Contextual Research

Week One

Reading through the resources for week one, I was most taken with several ideas in the Barthes text, particularly the separation of denotation (first order messages) and connotation (second order messages) (Barthes and Heath, 1977, p16) and Barthes idea that press photographs have a”a weak signifier and a strong signified” (ibid P26) which is where the photographs I have taken and the ideas which I wish to develop regarding borders lie: the change in shape of the streetlights requires context to understand. It also gave me the idea to perhaps look at organising the photographs in terms of the strength of the signifier – those showing geographical borders (coastlines, mountains) will be stronger than those depicting theoretical, political borders. Something to bear in mind as I develop the ideas!

Barthes also raises the idea of text being “parasitic” (ibid p27) when applied to a photograph, which gives me something to consider when arranging what I envision my final project to be.

The other major research from this week has been looking more deeply into Stephen Shore’s photographs, particularly those of the American Surfaces book. This is the aesthetic that attracts me most – the open spaces and lack of context and seemingly irrelevant details are very much what I am aiming for myself.

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Tyler, Texas, June 1972 by Stephen Shore
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US 89, Arizona, June, 1972 by Stephen Shore
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Queens, New York, April, 1972 by Stephen Shore

Notes:

Barthes, Roland & Heath, Stephen (1977) Image music text. London: Fontana

Shore, Stephen. (1972). Queens, New York, April 1972 [online]. Available at http://stephenshore.net/ (accessed 19 April 2018)

Shore, Stephen. (1972). Tyler, Texas, June, 1972 [online]. Available at http://stephenshore.net/ (accessed 19 April 2018)

Shore, Stephen. (1972). US 89, Arizona, June, 1972 [online]. Available at http://stephenshore.net/ (accessed 19 April 2018)

 

Week Two

Looking for ideas about how to photograph coastlines in light of the geographical borders part of my project, I came across the work of Suzanne Trower in the July 2017 issue of the Royal Photographic Society journal and followed up online.

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Silver Lining 3 by Suzanne Trower

I found this very striking indeed, though almost the diametric opposite of the aesthetic I have been pursuing – monochrome and high-contrast as opposed to my low-contrast colour shots. However, it does raise the question of whether or not the aesthetic I am pursuing is the most suitable for the subject matter. Something to bear in mind…

Notes

Trower, Suzanne. (?). Silver Lining 3 [online]. available at https://www.suetrowerphotography.co.uk/silver-lining/ (accessed 19 April 2018)

 

Week Three

Looking further into Barthes idea of the separation of strong and weak signifiers in photography, I looked back at Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, one of my favourite photobooks. One shot in particular, a shot of a small, wooden house with a beaten-up satellite dish and a sprinkling of trees, both bare deciduous and coniferous beneath a bruised-looking sky illustrated this. It is an aesthetically pleasing shot, balanced, harmonious. When taken in conjunction with the rest of the work, it does benefit from context; as Stuart Franklin defines it, “the picture is normally seen connected to the others in the book, like a stanza in a poem” (Franklin, 2016).

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Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, Dyess, Arkansas

The further contextualisation afforded by the title, however, changes our perception of the photograph – this is no longer a photograph of a typical house along the Mississippi (though it is that) – it is a photograph of a specific house, and one whose history has added considerably to the rest of the world’s understanding of the reason.

I am still yet to decide whether or not to title the photographs in this project, but this is something that I will need to keenly bear in mind – how much will a title alter the strength of the signifier and how desirable is this within the wider context of what I am trying to show?

Notes

Franklin, S. (2016). The Documentary Impulse. 1st Edition. New York: Phaidon. p162

Soth, A. (2017). Sleeping by the Mississippi. 1st Edition. London: MACK. p?

 

Week Four

Moving on from Alec Soth (I think I may be doing things backwards here…) I have been reading about the idea of Deadpan photography – something I brushed up against in the last unit and which has, as it turns out, been subconsciously guiding me in this one. Reading Charlotte Cotton’s excellent The Photograph as Contemporary Art I was struck by the description of the work of Andreas Gursky: “we are not being asked to interpret the individual experience of a place or event. What we are given instead is a mapping of contemporary life governed by forces that are not possible to see from a position within the crowd” (Cotton 2016, p84). This neutrality is at what I have been aiming, both in subject matter and in the slightly desaturated aesthetic I have been following. It also explains my disinclination to include people in my photographs.

