5th November 2016–”Huellas” Humberto Rivas at the Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona


Humberto Rivas was an Argentinian photographer who emigrated to Barcelona, Spain in 1976 at the age of thirty-nine. His work is now held by museums and galleries around the world but he is held in particularly high esteem in his adopted Barcelona where he spent the second half of his life.  This exhibitions shows some fifty-three of Rivas’ photographs of survivors of the Spanish Civil War, both people and places.



The photographs are soberly presented, mainly 16” x 20” in black frames, single matted and glazed.  All are monochrome without any tint or tone, printed on silver gelatin paper.  I have not been able to find out how they were originated but having found several photographs of Rivas working with a 5 x 4 technical camera I suspect that this was his method. They certainly have the depth and detail I associate with large format negatives.

The photographs are superbly crafted.  They appear to have been manipulated in terms of dodging and burning but the execution is masterful.  Light and shade is gently emphasised and there is a rhythm to the tones as the eye travels around the frame.  




The buildings are scarred with what appear to be bullet and shell strikes; nature has reclaimed the parts which man has deserted and time has taken its toll on the fabric. In spite of the damage there remains a quiet dignity, an underlying strength which Rivas also shows in the faces of the survivors. 


The Spanish Civil War divided the country setting region against region, village against village; families were torn apart as opposing allegiances led to bitter and prolonged feuds.  The memories of the war and the choices made by individuals are alive today, not only in those who experienced it firsthand but in their children and grandchildren. Reminders are in the streetnames, the public places and the municipal buldings named for events, dates and notable figures.



Rivas uses the same approach for each of his portraits.  They are head-and-shoulders, set against a black or very dark background.  The plane of focus is shallow, lying on the subjects eyes. Those with eyes open look directly at the camera; others obscure or keep them closed.  One man faces away from the camera completely and we see only the back of his head.  From the catchlights they appear to be lit with two lights side-by-side, directly on the subject-camera axis.




For me these are powerful images.  Just the three words “Spanish Civil War” are sufficient to give ample context for this viewer’s consideration.  The gallery text was minimal and the images spoke eloquently of the damage inflicted during those times which is still visible today.


Despite the sombre content I found these photographs to be impressive both in content and presentation. 

28th October 2016 – Fundació Foto Colectania, Barcelona

Barcelona has a fine track record for promoting and exhibiting photography and there are a number of venues in the city which house permanant collections and mount regular exhibitions.  One such is the Fundacio Foto Colectiana; I visited their most recent exhibition in October, a joint show comprising work by

  • Catherine Balet
  • Mishka Henner
  • Michael Mandiberg
  • Stephanie Solinas
  • Doug Rickard

Catherine Balet’s idea for “Looking for the Masters in Ricardos Golden Shoes” has its beginnings in the breakfast attire of her friend Ricardo, with whom she was attending the Arles Photo Festival.  Wearing a striped tee shirt he once again reminded her of his resemblance to Picasso and their wish to recreate the Doisneau photograph of the painter with loaves for fingers.  This book is the realisation of that idea and those that followed, resulting in a volume of portraits with Ricardo as the model in homages to the great photographers.



After Elliot Erwitt, with terrier and Golden Shoes


After Annie Leibovitz


After Diane Arbus

I had the opportunity to look through the exhibition copy of the book during my visit and to read the introduction.  It seems that the original idea was expanded through publication of successive images in the same vein on social media which, having been well received, encouraged the photographer and model to ‘adopt a more professional approach’ and publish this book. The introduction then attempts to place the work in the context of transforming social relations and examines…

“…how the appropriation of images on the internet and the process of creating self-iconographic representations and experiencing other people’s reality has changed the way we use and respond to photography”

My feeling is that as intention this is plausible but insincere.  It seems far more likely that the two of them had a good idea, which seemed like fun so they decided to play it out.  The series most probably developed along a path which was determined largely by Ricardo’s undoubted skill and plasticity in emulating a well known photograph in a convincing fashion. But then its equally possible that the idea developed as the series progressed and they ended up in the realisation that they were working within an established meme.

For me the book works simply as an amusing, well executed series of imitative images. I didn’t get tired of the fundamental premise as the pages turned since each one was engaging in its own right.  Balet’s assertions and interpretations concerning the meanings and purpose of the content seem to pale beside the obviously lighthearted and wry results.  No need to complicate matters, it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor without needing any justification.

