My Place in Landscape

Part 1 :Context and Research

I’m very interested in Psychogeography, the practice that is said to stem from the revolutionary group of artists and writers called Situationist International (SI) 1957 – 1972. In her introduction to the book I’ve just acquired, Tina Richardson writes:

For the SI, psychogeography was the ‘study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ [ ….]those taking part were expected to be conscious of the environment, especially in the way it tied in with a critique of capitalism (p. 2, 2015)

I’m not going to go into detail because I’m about photography at the moment but, from what I’ve gathered, psychogeographic practice is as fluid and varied as those people who perform it. Every urban walk is different according to the individual walker , the space/place and time etc. One of the papers in the book is by writer and performer Ian Marchant and Walking the Dog: (For those Who Don’t Know How to Do It) who paints a wonderful picture of the amount of local knowledge, history and individual peccadilloes that can be revealed through doing just that. I began to think it was all fiction, and so, being me, checked out Presteigne where he lives. Looks as if he was telling the truth!

I hadn’t realised I was a psychogeographer but I am in my own small way and this is what my relationship with landscape is all about at the moment. I was born and brought up on a large council estate. Back gardens were mainly just for looking at and we played in the street or went to the local park. For several years weekends were spent in Derbyshire in either of two family ‘huts’.

I’ve moved house several times as an adult and one of the first things I do when I’ve moved is to explore the local area and look at its history. Having recently read Jennifer Cross’s paper What is Sense of Place” (2001) it looks as if my sense of place now is both ‘Spiritual” because I feel at home/make a connection with the landscapes I find and ‘Narrative’ because I look for histories and recollections written by other people. In a sense, I make myself at home as opposed to feeling ‘rooted’, (thanks to my fellow student Stephanie d’Hubert for writing about this Paper and providing an access link.)

I realised recently that I’m most attracted towards small, wooded spaces where there’s a degree of safety because I’m not far from civilization (meaning houses) yet I can breathe a different air; have space to think and be in areas where nature has been given some freedom to be itself. My walks also fit with psychogeography in terms of Debord’s concept of ‘dérive’ – an unplanned tour directed by my feelings at the time because once I’ve set out I often take different routes according to how I’m feeling. This has become more apparent now that we’ve moved house. I can still get to the larger Common via a 5 minute drive but there are nearer smaller spaces where I can walk with the dogs. Assignment 1 was based on one of them – Ottershaw Memorial Fields but, this year, I discovered another smaller area where I don’t have to cross the busy main road.

This is where the political aspect comes in. The entry to Chaworth Copse is through a gate by the side of the main road. It was originally part of the grounds of ‘The Mansion’ (a large house set in the grounds of Ottershaw Park and this, together with nearby Timber Hill, was given to the poor to graze their animals on and later used as allotments from the 1800s until the 1960s. The Copse has been designated as a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) which gives it “legal protection from being disposed of by the Council at any time in the future for development” see here . This isn’t as simple as it sounds because local Councils are under government pressure to build new homes and are always looking for ways around protected areas plus some of the funding comes from the EU and our membership is under the spotlight. See here . I’ve been re-reading Marion Shoard again on Edgelands  and her reference to research done in York which showed that “….in the green belt around York, a quarter of the supposedly protected green belt within one mile of the edge of the built-up area was developed between 1966 and 1996”. I don’t think that the Copse comes within the meaning of Edgelands in the sense of an interfacial rim, but I do think that a precarious status does apply.

Many of the surrounding houses have garden gates opening onto the Copse and there are also several public footpaths leading off with access to back gates of other houses and also down to another busy road. Having written that, I rarely see anyone walking through the copse, even with a dog, so it’s almost as if I have my own private wood (cf also my Assignment 5 of People & Place here.)  I know that people do use it – there’s a game being played between myself and someone who keeps leaving a large soft toy perched on a tree. I move it in case it’s lost and it might get rained on. The toy disappears and then reappears somewhere else a few days later etc. There’s also an area which has a rope ‘swing’ near a branch structure, now covered with tarpaulin. From the rubbish I can sometimes see scattered and blackened twigs it’s obvious that one or more people (probably youngsters) use it for meet-ups. I even found myself tutting at it all one day (like a respectable elderly citizen) going back the next day with a carrier bag to clear some of the rubbish away, and then almost phoning the local Council to ask if they would empty the rubbish bin please because it was overflowing!

