Archive for the ‘Roland Barthes’ tag
The exhibition Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography is, in collaboration with Paradise Row, currently on display at the David Roberts Foundation on Great Titchfield Street in London. By connecting photography with the manifold meanings of loss, the curators Louisa Adams and David Birkin dig into an intellectually and philosophically dense subject matter. The photographs, produced by ten different artists, were intelligently chosen for representing various notions of loss invoked by conflict, crime, disaster, war and ultimately death. That the scope and scale of this exhibition could easily be expanded is testament to a timely and well-conceptualized curatorial approach.
In stark contrast to the potentially invasive, even pornographic visual language of photojournalism, the artists chosen for this exhibition approach their subject matter with subtlety and care. Taryn Simon’s contribution, a rather banal photograph of a rundown house in Ayer, Massachusetts for instance, predominantly hinges on reading the caption to the photograph: serving 18 years of a life sentence for murder and robbery, the occupant of the house died from an accident six months after his exoneration. Jane and Louise Wilson’s super large and detailed photograph of a gym in Pripyat, located within the 30km wide Exclusion Zone to Tchernobyl, functions as an eerie architectural post-mortem of a manmade disaster. The paint crumbling off the wall signifies the physical and indeed psychological wounds incurred by those who survived. A photograph of books on a library bookshelf is slightly more ambiguous: rather than the aging books themselves, it is the dust they have collected that underlines the trauma of loss – the loss of an entire community and all the infrastructure associated with it.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s dramatically titled piece Day Nobody Died III consists of a 6-meter long strip of colour photographic paper, haphazardly exposed to the Afghan sunshine. While being embedded with British troops in Helmand province, the artist duo exposed the paper to represent a short reprieve from constant news of death and fatal injuries amongst soldiers and civilians. David Birkin’s own contribution to the exhibition, displayed directly opposite to Broomberg and Chanarin’s piece, is a small AP wire photograph from 1992 depicting mourning Afghan women. The artist covered the photograph with the ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli – a pigment more valuable than gold. The manipulated image can be read as an allegory for one of the many paradoxes of war: beyond any ethical concerns for those who suffer, the camera (e.g. the media) also has an economic interest in the representation of loss.
For some artists, the notion of loss is rather more personal. Indre Serpytyte’s monochromatic photographs depict tightly folded shirts or three neat stacks of paper – the photographs are strongly reminiscent of photography’s capability to document artifacts. Consistently photographed on a black background, the images inadvertently also glorify the banality of these subjects. The viewer wonders, why am I being presented with these shirts or these papers? A visit to Serpytyte’s homepage reveals that this series of photographs, titled A State of Silence, is a response to the sudden and unexplained death of her father who died in a ‘car accident’ in 2001. At the time, Albinas Serpytyte was the Head of Government Security of Lithuania.
Idris Khan’s piece, in which he individually photographed and superimposed every single page from Roland Barthes’ classic book Camera Lucida, alludes to the historically, culturally and socially complex relationship between photography and death. Writing about a photograph of his deceased mother a few months before his very own death, in the book Barthes’ came to the conclusion that death is the ‘eidos’ of photography. In other words, photography operates on the commonly perceived notion that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. While analysing various different photographs reprinted in the book, Barthes’ cherished photograph of his mother, ironically, was not reproduced. As Khan photographed and superimposed the pages from the book, the subjects in the photographs turn into faintly visible ghosts, hovering in between the pages and coming to the surface of the print.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
Foreword to the exhibition catalogue of the Masters in Photography Studies degree show, University of Westminster:
The degree show of this Masters in Photography Studies represents a unique moment in which photographers from different cultural, social, even political backgrounds come together to exhibit their work. Derived from Roland Barthes’ analysis on ‘the very precise space of the encounter between a language and a voice’ in his classic study Image Music Text, the exhibition, as one graduate succinctly put it to me, seeks to investigate the space between image and the imaged, materiality and physicality, and the body in relation to language.
In this exhibition photography is used as a visual method and a form of communication in relation to the histories and theories of the medium. The different backgrounds of the students are thus also represented in the different ways photography is applied to tackle this endeavour: photography is used to document, to record, to preserve, to catalogue, to archive, to investigate, to explore, to retrace, to reveal, to meditate, to experiment, to remember and perhaps even to forget. Behind this long albeit incomplete list belies another far more complex narrative that brought the graduates to study, embrace and also to challenge photography.