I was interested to learn that the project was a ‘slow-burner’, having begun its path to publication some years ago as a kind of joke between friends and that it travelled through the intermediate phase of Facebook exposure before, suitably heartened by the popular approval, Balet pursued the idea to its final form.

Miska Henner’s work “Less Americains” is a reworking of the Robert Frank book which migrates the linguistic twist of the title into the images themselves by eliminating segments of the photographs and replacing them with paper-white – hence the ‘Less’ reference. He employs the same device in the introduction, removing what appear to be random letters which has the effect of rendering the text largely unreadable.


Miska Henner “Less Americains” Introduction

But I did some internetting and discovered that Henner’s “Introduction” is just the original by Jack Kerouac, subjected to the scalpel treatment.


Image result for less americains "mishka henner"Image result for less americains "mishka henner"

This is the result.  In the above image Mishka has removed all elements save the hats and the flag.  I’ve placed the original adjacent to illustrate the technique.




In the above three images (and in most of the others) the faces are excised along with certain limbs.  The work is currently on show in its entireity in New York at the Silverstein gallery and the press release tells us:

“Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s audacious erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing in 1953, Henner appropriated the 83 images from Robert Frank’s iconic book The Americans (first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in France as Les Américains) and digitally erased much of the original content, leaving blank areas where once there were faces, buildings, and landscapes. The work becomes a contemporary composite belonging to our digital age; a kind of new portrait of American society emerges, conjuring up notions of missing data and lost image files, asking the psychological question of how we remember these famous images and how our relationship to them and to the medium of photography today differs from that of the past. 

“…so I plunged into those mysterious details, scalpel in hand, searching for my own signs and symbols in the smooth, paper thin surface of America.” – Mishka Henner, 2013”

Anon n.d. Mishka Henner – Exhibitions – Bruce Silverstein. Available at: <http://www.brucesilverstein.com/exhibitions/mishka-henner-less-americans> [Accessed 24 Nov. 2016].

In some cases Henner seems to have highlighted those ‘signs and symbols’ by removing the other parts, leaving for example the mens’ hats and the American flag.  In others the signs or symbols themselves have been removed, leaving an image devoid of the elements for which he searched. He has done this in all eighty-three of the photographs Frank included in his book but I wonder if such slavish completionism was warranted. I get it, Mishka – it’s an interesting reflection on the original book and what made the images so American – but by the tenth or twelfth rendition I found that my interest was waning and the remaining sixty-odd did little to enhance it. Henner does not produce any new photography by manipulating Frank’s work but he is able to make an observation on it and show something of what he has seen to the viewer, but it is a somewhat singular observation; that old photographs contain elements which, viewed from the present, seem to be representative of their time.  

This type of work is referred to as ‘Appropriation and Erasure’ as I have discovered through a review in The Guardian – actually the author is reviewing the British Journal of Photography piece on “Less Americains”: 

In 1980, Sherrie Levine, one of the pioneers of appropriation, exhibited After Walker Evans, in which she rephotographed Evans’s famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs from his catalogue First and Last. Levine did not erase, or add, anything, she simply presented the copied photograph as her own work and went so far as to copyright it as such. This was both a barefaced artistic gesture and a political statement, wilfully provocative in its thrust and feminist in its undertow. She was, according to her champions, critiquing the very notion of authorship and ownership – as well as cocking a snook at the canon of “great white male” photographers.

And on Henner’s work in particular:

His reconfigured Robert Frank images become something dramatically different, more surrealist puzzles than photographs. You might find them interesting, and not at all controversial, if you came upon them without knowing about The Americans (in fact, had I seen them without their title, it would have taken me a while to figure out they were taken from the book). For that reason alone, I cannot get worked up about whether they are theft, provocation or an insult, but they do intrigue me as another example of how artists are grappling with the surfeit of images now available to us on the internet. It seems hardly surprising that the brilliant is being appropriated alongside the banal, but, in this case, it seems more an odd form of admiration than disrespect.

O’Hagan, S., 2012. Mishka Henner’s erased images: art or insult? The Guardian. [online] 23 May. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/may/23/mishka-henner-less-americains> [Accessed 24 Nov. 2016].

