Rework of Assignment 4 : Final Version

Rework of Assignment 4 following tutor feedback

Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to visit Oxford as referred to in my response to tutor feedback here . However, I have now reworked the Assignment in line with my tutor’s suggestions and it can be read below. A printed version will be included in my Assessment package and a copy will be uploaded to my Google Drive.

Catherine Banks 507005 Context and Narrative Assignment 4 final version

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Response to Tutor Feedback on Assignment 4

I have added comments (in blue italics) to the feedback form and attach it here as a PDF. Response to Feedback CatherineBanks507005-AS04

Overall, I was pleased to know that the essay had been well received, that I had evidenced, ‘a very good standard of critical engagement’ and ‘…. overall knowledge base evidenced within this essay is noted as being exceptionally strong’.

My tutor commented on studum and punctum and this was a good reminder on the individuality of the ‘punctum’ and how, in most respects this response is beyond the photographer’s control.

I do accept his comments regarding the limited range of resources used, (apart from my email communication with Joanna Vestey), even though my tutor thought I evidenced an interesting selection of references, including the video clips of Professor Smith (the Director). I was aware of the limited range at the time and did ensure that, at least, the references were from official websites. I also accessed the book published by the Ashmolean Museum and Vestey’s “Afterwords” on p. 39.

Apart from the limit on word count, another aspect was my uncertainty on how far to go in researching the background context of the photograph – the history of the Museum and what was happening at the actual time when Vestey made the photograph. My tutor was right in pointing to comments I had made regarding my thoughts on the building itself and I will add an additional note to the essay concerning my researches on when the Museum was built.

I emailed Joanna Vestey a link to the essay and she sent her congratulations on it, which was pleasing. I intend to visit Oxford before formal Assessment when, hopefully, I will be able to visit her studio, see the prints and talk with her. Hopefully this will then lead to the writing of a follow-up piece. It would be good as well to look at the series as a whole and how the images relate to each of the institutions.

My tutor’s advice on preparing Assignment 5 have been noted.

11th January 2016

 

 

 

Research and Preparation for Assignment 4

In the feedback for Assignment 3 my tutor suggested I have a look at the work of Joanna Vestey (Custodians) and Andy Freeberg (Guardians). I think this was to encourage me to look in more detail at placement of subject in the frame as a follow-on from my assignment work. He also suggested later that I might use one of these as a subject (amongst other photographers mentioned) for Assignment 4. I looked at both series which are similar in intent, except with locations in very different places and with different intentions.

Andy Freeberg,

Andy Freeberg was born in New York City, and now lives in the San Franciso Bay area. He has created several series centring on the Art world – Sentry large entry desks in galleries , serving as barriers , with only the head of the ‘desk sitter’ visible as a human presence and Art Fare – the art fairs where dealers are in plain view talking with prospective purchasers or working on their technology. He refers to these situations as ‘….. living dioramas, where the art world plays itself’. There is a sense of cynicism about his statements – well at least to me. Both these series were taken in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York.

Guardians is different. The series was shot in the art museums of Russia and he directs our gaze to the women who sit in the galleries watching-over the pieces of art. Instead of the coolness and distance portrayed of the Chelsea NY galleries there is the vibrance and colour of the Russian Art Museums, and the ‘guardians’, although small in the frame, are distinctive, with the expressions on their faces, dressed as they are in their own choice of outfits and colours, and their seated posture. They stand out, which means people will notice them and know they are being watched.

Joanna Vestey 

Joanna Vestey has an MA in Anthropology and Development from the School of Oriental Studies, London in addition to her studies in Photography at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (now incorporated into the University for the Creative Arts) and Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem. Her series Custodian looks at different subject matter from that of Greenberg– the relationship between the institutions of Oxford and their custodians in a dual sense – within each institution and between institutions. Colours and tones are more muted, human figures seem more distant and, more often than not, their clothes are a similar hue. The title of the series and Vestey’s artist statement invites us to look at the relationship between the institutions and the chosen Custodian – all of whom have different roles within them, some roles being named and others not. Her interest is in multiple time periods and how they can be expressed by a single image, ‘……. how permanence and transience can be seamlessly juxtaposed within the relationship of a custodian to the space they work in’.

