Talk by Chloe Dewe Matthews at UCA Farnham on 18th February 2016

I first heard Chloe Dewe Matthews talk at the Brighton Photo Festival in November 2014 and wrote about it near to the end of this post here. This new talk was arranged by John Umney, Level 3 student, organised by the OCA and then, through collaboration with UCA, Farnham, held in one of their lecture theatres . UCA students were also invited and three of the UCA Photography Department staff were in attendance.  The advertisement for the talk on weAreOCA included a link to this excellent video on the Vice site .

In fact, her talk very much covered the same ground being about her evolution as an artist using the medium of photography from being a Fine art Student studying conceptual sculpture at Ruskin College, Oxford. She recalled asking herself, after three years’ study, “What do I want to say about the world?”. After then working in the  Film industry for four years she left because she didn’t feel she was doing anything creative  Matthews became an assistant to some photographers  and it seems that not having a photography education somehow left her freer to take photographs and trust her own instincts rather than worrying if she was doing things the right way. She discovered there was a group of Hasidic Jews who spent holidays in Aberystwyth, Wales and her fascination with this, and how different people lead their lives, led to her creating a series Hasidic Holiday (2009). From there she created another series Banger Boys of Britain, being attracted by the sculptural aspects of the cars, and set up an exhibition in a car spraying workshop to create a ‘finishing point’. There ensued a period where she was trying to find a photographic language, teaching herself along the way and photographing things that caught her interest. She continued taking photographs during a long journey in 2010 hitchhiking with her boyfriend  from China to London – in China’s Wild West Xinjiang,  attempting to portray the lives of its minority population of Uighur Muslims  who were constantly ‘watching their backs’;  Kazakhstan workers constructing mausoleums for the rich class and holidaymakers along the Caspian Sea visiting Sanitoriums to have oil treatments.

As she became better known there were Commissions and a residency in St John’s College, Oxford to produce the work Shot at Dawn around the story of the British, German, French and Belgian soldiers shot for desertion during World War I. There was a lot of research involved in uncovering these hidden sites and histories as there are no monuments and families were shunned. The archives on German sites have been lost. In fact she said the series was actually 90% research. Matthews visited sites where this happened producing ‘late’ photography and creating a visual archive, as form of restitution, that evokes the tragedy of what happened. She achieved this through photographing this hidden history in dawn’s early light, in cool pale tones. Different outcomes were planned including a book and dedicated website and the series was included in the Exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography, shown in Edinburgh and Tate Modern, London.  Matthews explained that she was unable to speak to families so could only talk about the people by the places and  captions were essential

In addition to a long term project along the Thames Estuary (with an Exhibition due later this year) Matthews has been back to the Caspian region to do further work (with a book  due later this year) and most recently has undertaken a commission for Tate Modern responding to the Southwark area which she has discovered has the highest density of African Christianity. She talked of how the visual and audio landscape changes on Sunday. There are eleven churches on an industrial estate and she has kept going back to one particular church. The work produced includes video screens installed in a gallery in an ex-church, showing layers of church happenings (2015).


Chloe Dewe Matthews is a very interesting and engaging speaker and her enthusiasm for photography shines through. She made her development and recognition as a professional photographer sound an easy process but I think this probably belies a great deal of hard work, networking and communication of her ideas. It was interesting for me to see the difference in her images as well from the exuberance of Hasidic Holiday , Banger Boys and Sunday Church in Southwark to the quiet solemnity of the sites in Shot at Dawn. Here website is here  and her talk to us was also videoed and can be accessed here by OCA students




6. Reading : A Start and a Return

Reading : A Start and a Return
Exhibition in Reading – 25th July to 8th August, 2015

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Five photographers who met at Berkshire College of Art and Design decided to meet again on the 30th Anniversary of their leaving and hold a reunion photographic exhibition. “A chance to reflect back at Reading, photography and each other and contemplate where it all ended up three decades later”. The website for the Exhibition is here

The main reason I visited was because one of these students is Tanya Ahmed – a graduate of the OCA Photography Course and now studying for an MA with OCA. I hadn’t had the opportunity to actually meet Tanya before (she now lives and works in New York) but we have corresponded occasionally by email, I follow her blog and also had the opportunity to see her OCA work when it was exhibited in Sheffield in 2014 alongside the work of five other OCA graduates.

On the day of my visit, there was an opportunity to meet beforehand at 8am for a photographic walk in the surrounding area. The idea was to create some 6×4 images to add to Tanya’s archive , “Postcards of Reading 2015” and these postcards will be exhibited in a pop-up Exhibition at the Turbine House on Saturday, 8th August, the final day of the Exhibition. I couldn’t make the 8am start which was fortunate in some respects as it poured with rain for most of the morning!

The Turbine House

This is a small and unique exhibition space which houses preserved turbine machinery. It spans the river Kennet at Blake’s Lock which was quite a raging torrent when I arrived. The permanent Exhibition Boards are around the walls and also between parts of the machinery.

The Photographers

Tanya Ahmed 

Tanya is now a senior photographer with NYPD and also freelances with several museums including the Guggenheim and the Met. Her personal work centres around the built environment. As part of the Exhibition she chose photographs of Reading residents 30 years ago and made new photographs of New York residents. There were also photographs of her friends then and now, with the latter being created using Skype. Additionally there were some postcard sized prints contrasting Reading in the 80s and New York now.