From the same source, I also came across the work of Lewis Baltz, described in the book as having “the concern for visualising how contemporary life is administered” (Cotton 2016, p89) which is as close as I have come to finding what I want to do here.

Looking further in Baltz’s work I found many images that I really enjoyed – again, the deadpan, emotionless reportage of the everyday minutiae of modern life.

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Corso dei Lavoro, 1992 by Lewis Baltz

Another artist highlighted by Cotton is Dan Holdsworth, who: “has photographed transitional architectural spaces and remote landscapes. Often termed ‘liminal spaces’, these areas exist where cracks in institutional or commercial definitions appear, and our sense of place is dislocated” (Cotton 2016, p94). As one of the alternate titles of my project is ‘liminality’ this definitely seemed to be worth investigating.

Again, I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the deadpan style here.

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Autopia 02 by Dan Holdsworth
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California 02 by Dan Holdsworth

Notes

Baltz, L. (1992). Corso dei Lavoro 1002 [online]. Available at http://www.galeriezander.com/en/artist/lewis_baltz/works (accessed April 21 2018)

Cotton, C. (2016). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 3rd ed., London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Holdsworth, D. (1996-8). Autopia 02 [online]. Available at http://www.danholdsworth.com/works/ (accessed 21 April 2018)

Holdsworth, D. (2004). California 02 [online]. Available at http://www.danholdsworth.com/works/ (accessed 21 April 2018)

 

Week Five

A particular passage in Stuart Franklin’s The Documentary Impulse caught my eye this week, when speaking about Robert Frank’s The Americans: “the book is without doubt the twentieth-century photography’s purest expression of existentialism” (Franklin 2016, p159). This got me thinking back to my long-ago days of undergrad philosophy lectures, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion that “the defining feature of the imagination lies in the ability of the human mind to imagine what is not the case” (Thody and Read, 1999, p29). Although the concept of freedom that I am exploring through the idea of borders is a limited and specific one compared to Sartre’s much more complex philosophical modes, it may still be possible to explore the idea of freedom and borders through encouraging the viewer to imagine how the world might be were such borders not in place.

Franklin goes on to discuss the sorts of freedom that Frank’s work epitomises: “freedom in the choice of subject, the freedom of unfettered time and space and the freedom of the open road” (Franklin 2016, p160). One of the areas upon which I intend to concentrate over the coming weeks is the border between the tightly packed city and the boundless desert, and how this boundary is slowly creeping outwards as the city itself expands, with trips intended both through the desert and to look at some of the new planned communities being built on the boundaries between the two.

Notes

Franklin, S. (2016). The Documentary Impulse. 1st Edition. New York: Phaidon.

Thody, P and Read, H. Introducing Sartre. 2nd ed., Cambridge: Icon Books.

 

Week Six

After a trip out to the further reaches of the UAE to visit the border fence with Oman and the Tropic of Cancer, I got thinking about mankind’s relationship with the landscape and how this varies from culture to culture.

In terms of culture, the Emirati one is relatively young. The initial tribal settlements of the UAE which led to the modern cities therein do not date back much further than the nineteenth century. Most Emiratis still feel very connected to the land – the wealthier families will have a villa in one of the cities and their ‘farm’ – a dwelling further out in the desert. However, it has become a sad fact of the modern-day UAE that the unadopted parts of the desert are not treated well, by Emiratis and expats alike. Camping in the desert is a popular weekend activity in the cooler months. However, only a very small percentage of the campers feel it incumbent on them to take their litter away with them.

The original inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were the nomadic bedouin. Many bedouin remain, across the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and beyond. It is these people that the imposition of political borders has perhaps harmed the most in this part of the world. In the essay ‘Return From Exile’ included in the book The Land, edited by Bill Brandt, Keith Critchlow states “Nowhere in recent time has there been a better example of the total integration of humanity with the natural landscape than in America amongst those people known as the Red Indians” (Critchlow, 1976). Respectfully, I would argue that the Bedouin could also lay claim to that, having lived for centuries in the harshest of conditions by adopting a lifestyle harmonious with their environment. Much like the indigenous Americans, the Bedouin lifestyle has suffered enormously by the imposition of western values. The drawing up of borders across the peninsula, and the subsequent increase in physicality of those borders has meant that many bedouin are no longer able to follow their traditional routes as dictated by the seasons. Furthermore, most bedouin are stateless people, lacking passports or any other paperwork that might grant them freedom of movement across the land on which they have lived for centuries.