I couldn’t say it’s a beautiful area in the true sense of the word , certainly not ‘sublime’, with few wild flowers (apart from some lovely bluebells) but I enjoy walking through there, hearing the birds sing against the background of faint traffic noise and noticing what’s going on around me. Although ‘maintained’ by the local Council the area is left pretty much to itself apart from signs of trees being lopped sometimes. I walked through it with someone else a while ago whose comment was along the lines of , “This isn’t looked after at all is it. It’s a bit of a mess. I think a few houses could easily be built here”. There was I just enjoying the peace and quiet and thinking how nice it was to breathe fresh air and be in somewhere small but fairly natural! Politics with a small ‘p’.­ I realise as well that I need to challenge myself on wanting to think that something within shared public ownership is ‘mine’ and having elitist thinking. There’s something old in my head regarding the common weal but how each individual needs to feel some sense of pride or ownership to take proper care and not depend on someone else to take the responsibility.

Putting myself in the picture

I hadn’t felt entirely satisfied with my self portraits, couldn’t connect with them somehow and so wondered what I could do next. I’ve been building up a series of photographs of the Copse over the last few months and now thought of including some self-portraits there. I thought about and dismissed this several times though. I would have to stand a fair way from my tripod and camera. What if someone came along and stole them? I’d feel embarrassed to be seen doing something like that. People might see me from their bedroom windows and so on… Eventually it got to the point, like the original self-portraits, where I just had to do something. It was a fine day not too sunny or too dull so I would have less of a problem with exposures, and not too far to walk with a tripod over my shoulder and two dogs, on leads, who I couldn’t not take because they are my walking companions.

Photographic influences

The way I’ve handled research this time is to mainly look at photographers without making notes as an experiment to see how much I’ve absorbed when I come to make photographs. This is apart from Elina Brotherus who has occupied my thoughts quite a lot despite my original antipathy! Brotherus photographs in large, beautiful landscapes unlike my small Copse and, to my eye, tends to stand out from the landscape as opposed to becoming more a part of it as here. She also often has her back to the viewer. As I look at this one  I am reminded of Casper David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 of the anonymous man gazing at a wild landscape, “He is a protaganist engaging with the landscape not merely performing a supporting role” (J. A.P. Alexander [2015]) . Could Brotherus be representing this both in an ironic and ‘feminine’ way. There’s another image where she is wading in the water of a beautiful lake, delicately holding up the hem of her deep pink coat (see here  in what, to me, is a very feminine way of avoiding getting wet. With the reflection in the water this part of the image provides such a harmonious shape within the frame.

Was there any way I could put myself into the frame in a more ‘modest’ way, mainly facing the camera, whilst not entirely merging with the view?

I have also been clearly influenced by fellow student Keith Greenough and his Landscape Portrait series  as I was one of his first subjects. My involvement in this project made me think more deeply on my relationship to landscape using poetry (see here) and so now I have another opportunity to place myself within it in a different way.

Now I’ve made the environmental self portraits I’ve looked back on my Pinterest Boards and collection of PDFs to investigate other influences and inspirations that provided a foundation for the work.

Revealing more unconscious influences

I discovered Susan Trangmar and her earlier, colourful Untitled Landscapes 1985  taken in the UK where she places a woman gazing into the landscape, “The viewer is invited to make an identification with the view through her eyes while at the same time being aware of a ‘blind spot’ in the visual field caused by her physical presence” – as with the earlier work of Friedrichs and the later work of Brotherus. I also liked A Play In Time a film and book commissioned in 2008 by Photoworks in association with Brighton & Hove City Council. Here Trangmar explored the seasonal changes and use of urban green spaces. The film uses split screen techniques, with snatches of overhead conversation and ambient sounds, and I would like to do work like that someday. Now I’ve braved the open air with tripod and camera this might come easier to me than experimenting with my iPhone.There are two videos on YouTube showing excerpts from the film (just do a search on Susan Trangmar) and an excerpt on the Photoworks site

Eliot Porter  introduced colour to landscape photography and also the concept of ‘Intimate Landscape’ photography – making the invisible visible and looking at nature through a middle way between vistas and small detail with horizon and sky often missing. That way of making photographs attracts me and I’ve had a quite a few discussions with fellow students as to whether this is more of a feminine approach as opposed to male photographers and the wide sweep of the ‘sublime’. I’m still not sure as I haven’t found enough evidence so far. Porter certainly put landscape photography into the personal sphere when, in the preface to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition Catalogue, he wrote

Some critics suggest that I make photographs primarily to promote conservation but this allegation is far from the truth. Although my photographs may be used in this way, it is incidental to my original motive for making them, which is first of all for personal aesthetic satisfaction (E. Porter, 1979)

There’s an independence of thought here that I think puts landscape photography beyond a traditional genre.

