Project Three

Context & Narrative Part Three

Project 3

Self-absented portraiture

Telling the viewer something of who I am. Using other people as stand-ins, in a metaphorical sense, or conveying self by other means. We’re given these examples to look at:-

Maria Kapajeva

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

An ongoing project to ‘open debate on imagery of women in contemporary society in the context of the historical, cultural bias and the global changes we are each going through’. Portraits of her peers, represented a new generation of young intellectuals who are unafraid to take risks or to break the rules. Women photographed in their own working environment. Looking at the camera with clear eyes. Looking ready to engage and debate.

I read the Photoparley article where Kapajeva talked about her creative process with Sharon Boothroyd and the changes she has made to follow her passion for photography . From Estonia, she went to the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham to study photography – leaving her job and own flat to start from scratch.

I was interested in the way she talked about two ways of working as an artist – to “ …. start from a technique and develop/master/transform it” or “to start from an idea and find a technique for it”. She thinks most of her works follow the latter path and I think that’s my path as well. Kapajeva also says that it isn’t her intention to involve herself in her work as the main character, although she is in it of course as it’s her work. I was so pleased to read as well her comment about the massive volume of information artists all confront and how we need to learn how to select the right subject and focus on it. I was complaining a while ago about how photography teaching must have changed so much over the years because there are so many more photographers to learn about and absorb.

I was also fascinated by the way in which Karpajeva used the technique of cross-stitching and quilting for her series I Am Usual Woman – making a quilt from a selection of website images that recommend how women seeking husbands should be photographed. She links this with the distinction between creative work done by men and women in the European and Russian side of the world e.g. painting icons is a most privileged art for men whilst women are unrecognised for the embroidering they do for domestic items and for the church. Karpejeva uses such creative ideas to continually look at and question the way in which cultures shape and view women and how women respond to this.

Sophie Calle

Take Care of Yourself (2007)

I wrote about this work here . The 107 views on the email from her lover add layers and layers of meaning and subtlety to the work. It’s almost like exposure therapy to desensitize response to such an email, as well, of course, as heaping reprimands on the head of the its writer! That apart, in my own experience, it’s the kind of thing that women often do with their friends when such a situation occurs so there’s an air of reality to it even though (I’m guessing) it was all carefully orchestrated. Quite a collaborative effort.

Anna Fox

I wrote about her here  and that post  includes a link to a video of Fox talking about the Cockroach Diary and other work. Looking at Cockroach Diary again, I’m reminded that this project “marked the start of her exploration of autobiographical story telling, and her questioning of the power of the camera in documentary practice”. Remember – to her, documentary is ‘telling a story about the truth’, which fits with the genre that seems to be named more regularly now as ‘subjective documentary’.

Nigel Shafran

Washing Up (2000)

There’s mention in the Handbook of captions and I’m sure I’ve seen some somewhere where he names what was eaten – maybe it’s in the book. Shafran uses everyday scenes of daily life and “gives the viewer a point of resonance and a sense of shared experience in the commonplace activity of ‘doing the washing up’”. I actually looked closely at the images to work out if it was the same areas in different lights/times of day or different ones but couldn’t come to a conclusion on that.


  • Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
  • In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
  • What does this series achieve by not including people?
  • Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

To be honest, no thought came into my head concerning the gender of the person who made these photographs. I live with a man who does the washing up and other household chores (more often than I do sometimes) and is also a keen photographer, can quite easily imagine him taking a photograph of the washing up. I didn’t think it was a woman either because I was too busy wondering what the rest of the house/flat looked like! Looking at other series on Shafran’s website I was very taken with Ruth on the Phone (1995-2004) because my husband could create a book of his many photographs over the years of me at the computer (think he’s trying to give me a message but we won’t go into that!).

Does gender contribute to the creation of an image? I think it can. I’ve certainly had discussions with fellow students regarding landscapes and whether women make different photographs.  Of course we’ve also had discussions regarding ‘the gaze’ and whether a woman’s gaze is different from that of a man. I’ve recently been reading a lot about Francesca Woodman and whether she was a femininist photographer or not. Would someone look at my photographs and think they had been taken by a woman rather than by a man? If so why? I’d be interested to know whether my work is seen as ‘feminine’. Bearing in mind of course that I have written, and taken photographs, as a man (see Assignment 2)

I think the absence of people can provide a more blank canvas upon which the viewer can project their own story. Do I regard the images as interesting ‘still life’ compositions? I wouldn’t have called them that. If anything I would see them as documentary images. It’s may well be that Shafran arranged the kitchen areas in those particular ways but they don’t look ‘arranged’, they look natural, almost banal and yet interesting for all that. They have a certain professional style about them so couldn’t be called vernacular photography. Remembering of course that Shafran has also worked in the commercial photography world and so he can bring those techniques into play.  I’ve thought about that previously when looking at the work of Laura Letinsky whose work also alludes to the presence of people in domestic spaces whilst not including them. Letinsky also does commercial work. I’m thinking at the moment that the difference is to do with lighting. Her style is different though and not auto-biographical. I have previously written that I want to experiment more with her work and will post some images in due course.

Back to Nigel Shafran – I found him an enjoyable photographer to follow and there’s an interview here from 2009 that I enjoyed watching where he talks about his photography books. Shafran’s work does prove that even the most ordinary environment can be made interesting if you have the right skills and creative approach. I also think he’d be a good photographer to talk with about creating photo books.

Some interim conclusions

On the theme of – what have I absorbed for myself from looking at these photographers?

  • Using other forms of Art and Craft to add to the layers of photographic work. I’m very much attracted towards that but have this anxiety regarding ‘not being artistic’ which leads to fear of failure.
  • Getting other people to engage in a collaborative project, whilst still remaining ‘producer/director’ overall.
  • An autobiographical project is subjective but it can also have universal application. To me it’s important as well to retain my own sense of truth even though viewers may add their own layer of perception to it. Additionally I think it’s also important to know when I’m steering away from my own sense of self-truth to add the colour of drama to my work.
  • Ordinary life and reality can provide stories just as interesting as dramatic events.

Of course, I was led on to looking at other photographers and adding to my evergrowing Pinterest Boards and collection of PDFs (and books!). I’ll refer to some of these when writing about research for Assignment 3 and won’t forget about Laura Letinsky.

5th August 2015