Joanna Vestey’s website displays fourteen of the images. Costodians was exhibited at the Oxford Photography Festival during September and October 2014 . There was a further Exhibition during 2015 at the Ashmolean Museum with a book  published by Ashmolean Publications. The book contains 31 plates, with a Foreword by Dr X. A. Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum. In his first paragraph he writes ‘Athough we may fret about today we know our most profound responsibilities are to yesterday and tomorrow; preserving the past for the audiences of the future’ (p. 7 2015). There is also an essay Oxford : The Dark Interior by J. Russell Roberts (p. 9 , 2015), who is a Reader in Photography at the University of South Wales, that appraises the series as a whole and also comments on the relationship of the colleges of Oxford with photography. Joanna Vestey writes her Afterwords at the end of the book (p. 89, 2015). I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed in the book because I don’t think it is large enough, at 23.1×28.5 cm, to show these large scale prints at their very best. I am comparing it here with Peter Marlow’s book the English Cathedral (2013) which is 35.1 x 28.7 cm.

The colours, tones and use of light in the overall series reminded me of the works of Thomas Struth  and Candida Höfer, considering placement of people in the space, their relative smallness in relation to the frame, or absence of them. In an interview with BJP  Vestey herself refers to Höfer’s  monograph Architecture of Absence and the metaphysical aspects of empty buildings where you are dancing with ghosts. I felt curious about the process of the series itself. How did Vestey plan and organise it; what networks did she use; what was the effect of having her subjects chosen for her; how did the institutions choose; who chose; what was in their minds at the time? Indeed, what did the subjects think about being chosen and why were some just named custodian? So many questions that I knew couldn’t be answered because the focus was on only one photograph.

Choice of Photograph for Analysis

I decided to choose one Joanna Vestey’s photographs, rather than a photograph from Andy Freeberg’s Guardians for two main reasons, I thought that I would have more understanding of the culture of Oxford than that of Russia, which, for only a 1000 word essay, would prevent me from wandering too widely in my research. Secondly my eyes were drawn from the first to a particular photograph and I wanted to explore why that had happened

I had done a lot of reading around analysing photographs, see here and here and there are so many different strategies available and categories, approaches, theories to use. I decided to await my reaction to the specific photograph I had chosen. Firstly I emailed Joanna Vestey via her website on 2nd November to ask for permission to download the image for the Assignment and she agreed the same day. Subsequently she also offered to show me the final works but I was not able to do so at this stage due time available to complete the Assignment and her own work schedule. I would still like to visit her studio though to see the photographs in the future.

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Professor Paul Smith, Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History
© Joanna Vestey

It was the foregrounded figure of the dinosaur that called out to me as a punctum in the whole series. An obvious one at this point because of connotations with dinosaurs and large, cumbersome institutions. Having written that though I realise that someone from another country/culture might not experience that pull, so that immediately takes me to context and culture. The caption is factual and brief. The effect of this lack of textual narrative (apart from the relationship of custodian to institution) was to take me into the photograph itself for visual information.

My analysis of the photograph is in the Assignment here so I will not repeat it in this reflection. At first I had thought I might analyse the photograph in terms of Barrett’s suggested new six categories for sorting photographs (p. 63, 2006) and the series certainly fits into Descriptive, Explanatory. I wasn’t sure regarding Interpretative, although, having analysed the photograph I realise that the way it is composed lends itself to subjective interpretation. What I did find was that the way I approached the analysis was looking at its contextual information (ibid, p. 106). I was briefly comparing and contrasting with other photographers (as I have above) before concentrating on the internal context of the formal elements (ibid, p. 26) and describing and then interpreting what I was seeing. Seeing something unexpected in the image – how the objects were grouped and the scaffolding – led me to seek further information not available in the photograph itself. It was at that point that I experienced a dilemma, with only 1000 words available how far would/could I go because, here I was moving away from the photography into social and cultural concerns regarding the function of museums , history and funding? In the event I decided to briefly refer to this.

I enjoyed the analysis and exploring the connotations. To some extent I did wander off into looking for more information on Dr Paul Smithconservation and funding issues. There is an interesting video included in a report on a meeting held in November 2013 that discussed whether or not natural history collections were the poor relations of the museum world in terms of being funded. I did manage to contain my researches though.

Further thoughts

I enjoyed the analysis and exploring and interpreting the connotations that arose for me. I was intrigued by how this two-dimensional image drew me in to explore the photograph as if I was actually there and I think that the formal elements in the photograph contributed to this. This was a very good example of how one photograph can tell a story because there is such a wealth of visual information to explore. It has led me on to think about narrative – how the individual elements in the frame acted as relay and anchor as my eyes travelled the frame and stopped to reflect at various points.

Another aspect that occurred to me was, if it wasn’t for the Director in his modern suit, how would I know when this photograph was taken because it was history I was looking at. I opted for calling him ‘Director’ rather than by his name because I think he was standing as representative of all previous Directors and their care for the Museum.

I still have those unanswered questions about the overall series and it would be good to obtain some answers.

