Being Opinionated About Photographs

Okay, so this morning at university I was shown several pieces of work from a variety of photographers. It made an impact somewhat, so rattling around up there is something I want to say. Not sure what though – I’ll just investigate and see what happens.

Richard Billingham

Right, before we go anywhere, this stuff immediately relates back to a conversation I had with a fellow student last week. During my induction week, I went on a trip to the Tate Modern in London. After the visit, I had difficulty deciding whether it was any good or not.

On the one hand, a few classic artists such as Pollock and Picasso were lying around, which were (of course) very good. Gerhard Richter was the ‘big discovery’, and also made an impression. However, on the other hand, a line was crossed. A frameless mirror, and a blank canvas with a slash through it started it off. How are these things possibly art? It was the whole ‘un-made bed’ argument all over again. One room just had a video of a naked boxer, his genitals far too close to the camera for comfort. Art?

I asked a friend of mine about it. During the subsequent discussion, an issue was raised: “What is art, and what is a statement?” Art can be considered as a statement about what life was like at the times they were made. Is that why art from the middle ages is so impressive, and art of today so self-indulgent? It is true, we are, as a society, rather self-indulgent. Could this be why people have gotten away with putting rather simplistic things in such a respected gallery? I referred to The Sex Pistols and Mozart. Both popular in their days, both creating music. One was art, one was a statement.

billingham

Leaving that argument for another time, I return to photographs and Richard Billingham, who, during the mid-90s, took photos of his family in their everyday lives, perhaps in an attempt to create ‘sill life’. Art? Statement? Funnily enough, Richard Billingham sits right on the line for me. It’s not exactly ‘a mirror’ (which I try to describe as best I can without using the word ‘crap’), but then, it’s not quite Picasso either. But it is very possibly Pollock – splashing paint on a blank canvas, painting bits, calling it art. And for some reason, it works. By saying it works, I mean I sat comfortably and looked at the photos. I could see why it was good – but personally, it was lacking the ‘escapism’ feel that attracts me to art.

Erwin Olaf

Olaf

This was quite a nice one. The photos we looked at were part of the set ‘Grief’, which generally were designed to show the emotion of the title. I felt ‘isolation’ myself, but everybody has had, or has got, something to be down about, so I guess everyone can in some way relate to these photographs. The photos depict little more than people mooching in similar rooms, the colours draining into one another by way of computer graphics. All contrast has been removed, so we are left with a rather bland photo of a depressed person. How fun – but wait.

There is a certain beauty to the piece, more so than just a mere sense of empathy to the nameless character. The rooms are always well-lit, giving a heavenly feel to the photos. Also, every photo has been posed with rather good-looking models, which make for easy viewing, males and females alike.

William Eggleston

Ohhh, it’s a brothel! And the other photo was similar to ‘Grief’, again with a nameless character that everyone may see a part of inside them.

Lucinda Devlin

Remember the naked boxer. Bad taste. Here again we push the realms of taste, but in a whole other way. Photographs of electric chairs, where people have been, and will continue to be, executed. It makes me wonder – if people were killed by decapitation, and there was a big guillotine with dried blood on it, would that have the same effect? Probably not exactly. Art can push the realms of taste – think Damien Hirst and his ‘cow’ piece (strangely omitted from the Tate Modern). Yes, of course I’d go to see it if it was there, bad taste or not. But regarding electric chairs, generally I can’t help but wonder… haven’t you got anything else better to photograph?

Tom Hunter

An artist who took photos of all his squatter-student-friends back when there were plenty of houses to go around. Namely that photo of the woman reading her eviction notice. I found the story of how everyone managed to keep their homes more interesting than the actual photographs, but hey, I’m a student living in poverty anyway, so perhaps some of the effect is lost. Give it a few years, I may have to come back and re-think this one.

