Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power

I visited this exhibition at Tate Modern not really knowing what to expect, certainly I knew something of the Black Power movement in the USA, but very little of black art from the time.

The whole exhibition was fascinating but I will look at three aspects that struck me and in particular how they relate to my study of landscape. Some of the first images in the exhibition were by Romare Bearden who I had not heard of before,

(Romare Bearden, The Dove, 1964)

They were collages and I was particularly interested in these because of my own interest in producing collages for Assignment 6. One of them “The Street” was a beautiful collage constructed of images from magazines of the time. There were many people in the image, some fully depicted, others suggested, almost like ghosts. They were set against a cityscape background of buildings, street and a bridge. The composition and achievements of his collages has given me a lot to explore for my own work.

Out of the whole exhibition one imag stood out to me above all others. It was by Archibald Motley and has the very prosaic title of The First One Hundred Years; He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast The First Stone ; Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do c1963-72.

This oil on canvas took ten years to complete and presents what the gallery notes call a nightmarish vision of “a nation at its symbolic best and worst. The terror of the Klansman’s burning cross shares space with the sacrifice of the crucifixion “.This is a landscape with a very powerful political message.

The third aspect which interested me was the photography of Royal Decarava. I will take two of his images as examples. As a landscape Platform and Light 1960 is simple but very suggestive.

To me it talks of the anonymity of travel, perhaps of disorientation.

Finally, having seen a lot of images of the Civil Rights movement and read of the struggles against violence and discrimination, I found this image by Decarava very moving in what it suggested.

 

The fact that it’s title is Shade cord and window 1961 somehow added to the intrigue. It also showed to me how the curating and display of images can affect how they are viewed.

Exercise 2.6: Edgelands

I liked this concept of Edgelands, somewhere not quite of itself but on the edge of somewhere else – not interesting enough to be a town or city centre, not rural enough to be called countryside – the places where you find sewage treatment works, power stations, business or retail parks. The wording on the front cover of the book describes Edgelands as “a wilderness that is much closer than you think: a debatable zone, neither the city nor the countryside, but a place in-between – so familiar it is never seen for looking”. Writing on the back cover of the book Richard Mabey says that the Edgelands “where the veneer of civilisation peels away, are the most despised and ignored of landscapes”.

In Wire Farley & Roberts consider finding wire in the landscape, whether the sagging, single strand of a wire fence around a derelict building – or the high fences surrounding a freight depot. They consider the fence, e.g. razor wire, as a deterrence an the threat it poses. They describe children climbing chain link fences sad, wilted flowers tied to fences as tributes to victims of road accidents.

What they achieve from their description is an evocation of the different feel or sense that you get from seeing a fence and what is beyond – happy childhood memories or feelings of threat and unease.

In Power they describe power stations, in particular cooling towers as they appear in the landscape. They consider that they do fit one of the criteria defining Edgelands “a function we can’t live without, but don’t want to live with” and “We want them close enough to serve us, but far enough to be ignored”.

They make an interesting point about architecture in the Edgelands, that there is “more freedom from the watchful eyes of city planners and residents worried about house prices, they can throw up shapes and forms that don’t look quite like anywhere else”. They then talk a little about how the Bechers photographed and displayed such structures. This is a point that rings very true, you do see a style of architecture in such places that would, in most cases, not be acceptable in town and city centres. It would be interesting to explore the edgelands of where I live.

I was familiar with the Becher’s work having seen it in an exhibition, but I couldn’t remember the work of John Davies, so I looked up the image they refer to http://www.johndavies.uk.com/ox.htm. Davies titles it Agecroft Colliery, Salford 1983. Farley & Roberts describe it as “One of the most remarkable photographs of cooling towers”. It is a compelling composition showing the scale (almost brutality) of the power station and the electricity generation but countered by the people carrying on their lives (playing football) regardless. The people are dwarfed by the architecture, but play their football regardless. It is the inclusion of people in the frame that makes this image. Without them it might be a photo of the grandeur (or ugliness) and the scale of the buildings. Including the football match in the frame shows how the buildings are constructed for human benefit, but also the price that has to be paid for enjoying what they produce.

 

Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011) Edgelands: journeys into England’s true wildnerness. London: Jonathan Cape.