I have also since thought a lot about history and its role in all cultures carrying the stories of us as people, groups, nations and reinforcing cultural norms and expectations. How one of the first things that those waging war might do is to destroy the books and historical artefacts of previous cultures as has happened recently in Syria.Thinking about the dinosaur (and the dodo that also resides in the Museum) why do we gaze upon these whilst killing off so many species of animals over the centuries and continuing to do so now as some struggle to survie. What does the dinosaur represent for us?

References

Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images 4th Edition, NY McGraw-Hill,
Marlow, P. (2013) the English Cathedral, London, Merrell Publishers Ltd
Vestey, J; Sturgis, Dr A, Roberts, R (2015) Custodians, Oxford Ashmolean Museum Publications 

http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/media/global/wwwadminoxacuk/localsites/estatesdirectorate/documents/conservation/University_Museum.pdf (Accessed on 6 December 2015)
http://andyfreeberg.com/index.html (Accessed on 6 December 2015)
http://andyfreeberg.com/guardians.html (Accessed on 6 December 2015)
http://aperture.org/shop/architecture-of-absence (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/joanna-vestey-custodians/ (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.museums.ox.ac.uk/aspire/blog/crap-attic (Accessed on 4 December 2015)
http://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/members/oxmuseum/ (Accessed on 4 December 2015)
http://thomasstruth32.com/bigsize/photographs/museum_photographs_1/index.html (Accessed on 4 December 2015)
http://www.joannavestey.com (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.joannavestey.com/galleries/custodians (Accessed on 6 December 2015)
https://www.metroimaging.co.uk/joannevesteycustodiansattheoxfordphotographyfestival2014 (Accessed on 6 December 2015)

 

 

Assignment 4 : A picture is worth a thousand words

 

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Professor Paul Smith, Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History
© Joanna Vestey 2015

This photograph is from Custodians a series made by Joanna Vestey 2012-15 (1)(2). In her Artist’s Statement Vestey quotes author Jan Morris writing about Oxford as forming ‘a national paradigm’, and states that she wanted to explore this structure further and, in particular ,what could be revealed by examining the relationship between the Oxford institutions making up that structure and the individuals that occupied them.’ The series was intended to be ‘A celebration of the spaces and particularly the role of the Custodians’ with two criteria – the spaces photographed should be in Oxford and each institution should select an individual who would be seen within them as a ‘Custodian’. (Vestey, 2015:89)

The series was shot with an old Hasselblad with digital back – modeling the layers of old and modern in the buildings and people. The dinosaur in the photograph above struck me as a punctum within the series as I scanned Vestey’s website images. Perhaps an obvious one in terms of connotations regarding old Cultural institutions and slowness to change. However, as I explored it further, other aspects rose to the surface for me.

In keeping with the series as a whole, the soft, muted colour tones and use of light evoke a sense of calm, stillness and contemplation. I was reminded of the works of Thomas Struth (3), Candida Höfer (4) and Andy Freeberg (5) considering placement of people in the space, their relative smallness in relation to the frame, or absence of them. In an interview with BJP Vestey herself refers to Hofer’s monograph Architecture of Absence and the metaphysical aspects of empty buildings where you are dancing with ghosts. (6).

The use of receding perspective, lines, diagonals and triangles reminded me of classical paintings and earlier photography, but this classical composition is fragmented by the dinosaur whose spiky curves and jutting jaw act as a punctuation mark to connote a different narrative. The point of view appears chosen to emphasize the arrangement of objects within the space, in juxtaposition with the figure of the sole human appearing very small in the frame, and yet a punctum drawing one’s eye as if, despite seeming less important in the overall scheme of things, he has an important role to play at this moment.

The dinosaur skeleton takes up a large portion of the foreground. With hind legs resting on a plinth, but forelegs free it looks poised to descend; skull and open jaws appearing to point at the Director, standing against a wall of large vitrines at the right hand side. A smaller prehistoric creature stands opposite, a sculptured portrait bust on a column at its back. There are further, ghostly shrouded figures in the background and to the Director’s right. He gazes upwards, seemingly at the brick wall and columns opposite, apparently unaware of these creatures that appear to be surrounding him and ready to pounce. As my eyes travel around the frame I notice tables and display cabinets pushed together on the tiled floor. The Director is standing on a plywood path that travels alongside wooden scaffolding that changes to iron supporting a plastic shrouded scaffold as it meets the roof.

I have not visited the Museum itself and the Gothic arches soaring gracefully to meet a glass tiled roof connote two possibilities to me – the museum is housed within a deconsecrated church or a defunct railway station – something similar to St Pancras, London.(7) Both could fit – the worship of the past and a terminus point. Indeed I wondered initially whether this was a store room where ‘unused’ specimens or artefacts languish until needed. The chosen, formal elements of the photograph; the wide-angled foreground and diminishing perspective add to this sense of clutter and disorder.

