During 2015, I have been privileged to have been involved with The Lightlines Project, a two year visual arts initiative co-ordinated by Gill Hobson. For Lightlines I have been examining my relationship with found photographic images, and appropriation art.
In May 2015 I contributed to the Lightlines Conference, which was held at Grimsby Minster. The other speakers were Gill Hobson, David Cotterrell and Lou Hazelwood. In January / February 2016 The Abbey Road Gallery (Grimsby) will host an exhibition of works by the above artists, and a Lightlines publication will be produced as an accompaniment.
Further information about Lightlines can be found here: http://abbeywalkgallery.com/lightlinesproject.php
Below is my submitted text for the publication in which I endeavour to explore some of the concerns and issues related to appropriation art.
In September 2012, the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, an award set up to reward the contribution of contemporary photographers to the photographic medium in Europe, was awarded to a collagist – John Stezaker.
The competition, established in 1996 and sponsored by the Deutsche Börse Group since 2005, is regarded as one of the most important events in photography’s annual calendar. Previous winners of the £30,000 prize have included photographic heavyweights such as Luc Delahaye (2005), Paul Graham (2009) and Sophie Ristelhueber (2010).
For some, Stezaker’s success was surprising because he is not a photographer in a traditional sense of the word, which begged a question: how did a non-photographer come to win such a high-profile prize?
I am interested in Stezaker’s work because I see connections to my own art practice, via his use of appropriated photographs. I regularly use found photographs in my work and sometimes make ‘authorship’ its theme. Like Stezaker, I do not regard myself as a photographer although very often, my work is about photography – its diversity and heritage in particular.
The piece Bradford, Shipley (illustrated below) makes use of a photograph that I found on the Internet. It is grainy, poorly exposed, badly composed, lacking contrast and entirely typical of its type. It illustrates local interest in the major developments that were radically altering the city centre at the time it was taken – the 1960s.
This amateur photographer, like so many others, was not concerned with aesthetics – and was simply aiming to produce a visual record of the newly changed city. Ever flexible, photography accommodated the requirement.
In part, I selected this image to acknowledge the breadth and ubiquity of amateur photography in Britain. It fulfilled my needs by illustrating photography’s heritage, as well as its diversity. It also helped me to pass comment on the wider heritage of the city, about the removal of its rural and Victorian past, and about Modernism.
Stezaker is similarly interested by photography. He invents new (autonomous) meanings for his found photographs by slicing, cropping or juxtaposing with them with others. I find his process of adding and/or removing elements fascinating, because the resulting works retain their photographic familiarity. They resonate with their past, and with photography’s history. Writing in The Guardian newspaper in 2012, photo-critic Sean O’Hagan, described his work as photography about photography.
During the last 12-15 years, there has been a wholesale transformation in the way that photography is received and treated by British art instutions. Until 2003, the Tate Gallery neither collected, nor exhibited work by ‘photographers’. The exhibition Cruel and Tender represented an important turning point because up until then, the Tate had maintained a curious position in which they would collect work by artists that used photography in their work, but not art works by photographers.
Since then there has been a significant increase in the number of publications about photography and in the number of photographs being exhibited in art galleries.
However, we know that photography’s shift from being the conceptual (outsider) art of the 1970s (Keith Arnatt, Gilbert & George), to the centralised position it occupies today has taken forty years. Further, if we take 1826 as the year of photography’s invention, (and remember the problems the Pictorialists encountered as they strove for recognition as artists) then we may see just how late photography’s invitation to the party has been.
But it would be churlish to focus on the past. We know that (thanks in part to the Tate’s revision of its collecting policy on photography) the debate about whether or not photography is art is largely over, and Stezaker’s work shows how important photography’s complex heritage and diversity of application has on current practice and thought.
This heritage, this diversity, this complexity, this baggage is photography’s ‘fundemental’. It is this baggage from which photography is wrought and which defines its relationship to the world. Its baggage is its essence: it is its language.
Many have attempted to describe photography’s language; but it is evasive and slippery. The construction and communication of photographic meaning is a complicated matter – due in no small way to its ambiguous relationship with reality, truth and evidence.
Many artists (Pop artists in particular) have embraced photography, often for it’s ability to self reference and critique the mass-produced (photographic) imagery of material culture. Appropriation art also has it’s own long history (remember Duchamp and his Readymades) and both acknowledge of the impact of mass production on visual culture.