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I’m always fascinated to see photographs of then and now – particularly of people so really enjoyed looking.

Looking at the two above – I thought the first one was taken in New York but it wasn’t – it was Reading 30 years ago. Those two young men look so American to me and I’m reminded somehow of Jack Kerouac and James Dean et al from even earlier times!

Darran Gough

Darran has worked as a fireman for the past 30 years after spending a short time in the photographic field. He still takes photographs, often portraying the quieter side of the emergency services and his theme for the Exhibition was “Life in the Triple 999s”.


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Darran no longer follows photography as a career but I would like to see him create some more documentary photographs on the Emergency Services, maybe stemming from the collage he created from the insides of lockers.

Dave Willis

Dave has worked as an editorial photographer for the last 30 years, taking photographs for magazines, online media, newspapers and record companies. His theme for the Exhibition was “Reloaded” – some of his favourite images from the last 30 years, reflecting the gradual changes in technology that have occurred.


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I can see his style with that sense of energy and movement.

Peter Cole 

Peter now works in the world of cycling, in products, design and branding and still uses his photography for promoting and marketing his products. For the Exhibition he chose the theme of “People, Places & Mountains” selecting photographs from journeys across Europe in the 1980s.


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Richard Pinches 

Richard chose still life and product photography as his career although I see from his website that he also undertakes portraits and videography. He has had his own studio since he was 23. His theme for the Exhibition was “Product Photography: Film VS Digital”

Then and Now:

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It was interesting to see how product photography has evolved over the years and how much more products are both made to ‘pop’ by lighting techniques and also become more portrait-like.

Exhibition Activities

It was good to see how the Exhibition has some added interest in terms of various activities offered. Plenty of variety here, with further photo walks, slideshow illustrated talks, a day with the Caversham Road Fire Crew and opportunity to send your 6×4 photographs of Reading to Tanya for the pop-up Exhibition on 8th August.

See here


I really enjoyed spending time at this small Exhibition and looking how each photographer had met the theme of 30 years of photography. Peter Cole was the only one not showing his current work which is very different as you can see from his website.

There was small group of us to begin with, all with connections with the OCA.

It was great to actually meet Tanya in person, talk with her about her life in New York and share some thoughts about distance learning and the OCA. I’ve now been to three Exhibitions involving OCA students and it’s such a different experience from other Exhibitions. In addition to knowing quite a lot about the photographers and following their work, there’s that sense of a shared understanding of what it’s like to be a distance learning student alongside the rest of our daily lives, plus a shared celebration of what’s been and can be achieved.

30th July 2015



Visit to Farnham UCA Degree Show 2015 on 1st June

I visited with a friend of mine. We’ve both been before, with a gap last year, and afterwards we agreed that the Show this year seemed sparser and more low key with hardly any students around to talk about their work. Even so, I found some interesting work to admire.

There was a project by Charlotte May, (Graphic Communication). Exploring Visual Artists with Neurological Disorders. She produced three books – two research books and the dissertation which were beautifully hand bound and stored in a wooden case, embossed with the title of the Project.


The work was influenced by her grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and she wanted to find out more about the disease and if there was any relevance between this and art, studying three artists for her dissertation. It seemed to me a wonderful combination of informative research and beautiful presentation, all with graphic communication in mind.

Oliver Juster,  (Arts & Media) created a life-size boneless ‘skeleton’ showing all its internal and external organs, with a chart providing information about them.

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Denise Walsh (Fine Art) specialises in sculpture. Her artist statement emphasizes how much of her practice is energised by nature. For her Degree Show, she produced an installation Mark of Effort that displayed the results of a collaborative venture achieved via the Walking Artist Network (WAN). This Network is for anyone who defines themselves as a walking artist who is interested in walking as a mode of art practice, as well as related fields.   In February this year an open call was advertised on WAN requesting assistance with a proposal and 15 artists responded, 14 from around the UK and one in Newfoundland, Canada. From the Installation information sheet:- Each artist was sent a colour, 27 exposure disposable camera, together with a stamped addressed envelope and a guidance and information sheet.

Their task was to go on a solitary walk, and whilst walking, to take photographs of what ‘Mark of Effort’ meant to them. The cameras were then posted back together with particulars of each walk. In addition each artist was asked to write what ‘Mark of Effort’ meant to them, and why did they go on solitary walks?

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A fascinating collaboration and I was again reminded of our own Nearest Faraway Place project and the outcome of the work that Anna and her colleagues have done in exploring Dartmoor in the footsteps of the artists W. and F.J. Widgery. We asked ourselves questions as we looked at the installation such as How was it all put together – by tone, colour, mood, alphabetically by artist? Will add if I find the answers.

Michelle Margaux (MFA Photography) presented her project Woolton Hall : Listed & Lost some quite haunting work in deep, rich colours that gleamed against the painted brick wall of the corridor in which it was presented.

