Sunday, 21 August 2011

The expected observer

Good evening, readers. First I must apologise for the lack of posts this month - as I do almost constantly on this blog - but at least this time there's a reason: it's August! I was in Cyprus last week, trying desperately to get an internet connection at the oddly existent Costa's in the resort, but I didn't prevail (not that I had anything to blog about, anyway). I arrived home in the early hours of this morning and I think it's now time for a quick post to prove I'm not dead. To you, of course - I need no convincing on that matter, thankyouverymuch.

When I got home this morning, the huge pile of mail that had somehow built up in the course of a week was perused, and in its depths was a roll of developed film back from the mysterious people at Bonusprint (whose developing service is no longer on their website so I'm now sending my films out into the blue). This roll contained shots from a evening photoshoot I did with my friend Olly in London way back at the start of the summer, and also a few photos from another London shoot with my friend Olivia. The latter is a long story - it was going to be a Flickr meetup but by the time we got there it had been cancelled, so we decided to do a shoot anyway. So far the results have been great, but I'll leave those photos for another post.

So today, here are some photos from the first London shoot...


I began the shoot with Olly just before it got dark, and with absolutely no plans or ideas. It's an exciting feeling, let me tell you, to not know where you're going with your photography and yet go out for a shoot and just take whatever comes to you. There's no assurance it's going to work, but I was really relying on my creativity to find something new and take me that one step further. Yes, that post is still very relevant, sorry to bring it up again. Olly kept asking me what I wanted to take photos of, where I wanted to go, what I was looking for... and I knew none of the answers to those questions. I just told him I'd go wherever he was heading and hopefully my new idea of photography would form in the course of the evening.

Sadly, it didn't, but I made a start...

Everywhere I went, my as-ever indecpherable curiosity was piqued by the abundance of scaffolding and building works being done in London. Soon enough, an idea started to form about showing London hiding behind all the scaffolding; or perhaps tourists coming to London to see the landmarks and the buildings but they find both are obscured by scaffolding. I called it 'So much for London'. Here are three photos I took when I decided to give that idea a try:




And they're alright. Yeah. The idea's alright, too. It's got something more than aesthetic photography, but even at the time I knew it was not enough. I knew I was trying, but not succeding in pushing the boundaries I so wanted to push. It was more of what I'd deem a GCSE art concept; something that someone's put work into, but it's no professional artwork. Yet, luckily for this idea, the photos aren't purely aesthetic pieces with a meaning sellotaped on for the A* - the idea is the core of the photo, not an accessory.

Later that evening I had the idea of calling the project 'London Behind Bars' and instantly regretted it. Witty the title may be, but it's also unbearably clich├ęd. That should give you some idea of my attitude to my photography that evening.


Finally, here's a nice neat photo of some 70s architecture. Nothing special, and certainly not art, but a sign there is still a part of my mind which likes a nice bit of composition.

§

So where is this post leading? Am I still without a clue, lost for a description of the art medium I work with so much? Still searching?

Well, during my week in Cyprus, when I should have been sitting around by the pool and doing sod all, I found myself on the penultimate day bent double over a table, hurriedly making cubes and triangular prisms out of paper. If you don't already know I'm insane, let this be your moment of realisation, because I decided to forget the pool, the beaches, and the rest of the holiday in favour of making some art. Some photography art.

The idea was to bring some attention to the repression of natural materials and nature itself in the construction of the resort I was staying in. Though it may sound conservationalist, don't be fooled into thinking I was making it for the sake of the poor plants (sob sob). The project was borne of an unusual interest (or, for me, just an interest) in geometric shapes, specifically cubes, earlier in the week; combined with my usual dislike of the resort I was staying in. The photoset, called 'Resort', is less about the plants being the rightful owners of the land &c &c, but more about man's unstobbale need to inflict straight edges on the world. Cubes and other such basic shapes are found nowhere in nature, and are a purely human idea - restricted to the perfection achievable only in the human mind.

I'll leave the rest of the details of 'Resort' to when the photos are developed, but I do want to show you something important regarding what photography is to me. I was writing up the many ideas and meanings of 'Resort' that were fighting in my head for most of the week (no matter how school-ish write-ups are, this one was infinitely helpful to the final photos), and was suddenly struck with an understanding of what 'Resort' was, photography-wise:
The medium [of photography in 'Resort'] is beyond simple photography and in fact the project is more modern art than conventional photography, sensing that with so many years of good photography consisting of stretching the truth visually, photography has become an expected observer and in fact it is the raw contents of the photo that need to be the focus, not the manipulation of the medium itself.
And then it all made sense. Photography, for now at least, makes sense to me. I realised the London shoot was unsuccessful because stepping up to the next stage meant abandoning purely observational photography - there had to be some form of setup to achieve the meaning and effectiveness of the art. The other realisation was that of the 'expected observer', which, on understanding it, calmed my problems. The attitudes are threefold:

  1. Photography has become commonplace. People don't look at a photo and think about the technicalities of its medium; it is now totally normal to have such an accurate image of reality, as opposed to the paintings beforehand.
  2. Therefore we must strive to no longer focus on the medium and format of photography itself - that is a given, just as the brushstrokes and canvas of a painting are a given. The contents of the photo must be its core, rather than the manipulation of the medium (ie. Photoshop).
  3. The benefit of photography as a medium over paintings nowadays is that they are expected to be true and to show real things how they really are (if you wish to create something visually abstract then you can do it in a painting or other format). Thus, we can mould the emotions of the viewer by this preconviction that the photo will portray real occurrences. One interpretation of this is in favour of observational work, focusing on what really exists rather than the manipulation of photos of what exists. The other interpretation is what 'Resort' is - using photography to capture real-life 'sculptures' and occurrences that have been set up to mean something artistically. The user will therefore be more inclined to see the artwork as realistic and true (which may throw up a useful contrast with the surreality of the 'sculpture' itself). Photography's part in such a project is merely to capture it for the sake of the end viewer.
And with that, everything made sense to me. I was - and still am - satisfied with photography once again. How long this satisfaction will last, I don't know, but for now those uncertainties are silenced. Stay tuned for more posts, including one showing my short film 'Culture War' and another, eventually, showing 'Resort'.

~John

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