John Darwell’s Project Borderland (1988-90) explored areas in Cumbria where nature and industry meet so as to comment on tensions between man made and natural landscape. I’m not so much looking at this but do have this continuing query as to when is a landscape natural and when not and Darwell’s style also fits my way of looking at landscape .

Another large influence has been John Gossage and The Pond ­ – series gifted to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and exhibited in 2010. See a Review of the Exhibition Sarah Boxer for The Washington Post here . There is also a long video of the Exhibition Talk on the Smithsonian site, which is also on YouTube (interestingly a video of the book runs as a background to the walk and that reminded me of the OCA talk by Johanna Ward, who said The Pond was an influence on her work and also ran a video of her own book behind her.).

Aperture originally published the book in 1985 but it was reissued in 2010 with an essay by Gerry Badger. The book contains 52 b+w photographs taken on a walk around a derelict pond behind a shopping centre in Queenstown, Md . At first I felt disappointed that the photographs weren’t in colour but then I entered into the images to absorb the feel and sense of Gossage’s intention. We see glimpses of the pond in the first three photographs and then buildings through the trees in the fourth and so the walk unfolds. There is an essay by Gerry Badger at the back of the book where he describes how Gossage sets the pace, tenor and mood of this walk first in a forensic manner and then, by turning our gaze upwards, “[…..] we catch a glimpse of what nature might, or should, be”.

ASX  published an essay about the Pond by Robert Adams on 24th February, 2013 (an excerpt from Creative Camera: 30 Years of Writing [2000]). Adams reminds us of the thoughtlessness involved in where trash is placed unnecessarily and the hatred of life that makes some people break a tree, “for the pleasure of seeing it broken”. For him this makes Gossage’s study believable, “because it includes evidence of man’s darkness of spirit, it is memorable because of the intense fondness he shows for the remains of the natural world”.

Despite his echo of Thoreau, which might seem to promise a didactic pounding, Gossage does not use his survey of wood around a lake to stress an indictment; the off-road landscape through which he leads us is a mixture of the natural one and our junk, but his focus is not so much on the grotesqueries of the collage as on the reassurances of nature’s simplicities.

There’s little of that kind of damage in ‘my’ small Copse but it is a small piece of nature.

I will be presenting my own the images in the next post and then, in my reflections explore whether I have been able to portray my own pleasure in a small, fairly ordinary landscape, whilst also placing myself into the frame in a different way from Brotherus and Trangmar.

27th August 2015

References

 Aexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place, Bloomsbury Publishing UK
Brittain, D (ed) (2000) Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing, Manchester University Press
Cross, J. E. (2001) What is Sense of Place Conference Paper, Colorado.
Gossage, J. (2010) The Pond , Aperture Foundation, NY
Porter, E (1979) Intimate Landscapes : Photographs by Eliot Porter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Richardson T (Ed) (2015) Walking Inside Out : Contemporary British Psychogeography, Rowman & Littlefield,

http://photo-graph.org/galleries/
https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/elina-brotherus/
http://shop.photoworks.org.uk/products/a-play-in-time-susan-trangmar
https://stephaniedhlearninglog4.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/notes-what-is-sense-of-place-j-e-cross/
http://susantrangmar.com/art/untitled/Untitled1.html
http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/02/john-gossage-john-gossages-the-pond-1986.html
http://www.cartermuseum.org/collections/porter/
http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/
http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/large-de-vue-hommage-a-erik-satie/
http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/the-new-painting/
http://www.ianmarchant.com
http://www.marionshoard.co.uk/Documents/Articles/Environment/Edgelands-Remaking-the-Landscape.pdf
http://www.ottershawsociety.org/2015/01/
http://www.ottershawsociety.org/useful-links/ottershaws-open-spaces-sangs/
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090305544.html

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Context and Narrative Part 3: Projects One and Two

Context and Narrative Part 3

Putting Yourself in the Picture

Here I am on Part 3. I know I’ve been holding back a little but this is mainly due to feeling unfinished on my Assignment 2 because I’m still having ideas about presentation for Assessment. I also got myself stuck on ‘searching for Francesca Woodman in her images’ and decided that I was spending too much time on this and will save it for completion at a later date.

Part 3 concerns putting myself in the picture one way or another in its widest sense. My understanding of this is that it’s not just a case of being both subject and object but portraying aspects of my inner and outer world through my own eyes – both literally and metaphorically. This isn’t new to me because I’ve done this in one way during Part Two and through the Assignment.