Lucy Yates   (Photography) The work presented was Men Are Like Venus -an interesting reversal of the male gaze with men posing as Venus “By placing the male subject as Venus, they are seen in a different light, taking away their masculinity and bestowing upon them fragility and femininity”. Have a look on her website. There’s certainly nothing sexual about these images. It’s not a woman looking with sexual longing at the male figure; their masculinity isn’t portrayed with musculature etc but, to me, neither do they look feminine or fragile. I don’t know whether this was also part of her intention but, to my eyes, this is an ironic piece of work. I’m made more aware of the coyness of the posing of female figures and how unnatural they can look. There is some other work Nudes on Lucy’s website that is very much more about form and shape of both male and female bodies and this made me look closer. Her work there was influenced by Lacan’s The Mirror Stage.

Charlotte Willbourne   presented her project Southampton Square Looking at the way people present themselves in different communities with the focus here on square dancing. All dancers posed on the dancer floor itself, standing against a white backdrop – not exactly the same pose or deadpan. Each of them showing individuality through their choice of ‘costume’ as can be seen from her website. I enjoyed looking at them, There’s a quirkiness about the project that brings it to life. Charlotte’s handmade book includes shots of her subjects dancing and also smaller images with quotes from them about their life, in individual handwriting, and what they gain from square dancing.

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I think she achieved her aim of hoping to capture something unique about people in her images and noted that she is influenced by Rineke Dijkstra.

Melissa Michel is influenced by the work of Sophie Calle and artist Candy Change. She exhibits her work Lie With Me which explores the betrayal and the aftermath of infidelity. The explanation says the work is based on a discovery by Melissa of a collection of love letters addressed to her grandmother and found after her death. They tell of an extramarital affair in the 1950s with a painter called Mati Klarwein and the letters reveal that he painted a portrait that hung in her grandmother’s home until her death. “The collection of love letters are echoed by anonymous letters addressed but never sent to unfaithful partners that Melissa collected and the final letter is written by her mother describing how she felt on discovering the letters.

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A complex, layered narrative with image and text put together in a way that invites exploration and imagination. At first I thought it was fiction, but there was a painter called Mati Klarwein so maybe …… .


I’ve moved now from thinking the Graduation Show was sparse to feeling inspired by some of the work shown and I’ve put myself on the newsletter list for the Walking artists Network. I’m also reminded again of my original anxieties regarding ‘being influenced by’, referencing’ ‘in the mode of’ and whether this is imitating or copying; but how, with a firm concept, all this disappears into pieces of individual and unique pieces of work.

4th June 2015


References .

5. Johanna Ward : Talk on 6th December 2014

This event, in Thatcham,  was organised by the OCA Students Association and would involve Johanna talking about her work and then discussing students’ work with them.

The Talk

I Shall Say Goodbye with my Strengthening Love for You, Forever and Ever

A Handmade artists book in five volumes. Each volume a concertina of unfolding images, conveying a narrative from different places and time periods.

I saw those volumes spreading along a shelf at the Brighton Photography Festival and was fascinated by it. Johanna later said that people either love or hate it – some don’t get it at all. What seduced me? First the linear progression of the pages on the shelf then, drawing closer and seeing those images – not in a straight line but making different patterns of rectangles, squares etc. Even closer and seeing the soft colours first, then what they have captured. The colours and the repetition – like holding a candle in a darkened room and exploring what can be seen. The volumes contain a mix of images (new and old) in different formats with varied placement. A certain softness about them even when portraying a forest fire, death. Muted tones; a subdued palette; the sparseness of high key – something over that once began with words of love in letters; now entwined with a damaged landscape.

Johanna talked about the book as she stood in front of the looping video – pages slowly turning. I’m not sure whether this was a distraction or not. It gave a sense of events going round and round in her memory.

The book was created as part of the Masters Degree that she had decided to study to find out where she was as a photographer. She wanted to weave together many strands. An environmental story about trees and the death of trees with inspiration from the book Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2012) a re-telling of a Norse myth by the author A.S. Byatt. ( which is entwined with the story of a young girl evacuated to the countryside during World War Two). Memories. A story about people, without showing people, using symbolism and metaphor. Trees dying and the destruction of the world, her own family being a microcosm, as her parents’ marriage had ended. The title is a sentence from a love letter written by her father to her mother before they married, and the spare text at the beginning and end of each volume is also taken from love letters so, in a sense, her dad is narrating the story through letters. All the images are hers – taken by herself (some constructed) or family photographs and her family agreed to the making of the book. I wonder how it made them feel looking at their story and knowing that so many strangers would do the same as they open and close each chapter.

Johanna said she was grateful to do the Talk; to find out more about herself and where she is going. She acknowledged that not everyone will agree the juxtaposition of landscape as metaphor to tell another multi-layered story. The issue of ‘truth’ was raised and her thought was that “Images are opinions not facts”. She also talked about the myth of the family album and how one chooses the juxtaposition of images. This reminded me of our ‘family’ album created many years ago when our children were younger. We (my husband and I) ended up not being able to agree which photographs should be placed within it. Our album has remained incomplete, as has our family in a sense as new configurations are formed as we all grow older.

Colours became important in the construction of the book. The first volume has green hues – Spring, young love, a white horse. Growth follows, then hues become colder as relationships change – the empty bed; animals fighting; the dead deer.  A query was raised about the use of the image of this skinned deer which, to me, comes as a ‘jolt’ in the book. Johanna said she wanted to have animal characters in the book and arranged to visit an abattoir (I think). Her intention was to photograph a dead animal with skin, however she saw the skinned deer and this seemed more apt. She talked about the serendipity of having a plan but then freeing oneself to fall into the moment.

