A lightbulb moment

When I worked in Human Resources, many years ago, I used to regularly undergo personality tests like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (all part of the job). I got to know myself quite well, and also unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look on it) that I was in the wrong job. My favourite of these such tests was the Belbin team role type tester. I always came out as a plant, which is one of the more unusual types, and especially unusual for someone who works in an office (I did feel like a plant, albeit one a bit sad and limp, neglected and silently withering in the corner of a windowsill). The plant is the creative one in the group (read ‘oddball’ or ‘outsider’). The one who has all the ideas, often unusual which other people might not come up with. The one who may be a little unorthodox. The plant is actually so-called, I think, because in the original research one such personality type was actually planted in each team, because apparently a team cannot survive without one. This team role is depicted by a lightbulb.

Image from http://www.belbin.com

I have probably around 10-20 ideas a day. A lot of them are fairly average and leave my mind as quickly as they enter, but I don’t know, they still just keep on coming. The lightbulbs keep pinging, fizzing and crackling in my head. I can’t stop them, and THANK GOD I now have somewhere to exorcise them regularly.

Anyhow, please let me share this idea with you (before it burns a hole in my head – it’s been with me a long while already).

I have been thinking a lot about whether photography can build layers of meaning in the way that other art mediums can. I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it does. After all, a photograph is so wedded to its referent. When we look at a photograph do we see something new, an object in its own right, a thing, or do we just see ‘that which it depicts’? Is it just an ‘invisible’ medium, as Barthes suggests in Camera Lucida?

In his book Hockney on photography: Conversations with Paul Joyce, Hockney criticises photography for its shallow perspective on the world. He believes that it is impossible to do anything original with the medium because of its one-dimensional perspective. Having experimented with photo collage, he ultimately found it an unsatisfactory means for creative expression; too mechanical, too fixed, too much surface. Not an ‘authentic’ way of seeing. And what’s more, if in the digital age of photo-manipulation, photography can no longer be trusted to tell ‘the truth’ (whatever that might be), he suggests, during an interview with Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, we must instead turn to other means of communication, like painting to reveal it to us.

I take issue with Hockney’s view. I think he just misses the point of photography entirely. People will always take photographs and will always have the urge to record their everyday lives. This to me is just a fascinating social phenomenon. It doesn’t interest me, or most people I think whether a photograph is depicting ‘the truth’ or not. I think we can agree quite categorically that the relationship between what is true and photography has always been – and always will be – more than a little problematic.

What fascinates me, then, is what happens to these photographs; how they go on to be employed and how they filter out into different social contexts: art, social document/record, family keepsake, etc. A greater part of the meaning of any individual photograph is defined by what happens to it after it has been taken, and not what the image is of. In other words, how it is contextualised. Of course any single image may be something that could have been taken by thousands of other people (so in that sense it is not original), but it’s what happens to it next that is important. Does it go into a family album (photograph as memory, family history)? Or maybe become part of a museum archive (social document or record)? Maybe it is made into a photobook, published on a blog, on flickr, facebook, tumblr, pinterest; put to words, or utilised in some other way. Whichever path it takes it has a purpose. It becomes an everyday object. And sometimes an art object.

I think that Hockney, a painter first and foremost by practice and by training, is only able to view photography in a very one-dimensional way. Yes it is ubiquitous, and becoming more so, but it is also intriguing exactly because of this. The layers of meaning in a photograph are not intrinsic to the photograph itself, as a single image, rather in what happens to it afterwards on its ongoing journey. Photography is part of the social fabric of everyday life, and therein lies its inherent significance: as social commentary, if you like, rather than as unique art object.

Accessible to all and admired by all. Walter Benjamin applauded photography for its ability to endlessly reproduce an image. He called it ‘the ultimate democratic art form’ (in his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, which can be found reproduced in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt) because, through its very nature of mechanical reproduction it was so accessible to ordinary folk.

If you have been following my blog you will have noted that I am very interested in the idea of the photograph as a material object; as harbinger of history and memory and social meaning. In the introduction to Photographs Objects Histories: On the materiality of Images, Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart describe with great eloquence and clarity the importance of talking about materiality in photography (what phenomenlogists might call its ‘thingness’ – although Edwards and Hart are not primarily concerned with phenomenology), and what exactly this means.

Barthes is their starting point: the famous and beautiful image from Camera Lucida of him studying an aged sepia toned photograph of his dead mother from an old photograph album, desperate as he was to find an image which captured the essence of her. The Winter Garden Photograph:

The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called the Winter Garden in those days.

from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes (p67 of the 2000 Vintage edition)

Dog eared and time-worn, this photograph carries so much more meaning than its subject alone. It is an object in its own right; a memory, whose marks and scratches, wear and tear tell a kind of threefold story of its journey through time, the scene it depicts, and a ‘broader visual narrative’ of a photograph album (p1) in which it lived and played out its role.