I’ve looked at the Assignment brief for Part 3 and started my diary several weeks ago which is really a continuation of the one I started during Part 2 but with a different approach. The earlier one was about ideas for fictional stories, although containing aspects of me of course, but the new one is more focussed on ‘me’. I’m actually finding this new diary quite boring and the phrase that keeps coming over and over again into my head is, “I lead a quiet life nowadays”. There’s no way that I’ve been able to write two or three pages a day, even in the equivalent of handwriting! It isn’t that I feel bored, just that my life is more sedate nowadays and I’m not driving around meeting and interacting with a lot of different people.

I have a few ideas for Assignment 3 at present abut have decided to wait until I’ve worked through the reading and exercises etc. Hopefully further inspiration will strike!

Project 1 – Autobiographical self-portraiture
(Using yourself to say something about yourself)

The Handbook suggests we look at several photographers who use self-portraiture in a variety of ways. I won’t be writing about Francesca Woodman in this post because I got almost obsessively involved with her, her images, and her life-story. Due to this I acquired a large amount of references and readings and I need to distil my thoughts from all this.

Keith Greenough

Keith’s Iron Man series was about his involvement with the Iron Man Triathlon – long distance races consisting of swimming, a bicycle ride and a marathon, in that order, without a break, and within a strict time limit . Keith explored this through a series of portraits of ‘senior’ triathletes (all over 45) but also through I am an ironman as he came in from training. He presented this as a video and also through a composite portrait. This series continued his exploration into strategies used by portrait photographers to ‘disarm the pose’ of their subjects. He was making himself the subject of his own experiments.

The work that most interested me was his composite portrait. I think because it gives movement to the image. Keith is so full of energy and I’ve rarely seen him ‘still’, therefore the composite, for me, captures the essence of him as opposed to his outward appearance. What would my view be if I didn’t know him quite well? A difficult question. I’d certainly be asking questions as to why, at a more mature age, he chose to pursue this type of sport; what drives him – a subject that obviously leads into documentary.

Elina Brotherus

I wrote about Elina Brotherus here .  I do think she was brave to agree to this series being exhibited in the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity Exhibition and can only imagine what it must have been like for her to undergo IVF treatment; to begin with hope and then for the attempts to fail. She is certainly speaking for a wider audience here. Would they listen and would her being naked make them pay attention to her work and the accompanying explanation, or would her nakedness turn people away? To begin with I queried the naked pose although now, today, and after listening to her talk last year about her experience, I can see how her naked body adds to that sense of being unarmed, not equipped to cope with such a loss of hope.

I have looked again at Model Studies and noticed how carefully she places herself in the frame and how her skin tone and/or clothes are mirrored by the environment within which she places herself. I also noted that the landscape itself is always beautiful to look at. The landscape I visit is more mundane, everyday on the whole. It’s a small landscape that I can pretend I own as I walk through it. The challenge for me would be to create images that would be interesting for people to look at.

Gillian Wearing

A Gillian Wearing Exhibitions was amongst the first I visited as an OCA student and my write up on that Exhibition is here . This was the question I went with:

After my preparatory reading I noted down masks, sense of self; many different selves; unexpressed selves; boundaries; verbal/non-verbal; Erving Goffman; Eleanor Rigby, and showing yourself through your art.   I read Goffman many years ago and was entertained by his notion of the front and back stage personalities – that we all enact multiple roles in our lives. That was the biggest question I took with me to the Exhibition – is Gillian Wearing going to show me herself through her art – ‘communicate an inner life by proxy’ as her interviewer writes?

 I certainly didn’t get any sense of her as a person or really that she was questioning her role in her family history, or how her role within the family affected the person she is today. The masks made her look robotic, an android. The way people look when they are dead.

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for
(Lennon, J & McCartney, P. [1966]

One of the latest works (November 2014) I have found on an internet search is described here . Interestingly enough, the two ‘mums’ declined to give any details of their personal lives at the time, so there was a continuation of hiding in plain sight. And here  a C-type print Me as an Artist in 1984 Looking out at us through a mask of herself as a 21 year old, created from an old photograph. This is one of five pieces of work she entered for the Vincent Award, an international art prize. Of 50,000 euros. The Award was won by Anri Sala, the Albanian installation artist.

Project 2 – Masquerades

Nikki S. Lee

Born in 1970, in Korea, as Lee Seung-Hee, this photographer and film-maker came to New York in 1994 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology and work as a fashion photographer’s assistant. She changed her name to a more American sounding one, perhaps showing her desire to become assimilated into this new Culture. Much of her work  has involved her in transforming herself to fit into various sub-cultures – Hispanic, Hip Hop, Tourists etc.