The five ‘volumes’ can be read backwards or forwards and so one can oscillate between past and present. She talked about the difference between quiet and loud music regarding the differing sizing of images. I had a sense that she was working very much from a subconscious intuitive level in terms of sizing and placing images to begin with as a pattern emerged for her.

This left me thinking about what happens between the plan and the execution – evoking for me what happens when ‘something else takes over’ (I’ve written about this before). Some kind of alchemy when the project becomes an entity in itself and you’re in dialogue with it; drawn into its orbit like a planet circling a star; dizzy in its light like a moth to a flame. The ‘obsession’ of being completely immersed and subsumed into it The project (whatever it is) is “all” – it becomes figural. Going to bed thinking about it and waking up thinking about it – waking dreams, thoughts on planning that can get lost and then haunt thinking during the day.

Johanna referred to two other books, The Pond (1985, 2010) by John Gossage which is about the relationship between man and nature and Redheaded Peckerwood (2010, 2011) by Christian Patterson which uses different genres to retell the story of two teenager who went on a three day killing spree. I’ve bought both books and will write about them in a later post.

b : Work Review

Five of us presented work. Johanna’s feedback was direct and honest whilst remaining supportive and constructive and I enjoyed the whole process both as observer and participant. Some points that came up were:

  • You can explore your own history through photographs of other people. One strategy may be to construct the family you wanted but didn’t have.
  • If you rely too much on text then you don’t allow the images to speak, they’ll be illustrating a narrative.
  • Does the effect you use expand the story?
  • If it’s documentary choose the side you feel most passionate about.

I talked about my first Assignment (with my tutor at that point) and showed some further work I’d done in an attempt to create a foldout minibook. Johanna was particularly interested in one photograph of a house on the edge of the woods. It reminded her of a Disney film Watcher in the Woods. One of my ideas for further work was to construct a story about the person who lived there and Johanna encouraged me to do this; use my imagination; look at the house from differing perspectives; even try to get closer by talking with the house owner.

Overall, a very satisfying day, leaving me with much to think about.

4th February 2015


Elina Brotherus Exhibition 12th November 2014

Artist Talk at The Wapping Project Bankside Elina Brotherus  was born in 1972 in Finland. She studied science (analytic chemistry) before turning to photography and completing an MA. Her early work was very autobiographical, whilst based in the documentary tradition as she photographed actual events in her life such as her marriage, divorce, feelings about sex, focussing on the presence or absence of love. I have read about and looked at her work several times over the past two years so I went to the Talk with certain views and responses that I’ll summarise first. It might seem jumbled, so apologies if so, but it’s taken some time for me to sort out how her work affects me.

What I took with me to the Talk, i.e. the context of my response to her work

I first became aware of her work of in July 2012 when I went to the Out of Focus Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and saw her image Femme a sa toilette (2001)  from her series The New Painting where she was leaving behind the more autobiographical aspect of her work and referencing artists such as Degas  and Cezanne. Femme a sa toilette shows her naked and yet, somehow not exposed, as it is the pale shape of her body (and hair) that draw the eye. As William Ewing writes in his commentary, “Brotherus isn’t really giving us a nude at all, but rather a self-portrait, a confession and admission of vulnerability rather than an image of titillation. It is best appreciated within her larger series of melancholic self-portraits”. The shutter release cable is also plain to see as it dangles over the edge of the ‘sink’. I have to confess that, despite the quality of the print, the pose looked awkward to me as she crouches in the ‘sink’ that is only just large enough for her to squeeze into.

A November 2012 WeAreOCA blog post by Sharon Boothroyd focussed on Model Study 5 (2004). Again a nude self-portrait where Elina is crouching on the floor with her back to us. To me, she invites us to look at the shape of her body, almost as if in a life class where the artist captures shape and form. Amongst other comments I wrote

Elina seems so unselfconscious in her nudity, and workwomanlike. Maybe that’s what happens when you have allowed yourself to be gazed upon for some length of time so dispassionately. And the urge/fascination to gaze upon and explore someone’s body with your eyes, without sexual intent, judgment or comparison. If that’s allowed, again for sufficient length of time, does the fascination disappear? Does the person beneath the skin reveal him/herself more clearly? The visible cable of the remote release – like an umbilical cord in a quest to constantly re-invent/re-visit herself.

I was left with the question as to whether she was revealing herself to us at all – hiding in plain sight as it were.  I gained that same sense of ‘workman-like’ /‘dispassionate’ on looking at the video of her, working in collaboration with two artists, at a point were Elina wanted to further develop the notion of the artist’s gaze, the model and the self-portrait. In Artists at Work Part 1  she asks “Who is watching whom? Who is the artist? Who is the model? Who gets ‘the last gaze’” as we see the two painters gazing at her intently as they capture her body in paint on their easels and her using her remote cable to video the session.

There is another video on Vimeo here  (an interview in 2012) where she does explain how her work, “ is a kind of game of hide and seek, showing and not showing”. Also talked about in this video is Annunciation (2009)  the work of self-exploration Elina continued during years when she was attempting to become pregnant and some of this was shown in the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity Exhibition that I visited in October 2013.