Exercise 2.5: Text in art

For this exercise I took a short walk around the churchyard in the village of Stanhoe, Norfolk. I made a few observations as I walked around and took photos on my phone. Thinking about he exercise later I decided to transfer my observations in the form of Haikus, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world”. (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/haiku)

I had never written a Haiku before so it was quite an experience. I found that the restrictions of the form of the poem really made me concentrate on the image or observation I was trying to convey.

 

STANHOE CHURCHYARD 

 

Tiny mushroom caps
Painted white the path is brown
Nature’s parasols

 

Open but unripe
Fell from the tree much too soon
Infertile chestnut

 

Glistening brown seed
earthy colours presenting
Child playing conkers

 

Crawling through the grass
The slug slithers its way to
Whoever knows where

 

Cross as a headstone
Blank grey stones behind it
Who chooses a cross?

 

Stone covered in moss
A carpet of living green
The occupant beneath

 

Yellow on the cross
Lichen giving it colour
Yellow not blood red

 

The green of the shrub
Provides the perfect background
Yellow by the graves

 

Ivy reaching out
Spreading over the brick wall
What does it feed on?

 

Random stone pattern
The wall surrounds the churchyard
Wall stone not head stone

 

Fungal growth on bough
Little mushroom mighty tree
Which of them dies first?

 

Gateway to churchyard
Entrance for living, and dead
Wrought iron guardian

 

Parish noticeboard
Lead roof of church protected
Is nothing sacred?

 

The same poems next to a photo of the observation I made

 

 

 

Tiny mushroom caps
Painted white the path is brown
Nature’s parasols

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open but unripe
Fell from the tree much too soon
Infertile chestnut

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glistening brown seed
earthy colours presenting
Child playing conkers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawling through the grass
The slug slithers its way to
Whoever knows where

 

 

 

 

 

Cross as a headstone
Blank grey stones behind it
Who chooses a cross?

 

 

 

 

 

Stone covered in moss
A carpet of living green
The occupant beneath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow on the cross
Lichen giving it colour
Yellow not blood red

 

 

 

 

 

The green of the shrub
Provides the perfect background
Yellow by the graves

 

 

 

 

Ivy reaching out
Spreading over the brick wall
What does it feed on?

 

 

 

 

Random stone pattern
The wall surrounds the churchyard
Wall stone not head stone

 

 

 

 

 

Fungal growth on bough
Little mushroom mighty tree
Which of them dies first?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gateway to churchyard
Entrance for living, and dead
Wrought iron guardian

 

 

 

 

 

Parish noticeboard
Lead roof of church protected
Is nothing sacred?

 

 

Exercise 2.4: Is appropriation appropriate?

Geoff Dyer’s article was thought-provoking and I found the work of the artists he mentions reletively interesting. I was, however, left with the feeling ‘so what’s new?’

Lucie-Smith (2003 p17) defines appropriation as a “Term used when an artist takes over pre-existing images to re-employ them unchanged in a different context or with a different purpose in mind”. Harris (2006) talks of Warhol appropriating soup cans and boxes of brillo pads, also of Rauschenberg appropriating existing images into his own work. Magada-Ward (2009) describes the work of Sherrie Levine who photographed photographs taken by, among others, Walker Evans and Edward Weston and then (re)presents them as her own in the series After Walker Evans and After Edward Weston. Langford (2008) describes the work of Christy Johnson who acquires photographs in the marketplace and uses them to construct a narrative around religious themes.

In this respect the appropriation of Google street view images follows in a similar tradition, the use of images produced by someone (or something) else in a different context or different way from their original use. I am, personally, quite comfortable with the use of images in this way (provided they don’t breach copyright laws. As far as I am concerned it is the final image and how it is viewed that is important not how it was obtained.

In fact appropriation of Google Street View images can have a very positive effect, Google itself has published a film of a person with severe agorophobia who used Street View images. The Agoraphobic Traveller tells the story of how Jacqui Kenny found what she considered to be fascinating images when using Street View. Quoted on the Stories for Good website  she says that “Over a span of a year and a half I have taken over 27,000 screen grabs, yet just over 200 have made the cut”. She has now had an exhibition at a Manhattan Gallery. A selection of her images can be seen at http://theagoraphobictraveller.bigcartel.com/#_ga=2.229138972.1285651648.1509885515-2070799425.1509885515 

 

 

REFERENCES

HARRIS, J. (2006) Art history: the key concepts. London: Routledge.