Oh Yeah, Before I Forget –> Paul Smith

If you’re going to put your name up there, you put your chips on the table (sir). However, I must say I’ll try and be as unbiased as I can. After all, this IS the guy that got me into this university, way back in January when I came over clutching a relatively empty portfolio with not a lot else but mobile phone photos in it. I thus, by chance, got interviewed by the head of the photography course, who must have, to some degree, liked what I had. Some things are just meant to be, hm?

ANYWAY

Smith

Well, the first thing I can say is that these photos representing an ‘average’ drunken night out were the ONLY photos that made me laugh. No depressed and isolated figure in a bleak room. No eviction notice. No electric chair. Just happy times (though it’s debatable what is meant by the term ‘happy’ there). I think it would be far to ‘deep’ of me to say that there is an air of despair about how wasted the youth of today is, or the way these matters are portrayed in these photos. Is it vulgar? Yes it is. But I am a student and I found it hilarious. So there.

There was some clever stuff done on the computers, as evidently the night portrayed involved several versions of the same man. This added a surreal edge to proceedings, which I always like. I did see, on many Open Day trips, university-level photographs depicting drunken nights out hanging up around the media areas. I thought they were pretty much all rubbish, but that’s just me. I’m glad to say that I think these photos are much better – and to be honest, I’d be very worried if they weren’t!

Hannah Starkey

Starkey

This was a genuinely great idea. I remember being 17… not a lot happening. I’d have loved to have been in a photo shoot! Again we’re hit with the ‘depression’ (or should that be ‘serious’) side of things. However this time, also captured in the photo perhaps is an innocence of youth. A blissful unawareness or ignorance of what is to come in these people’s lives. Back in my days of hanging around on Nottingham square and being all ’emo’, I remember the people I met and all the aspirations and dreams (and hormones) flying about the place. It was a wonderful time (though not actually at the time). I take a fair bit from these photographs, but only because I can relate to the real people in them, in a very nostalgic kind of way.

Jeff Wall

Hoorah! Surrealism! The lighting department in John Lewis would have been cheaper, but hoorah, anyway! Yes, I do like people who make weird things in still images (gotta love Dali). It’s a shame it costs so much to set up in photography though – it makes me feel I am ignorant of cheap and cheerful reality (oh wait, I am). Yeah, if you want realism, go outside and live it. In the meantime, light bulbs!

Wall

It is a fairly interesting photo. We have a guy sitting with his back to us, busy doing something or other (obviously not tidying). The light bulbs (or indeed the clothes) are not explained. Again it is bleak. Again, it shows isolation. But it adds surrealism, which means that, at least for me, there’s stuff to actually look at.

Gregory Crewdson

Whilst on the subject of expensive sets, this guy has also racked up the cash in favour of surreal photos, again which I like. Both Wall and Crewdson’s works have a dream-like quality, which might not make you think about any one situation or person within the photograph, but rather think about the photograph as a whole. Works for me at least. It makes me think about what I feel, what I think I’m supposed to feel, and why there’s anything at all to do with emotions amidst the random imagery.

Andreas Gursky

Here are some good photos of architecture. Here we have surrealism on a budget, and it works rather well. This work is all about having the creative eye – something I sincerely hope I have myself. You’re just walking along one day, and you see something, and you take a photo, and then it’s gone (and thus forever in the photo). Andreas Gursky must have been to a lot of hotels in his time. It must have taken him ages to set those colour schemes up as well. As for making an impression… a lot of it reminds me of Tetris to be honest. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I do feel rather detached from the piece, almost like it’s as much a piece of building as the wall it’s hanging on. Certainly interesting to look at though.Gursky

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2 Responses to “Being Opinionated About Photographs”

  1. The light bulbs are explained by the title of the photo. If you read the ending to the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, you’ll understand what’s going on. Contextually it’s more triumphant than bleak.

  2. Ahhh, I’ve just read about it on tate.org. Contextually, Jeff Wall’s photo does have an uplifting message about the people overlooked in society after all lol. But I just meant it was bleak in a literal sense, with WB and all. It seems a lot of photos (especially ones from this lecture) deal with the feelings and emotions of isolation and loneliness.

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