This was my first thought on encountering the physical fence that has relatively recently grown along the border between the UAE and Oman. Ostensibly to prevent smuggling, it seems an unnecessarily heavy-handed response and one that can only have a negative effect of those that dwell in the region. A good example of where something that was to me, until this point, theoretical, becomes all too real.

Notes

Critchlow, K. (1976). Return From Exile. In: B. Brandt, ed,. The Land, 1st ed. New York: Da Capo, p29

 

Week Seven

Thresholds. Whilst thinking about more common-day borders, I looked back at some of the ideas raised by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose work has, over the years, given me a much deeper understanding of many facets of life. In The Power of Myth, Campbell speaks of the experience of visiting a sacred space:

“I walk off Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’ve left a very busy city and one of the most economically inspired cities on the planet. I walk into that cathedral, and everything around me speaks of spiritual mysteries. The mystery of the cross, what’s that all about there? The stained glass windows, which bring another atmosphere in. My consciousness has been brought up onto another level altogether, and I am on a different platform. And then I walk out, and I’m back on the level of the street again”. (Campbell 1991 p19)

This lead me to think about how there can be borders of consciousness (though perhaps to a lesser degree) within our everyday lives. I identified the ‘learning environment’ border and the border between genders in a doctor’s waiting room, along with the carefully planned and orchestrated border that leads into a shopping mall – perhaps the closest we come to one of the great medieval cathedrals in this day and age.

Notes

Campbell, J. (1991).The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor

 

Week Eight

Looking through notes from previous units I was reminded of the work of Jack Latham; in particular his book A Pink Flamingo, which I bought following his conference. Again, beautiful, deadpan images of the edges of society – in this case in Oregon.

Crossroad at night, Oregon, 2012
From A Pink Flamingo by Jack Latham
Abandoned House #2, Oregon, 2013
From A Pink Flamingo by Jack Latham

Notes

Latham, J (?). A Pink Flamingo. ?:Dive Bar Books.

 

Week Nine

Reading Douglas Coupland (probably, at a push, my favourite author and the inspiration for where I envision my final project going) I found his comments on Ed Ruscha (another favourite): “was he shooting out ropes and tethers to bind LA and the ahistorical west to the supercontinent of cultural history?” (Coupland 2013, p18)

I am not entirely sure why this connection between two of my favourite artists thrilled me, or whether or not I could be considered to be trying to do something similar regarding the United Arab Emirates, in which case, is this project more of a historical document than what I envisioned as a deadpan look at the nature of borders.

Notes

Coupland, D. (2013). Shopping in Jail. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

 

Week Ten

Since that last entry, I have taken the decision to broaden the scope of my investigation beyond just the UAE. Thus, I have more of an idea that I am looking at a deadpan investigation into borders, which should help with my final selection of photographs.

One idea is to follow the precedent that Margaret Iversen observes when she speaks of  “Duchamp’s important Three Standard Stoppages of 1913-14…Like Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the title of Duchamp’s work has the same random specificity of a number followed by a qualifier and plural noun” (Iversen 2010, p16). Thus Sixteen Different Borders?

In terms of the overall project and how this project will form a part of it, the move away from the UAE means that my initial idea may not work. Still persevering with the idea of a book with accompanying text, I looked at The Land, edited by Bill Brandt which is wonderful, but more non-fiction oriented that I would hope for my own project.

Further research brought up the names Wright Morris, Edward Agee and WG Sebald. I have managed to get copies of Sebald’s The Emigrants and Morris’s The Home Place for Kindle and have ordered copies of Morris’s God’s Country and My People and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to be delivered to my UK address for my return in July. I am hoping that these will represent an important and exciting way forward for me!

Notes

Iversen, M. (2010) Automaticity: Ruscha and Performative Photography. In: D. Costello and M. Iversen, ed., Photography After Conceptual Art, 1st ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell (pp13-27)

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