Duchamp’s famous Readymade, the signed urinal entitled Fountain, confirms that an appropriated object can be considered to be art, and a minimal intervention like the addition of a signature and date (R.Mutt, 1917 in this example) can seal the deal. Thus, I’m led to a question about photography, and my own art practice: whether an unatributed (orphaned) photograph that has been appropriated and reprinted, can be claimed and exhibited under the name of its finder?
Further, I want to know whether I feel that the simple act of collecting images (a long held personal preoccupation) can consitute art practice in its own right.
In short: if I collect and then re-print anonymous (found) photographs, without cuts, juxtapositions, added text, drawn-on details or signatures, can I regard myself as an artist?
Below is a found photograph – a poor quality, unattributed, non-professional image (originally on 35mm slide) of a stately home, which I have appropriated. I have added nothing to this beautiful, amateurish image, which speaks so eloquently about a popular experience of photography. It displays lovely bleached colours, but I wonder if should I feel obliged to alter it in some way, to make it more ‘mine’? This image and the questions it raises encompasses my dilemma. For me, the found image is sufficient and needs no further additions – I like it as it is – and want to share its beauty and allow it to represent the photography, and the familiarity we feel for the medium.
John Stezaker has stated that he believes that collecting can be regarded as art practice in its own right. He suggests that this is because the act of appropriating itself involves disassociating works from their original contexts and/or the intentions of their (previous) originator. For Stezaker, this act of disassociation is itself transformative.
Stezaker investigates the changes which occur when photographs are disconnected from their original referents and re-presented in new contexts. I share his interest, because despite their familiarity, photographs are contructed from a dense and complicated series of signifiers that reflect the ideologies of society and culture. Much has been written about the way photography communicate meaning, often with regard to truth and reality because photographs are complex texts, which both reflect and interact with the world, but are never neutral.
Theorists like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes are well known for discussing the complexities of photography’s language. To acknowledge that photography has a specific method of communication, derived from its diversity and history, is to recognises a difference, and whilst photography professionals are familiar with this hypothesis, others find it far fetched. Who can blame them? Explaning the ‘difference’ between Stezaker’s work and that of his contemporaries: Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter or John Baldessari for example, can be a challenge.
For photography to be about photography, it needs to articulate ideas about the current and historic social meaning of the medium. Many factors affect photography’s meaning, but especially important is its context. Every context in which photographs are found have their own conventions and heritage, which affect the way the images are understood (think of newspapers, magazines, family albums, junk shops and galleries, for example). The format of the photograph also affects meaning, because we also have different expectations for different types of photographs: whether large or small, black and white or colour, 35mm slide transparency, digital, daguerrotype, salt print, lantern slide or carte de visite….
But photographs are ambiguous in another way: they are both objects, and representations, and despite their long standing role as evidence, they have a complex relationship with truth. Photographs are never literal. They are not copies, or even fragments of reality; they alter, change and mediate it. They are unreliable and they only really represent the aesthetic, ideological or political point of view of the photographer. They freeze time and separate moments from their original contexts. Often they show things which no longer exist and very often (as Roland Barthes explains in Camera Lucida), they picture the dead.
Explaining photography is difficult. Explaining the phase photography about photography is also tricky but in his book The Nature of Photographs, Stephen Shore offers help by describing the qualities which all photographs have in common, which form photography’s grammar, and allow meaning to emerge. Shore says that the boundaries of the photograph, determined by its edges, separate the photograph from the rest of the world and bind the photograph to itself – by separating what is in the picture, from what is not. A photograph, he says, is not a simply small part of the larger world. Instead, it is whole and contained. It is flat, static, bound and still – even in digital form; its meaning is determined by its context, colour, tonal range, frame, point of focus, vantage point and the compositional choices made by the photographer. The specific moment that the photographer chooses to press the shutter creates frozen time, which itself generates new meaning, by cutting across time[i].
For me, the concept of photography’s ‘frozen time’ is irresistible. Its complex and sometimes ambiguous references to reality, truth, history, family, mass culture, personal life, friends and so on is also fascinating. Its flatness, stillness and often its separatedness (from its subject / referent / original creator) is compelling because at once photography is real and unreal. It is an object and a non-object. It is a historical document and a subjective comment: it is trusted, trustworthy and untrustworthy.
Like Stezaker, I make work which is about photography and in so doing, as I find and sift through anonymous, undated and sometimes damaged photographs, identify the ones I like, scan them and print them up big, I am regularly brought up short and forced to ask a question: … is this art? And if so, is it mine?
[i] Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs: A Primer (London and New York: Phaidon, 2007)