A Liquidity of Imagery

Informing Contexts

Week 4 Reflections, MA Falmouth University

There is a regular disjoint between subject, photographer and viewer.  Subjects can manipulate and be manipulated, photographers are regularly making choices which are significant to the way a viewer perceives an image. Devoid of an understanding and a passage of data between all parties can invite this disjoint.

There are three tiers to consider when dealing with the making of an image, firstly the subject who, if it is human, responds and reacts to the camera and the instructions delivered from the photographer.  In the ‘pose’ there is a response to ‘image conditioning’, the self conscious but also expectation conscious case for the camera is struck, steeped in expectation, in cliche, in power, culture, ethnicity, climate, fashion.  The pose so often will conform to behavioural norms. Barthes provides us with a description of the effort to strike the pose: “I don’t know how to work on my skin from within. I decided to let it drift over my lips and in my art is a faint smile which I mean to be indefinable in which I might suggest along with the qualities of my nature my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual”. R Barthes, 1993 Camera Lucida.

The second tier is the photographer who is also struck by conscious image conditioning, knowing the subject is posed in the context of that moment of existence and that as the image maker she/he is deliberating over the need to arbitrate between the subject, the technology to hand and the image that will ensue.  John Szarkowski reminds us “Photography is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing. The contest can be held anywhere…” and he goes on to describe the meaning and patterns in composing “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, what shall he reject? The line of decision between in and out is the picture’s edge. The photograph’s edge defines content. It isolates unexpected juxtapositions. By surrounding two facts, it creates a relationship. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of this picture’s geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table”.  John Szarkowski – from The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski, former director of the photography division of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The third tier is the point at which the image conditioning is at large, it may be a poster in an alleyway, glossily reproduced in a magazine or left to the global moment of transmission on the web.  The viewer perceives the image in her/his own context and visual conditioning. The liquidity of imagery flows like a lava across the surface of the globe in milliseconds, yet the viewer will have a sole moment of receipt, they will be making fixated judgements, responses, liking, disliking, evoking, provoking.  The act of viewing will be within the context of their emotion, culture and place. Krauss quotes Bourdieu “It is the thesis of Pierre Bourdieu that photographic discourse can never be properly aesthetic, that is, can have no aesthetic criteria proper to itself and that, in fact, the most common photographic judgement is not about value but about identity, being a judgement that reads things generically” Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

My proposition is that in the image world that pervades Capitalism and its essentially bound driver we know as Materialism which is the flow of desire and need; imagery is the liquid of want (the world of advertising was worth £550 bn in 2016 https://www.statista.com/statistics/273288/advertising-spending-worldwide/ globally). Imagery, whether stills or video, is the primary source of stimulation penetrating the eyes of the consumer.  The investment is gigantic. Thus the skill of the commissioner of advertising imagery is to strike a powerful alignment between the subject, photographer and viewer. Any potential disjoint is carefully manipulated and engineered out of the equation.  The subject is compliant, the photographer is obedient and the viewer passively primed to receive and obey.  Here, image conditioning is a controlling construct of the Adman/woman.  An idealised image world is created at great magnitude.

In “Ways of Seeing” (1970) art critic John Berger writes insightfully about publicity, the image and the essence of social relationships, “Publicity proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour”. He goes on “Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Advertising is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.

The discriminating viewer offers a tiny moment of seeing time to the advertiser, thus the skill is to combine text with imagery in the ad world, to quote Barthes, “Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. The function of relay is less common (at least as far as the fixed image is concerned); it can be seen particularly in cartoons and comic strips. Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words,..” Barthes Image Music Text,1977 p41.  Barthes citing cartoons and comic strips is a strong analogy to the speedy, identifiable and penetrating image that is bound into the product that is being promoted.  Visual signals are crafted to ‘fit’ the viewer’s decoding of the commodity being conveyed. Hall analyses the coding that is essential in the ad world, he states  “The level of connotation of the visual sign, of its contextual reference and positioning in different discursive fields of meaning and association, is the point where already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional, more active ideological dimensions. We might take an example from advertising discourse. Here, too, there is no ‘purely denotative’, and certainly no ‘natural’, representation. Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality, situation, value or inference, which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational positioning”.  StuartBerger  Encoding, decoding 1999 the cultural studies reader London Routledge p513.  Barthes remarks on the connotative levels of signifiers, “have a close communication with culture, knowledge, history, and it is through them, so to speak, that the environmental world invades the linguistic and semantic system. They are, if you like, the fragments of ideology.”

