Anna Fox Talk : UCA Farnham 7th May 2014

This blog post first appeared on my DPP blog (which won’t be assessed because I transferred to Context & Narrative). The talk by Anna Fox has had a continuing effect on me and I think is particularly relevant to this new Module – questioning as it does the meaning of Documentary as “Telling a Story about the truth”.

OCA Study Visit

I’ve visited the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham previously during their Degree Shows but this time it was different because I felt a more immediate connection with the place in the person of Professor Anna Fox . The talk was relatively well-attended by OCA students as well given the venue and the mid-week timing.

We’d been provided with a link to an interview by Niccolo Fano in 2013 for American SuburbX and this set the scene nicely in covering some of the ground that Anna described in her talk to us. We OCA students are also fortunate now in having an edited video of the talk to refer to. I’m giving a link to an earlier, publicly available video below as it provides a reference point for me as well.

On looking at her website I was struck by the different ways in which she has approached documentary photography over the years although this is not surprising given that she qualified in 1986 and her approach will have evolved. She told us that she grew up with photography books in the house as her father was a keen amateur photographer and early influences were Brassaï, Atget, Cartier-Bresson and Tony Ray Jones. She is particularly interested in the ways in which images and text can be combined in many creative ways and the use of the printed page.

Anna worked before she went to study for her Degree at UCA, Farnham and her tutors were Martin Parr and Paul Graham as well as Karen Knorr. Karen Knorr is now her fellow Professor at UCA, Farnham and an immediate difference I see between them is that Karen Knorr appears to have a particular interest in the upper reaches of society and how they live, often adopting a wry, humorous look at them whilst producing exquisite imagery. Both of them use text to make political comments, but Anna Fox often looks aslant at the more ordinary and everyday.

It takes a very creative mind to keep a Cockroach Diary and make it into art – although, on the other hand, perhaps it was also one way to deal with them and her house sharers. This ‘recording’ of everyday life extended into Notes from Home when Anna moved from London to live in Hampshire near to where she was born and spent much time at home with her children. She created a series of hand-made concertina books which were displayed as an installation on shelves and the exhibition created was shortlisted for the 2010 Deutsche Borse Prize.

In the ASX interview Anna says that the irony that Karen Knorr creates with her use of image and text was an inspiration for her in creating Basingstoke 1985/86 and also Work Stations – a study of London office life in the late 1980s. This was a commissioned piece of work and she gained access to about 60 London offices. Anna told us that she wanted to look at how words can create a sense of drama by using text combined with images that portrayed the social conditions prevailing in Thatcher’s Britain – the place where “There’s no such thing as Society”, and there was an obsessive pursuit of success. Having worked in offices she had an insider view of what goes on in them which must have helped her as she negotiated entry. Anna told us that she didn’t ask permission to photograph workers but people knew she was there and if they didn’t want her to take photographs of them then she didn’t. In the ASX interview she also says that the Camerawork Gallery (one of the two commissioners of Workstations ) wanted her to concentrate on women at work but she objected to that:

I mean, it felt like they had employed a woman photographer simply because it would mean I would want to photograph women! I didn’t. I was more interested in politics, society and power structures within the working environment of the office and particularly in Thatcher’s Britain as the period later became known.

Her combination of text and image in this series is an example of her imaginative use of words. The captions were taken from other places and yet, placed in conjunction with the images, provided a third way of reading the narrative in the image along the lines of ‘survival of the fittest’. For example – a photograph of a young woman, on the telephone, with pen/pencil in hand, behind a desk is composed in such a way that the young woman looks embattled as two men, in suits, and holding briefcases loom at her from each side of the image. the caption is “Should a competitor threaten to kill a sale, the modem would provide a lifeline back to base computer” (Business 1986).

In addition to Karen Knorr, the influence of Martin Parr is also apparent in the colour and ironical approach – another example for me of the way in which a photographer can assimilate the approaches of, and influences/inspiration from, other photographers without copying or mimicking them.

During the session Anna made a statement that “documentary is a story about truth”. Now I’d never looked at it that way (which made me feel a little foolish) even though I “know” that we all have different versions of ‘the truth’ and, with our images, portray our own version of facts and situations. I know that this aspect of ‘truth’ is something I’m going to bear in mind much more consciously from now on. This was highlighted for me in looking at the series My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words (2000). This is described on her website as “An unexpectedly wicked narrative exploring a claustrophobic relationship” and was designed as a miniature bookwork. Close-up views of the contents of the cupboards are juxtaposed with words said (in other contexts) by her father. Here’s a video where Anna is talking about this work and others, which were shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2010

She describes the book (4.25 min in) as quite an evil book and talks about how her father, when he was very ill, used to rant a lot in the house, and the recording of it (and book) were her way trying to find a way to deal with this. During her talk to us Anna explained that when the images and captions were exhibited they were very small so that the viewer was enticed into them and this intensifies the claustrophobic atmosphere conveyed. Anna has said that although much of her work has been autobiographical it has also been created in such a way that other people can relate to it. I did think it was quite a cruel book, even though I could imagine something like that going on in other homes, and don’t think I could create that kind of work for public consumption. “Hanging out the dirty washing on the line” comes into mind! I also made a note to myself – “I felt detached. More of a performance than a dialogue. How is that reflected in her images?” Thinking around that now it could be that it was that sense of cruelty and claustrophobia that led to me distancing myself as an observer – trying to work out what was going on and avoiding confluence.

We also looked at some more recent, commissioned work done in Butlins for the occasion of their 70th Anniversary) and a commercial project in France, again with the subject of Leisure. For me this was less interesting because it was more staged, with a crew of people assisting her in a large scale production where she also uses the technique of stitching together images in composites. Well – she told us she does the rough composites of how she wants it to look and then has it sent away to be completed. This is clever and exacting work but, for me, the outcome was bland somehow and I was left thinking that, here, there is a fine line between Documentary and advertising. It also occurred to me that there is a metaphor in this somehow – the construction of the large images mirroring how a leisure industry is ‘constructed’, less is made to seem more and the unreal made real (and vice-versa).

Further thoughts

I am left with much to think about. I’m interested in the recording of every day life and this idea of documentary as a story about the truth – how something that happens, however trivial, can be embroidered into something with a rich texture using the warp and weft of image and text. There’s also that boundary line concerning ‘truth’ – how far does one go to make work more dramatic, and/or to touch the sensibilities of a wider audience? This is something that Lewis Bush recently touched on in a brief Duckrabbit post Hesitant Fictions using Joshua Lutz’s work Hesitating Beauty as a reference point for some thoughts on adding elements of fiction. I have quite a reading list now on Documentary, and have had discussions with other students on ethics, truth, fiction and different ways of combining image with text. A further thought concerns ‘open’ and ‘closed’ text. From what I’ve perceived so far (and allowing for contradiction) I think that Anna Fox uses text in a more directive way, which, perhaps, fits with irony as commentary.

Again, which is something I’ve touched upon in an earlier post, there is this use of photography as a form of self-therapy – to become an observer with a camera and so make sense of difficult situations and emotions.

I think that Anna Fox is a highly creative, energetic and action-oriented photographer with a mind teeming with ideas, and I gained a strong impression that she is an inspiring mentor and tutor. It would be good if there could be some collaborations between the Open College of the Arts and the University of the Creative Arts – talks, workshops etc.

25th June 2014