LANGFORD, M. (2008) ‘Strange Bedfellows: Appropriations of the Vernacular by Photographic Artists’ In: Photography and Culture 1 (1) pp.73–93. [online] At: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175145108784861400 [Accessed 02/11/2017]

LUCIE-SMITH, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of art terms. London: Thames & Hudson.

MAGADA-WARD, M. (2009). On Wanting to Write This as Rose Selavy: Reflections on Sherrie Levine and Peircian Semiotic. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 23(1), new series, 28-39. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20721541 [Accessed 04/11/2007]

STORIES FOR GOOD https://www.storiesforgood.org/the-agoraphobic-traveller/#_ga=2.229138972.1285651648.1509885515-2070799425.1509885515 [Accessed 03/11/2017]

Exercise 2.3: Typologies

Listening to Lewis Baltz talking about his work on the Tate video, three comments really struck me in what he said.

Firstly he believes that ‘Photography is the only deductive art, every other medium begins with a blank sheet. Photography starts with a world that’s perhaps overfull and needs to sort out from that world what is meaningful’. I hadn’t thought about photography in this way before, but as soon as you hear Baltz’s statement it seems obvious, painting, drawing all start with a blank sheet of paper, whereas in photography you start with what you have in your viewfinder and then frame the image in the way that you think will give the best final result. Having said this, and thought about this a bit more, Baltz’s statement is not totally true, in that with the use of digital manipulation the image can be added to – its not all about deductive art.

The second comment Baltz made was about the worls splitting between those who follow Matisse and those who follow DuChamp. He said ‘I love Matisse but I find DuChamp a thousand times more interesting’. I had studied both artists on previous courses, but had never considered them as a binary option. I don’t think that Baltz means it literally, but the point that I think that he is making is one about making the viewer consider, or think about, the product presented by the artist rather than simply admire the technique or beauty of the image.

Finally Baltz says that he is often asked why there are no people in his images. He replies The place for people in my work is the viewer. I found this an interesting point, he is consciously trying to produce work for viewers to engage with. It would be interesting to know if he thought that by including people within his images, whether that would affect the dynamic of how the viewer interacts with it.

 

Having read Sean O’Hagan’s article I was attracted by the work of Nicholas Nixon. I found a selection of his work at The Fraenkel Gallery  All of the images were of cities and were all taken from an elevated position. This had the effect, for me, of emphasising the geometrical shapes of the buildings and city layout. It is an interesting approach to adopt the same elevated viewpoint for a series of images, it almost gives a bird-eye view, as if one is a third party observer of a conurbation rather than one who inhabits or visits such a place.

It is interesting to study Nixon’s work New Topographics, particularly as it is so very different to what I would have classified as landscape photography before I started this course. It is all impersonal but strikingly geometrical, Nixon has really brought out the shapes in the scenes.

Exercise 2.2(2): Explore a road – review of a film

The Road

I watched this film which is an adaptation of the novel by Cormack McCarthy. It is an unremittingly bleak film of life in a distopian future. It follows the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of a father and son attempting to travel to the coast in a post-apocalyptic USA. We never know what has happened to the world, but there would seem to have been some kind of nuclear or environmental disaster. There are few, if any, animals and the trees and vegetation are all grey; the buildings have all been destroyed. The landscape is bleak and barren throughout the film. There is little sunlight (apart from in flashbacks) with the sky consistently grey and much of the land covered in a grey ash.

The road presents the only hope to the father and son in presenting them with a route to the coast, which the father seems to believe is their only chance of survival. But the roads are lawless with marauding gangs of killers and cannibals. Whenever the pair are threatened by the gangs they have to flee the road into the barren landscape around them. This produces a dichotomy of the road presenting the hope of the most direct route to salvation but the most dangerous way of getting there. Not that safety is afforded everywhere off the road, in one particularly haunting scene the, seemingly secure, cellar they discover turns out to be an horrific prison where human beings are incarcerated for later slaughter and consumption by cannibals. Later in the film though, another cellar provides a womb like sense of security with plentiful food and shelter. This can only be a temporary respite though (they could not stay there forever). So it is back to the road and their journey to the coast. The road now helps them on their journey by making it easier to haul their cart full of provisions with them.

