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)