I doubt that Vestey moved the large objects around and assume she chose that vantage point and, taking the light direction into account, asked the Director to pose in that particular spot with his back against the cabinets. The foreground dinosaur and shrouded background figures form a triangle with the Director at its apex – the only human being in the scene, backed-up by the wooden scaffolding looks thin and somewhat spindly. It certainly does not look sufficient to support the structure of the roof.

Could this be a visual metaphor for the relationship between the Museum and the Director? He stands erect, lonely in his role, gazing steadfastly at the task ahead of him. The revered dead scientists and remains of centuries of creatures that have roamed the earth are threatening to overwhelm this man with their expectation and the need to maintain and repair an old building. A task requiring considerable financial support. Subsequent research informs me that, in line with the University Museum Conservation Plan, 2012, (8) the Museum was closed for 14 months during a £2 million project to remove and reseal the glass roof tiles and reopened in February 2014. (9)

The Museum has a distinguished past being founded in 1860 and moving into this neo Gothic building in 1861. Men of science have conducted significant debates there over time and statues of some are displayed around the Museum court. Professor Paul Smith became Director in 2012 and he has worked in university museums for most of his career.(10) I imagine he comes from a long line of Directors whose stays have been transient compared with the life of this Institution. It makes sense that he appears small in the frame of this particular photograph. I have been unable to find the date on which the photograph was taken but, if am correct in assuming that this occurred during the Museum’s closure for repair, it provides an excellent example of the temporality of the photography – a record of a particular space and time that no longer exists.

Thinking of ‘a picture being worth a thousand words’ reminds me that, whilst I have been looking at a photograph and not the reality itself, this flat image has drawn me in to investigate a multitude of layers and meanings, just as the Museum layers different periods of time.

(1031 words)

 

(1) Vestey, J Professor Paul Smith Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History At: http://www.joannavestey.com/galleries/custodians (Accessed on 3 December 2015) (2)

(2) Photograph downloaded with written permission from J. Vestey in private email dated 2 November 2011.

(3) Thomas Struth created a series of Museum Photographs taken over a number of years in major European Cities. These photographs are large-scale, in colour, and show people in contemplation of historic paintings in Museums. He was interested in ‘pictures of people with pictures in them’ . There are picturse of people, alone, in groups, standing or seated and what holds them together as a series is the fact that they are all looking at pictures. See http://thomasstruth32.com/bigsize/photographs/museum_photographs_1/index.html (accessed 3 December 2015).

(4) Candida Höfer creates beautifully composed photographs of public and institutional spaces that are usually empty of a human presence. See http://aperture.org/shop/architecture-of-absence (accessed 3 December 2015)

(5)Andy Freeburg’s Series Guardians of Russian Art Museums also takes us   into Museums. His subjects are the women who sit in the galleries and keep watch over the collections. His photographs have more vivid colours and variety of tones, with his subjects being closer to the camera. See http://andyfreeberg.com/guardians.html (Accessed 3 December 2015)

(6) In an interview with Brennavan Sritharan of The British Journal of Photography (20 August 2015) Vestey refers to Hofer’s series, ‘You don’t need someone to be in a space to know what it’s used for …….even if you took out all the furniture, there’s still something about the atmosphere that holds the story’. This was in reference to the concept of ‘dancing with ghosts’.  http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/joanna-vestey-custodians/ (Accessed on 3 December 2015) .

(7) Building began on St. Pancras Station in 1867 and this Gothic building was often called The Cathedral of Railway Stations. See http://stpancras.com/history (Accessed on 4 December 2015).

(8)http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/media/global/wwwadminoxacuk/localsites/estatesdirectorate/documents/conservation/University_Museum.pdf (Accessed on 3 December 2015)

(9) On-line BBC News 16 February 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-26055962 (Accessed on 3 December 2015).

(10) Members of the National Museum Directors’ Council found at http://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/members/oxmuseum/ (Accessed on 4 December 2015).

 

 

Sources

Vestey, J, (2015) Custodians, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum Publications
http://www.joannavestey.com/galleries/custodians (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://thomasstruth32.com/bigsize/photographs/museum_photographs_1/index.html (Accessed on 4 December 2015)
http://aperture.org/shop/architecture-of-absence (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://andyfreeberg.com/guardians.html (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/joanna-vestey-custodians/ (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/media/global/wwwadminoxacuk/localsites/estatesdirectorate/documents/conservation/University_Museum.pdf (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-26055962 (Accessed on 3 December 2015)
http://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/members/oxmuseum/ (Accessed on 4 December 2015)