It seems to me that the road is a metaphor for life, when the going is very tough there is a tremendous struggle to survive, some fall by the wayside, some (like the wife in the flashbacks) choose not to go on, others make herculean (such as the father) efforts to continue. The film explores how good and evil can be brought out by the the most trying of circumstances and the road is the route through which these opposites are examined.

The end of the film presents the nearest we ever get to hope and salvation, not that it is a happy ending, that would be almost unbelievable in the context of the rest of the film. Father and son reach the end of the road (in the father’s case both literally and metaphorically). The father lays down his life in protecting his son but another family then appear and offer to protect the child.

The child has travelled the road and now faces a very uncertain future, but one that has a little more hope than was the case at the start of the journey.

Exercise 2.2(1): Explore a road – series of photographs

For this exercise I chose to photograph Cemetery Lane, a road that leads past the cemetery (unsurprisingly) and on to our local train station. I tried taking photographs that gave a sense of what it would be like to walk down the road. Not of the road itself, but of what lies either side of it Many of the images are what you would see if you looked to the side or above rather than straight ahead. In some ways this reflected what I had seen in the film The Road as the other part of this exercise, although the road was the central part of the film, much of the action took place at places off the road (houses, woods, cellar, etc).

 

 

The exercise was interesting in the way it challenged me to look at a very familiar road from a different perspective. Some of the images are perhaps a little ‘routine’ , those that focus on the road itself especially so. I most likethe images that study the play of light in a particular setting, whether high in the trees or on the leaves of a bush by the roadside.

Exercise 2.1: Territorial Photography

Snyder talks about the changing market for images “I am suggesting that they were produced to meet the demands of a growing middle-class audience” (p179). He goes on to state that this resulted in a change in photographic practice to in which the suggestiveness of images and the picturesque was replaced by real precision throughout the image. He thought that the photographer through technical ability, sought to “record a sight that is understood to be a natural image of nature” (p183). He believed that the aims of photographers were to produce “honest, scientifically sanctioned pictures of nature that somehow were supposed to escape artifice, personal interest and subjective response” (p185).

 

He then goes on to discuss the work of Carleton Watkins and how he diverged from the ruling Landscape practice, derived from painting, by showing the views as they would be seen by other people and not as a constructed or idealised setting. Further Snyder (p187) describes how Watkins attempted to “portray a visual harmony between the land and the new tokens of progress symbolized by the industrialization of the land itself”. He talks of a “broader enterprise of harmonising nature and industry” (p188) and describes Watkins’ images as “essentially invitational in character” (p189). These met the demands of an audience that had been led to expect positive images of technical progress and how the natural frontiers were being conquered and fortunes were being made.

 

Having described Watkins’ images as “invitational” he then considers the works of Timothy O’Sullivan whose work he describes as “contrainvitational” (p189). By this he means that O’Sullivan’s work denies the premise of Watkins’ images in that they portray the wildness and inhospitable nature of the landscape. These are not photographs of technical progress or of a land where man is taming the landscape, rather they show “a bleak, inhospitable land, a godforsaken, anaesthetising landscape” (p191). He summarises the difference between the photographs of Watkins and O’Sullivan as “the difference between the familiar, known, and understood and the alien, unknown and unintelligible” (p199).

 

For the next part of the exercise I have chosen to study Street View at the Hacienda, New Almaden1863 by Carleton Watkins and Cañon de Chelle. Walls of the Grand Cañon about 1200 Feet in Height by Timothy O’Sullivan.

 

The Street View at the Hacienda seems typical of the style of work that Snyder attributes to Watkins. The observer’s eye is led into the picture by the road and buildings that start at the bottom left of the frame. The image captures the majestic landscape in the distance, but in a soft and inviting way. The tones lighten as the image recedes into the distance. The development in the front plane is in sharp focus whereas the rolling hills beyond are soft and gradually merge into the sky. The diagonal line of the track suggests movement and action whereas the soft rolling lines of the hills and faint clouds are more calming. The buildings occupy a substantial part of the building and suggest permanency while the hills provide an attractive and welcoming backdrop. This image suggests that man is in control of his environment within an attractive setting. This is one of Watkins’ mining photographs and I think that it illustrates a point made by Snyder (p187) when he commented on the images of the railroad at Cape Horn “The regular tracks drive the eye toward the background , where they disappear into the land, without a trace”. While the railroad tracks in Cape Horn recede directly into the distance, in Street View at the Hacienda the road and buildings merge into the folds and valleys of the landscape. In both cases this suggests the union of development and environment.