Given the variety in the photographs on display, it becomes virtually impossible to find a single common denominator that runs through the exhibition. Perhaps this is a result of photography’s uneasy relationship with genres. Conceptual photography incorrectly implies that photographs from other genres are less conceptual. Snapshot photography dismissively suggests that the photograph was taken without any consideration before or after the ‘snap’. Similarly ambiguous, when does a portrait end and a documentary photograph begin? Many of the photographs in the exhibition seek to defy an easy classification by challenging these very genres.
The title of the exhibition The Voice of the Grain can be seen to reaffirm the notion that a photograph functions within a dialectical relationship between the image and the viewer: apart from referring to Barthes’ notion of the grain as a seed or origin of communication, on a more literal level, the photograph ‘speaks’ from within an infinite number of grains (or pixels) that constitute the overall image. The same way that languages ‘die’ if they are not spoken, photographs depend on the viewer’s gaze to substantiate their existence. In a world of smartphones, the internet and the apparent democratization of photography, emerging photographers of today ironically face the task of making their photographs visible. In this quickly shifting environment, the very concept of photography is also changing. Is a photograph taken by a robot in anyway less of a photograph than that taken by an individual? Is a photograph displayed on a computer screen in anyways less a photograph than a large framed colour print? What are the boundaries of photography? I am looking at the work of a new generation of photographers to help me to find an answer.
For those of you in London, on Friday the 7th of September 2012, from 4 to 6pm, I will participate in a panel discussion that is part of the degree show and expand on the ideas set out above. Other panelists include David Bate, Sophy Rickett, Daniel Rubinstein and Eti Wade. Admission is free though please RSVP to email@example.com. The address is Ambika P3, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS. Here is more information on the talk and the exhibition: http://www.voiceofthegrain.com/Gallery.php
It is a simple, yet a strikingly powerful image: a woman looks at family photographs found in the rubble of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The photographs have been meticulously cleaned and left to dry on clothing pegs in a school gymnasium in the town of Natori, Miyagi prefecture. Survivors are given the opportunity to look at the photographs on display in the hope of identifying friends and family members. In some cases, the photograph will be the only thing that is left behind.
Another photograph by the Russian press photographer Sergey Ponomarev depicts the sheer scale of the collection of photographs, and, by extension, the sheer scale of the disaster. A man is looking at an old family album, so enthralled in the images that he appears to be unaware of the very camera depicting him in the process of looking. In the background, several people can be seen doing exactly the same, sometimes in groups or as individual, trying to come to terms with the images laid out in front of them.
Ponomarev’s photographs are indicative of the complex and troubled relationship between photography and death. In his classic book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes sought to overcome the death of his mother as he analyzes, over and over again, a photograph of her. In one of his most famous quotes, he writes ‘death is the eidos of photography’. In other words, photography operates on the idea that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. It is this tragic and perverse dichotomy between an inanimate and dead object (the photograph) and the sense of a person liveliness in a photograph – a liveliness particularly apparent in family photographs.
Apart from referring to an universally applicable attribute of photography, the hope to find photographs from deceased friends and family members in the school gymnasium of Natori also displays a culturally specific phenomenon. Similar to other Asian cultures such as China and Korea, funerals are usually accompanied by a formal portrait with black rope on the top corners of the image. These photographs of the deceased constitute a crucial aspect in the process of mourning: they are later displayed on or above small Bhuddist shrines (butsudan) kept in most traditional Japanese households. In the school gymnasium of Natori, the survivors’ search for a photograph of family and friends is partially motivated by a spiritual process that subscribes great value to the photographic likeliness of a person.
In contrast to the sterile and composed black and white portraits associated with the funeral procession and the butsudan, the photographs on display in the school gymnasium represent moments of vivacity and liveliness – moments traditionally perceived as worthy of photographic representation. An image by Hong Kong born photographer Vincent Yu can be read as a collage representing significant life stages: amongst several photographs of new-born babies, there are photographs of weddings, sports days, school groups and holidays. In sum, they are the kind of photographs that represent a lived experience, that situate the subject within a community, that communicate what it means to be human.
As the family photographs in the school gymnasium continue to dry on clothing pegs, those who survived are coming to terms with the discrepancy between the tragic loss of human life and the happiness encountered in the image. The press photographs depicting family photographs are thus deeply self-referential: they are photographs about the very materiality of photography, the collective memories produced by photographs and the photograph, perhaps, constituting a source of comfort.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.