Monday, 10 September 2012

Leeds Study Visit : the bit after

SANITY WARNING: very long post...
Image courtesy of Amano Samarpan
Team 2012:  
Amano, Teresa, Fiona, Rob, Helen, Shaun, John, Dave, Paul, Catherine, Jesse and Rob B.
Mark, David, Stan, Tim, Yiann, Eileen, Penny, Bicky, Gilly and Sarah!


I feel I have been surfing on the crest of the Leeds wave since returning home and I'm trying my best to hold on to the enthusiasm as long as I can, clawing at what seemed like an elevated plain of understanding, fearing that at any moment I may slide back to my old, confused and troubled ways. I am liking this inspired feeling and hoping it won't fade too fast...

There were, it transpired, a number of us who were seeking great things of ourselves from this weekend. Search parties were engaged to seek AWOL mojos, reduced strides and absent breakthroughs.  It was, with hindsight, quite a lot to ask of one weekend. Yet in the same breath it shouldn't be underestimated the commitment that twenty individuals made in buying in to this has never happened before, we all opted in 'blindly'...but hey guys...we pulled it off...the first twenty...'trailblazers for the OCA' in Gareth's words!

I have written an article for OCASA about the weekend and how to organise such an event so I don't want to repeat it all here...I will add a link when it is up. This link to a flickr thread I add too as it links to other student reviews from the weekend.

There really was a genuine desire and hunger to enthusiasm and interest in the subject that was intense and contagious. Infact, when we talk enviously of our fellow students in B&M universities, who have the student bar at their disposal and the opportunity for face-face discussions, I suspect rarely will those smoke stained walls bare witness to such involved and interesting conversations...well I am biassed!

And I cannot tell you how valuable and enjoyable being in an environment with fellow students, and indeed tutors, was/is. I didn't know how much I'd missed or needed it until this has really highlighted to me the value of this interaction and I will seek it out more determinedly going forward.

The venue was The New Ellington in Leeds...and I swear to you, I did not know it was a Gin Bar before we arrived...anyway, I'm hear to talk about my other interest...

So anyway, what I have written above feels dated already as it is over a week past and this post still sits here waiting for me to finish this next section which goes on and on - there is almost too much to digest and write down so here are a few points of learning below and I may have to come back with the rest.  

In person
Image used courtesy of Mishka Henner
Less Americains
The presentation by Mishka Henner and indeed Jesse Alexander too, is evidence to me that there really is no substitute for hearing first hand the artist/photographer talk about their work...prior to hearing Mishka speak, the spurious articles and controversial nature of his work left me intrigued but perplexed by the work. But equally you can learn so much about their motivations in creating such work. I have read it elsewhere (Stan's blog I think) about being as inquisitive about the artist as the work itself...what drives such artists, what personality traits do they exhibit and where do their ideas come from. Their motivations are as diverse as their subject but the one underlying factor that seems to be common is uncompromising belief and interest in the subject, as well as dogged determination.  When projects extend, sometimes to years, that passion has to be unwavering, otherwise they will not reach completion...having that much confidence and perseverance in your own concepts is awe-inspiring!!

Photography v Art
Mishka Henner made a distinction between photographers and conceptual artists early on in the presentation. He said in 2009 he shifted to conceptual art turning his back on photo-journalism as he struggled to reconcile the issue of power that photographers have and use. He mentioned the unerring repetition of the subjects photographers are drawn to...usually the impoverished. Artists have a more critical view of the medium and their quest for the truth which he felt more comfortable with.