In an interview here  Lee refers to Buddhism and a saying along the lines of “I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well”. Lee questions her own identity by including herself into other people’s identity. There’s that element of performance in her, acting into a different group. It’s interesting – I’ve never really wished I was someone else. I do remember though, at about the age of 12, wrapping a scarf around my head to see what I looked like as a nun , and then deciding I’d prefer to be an American Indian princess. The first was after exposure to religion in the form of the Christian Fellowship and the second after watching at the cinema (many times) the film Apache. Burt Lancaster was my hero and I obviously wanted to be Jean Peters!

I don’t get the sense that Lee is being voyeuristic or exploitative. I understand what she is exploring – the way in which in any new group we usually observe and work out how the group operates – what it is to be a part of that group – how can I be myself and yet be accepted. I think she is questioning this in addition to questioning the role of photography in the representation of reality.

For example, in gaining admission to a tight social circle, the participant observer may not only wear an accepting look while listening to an informant, but may also be careful to wear the same look when observing the informant talking to others; observers of the observer will then not as easily discover where he actually stands. (Goffman, 1959, p. 19)

Trish Morrissey

I think her work Front (2005-2007) is very interesting and, probably, if I could observe, it would be a lesson in persuasion/communication. Changing clothing, acting herself into the position of one of the women. Similar to Lee and yet more than that, more interactive, as Morrissey asked the woman she ‘replaced’ to take the photograph after some instruction. I would probably agree to a request for her to join us but it would depend what clothes she wanted to swap whether I agreed to that! I think my children would have enjoyed it.

In an earlier series Seven Years (2001-2004) Morrisey “aimed to deconstruct the trope of family photography by meticulously mimicking it”. Seven years was the age gap between herself and her sister and she staged herself and her sister in tightly controlled scenes based on conventional family photographs. She used props and clothing from earlier times with the family house as the ‘stage’. The colours look authentic although not so sure about the prints. I keep imagining what it must have been like; what conversations they had. Did they clear up any old rivalries/misunderstandings.

Tracey Moffat

Under the sign of Scorpio (2005)
I was interested to read here  that Moffat shot her series “…with a simple digital camera in my loft against a bed sheet curtain, and in my cramped awful bathroom. I then added the high-key supernatural coloured landscape backgrounds to the images in Photoshop on my computer”. She wanted a “very pop, almost comic book quality” to fit her proposition that the women she chose to represent are ‘pop figures’, part of the landscape of popular western culture.   As mentioned in C&N Handbook, p. 81, Moffat isn’t particularly convincing in these portrayals. She makes it obvious that she’s acting and uses the manipulated image to “raw attention to the limitations of photography’s role in the masquerade”. There’s something else for me about diminution of anything these women might have achieved in their lives – picking up their life’s work, trying it on like a costume, and then discarding it.

Moffat often uses clips from Hollywood movies in her work. The latest series (at least that I can find) is Spirit Landscapes (2013) which comprised five photographic series and a moving image work. In one of the series Pioneer Dreaming she uses grabs from ‘Cowboy movies’ – “The dreamy heroines gaze with love at ‘their country’, which is in fact stolen Indian land.

Conclusions

Overall I feel more connected with Morrissey’s work. To me it seems less of a performance and more of an exploration. I need to think about this more – what do I mean when I say this? I’m also thinking about age and wider cultural context. Moffat was born in 1960, Wearing was born in 1963, Morrissey was born in 1967 and Lee in 1970 –  in the time when feminism was taking hold, women were wanting to discover themselves. Who am I really? What do I want to be? Each of them in their own way brings roles, expectations and stereotypes to our attention using photography as the medium whilst also pointing out too that photography itself does not always reflect ‘reality’.

References

Goffman, E (1959) the Presentation of Self In Everyday Life London: Penguin Books Ltd
Lennon, J & McCartney, P (1966) Eleanor Rigby, (on “Revolver”) Parlophone

[Accessed on 03.08.2015]
http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/show/nikki-s-lee
http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/model-studies/
http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/news/releases/2005/07/10/94/
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/gillian-wearing-vincent-award
http://www.tonkonow.com/lee.html
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/

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) http://www.wikiart.org/en/akseli-gallen-kallela/d-masqu-e-1888#supersized-artistPaintings-293897 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.

. DSCF1297 web

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.

DSCF1296 6x4 web

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

References

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akseli_Gallen-Kallela#Paintingshttp://www.elinabrotherus.com/news/ http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/suites-francaices-2/ https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/elina-brotherus/ http://thewappingprojectbankside.com/exhibitions/2014/elina-brotherus/index.shtml http://weareoca.com/?s=elina+brotherus http://weareoca.com/photography/elina-brotherus/ https://vimeo.com/22647132 https://vimeo.com/58005699 http://www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk/home-truths-3