Background to 12 Ans Aprés

There was another interview, with Sharon Boothroyd, recorded in Photoparley blog  where Elina talked about Suite Francaises 2 (1999) which she said tells about “outsiderness”, the incoherence between the person and his environment and the simple small means with which one tries to take his place in society. She travelled to Chalon-sur-Saône, France to take up a residency, with little knowledge of French, and used post-it notes as a method of language learning. After beginning by photographing interiors she realised the notes could be used outdoors as well and make an unfamiliar landscape accessible.

Elina maintained links and returned to Chalon-sur-Saône at a point when she had turned 40. This was officially for a job but she thinks it was a pretext. It seemed logical to return to an autobiographical approach to meet a felt need to make a position statement at this turning point in her life. She walked with her 4×5 camera, looking serendipitously, very early or in so-called bad weather and did some new versions of 1999 places, utilising an interaction of styles to create wider narratives and a full picture from different points of view. I won’t write more about the interview here as it can be read on Photoparley but, as I read the interview I also recollected that experience of going back to reconnect with areas from my childhood and that sensation of being accompanied by an earlier version of myself yet knowing I’m another person now.

So, before going to the Talk I had this image of a talented photographer who often uses herself as her own model, clothed and unclothed, to create self-portraits, often during unhappy events in her life. Alongside this she has also referenced classical artists and developed the notion of the artist’s gaze. I imagine that she uses her nakedness as a metaphor for vulnerability. That it is self-portraiture is made clear by the inclusion of the shutter remote release cable. There is such a depth of self-exposure in her work and, yet, I did not experience this as emotive/emotional. To me it was as that very real pain had been transmuted into something more like an object; had been conquered “This is me looking at myself as I am experiencing pain, sorrow, anguish”. I’ll return to this later.

The Talk

This was organised by OCA and many thanks to Gareth and Sharon for this. It was held at the (prestigious and glamorous) Wapping Project Bankside in London, and concerned the Exhibition 12 Ans Aprés, currently showing there. What follows is based on extracts from my notes taken at the time. I know there are things I missed, but there is now a video of the Talk on the OCA student site so I can keep going back to discover more. Elina was generous with her time and with herself in the way she invited us in to explore her photography with her .

She explained her desire to confront herself with younger self; to stay in the same room; conduct a human experiment on herself. Elina pointed out how the yellow stickers had changed. Previously simple words, labelling objects and emotions; changing to longer, more fluent sentences. Her French is considerably improved (she speaks several languages) she has a home in France as well as Finland. Elina talked about her editing process and book creation in terms of her plan to produce a book on the Annunciation series and editing help from a friend. –She said she needs to detach herself from her work, for 6 months say, so that she can see clearly what works together and what doesn’t.

Here are some of her responses during the following question and answer session: John  asked if any of her work could be done with someone else in the frame, especially a work like Annunciation. Her response was “That, of course not”, although she has used other people as subjects, as in her series Études d’après modèle, danseurs. It was the same thing as she was doing with herself except wonderful models of course, who just happened to be classical dancers. Elina believes that when the work is personal it’s hard to have anybody else there because she can’t really guarantee that what is shown is genuine unless it’s her when talking about emotions or that sort of thing. With a study of a human figure – shadows, light, composition, how to frame, how to flatten the three dimensional into the two dimensional – it can be anyone else and it’s easier when you don’t have to keep running backwards and forwards to check the pose, composition etc to see what’s wrong (has wasted much film). There is less waste with digital but still a lot of running back and forth. Elina very much likes the large format analogue because it’s so slow and you “kind of stay calm when you’re doing it”. Very often when she goes out to work she tends to do so on her own. She doesn’t like the presence of anyone else there on the scene, it disturbs her. She starts to rush and would be concerned about another person getting cold and tired etc.

Asked if she goes out with a plan she responded that very often she might not have an idea of what she’s looking for but recognises it when she sees it. She has realised that she can trust her eye. It’s just the hard work of carrying the apparatus around and eventually she will find something. Anna queried whether not wearing makeup in a lot of the images is like taking off a mask. Elina said she stopped wearing makeup out of laziness. Is it taking off the mask? Not intentional but a very nice point and some Art historian could write about that point. She recollected a C19th Finnish painter, Akseli Gallen-Kallela who created, in Paris, a beautiful painting Démasquée (1888) of a nude model holding a mask next to face that she had taken away

Another question by Keith concerned ‘figure in a landscape’ but the cable release always shows. Elina’s response was that it’s important that the viewer sees that the person who is the model is also the author. By knowing that maybe we also look at the landscape in a different way. We know that the artist or author has chosen this particular landscape to look at and chooses to show it to the spectator, like an invitation to a shared contemplation. That’s why she likes the back so much. If a frontal view, the figure is looking at you and a confrontation, then we would be lured by the face and less by the landscape. She thinks it’s easier to enter into this kind of scene because we feel we are there together but not disturbing each other. Regarding the cable release – this makes it an image about photography. “This is a photograph, this is the person who took it”. It’s free for you to see it how you like it . When asked if the landscape says something about the model, Elina responded that she was not going that far. She has her reasons for each picture but it’s really free for you to feel the way you want about it.