Joel Coelberg makes reference to this too:
The one thing that seems unique to photography (maybe this is just me not being familiar enough with other art forms) is that its practitioners for the most part are incredibly conservative as far as the medium is concerned....[I could have] asked whether photography will survive the conservatism the vast majority of its own practitioners have come to embrace. I currently doubt it will. 
It is this distinction that is intriguing and in many ways, fundamental. Mishka mentioned on more than one occasion the term Avant Garde. By this I am taking it that he means embarking in practice that is innovative, experimental and ahead of its time. This is reflected in all his most recent work. Astronomical, an encyclopedia represesenting a scale model of the solar system was nothing short of eccentric...and funny!

courtesy of Mishka Henner

Other work such as Less Americains and Collected Portraits he is offering a different view to what photography can mean. In each, he is making us question something that we have taken as a given. Take something away, or add something else to create something is extremely refreshing to feel uncomfortable and feel our boundaries of protocol wobble as what we know is being challenged to its core.

Reflecting on my own work practices, threads of unclarified thought with regards the photographer/artist are not new to me...and may in part explain why my work output is slow and personally unsatisfying for the most part (see Outside in). I don't see myself as a photographer...for me it has always been about being creative and using photography as a means of self-expression, not an end in itself. I have no ambitions to 'be a photographer'.  I have photographed business events, weddings, child portraiture, product shoots...and each time I do, I realise, to my dismay, that another aspect of photography is not for me.

Another issue related to this is that I dislike in my photography what has been easy to achieve. It has no value to me. And I loiter in the regions of my mind that seem to make it impossible for me to create or achieve anything...I like the challenge, the unknown, the what if's, the impossibles...but find it too difficult to wade through.

And this is where I will have to stick my neck out going the point where I may fall flat on my face...again!! I need to break my own shackles from photography, from the traditional genre of landscape and the landscape course if necessary...I want to create...there is no conceptual art photography course. I've been 'landscaping' for ten months now and have very little to show for it. Perhaps by accepting this fact, I might actually start taking some photos. Or is this just an excuse to hide behind? This shift may not necessarily improve my work, but hopefully it may start to flow better and feel less abrasive than it does at the moment.

Now I just need the belief to start something and see it through before the self-doubts kick in...flounder, flounder...

New v Old
I am sensing a dichotomy in trends in photography at the moment between the cutting edge of technology and pushing the digital boundaries like Mishka's work or Duckrabbit's poignant photo-films.  The excerpt from this article Photography after Photography on conscientious crystallises in my mind the challenges we face:
Ironically, it is digital photography that has resulted in the current stasis of the medium. Given the possibilities, it is quite amazing to see how little digital photography has qualitatively changed photography. Quantitatively, oh sure. The number of photographs taken has exploded, especially since there are now cameras in places where there weren’t any before. You wouldn’t have a rotary phone with a camera in it or attached to it. Now, everybody has at least one camera, so we’re all photographers - or so we are being told.
There’s a lot of talk how making photographs has become so much harder given the state of things, given there are cameras everywhere. But then, if you are complaining about that - doesn’t that show the limitations of your own creativity? What can you photograph when every picture has already been taken? Well - isn’t it liberating to know that every photograph has been taken already, so now you can really take your photographs?
It is worth reading the whole article.

Don't you think this gets to the crux of the dilemma for photography students? I have been having so many queries about this in my head...and wish the Leeds weekend was coming up to discuss these takes so long to articulate what you're trying to say in writing. He goes on to say:
In fact, I think that it’s actually in the analog area where artists are producing the most interesting work right now, where artists are attempting to move if not forward then at least sidewards. 
Isn't it just bipolar...with all the technology at our feet, those making progress and turning tail, are heading in to the past, for a different future.  Has it just become too easy for us? Are there too many choices? And you can see this with Mishka Henner's work "no Man's land" where images from google street view were framed in traditional large format dimensions 5x4 because of the values associated with that format of camera or perhaps how the audience reads the context thereof.

courtesy Mishka Henner: No Man's Land
And strangely, having paid little attention to the google street view/earth photographers before Leeds, suddenly I've become aware of a whole raft such as John Rafman and Michael Wolf , amongst others. And shifting the definition too is John Stezaker, who again is an artist who creates art from photographs.