There is a cultural and aesthetic conditioning that codes the ad world imagery.  Colour palettes define brands; cultural norms underpin the code for happiness, for expression; there is a tight control of these codes.  The idealised, the conforming, the gathering and clustering of imagery are managed for personalised expectation. Does one conform and comply with the materialism in order to belong?

Whilst brands spend time and money on differentiating from each other, there is an acknowledged compression of imagery, a stylised ‘bandwidth’ in which imagery can become cliched or brand-match, depending on the viewer’s level of acceptance or perhaps irritation. There is some concern around the impact of the idealised on the real world experience of individuals, Callen notes “visual images are, then, potent mediators of the lived experience of the body, our own and others, giving us ways of conceptualising and describing the bodily.  In pictorial images we recognise likeness or difference we identify ourselves or find a different other than the other which equally powerfully serves to reinforce at image of our own bodily existence”. Anthea Callen A. Ideal Masculinities, An anatomy of Power, chapter 52 The visual cultural reader edited by Nicholas mirzoeff 2012 p 603

Plato’s cave is a powerful analogy that gives us a tool to remember that the projected ad world isn’t reality, it can be a deceitful construct, defined by the cavemen who want to prevent escape to the fresh, cleaner air of the ‘real’. Kraus continues “with the total collapse of difference, this radical implosion one finds oneself entering the world of the simulacrum a word where as in Plato’s cave, the possibility of distinguishing between reality and phantasm between the actual and the simulated is denied”. Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

By way of three examples of some ‘progress’ in the ad world.

The Image world of the ad’ world is laden with norms and a restricted bandwidth defining normal. There are now major brands which are embracing a wider view of the reality of society. Here are two examples, the US brand, London Fog which features a gay married couple who are married, they share the gaze to the camera, thus a degree of equalises is coded into the image, yet maintain the norm of attractive, well dressed confident men as Berger terms the “envy of others”.  Yes London Fog reverts to its apparent misogynistic norm when it commissions the image of the female modelling a raincoat which in reality would be unlikely to worn in the street on a rainy day as posed. 

Smirnoff applies the index of 3 varieties of coupling in its drink ad, whilst the implication is that alcohol equates to happiness (the consistent ad theme) there is a visual gesture to the modern.




Informing my Practice

Informing Contexts

Module 2, Week 1, Falmouth University

We were tasked with identifying how any aspects of this week’s sessions have influenced our own developing practice.


Here I explore the descriptions of my image making, my ontological approach, the context for viewing my output and some sample images.

Three Words and Phrases

A key word that applies to my practice is Compression, caused by composition of time and depth frozen and flattened onto the image.  Shore, in The Nature of Photographs, 1998 Johns Hopkins University Press, describes the depictive level and visual grammar.  I think of the act of capture as the collective of the 3 dimensional ‘pressed’ into the two dimensional layer that is the film or sensor, it is an act of suppression, making a new pattern, a new configuration.  The viewer’s eye can then see or read surface, the two dimensional, but also translate to the depth, thus reverting to the 3 dimensional formation.

Two images I cite:

Sugimoto for his long exposures of cinema, reduced to a plane of white light and an absence of people, exemplified in this image; Union City Drive-in, Union City, 1993


Gelatin silver print © Hiroshi Sugimoto


James Welling chose to shoot a famous Modernist house by Philip Johnson, in Connecticut, USA.  Avoiding a hackneyed repeat of thousands of images Welling uses an orange filer (exaggerated by the deliberate sun glare into his lens) on colour film and achieves a flattening and presses into the image the leafless trees. This was chosen as a key part of the Carol Squires ICP exhibit, 2014.