Asked whether she had ever regretted making her IVF treatment public with Annunciation Elina said she was happy she finally decided to show them in a book and a Show after encouragement by Susan Bright. This is something that touches the lives of an amazing amount of people and we don’t know about it because it’s a taboo. As an artist we can assume the responsibility, like the Kings Fool, to “put the cat on the table”. Many people got in touch and it was a good thing to do. It’s a big thing in our society; difficult to talk about it and that’s why pictures can be a route/pathway into those questions. She said she doesn’t believe in catharsis but she believes that pictures can be a route into things you can’t express easily and sees herself as part of a bigger picture. We are much more like each other than we are different.

Conclusions and thoughts

As I wrote above, Elina was generous with her time and even stayed on a little to talk further with us.

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I already knew much of the story of this particular Exhibition and yet it was different to hear it from Elina direct. It was illuminating and thought-provoking for me in terms of approaching photography and self-portraits. Also the first time I’ve heard an artist talk whilst standing in front of their work and referring to it. It gave the work so much more meaning for me and I gained a greater understanding of her motivations and concepts. I’ve wondered before how much difference it makes to perception of an artist’s work when you’ve met with and heard them speak. I think that this evokes empathy and adds another subtle layer – unseen but informing understanding because my imagination is engaged and I add to the narrative.

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The photographs are beautiful. Large images (from both film and digital) on the walls in pale, subtle hues, with misty landscapes, some including Elina in the frame, often looking at her from the back. She also re-photographed herself in the same room, wearing a similar colour coat and boots; hair dark instead of blonde; obviously older yet still looking fragile somehow.

For me there was a sense of melancholy about the work – the misty softness of the outdoors and, throughout a subtle, slightly faded colour palette. Her work fascinates me, despite feeling slightly distanced by the dispassion I sense, which is why it’s taken me so long to work through this write-up. I am interested in her Landscapes with figure where a ‘traditional’ Landscape view (beautiful if not quite sublime) is mediated by the figure of Elina with her back to us; her more solid figure drawing our eyes from the misty view as if directing where we look. We are always aware of her presence, holding the umbilical cord of her camera. We are looking at her looking at the view. How intense is this view given that her attention must be split between the looking and the decision as to when to press the release button. We can only see what she allows us to see as our view is hindered and we cannot see exactly what she is looking at. She is a large presence in the landscape yet, by turning her back to us, puts herself in the frame at the same time as removing herself from the frame.

The point about the ‘mask’ made me think of Gillian Wearing who also exposes herself to view whilst not being exactly present, whilst taking on other personas. Elina Brotherus always re-enacts herself. I wonder if self-portraiture at depressing times uplifts the spirits or depresses even more. It certainly acknowledges it rather than serving as a distraction and the slow process of medium format analogue must slow down emotions – calming as she said. I guess that attention paid to actually making the photograph gives some emotional grounding and feeling more in control and this lends itself to a more dispassionate and objective approach.

As Elina said, you can look back through the photographs and see where you are now. You can also re-edit them and create a new story from an earlier story.   This control of our view and how we look makes me query how ‘open’ her work is. Quite definitely the narrative is about Elina – no death of the author here and yet she portrays something universal that we can lean towards as we enter into her space – albeit at some distance. I have also been thinking about depiction of space, place, passage of time and creating the narrative. We can compare the artist at different points in her life; see how she has aged; see where she lived and walked.

The landscape is pretty much the same but the colours, tones etc add an out-of-time feel and sense of melancholy as she looks back over her life. The post-it notes also show the changes and reflect some of her thoughts. I have spent a lot of time thinking about her work and have taken from it the advantages of working more slowly. Medium/Large format attracts me very much although I have to deal with that voice that tells me I’m not technical enough. I aim to practise more with long exposures. I can’t say that I feel more attraction towards self-portraiture but maybe that will change somewhat as I work through Context & Narrative. 30th January 2015


Joan Fontcuberta : Stranger than Fiction

Exhibition at the Media Space, Science Museum visited 8th November 2014 

Joan Fontcuberta was supposed to be attending the Day Symposium Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality that I wrote about here. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it, so thank goodness I managed to get to explore his Exhibition during lunchtime.

There’s a review by Lewis Bush here so I don’t intend to go into a lengthy description. In fact, reading about his work just isn’t the same as being amongst it although his website shows the extent and variety of his creativity. I’m fascinated by him – mystic, magician, funster, wise fool, shape-shifter. His work is full of whimsy and yet transfused with a methodical scholarly approach to its creation.

I looked round the Exhibition with Penny and John who later emailed a link to a You Tube video where he talks about his work. It’s a lengthy video so I’m not embedding here. Here’s the link though and, to me, his personality shines through together with his deep immersion and enjoyment in creating his projects. As the Exhibition pamphlet states,

His works inflate truth to its bursting point and, by approaching his imagined subjects with sincerity and humanity, he sets up a tug-of-war between our beliefs and scepticism. Yet while his work tenaciously interrogates the power of the photograph as evidence, it also compels us to suspend our beliefs and join him on his remarkable journeys into his fictional worlds.