 

Cañon de Chelle. Walls of the Grand Cañon about 1200 Feet in Height by Timothy O’Sullivan is a very different image. The rocks of the Grand Canyon tower over the shallow centre, trees are dwarfed by the scale of the rocks at the edges of the canyon. In the lower left of the picture are three tents, tiny in comparison to their environment. Snyder writes (p194) that figures in O’Sullivan’s images “function most often as indices of a precarious and frightful relationship between explorer and the object of exploration. The rocks of the canyon are in sharp focus in all planes with a clearly marked distinction from the sky. The overall impression is one of wilderness and the inhospitable nature of the canyon, the only human intervention is evidenced by the minute tents and vegetation is sparse. Snyder (p191) notes that O’Sullivan’s images “repeatedly deny what Watkins’ photographs characteristically confirm namely, the possibility of comfortable habitation, of an agreeable relation of humans to the natural landscape”. I think that Snyder’s (p196) comment about O’Sullivan’s work is particularly true of this image, that his representation is “an awed stare into a landscape that is unmarked, unmeasured, and wild, a place in which man is not yet”.

Assignment 1 – Tutor Feedback

I received the first feedback from my tutor which was overall quite positive, but with a number of suggestions that I need to bear in mind when continuing to follow the course.

The main learning points I have taken from the feedback are:
• Need to use research as a way of developing my creative thinking
• Development in more depth in blog comments and reflect on reading and my own work
• Taking time to research work of other photographers and develop projects

I will try to take these points on board as I carry on with the course

Exercise 1.9: Visual research & analysis–social contrasts

The purpose of this task is to find socially contrasting images of the same place, either different images by the same photographer or by different photographers.

It is not possible to show any of these images on an open blog such as this due to copyright restrictions. I have therefore inserted hyperlinks to take you to the appropriate images.

First of all I thought of Bill Brandt who was a great chronicler of his time. They are two images taken maybe 20 miles apart but in a different social world. The first is Sunday Evening, the Kissing Point, Hyde Park, London, 1936 whereas some 20 miles west of the location Brandt photographed Eton Sprawls

The Guardian has a series of photos taken by Jim Goldberg that highlight the social contrasts in America. These are mainly interior shots or portraits, but they certainly bring home the differences. Rich and Poor: America’s great social divide – in pictures

Robert Frank is famous for his publication The Americans. Sean O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian (Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won’t look back) describes the book as “perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century”. But prior to that, Frank had been taking photographs in London. I’ve selected two images that he took in the early 1950’s as examples that highlight the social differences of London. Near Victoria Station, London and City of London, 1951.

In London 1951-52 Frank succinctly captures the social contrast in a single image.

Moving west from London to Cardiff, I came across this image commissioned from Magenta Photography for the Central Square Development in Cardiff City Centre. I thought that this provided a great contrast with the images of   Maciej Dakowicz whose Cardiff After dark publication paints a very different social scene such as  Bus Stop Meals.

Dakowicz also produced a memorable photograph illustrating social contrasts in a single image The Night after Mardi Gras Festival.

Johnny Miller is a photographer who uses aerial images to highlight divisions within Cape Town within a single image. Some of the photographs and an article about them can be seen at Photographer Johnny Miller highlights divide between Cape Town’s rich and poor with aerial photos. The images really do contrast rich and poor, but I feel that the use of aerial photography puts such a distance (literally) between the viewer and the image that it is difficult to see what the actual effects are. All of the previous images had an emotional resonance which I didn’t feel with these.

Talking of emotional resonance, my final choice shows a scene at a South African railway station during the apartheid era. I was fortunate in that I saw this image at the Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s exhibition at The Barbican some years ago. This image stood out even from amongst other great photos of the time. Untitled by Ernest Cole encapsulates in a single image the horrors and injustices of apartheid.  Train and and station platforms were divided into separate sections for different racial groups. Cole’s image shows the ease with which white travellers could wait for a train and the huge difficulties black travellers would face in simply catching  a train. Quoted in Badger and Bush (2012 p62) a friend of Cole’s (Struan Robertson) describes it as “the finest visual expression of apartheid I have ever seen. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words”.

BADGER, G., BUSH, K. and BARBICAN ART GALLERY, 2012. Everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s. London: Barbican Art Gallery.

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