The frame, the gaze beyond, the border and edges which are extended, imagined, eluded or decided. There is always the unseen, deliberately or through circumstance, in the ‘wings’. The act of editing leads to a certain kind of censorship, of denial.  The viewer sees an abridged image, excluding the wider context, beyond, away, behind; eluded.  The process of compression is framed by the metaphoric scalpel which slices away the dimensions beyond.  It invites often the imagination to form a set of beliefs in the unseen.  The observations from the originator, “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, what shall he reject? The line of decision between in and out is the pictures edge. … It create the shapes that surround objects.  The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.” Szarkowski. J. The Photographer’s Eye, MoMA, New York, 2007 p70

Two images I cite:

Uta Barth manages to evoke a feeling of tranquility balanced with uncertainty, this pair of images summarise this approach.  What lies beyond the frame? Untitled (07.5), 2007 Tanya Bonakdar Gallery,



Bruno van den Elshout, in his beautiful publication New Horizons, 2012 photographed the North Sea every day for a year from a single and consistent viewpoint.  The frame is an absolute; the panoramic sweep the roving eye is ‘boxed’ into his frame.



My third and final key phrase is The Vantage Point (Szarkowski, 2007). To choose how to make the composition – the visual guides, the convention, the disobliging, the point leading to the object, the focus, or the absence. The Hungarian painter, photographer and Bauhaus professor,  Lazlo Maholy Nagy 1895-1946, was known for his adventurous and unconventional portrayal of structures and spaces propelling the viewer to assume a precarious vantage point.

An image I cite:

Alexander Rodchenko with his New Houses, Balconies shows architecture boldly with a view that requires a ‘double-take’ when the image is viewed from a distance.  Both he and Maholy Nagy have been oft copied since.



Reflection on the ontological nature of my own practice.

Bazin writes, in his 1945 essay, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.”

As an image maker. My aim is to re-see.  Why a space exists, purpose, use, what it is, what it was.  Its permanence and impermanence. To look, to frame, to re-engage with the familiar, the elusive, the hidden. 

I am attentive to materiality; texture, craft; nature’s output and human’s artifice. I am engaged by the smear, the presence of humanity, the suggestion, but the especially the absent.

For the audience.  To re-show.  To exhume the hidden. To evoke what may be. To invite the dwelling of the eye. To stir a thought, an idea, an action, an imagination by seeing and pausing.

The contexts in which my work is consumed.

Digital Streaming, daily ambition – primary place is Instagram – increasing my following via being deliberately active; galleries, minimalist artists, local practitioners.  Instagram is copied to Facebook photo page (strong analytical data) and Twitter (one of three accounts I run and I cross-retweet).

Web repository for visual participation exercise with the public, will be on at least two hosting websites, one will be my own.

Photobook on empty spaces, annual plan; assume only 20/30 copies made, read by purchasers and their associates.  I hope to raise sponsorship for this venture.

Exhibition on heritage and public art, major project plan, locally based – as primary photographer, negotiating a possible highly accessible and well attended venue.

Photography Prize 2017 exhibition, current plan – with circa 20 other photographic artists, publicly accessible gallery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

The act of photographing; I may use my large format camera and a scissor lift in a central square of Birmingham to shoot close up, that will be a spectacle in its own right.

Provide an illustrated and up to date statement of intent about what your work plans to achieve at this point.

My output needs to increase. I need to endeavour for less by seeing more, then distilling. I will access more hidden spaces.

I am developing thinking, writing and narrative to facilitate my verbal and written complement to my images.

I need to increasingly discriminate, discarding the ‘not good enough’.

I am increasingly looking to develop my image printing skills drawn from both analogue and digital sources.

These images created in the last 4 weeks; abandoned building (2), and canal. These have a particular compression, framing and vantage point. I intend to develop further all three of these factors in future.screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-17-54-12