This article by Joerg Colberg, like many of his ruminations, has worked its way through all the fissures of my brain and has really puzzled me...there is one final quote I want to add:
Painting erupted once its burden of depiction was lifted. 
No 'blue sky', 'out of the box' thinking can at the moment, help me circumnavigate this dilemma. What is it that will lift the burden for photography going forward, if indeed there is one.

It is, I think confusing for budding photographers...there is a rich vein of photography heritage and iconic practitioners of the past that have formed a well-trodden path with clear and helpful framework and boundaries within which the genres have formed and many have since walked. Yet at the same time, photography is now a democratic belongs to everybody...and at the other end of the scale, photography has infiltrated the art galleries and is gaining credence as an accepted is really a fascinating time.

Maybe we have to learn it, before we abandon it...

That's it for now...I'll have to come back for a second bite, too much to go at...


  1. Hi Penny - an interesting and thought provoking comment on the weekend. I identify with the 'all subjects have been photographed' sentiment and so often wonder - why bother! As mentioned, maybe this should mean that we can now really take 'our' photographs. This is of course the difficult bit, what are 'our' photographs. And, this is why I muddle around in the doldrums. Thanks and well done for making this event happen with Eileen and others.

  2. You raise very complex issues for yourself here Penny. It must be such a pressure for you - this search for self-expression. I agree with you regarding there being no conceptual photography course (at least with the OCA). That's why, a while ago, I was talking of the value of having a mentor - a concept which got rather shot down.

    I've just begun reading Simon Schama's 'Landscape and Memory' which is a fascinating, literary book - looking at how we interact with landscape, and legends and myths which are ingrained within our relationship with it. I thought of you as I began reading it.


  3. A lot of this we talked about in Leeds I seem to remember; but, like you, I don't seem to remember any answers. Your question "...large format dimensions 5x4 because of the values associated with that format of camera or perhaps how the audience reads the context thereof." It seems to me that the audience doesn't read anything into 5X4, however whilst some photographers possibly might, the creating artist almost certainly does, it is imbued with meaning as far as I can see - worthwhile or otherwise. As for analogue vs digital - a year ago I was sure about the difference between the two, The latter having an ephemeral nature - much in the way you consider the easy as valueless - and the former vested with craft, thought and (therefore?) meaning. It isn't that bipolar for me now, it isn't about the moment the shutter is pressed, it is about how the venture is constructed, the processes designed to deliver it and the delivery itself. Anne has suggested elsewhere a support group called FAA and a communication group is something else some of us talked about - I still think that's a good thing - remember..." my name is John..I am a photographer"?

  4. You know others are struggling with similar questions, Penny; you've referred to my own in your post. Like you, I identify belief, interest, and determination as typical characteristics in 'successful' (a term open to debate, of course) artists. I would add single-mindedness - a characteristic of success that I have identified in many people I've met in the business world over the last 20 or so years. And, especially in the creative world, you might add something akin to obsession. I wonder whether artists make art because they have to. They cannot not do it - and that's also why they keep on doing it. They are never satisfied.

    I've looked at the Colberg article - interesting, and he raises profound and valid questions - but if I'm right, that art is created by artists who have to create art, then the creativity simply goes on, and our own solution is probably (as Colberg says) to make our own photographs (images?) (art?), using whatever tools are available. Just do it. See where it takes you. Push the boundaries. All the things that the likes of Peter & Clive encourage.

    Then I have to confess that I'm not yet following my own advice! 'My name is Stan ... I am a ...' (If only we knew the end of the sentence ...!)

  5. Thanks Doug, and yes deciding what to invest our efforts in is certainly difficult and why we all end up in the doldrums more than we care to mention!! Perhaps you can make the next residential, it certainly beats away the doldrums.

    Catherine, I am tempted by your book recommendation, but keep purchasing audio recorder followed by a few books since we got back from must stop myself!! I'm trying to recall the mentor idea of yours...recently I have wondered whether OCA could garner 'mentors' for want of a better word, such as gallerists/ezine editors/professional photographers with the purpose of forging closer links between academia and 'industry' more closely with talks/online discussion forums etc. I think this would help ground us and keep OCA in the fore of the minds of 'key influencers'. Is this the type of thing you were thinking too?