It‘s that suspension of disbelief that’s important – think how we might even be drawn into cartoon films that portray universal themes – I’m thinking of those such as Bambi and Toy Story. Also the film Avatar. I would love to think that somewhere in the world there is a goat (or is it a sheep?) with wings – referencing the unicorn I guess.


or a flying elephant (Dumbo maybe?). What also impressed me was the amount of detail and research that must have gone into installations such as Fauna (1987) the fictive archive of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen where Fontcuberta has created creatures (displayed in cabinets ; aged photographs; old/aged diaries; letters; ink drawings and watercolours. Similarly with Sirens (2000) and their ‘fossilised” remains; the resin cast of the Font Chaude Hydropitheque


and photographs of the ‘remains in situ’. With Herbarium (1984) he created and named new plant species from plant materials and various man-made materials and then photographed them, most convincingly, in the style of Karl Blossfeldt. I had some correspondence with my tutor about the Exhibition and. In the context of Fontcuberta’s work, he posited that it might echo/take inspiration from the Archaeopteryx debate fuelled by Sir Fred Hoyle in BJP in 1987 as here.

In his review (see above) Lewis Bush ends with a comment “Stranger than Fiction is a great exhibition, which does a wonderful job of diagnosing one of photography’s major afflictions but which, in the end, offers us no convincing remedy for it.” The affliction being so many suspect photographs in daily life. However, I did notice the presence of ‘clues’ as I walked around indicating some of the fakery perhaps, such as an obvious join on a wolf-like creature with a tail or the web-footed squirrel like creature with a snake-headed tail – something that I just couldn’t quite believe in!


Implications for my own work

Well I would certainly love to be able to create work like that of Fontcuberta – something multi-dimensional and complex. I had some brief email contact with an artist whose work I admired at Farnham UCA Degree Show a few years ago – Jose Nieves who created an installation Fallax and Jose confirmed considering Fontcuberta in creating the show. I’ve looked for other such work referencing him but haven’t been successful so far, so other links welcome.

Unfortunately I don’t have a variety of artistic skills, only my camera; imagination and an urge to combine images with text. Even so, I can still be inspired by work such as that by Fontcuberta.

28th November 2014


Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality

This was a one day Symposium on 8th November organised by Media Space, Science Museum in collaboration with the University of Westminster and I attended with Penny and John. The format was traditional in the sense that the speakers presented a topic with a short time afterwards for discussion with Dave Bate and questions. I was somewhat concerned that a whole day sitting and listening might be too much for me but, in fact, it was all very inspiring. Not to mention that at lunchtime I also had the opportunity to spend some time exploring the Joan Fontcuberta Exhibition (post to be written).

Kate Bush, Head of Photography, Science Museum

Welcome speech, including the information that new works are going to be commissioned by the Media Space Gallery.

Dave Bate, Professor of Photography, University of Westminster

He put some context around fiction and photography, summarising its history which really goes back to the beginning, and the debates/disagreements regarding photography and ‘truth’ and criticisms of the use of ‘fiction’ either through manipulation of scene; image; use of light etc – with examples. Professor Bates drew our attention to the writings of Martha Rosler on this (link here ) and her work using photo-montage to contrast opposing realities such as depictions of domestic bliss v the Vietnam War in House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home and, brought up to date with a new series during 2004-2008 .

Reference was made to Walter Benjamin and his writing on storytelling and I’ve found this here  where Benjamin is referring to the decay in the art of oral storytelling:

In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing.   ………The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.

He was writing here after the end of WWI, at a time when the novel was replacing the oral tradition. A story is a story though. I know there is a difference between imagining a story in one’s head and listening to one but I think there is so much variety available now. So far as photography is concerned the continuing challenge is how to negotiate the dynamic between the values of truth; reality and fiction and “..use the photograph as a portal to another world” as mediated by the photographer as opposed to the writer.

Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Let’s Not and Say We Did: Fictional Journeys through Photography

Some wonderful examples of manipulation pre and post digital followed by a description of the way in which Space Exploration has been a subject of this, e.g. Stanley Kubrick used the technical expertise of two space engineers in his1968 film 2001 :A Space Odyssey to help him construct a convincing illusion. These engineers were also part of the team for the 1969 Apollo Space Mission. Conspiracy theorists used the fact of the film to accuse NASA of faking Neil Armstrong’s descent. This then inspired the film Capricorn I.

In the discussion afterwards Finemann re-stated the need and desire we have to believe in the truth of photography versus the knowledge that images are often faked. One of the questions afterwards was “Are there terms to judge a “successful” fictional project?”, citing ISIS and dissemination of their war machine. This led to Professor Bate’s query as to whether there are bases of judgment, rules of practice and/or conventions similar to advertising. He also pointed to the use of the term “construction” rather than manipulation, and directorial staging in how images are captured.

My thought was regarding my need to have my own ethics in terms of acknowledging whatever manipulation has been used not only in post-processing but in terms of how I have represented reality or fiction as I see it.

Lucy Soutter, Artist, critic and art historian
Fictive Documents, Fictional Lives

Do we collaborate with, or take advantage of, our subjects? How do we behave when “infiltrating” a group; immersing ourselves in it with the intention of using this for photography? Are we ‘overt’ or ‘covert’? This is an area I’ve always felt concerned about. In my working life I had to write reports on other people’s lives and motivations and, throughout, strove to represent them as objectively as possible. This is probably why I’ve felt hesitant about documentary photography which is from a more subjective viewpoint. It was Anna Fox’s view that documentary is telling a story about the truth that relaxed me.

