of art comes from. Before photography, art was somehow raised above life, turning it into a kind of religion. He said that when you buy a painting you also buys the look of the thing it represents. Early paintings were representations of private possessions, and some how possessing these paintings deduce a form of pride – because the sense of what you can put your hands on became closely connected with the sense of ownership. The celebration of merchandise began.

 

Episode 4 – the last episode he talks about the publicity of images. Where traditional art shows private possessions that consolidates the owner’s sense and value, the public images share a message of what we don’t have. The sight of it makes us want to possess it so to be envied. Publicity is a way of manufacturing glamour. It plays upon fear. Objects themselves are neutral, only publicity and images that raises or demolishes their values.

“In the urban world, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life. We may remember or forget these images – but briefly we take them in. And for a moment they stimulate our imagination, either by way of memory or by anticipation. But where is this other way of life?”

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Photography Reviews

Buttons for Eyes – Priya Kambli

Recently, I’ve been looking a lot into theories of photography for sure, and also photomontage works. I used to have this narrow vision of photography of Bresson’s decisive moment, praising Magnumphotos as God, and that was it for me for photography. Blindly ignoring what a big world is out there for making work with images. Maybe it was a good thing, so to just focus on one type of photography or maybe it was a bad thing, because there are so so so much more other possibilities with photography.

What changed me was, I got tired and bored of decisive moments. They are yes, decisive moments, of what claims to be moment of “truths”. Yet theories of photography opened up the question of photography as a medium. I mean, really opened up how I view and understand this medium. And photomontage, is one way of working with images that I feel I’d like to have a taste on. Similarly to decisive moments, there are already materials to work with (former, with what’s happening around the world; latter, with archival images and other materials).

Most immigrants exist in two worlds, the world of memories and visual connections of their growing up and the new realities of living in a culture where all is not familiar. This search for what is home, for the roots of that connect them to the most primal self is the main theme of Priya Kambli’s work.

“Buttons for Eyes” talks about loss, memory and identity (I guess I have a subconscious love for identity and loss, because of the work I’m drawn to). Kambli physically manipulates old family photographs and then rephotographs the altered artefacts. She uses light and flour as manipulative elements to add layers for starting a dialogue about cultural differences and global similarities.

© Priya Kambli, from the series ‘Buttons for Eyes, 2017- ; Source @ Lenscratch

She works with archival images which allows her to connect the past with the present, to bring forward memories, and to reimagine them adorned with tokens of the everyday – in a sense, making these memories physical. The way in which she maintains the photographs is akin to how Indian housewives tend to their kitchen deities – hence the use of flour. The meticulous patterns crafted on it symbolises the “Indianity” of her past identity (literally these patterns of flour can be blown away in seconds) – imprinted onto a physical form that she is re-creating for the present.

Much of the work talks about the separation and the exchange of cultural differences and similarities between herself and her sister, whom chose to stay in India whereas she immigrated to the US after their parents passed away.

There’s a final layer of narrative to this work which comes from the title “Button for Eyes.” It comes from a question her mother used to ask, “Do you have eyes or buttons for eyes?” Her mother’s concern was about Kambli’s inability to see trivial objects right in front of her, but also about our collective inability to see well enough to navigate the world. “It is a question laced with parental fear,” she says. Which goes back to, are we ignorant to these cultural differences and global similarities in the world? The laced patterns on the images may also symbolises not only the ignorant we ourselves may have, but those that derives from the parental fear in order to protect their children.

References: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/10/female-in-focus-buttons-for-eyes/

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Photography Theories

Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

Barthes, has clearly demonstrated that there are signs in photographs. In his theory,

Signs (anything that convey a meaning) = signifier (things that give meaning) / signified (the mental concept of the things presented)

Here, is the famous advertisement that Barthes uses in his text “Rhetoric of the Image” to explain his theory of how to read photographs.

panzani-preview

According to Barthes, there are 4 signs here that can be read from this image:

  • the half opened bag and the unpackness signifies returned from the market
  • the tomatoes, pepper and pasta signify Italianicity – the food themselves as well as the colours, constituting to the Italian flag – green, red and white
  • the collection of the objects signifies a dinner to be prepared, the tin of product surrounded by fresh and natural food signifies its equivalence to them
  • the image composed is with relevance to painting categories of “still life”

There are also denoted message here, meaning the signifier is same as the signified. E.g. the image of tomatoes signifies tomatoes, the image of pasta signifies pasta. We still need to acquire these anthropological knowledge to be able to read these messages.