    And John, yes we talked endlessly about this, which I enjoyed immensely...but the weekend has only spawned further enquiries or perhaps greater need to understand them!! It's tiring I know...I'll shut up soon, possibly!! I very much like your description about the process and I think this approach applies to analogue or digital...however, I still think the analog approach by its very nature promotes the need for greater consideration of all the technical requirements, creative decisions and the print as a product more than digital which is far more forgiving, as I know to my cost!! I have my feet in both camps.

    Stan, what you say is absolutely true and I should let the forces of my creativity work their merry way...and I will try harder at this...I think I need to push the boundaries and just edge back a little so it is achievable. But I think part of me must enjoy this analysis too. I find myself trying to work through this like a sudoko puzzle. Whether it helps with the art...probably not...but I'm left after Leeds, swimming with thoughts and enquiries. Ann mentioned the FAA...think I'll join the circle too!

  6. Clumsy wording...I am the queen of that, I've got past caring. I used to make a very, very great deal of effort in how I worded things and STILL get misunderstood.

    On the fine art side though - the course i did before elsewhere was mostly teaching me how to develop my own creative process and follow up my ideas there was no technical input hardly at all. There was a lot about ideas and communication and research, nothing at all about self-expression. Maybe because concentrating on your own ideas and creative process automatically leads to self expression without your having to worry about it, it just happens as you follow up your own feelings and ideas - anyway even if it doesn't at least some work gets done! I dont' know about that really. But it starts with an idea - vague maybe and not always verbal, and then you just work on it by making work and researching etc, the more you work on it the more it develops and gets refined and engrosses you. In some ways it doesn't matter what the idea is because the process of working on it and being engaged with it takes care of it coming out well. When I said about strategies....I meant strategies for getting over the times that creative process gets stuck. I know our tutors know about creative process (but they might call it something else) as when we've discussed this kind of thing they understand what i'm saying, although sometimes i have to reexplain as I don't always make sense. People sometimes assume I mean what kind of camera and processing I'm using or something similar. What I mean is really my own conceptualisation of how I can work artistically in a sustainable way. Other people might do it differently, I noticed on Stan's blog he was interested in other artists motivations etc and i think that's a similarity I have with him (although i couldn't post on his blog)

    Anyway the b&m place was equally as frustrating as studying the other way around but for totally different reasons. There I had enormous pressure to make installations and I don't want to make installations. So I didn't. Having to justify what I was doing when it wasn't what they wanted me to do was a very frequent occurance.

    My experience is that for me the process of making conceptual art is no different right at its base as the process of making photographs so whereas in the B&M place I studied I was forever having to teach myself practical skills Here I find I'm needing to teach myself my own version of a creative process that allows me to go on working whatever situation I'm in and allows that the work I make is as good and developed as it can be in the distance learning situation and timescales involved. That can be adapted to any kind of work later as can many of the skills.

    I'm very conceptual in how I think about my work and the biggest frustration I've had is in knowing that people don't know what i'm on about - I dont think the art dept did as the conceptual side of things was frowned on so much there and almost every week someone seemed to be being unpleasant about it without understanding what it was about. It has got better lately

    But this is why i switched to photography because I have a lot of faith in Clive and Peter and my new tutor also knows exactly what i'm talking about which is very encouraging because half the time I'm not sure I do :-D

    Anyway that's my thoughts on it, I would have liked to come to the residential but thought I'd better not as I didn't (at the time) feel I should as i'm on the creative arts pathway and don't feel like a proper photographer. Obviously what i'm saying here is just my own view on the issue raised about fine art and being conceptual.


    PS sorry for massive rambles, not sure what's the matter with me today!