If fiction’s role is to represent reality what problems occur when the lines blur? Soutter gave examples such as Walker Evans rearranging a kitchen and the novel Nadja (1928) by Andre Breton. Breton provides a first person narrative of his relationship with ‘Nadja’ (based on a real life relationship) which is supplemented by forty-four photographs – pictures of places and objects. I’m minded here of the more recent work of Sophie Calle who similarly mixes fact with fiction and photography and have recently written here about Lorna Simpson and Leonard & Dunye who have used ‘found’ photographs to create characters. Soutter also referred to the Sweet Flypaper of Life  by DeCarava & Hughes [1955] giving a different view of Harlem through photographs and dialogue.

Mention again made of Martha Rosler’s views on documentary and its clichés and how photographers now attempt to subvert these in many different ways by undermining the conditions in which images are made. Examples such as Broomberg & Chanarin Afterlife  [2009] and Alfredo Jaar’s The Eyes of Gutete Emerita  [1996]

Lucy Soutter also drew comparisons with novels and how multiple points of view can be used “to build layered picures of a situation” as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012). Through Soutter I have discovered Geraldine Brooks and her wonderful novel People of the Book (2008) based on the real life story of the Sarajevo Haggadah ( which is complex and fascinating in its own right). Walid Raad created The Atlas Group and the notebook of a fictional historian. There’s an interesting interview with him here . Going back to photography, Soutter stated that “fictive photography projects can extend the realist project to understand ourselves” – and this is an area of interest to me.

There followed a tripartite discussion between Lucy Soutter, Mia Fineman and Dave Bate. Soutter commented how some photojournalists move into “Art”, e.g. Luc Delahaye and, although truth is still the goal in photojournalism itself, there are Courses such as those run by the London College of Communication which explore all the different ways of representation.

There was some discussion on the photographer Sally Mann and the narrative element in her images of her children. I think this hearkened back to earlier in the day and the question as to whether artists collaborate or ‘use’ their subjects – well at least that was the chord for me. I can certainly agree that children do use their imagination and act out stories – sometimes like role-plays for future real-life scenarios – and they are encouraged to do this by their families and teachers. I don’t think that necessarily means that that creative acting-out justifies using it for photography. I don’t agree with Lucy Soutter either that it is the responsibility of the viewer to decide what they make of an image. The viewer certainly brings their own experience and creative imagination towards a work, but surely the artists themselves do have to take some responsibility for the work in the first place or are ethical values to be completely disregarded? I don’t intend to disregard mine.

Another point of view was offered (I forget by whom and don’t have a note of it), which related to the different descriptions heaped upon Sally Mann – bad mother etc. Given all these descriptions, could we read her photographs as if they are narratives by an author/photographer?

There was a different question regarding the role of the museum in representing truth which Mia Fineman related to Joan Fontcuberta’s Exhibition and acknowledged the role of the Curator in implementing a narrative. This wasn’t picked-up particularly but I think that’s an interesting point to pursue as I know I have often queried the role of the Curator in presenting a photographer’s work.

Cristina de Middel
When Fiction is Stranger Than Truth

Cristina moved from an early belief in the power of photography to change the world (that led her to Photojournalism), to no longer believing that you can change things with newspapers and she told us that all her work now is a reaction to this. This led her towards investigating photography’s “ambiguous relationship with truth” as in her series The Afronauts. which put her on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013.

Looking at her website  I would say that her style is eclectic whilst being underlined with a wry look at life and its absurdities, “We all breathe clichés. How to get inside them?” In terms of collaboration versus ‘taking advantage” of subjects’, Cristina told us about her project Life and Miracles of Paula P  which is a narrative concerning a real-life prostitute who Cristina got to know well. Whilst agreeing to be the subject, ‘Paula’ was very concerned as to her family finding out about her life and so Cristina turned her into an actress of herself. Each image is linked with short text in a matter of fact style which to me comes through as “This is how it is/was” without seeking sympathy for Paula’s predicament.

Her latest project was This is what Hatred did and she talks about this (and The Afronauts) in this video which has just been published

It looks a fascinating project – a fictional story that she made happen for real, and I was interested in her comment that this latest project is a self-portrait maybe of the way her mind works . Cristina also reminded me somehow of Joan Fontcuberta, not only in having also created projects concerning spam and space projects, but in the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humour that can infuse her work.

Peter Kennard
Photomontage Artist

Kennard’s photomontage work dates back to the Vietnam War and he told us about its historical roots in the work of Hannah Höch and Dadaism, an artists’ protest group trying to show the breakdown of society and what technology does to people. Walter Benjamin is his main political theorist and I think that pessimistic approach towards humans in society comes through in Kennard’s work. This video illustrates his approach very well.


I missed the final session of the day which was a discussion chaired by Federica Chiocchetti on the Virus of Fiction. Federica is an independent curator – she co-curated Amore e Piombo Exhibition at Brighton Photo Biennial 2014 which I wrote about here. She is working on her PhD in photography and fictions at the University of Westminster and is founder of the platform  which is, “devoted to exploring the intriguing relationship between photography and fictions, images and words”. I think this will be a good resource for me.

The day was full of information and inspiration for me, giving me many ideas relating to photography, fiction and use of text that I am still processing.

29th November 2014



Brooks, G (2008) People of the Book, HarperCollins, London