A photograph is a three-dimensional thing and a physical entity, one with which it is possible to interact in a sensory way. It is subject to the rules of social exchange, production, exchange and usage, all the time gathering meaning on its trajectory (p4) rather like we humans acquire knowledge and wisdom on our journey through life. We may get a little battered and bruised along the way, but usually (I think) we emerge from the ride a little wiser, and more interesting. A photograph, therefore, is not an abstract concept, neither is it static, it moves ‘through space and time’ (p9), bearing the marks, the traces of its material existence.

Unlike an image which we view on a computer screen, a photograph-object bears an aura of something original and unique (p9). It offers a unique experience of looking – a different way of seeing altogether. I want to try to explore this further in a practical way. I, like many of you I’m sure, spend a lot of (read: way too much) time straining my eyes looking at photos on a back-lit computer screen. It’s all just so…. well, flat. I suppose. I want to get back to a photograph; some thing tactile, which I can touch, hold and respond to physically, not just visually.

UntitledUntitled Polaroid image by Kim Unscripted, all rights reserved

I am not the only one thinking this way, of course. This is nothing new or groundbreaking I am writing here. You only have to take a look at WordPress photography blogs, or check out Flickr to see that there is a slow but rising tide of resistance against megapixels, Photoshop and everything digital photography has to offer. Not so much getting back to basics, perhaps, but getting back to something real and emotive in photography. Something which is perhaps lacking in the uniformity of a digital image?

And indeed a faded, yellowing photograph curling at the corners with age immediately evokes another era. In itself it becomes a record of time passing and a promise of the future. Like world-weary wrinkles worrying gentle rivulets of time passed; life, love, and laughter into the once new, unblemished skin of innocence. They are a record of experience lived. Something to be cherished.

I recently came across The impossible project, an enterprise which was undertaken by former Polaroid employees to rescue instant analogue film from the brink of oblivion, and to continue reproducing Polaroid film for still-functioning Polaroid cameras everywhere. They are now making exciting (although eye-wateringly expensive it has to be said) new Polaroid film such as color shade and various other special edition films.

There is something uniquely charming about the Polaroid aesthetic. That 1970s colour cast which makes us all feel – at least those of us who were there in the 70s – as if we are looking at old baby photos, which of course we now attempt to reproduce, dusting our images with a haze of ready-bottled-golden-age-nostalgia via the magic of pre-prepared filters.

Of course it wasn’t a golden age, but I think that the nostalgia has a lot to do with children of the 70s like me growing up and reminiscing about family albums. When I was little I used to spend hours pouring over our shelf of family albums. It was one of my favourite past-times. It’s true that all children LOVE looking at pictures of themselves. It helps them to develop a sense of who they are and where they belong in this big crazy world. And of course the Polaroid evokes all of that, but not only that it is also unique in itself. You click the shutter, and minutes later you actually have the image in your hands. It’s there, it’s real; you have the moment in your fingers. You have made an object which is something and will become something; a part of you, your history and your future.

So, ok, I’m finally getting around to the point of this post… the idea…

A while ago I received a letter from a blogger. It was so lovely to see her handwriting (terrible though it was – and it’s OK I can say that because she admits it!). She put lavender in the envelope. It was the sweetest card with a picture of a butterfly on it. It added a whole new dimension to a relationship of transaction of ephemeral words via the internet. Something physical passed from one person to another, across two continents. (I am also ashamed to admit that I haven’t responded yet to her thoughtful note, but I will, I haven’t forgotten, though my computer does, unfortunately seem to take priority these days).

I also read of other bloggers doing trades of artworks, and blogging collaborations. I was approached by another blogger who wanted to write some words to a series of images my husband Alex and I had taken. It’s a world of astonishing, boundless creativity, imagination and generosity I feel I have stumbled upon here where ideas find rich and fertile soil in which to breed and grow, pure clean air to breathe and boundless space to stretch, reach and aspire, or to just be, quietly and thoughtfully. It is infinitely inspiring.

I would like to try, if I can, to tap into that rich resource even further….

It’s quite simple really. I want to take a picture, print it, hold it in my hands, and send it on a journey to someone else who lives somewhere else – maybe half way across the world, or maybe in the next town – who is waiting patiently to receive it, and who will then respond to it, in whatever way they choose, and send another photograph on a journey to someone else (Sort of like those chain letters you used to get, which now get sent by email – except not actually because they are annoying and everyone always deletes them). And I want to record those journeys on a blog. I want to watch photographs being sent around the world and see and understand the different ways in which people respond to them, use them, interact with them. Maybe someone will hang one on their fridge, or use it as a source of inspiration for another picture, a poem, a piece of prose. Or maybe they will pass it on to someone else, use it in a piece of art work, or just use it as a bookmark. I want to record those photographs on their journeys, soaking up layers of meaning like paint layers. I want to see them take on history, memory, stories, which are then shared with other people.

It would be a collaborative effort. A social experiment, of sorts.

So, what do you think? Please respond using this sign-up form if you have any comments (positive or negative), suggestions, or interest whatsoever. Please. Even if it’s a very vague kind of semi-interest and you’re sitting there shrugging your shoulders and thinking: ‘yeah ok, and…?’ (You got to the end – you must be a little bit interested?)

I am in the process of setting up a new blog which people can contribute to. I will be back with more soon…

Thanks for reading this far!


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