  7. Hi Anne, thank you so much for commenting...sorry it's taken a bit to respond...I've been mulling it over. You have a wealth of experience in the field of art, it is always interesting to hear your point of view, so please no apologies for rambling!!

    With regards your B&M experience, I am very surprised there was little on self-expression and also the prejudice against conceptual art. But I guess art is subjective, so much is down to the individual teacher/lecturer/tutor. Self-expression, I suspect, as you say, is implicit in the learning process of research and experimentation. I also think that it is a case of the grass looking greener in a B&M environment when it perhaps isn't. I guess it's trying to recreate that fertile environment for creativity which is difficult to cultivate through the OCA experience and long-distance learning. I must admit, I underestimated the value in brainstorming ideas before this weekend...and do see the strength in this. But perhaps one of the advantages of the long-distance learning is not being overtly 'led' by your B&M university as you experienced and allowing us to discover our own direction.

    In terms of how ideas and work is formed...I think what you describe is a logical progression with an evolving plan, plenty of practice and a direction of travel. And it is certainly how my ideas develop..although I have found that many of the ideas for me either don't get beyond just that or I start to develop them, even refine them, but there are 'leaks' in the system. I do become hugely engrossed in the whole process, but then if I'm disappointed with the work at whatever stage its at, I reach a hiatus and the work stops or I lose the enthusiasm to go further, convincing myself the idea wasn't so great after all...unresolved and eventually superseded by another idea.

    And that is where the work of Mishka was fascinating because it showed just how much dedication it requires to see things through to a conclusion...and to have that self belief. Perhaps that comes with time, as you make more work and gain more confidence in your own work. How do you overcome 'stuck' times Anne?

    I too have a lot of faith in Clive and Peter and a few others too...and from where I'm sitting Anne, it seems you have a very clear direction, based on a huge wealth of knowledge, with considered inventiveness. You can also define yourself being conceptual...I'm not sure I'm able yet to say that yet about myself...but the more work I do, the more drawn I am to it and the more instinctive it feels to me.

    And why are you not a proper far as I can see, anything goes in art...and increasingly photography too! Which by all accounts is good news for us both!!

  8. You're very kind:-) I actually have no idea what i'm doing but I also like it that way! I have to be a bit inventive because I find I just can't do the assignments exactly in the way they're written, so whatever i do starts off purely so that I can motivate myself to make the work then it sometimes gets a life of its own. I don't overly worry about how it turns out as I'm quite happy just to have done something.....

    Have you thought there's a very strong possibility you're being far too hard on your own work and ideas. I have to not be critical about mine as if I am I can't do anything so I just concentrate on making the work I'm doing and the process I use to do it suit me as best I can. Then take everything i can from the resulting work and feedback and move on till next time.

    I don't exactly know how I overcome stuck times - the last one got sorted out by other people's input which got rid of an idea I had stuck in my mind which was stopping me doing anything. The first problem i had was working out why I was stuck in order to be able to discuss it, I don't find that very easy. Also going to a talk by Mark Power and hearing how he works was good because I realised if he'd been given my assignment he might have needed to interpret it too! Then that got me past the feeling of frustration and I felt able to do the work I was supposed to be doing by questioning the assumptions in the course material. As it turned out they weren't neccessarily what I first thought they were - anyway by questioning their validity in the work I'm doing - I am at least doing some work and making up my own mind about it for myself.

    You know you were saying about one idea superseeding another, in fine art one strategy i had was to work on more than one idea at a time and sometimes over time they converge into something else, also I can alternate between them if I'm feeling a bit ughhh on one thing.

    Anyway as I said I'm sure you're being far too hard on yourself - I wonder if we were in a b&m unit we'd have so much time pressure we'd just have to put forward where we'd got to and get used to the idea of doing that regardless ?


  9. Hi Anne...just come across these videos on conceptual contemporary photography which are worth a watch...some of it I could really relate to my own practice and other bits where I couldn't.

  10. That's very interesting I've watched once and bookmarked to watch again later. Thanks Penny.