In his text, he claims that there are 3 messages from a photograph:

  • linguistic message
    • anchorage – this is the text which acts as an anchoring point for viewers to derive information from the image. For press photographs especially, the text often directs what information to focus and what information to ignore in an image, “remotely controlling the viewer towards a meaning chosen in advance.”
    • relay – this is text which complements and works alongside with the images in e.g. comic strips or films. Creating a dialogue. The meaning is found in the sequence rather than the image itself.
  • denoted message
    • He said that the denoted and connoted message is relational, not having one without the other. At least, there is no such image of representing just the denoted message.
  • connoted message
    • With connoted message, it truly depends on the knowledge of the person, as the reading of these signs are not fixed but varied – practical, national, cultural, aesthetics etc. And the language of the image is not just the total utterance emitted but also received

All in all, he claims that the denoted message counterbalances or neutralises the connoted message, and while the connoted message refers to culture, denoted message refers to nature. It is what both exists that makes the rhetoric of an image.

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Photography Theories

The Photographic Message – Roland Barthes

What is a photographic message? Is there a structural analysis into what a photograph transmits?

A lot of the philosophers have been saying how closely photography is related to realism (Walton, 1983). Even Barthes is saying that it is a literal transformation of the reality onto light sensitive photographic paper (what he later calls – the denoted message). Making a photograph does not rely on the beliefs of the creator, as Walton says, unlike a piece of artwork. A photograph, although still depends on the choices of the framing and technical skills of the creator, it in itself is something recorded from what’s in the world. Whereas with art, the creator can create and put onto the canvas of anything that he imagines or hallucinates.

But Barthes argues that there is a second message that photography transmit – known as the connoted message – which derives from the decisions of the creator e.g. frame, composition, style to the extend of how the society receives it i.e. inputting the cultural context into the composition of the photograph. Even with press photographs there are connoted messages – from composition, treatment, words attached to it plus the newspaper company itself are symbols to how the public reads these signs (note: this is especially transparent with the image consumption during the midst of Hong Kong protests). Barthes says that the connotation is realised at the different levels of production of the photograph – trick effects, pose, objects to photogenia, asetheticism and syntax.

Trick effects are often used in propagandas e.g. the American press 1951 photo of Senator Millard Tydings and Communist leader Earl Browder. The heavily connoted message in this photograph is really a sign only for certain society and people with certain values. Without understanding the history or the cultural context of what was happening in USA during 1951, this image is merely an image of two people conversing.

Objects are inducers of association of ideas e.g. a bookself = intellectual. So are people (but the associations are more complex e.g. Mother Teresa = compassion). In a photograph, objects and people are the vocabulary of the visual image, and how they are composed and posed turn this lexicon into syntax. “E.g. a window opening on to vineyards and tiled roofs; in front of the window a photograph album, a magnifying glass, a vase of flowers. Consequently, we are in the country, south of the Loire (vines and tiles), in a bourgeois house (flowers on the table) whose owner, advanced in years (the magnifying glass), is reliving his memories (the photograph album) – Francois Mauriac in Malagar (photo in Paris-Match).” (Barthes, 1971).

With photogenia, it relates to the technology of photographic production (lighting, exposure, printing) through which certain effects (motion blur, double exposure etc) create connotations in the photograph; aestheticism is about connotation based on classical paintings e..g classical rules of compositions and syntax, is about the connotation created by viewing a sequence of images and which emerges from the photographs in relation to each other rather than singly.

What Barthes also mentioned in this chapter from Image, Music, Text (1971) book is the relationship between text and images. Formerly, images illustrates the words but when text are attached to an image, it has a parasitic nature to quicken the understanding of the image and it affects how the image is being read. As Barthes says,

“The relationship is not the image which comes to elucidate or realise the text, but the latter comes to sublimate, patheticise or rationalised the image.”

Sometimes the text accompanied can invent a totally new message or contradict the image to produce a different message to the reader. So the big question is, do we read photographs based entirely on its entity, or the message is eluted or deluded by the surrounding text?

 

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