Now as I write this and explore the background to these works a theme seems to be emerging, one which was not at all clear to me when I visited the exhibition – ‘appropriation’ is a common factor in the works on display. 

Michael Mandiberg contrived an interactive piece which consisted of a computer, printer and monitor and invited the viewer to take part in the production of an original ‘authentic’ printout.  I struggled a bit with the language but my usual urge to press the buttons overcame my caution and I duly became the proud owner of this:


Which is accompanied by this:


It’s not easy to see the ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ here, but it says that the Printout is an ‘Authentic Work of Art’ provided that the presentation, definition, frame/glazing follows the precise but simple requirements and the certificate is signed and dated by the printer –that is, the person who pressed the button (me).  As soon as I can find an appropriate frame I will be proud to own an original Mandiberg.

As the pieces and references of this exhibition fall into place I notice that Mandiberg’s image is called “Untitled (AfterSherrieLevine.com/1.jpg)”. 

I hadn’t heard of Sherrie Levine before reading the Guardian piece. Now I have a touchstone for the original protagonist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York summarises her approach rather succinctly:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of artists including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine—at the time dubbed the “Pictures” generation—began using photography to examine the strategies and codes of representation. In reshooting Marlboro advertisements, B-movie stills, and even classics of Modernist photography, these artists adopted dual roles as director and spectator. In their manipulated appropriations, these artists were not only exposing and dissembling mass-media fictions, but enacting more complicated scenarios of desire, identification, and loss.
In 1981, Levine photographed reproductions of Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans, such as this famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama sharecropper. The series, entitled After Walker Evans, became a landmark of postmodernism, both praised and attacked as a feminist hijacking of patriarchal authority, a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism. Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.

Anon 2016. Sherrie Levine | After Walker Evans: 4 | The Met. [online] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Available at: <http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267214> [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].

I had a good look through The Met’s online gallery for Levine but have to confess that I searched in vain to find any resonance with their assertion that the images “tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.”

Stephanie Solinas

Alphonse Bertillon, the subject (and also to an extent the content) of Solinas’ work was a French policeman who created an identifacation system for individuals based on their physical measurements.  The system was used to identify criminals but was supplanted later by fingerprinting.

Sans titre (M.Bertillon) – le masque is Alphonse Bertillon’s own portrait (taken head on and in profile) from his 1893 file created in order to promote his identification system, run through a software specifically designed to perform facial analyses. This produced a three-dimensional interpretation in paper, which is then subsequently cut up into separate pieces and organized to recreate Bertillon’s omniscient face as a reference to Janus’ double face.

Anon 2016. le masque _ stephanie solinas. [online] Available at: <http://stephaniesolinas.com/stephaniesolinas/le_masque___stephanie_solinas.html> [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].

Once again the appropriation theme is apparent with the added aspect of reproduction – the paper printout is offered with instructions on how to cut, fold and glue your own mask of M.Bertillon and the exhibition showed Solinas’ own effort under glass:


Le Masque; Stephanie Solinas

The gallery information for this work was in Spanish, supplemented by the artist’s own comments in French.  My command of both languages is limited but I understand that Slinas is exploring appropriated imagery, in this case with the amusing twist that M.Bertillon himself was involved in reducing real people to measurements, thereby rendering them more pliable.

Doug Rickard

For his work on “A New American Picture” Rickard copied images found through Google Streetview to assemble a mosaic showing America’s run-down and forgotten suburbs and neighbourhoods.  In “N.A” he extended his search to Youtube, taking three years to amass considerable amateur footage of similar areas. Again, the appropriation method is evident.


Doug Rickard; “A New American Picture”

Where individuals feature, Google has blurred their faces rendering them anonymous even though they are often looking directly at the camera, mounted on a moving car.  Rickard made these images by photographing the monitor screen directly, giving a somewhat indistinct ethereal quality to the result.  These appear to be photographs as evidence, without concern for quality or accuracy.  They are also in the realm of the vernacular since the people were never intended to be the subject although Rickard has selected only those images.

On Looking at Photographs; Bill Jay & David Hurn, Lenswork Publishing 2000

This isn’t a book review.  It’s a collection of thoughts, observations and reflections which I noted whilst reading it.  As such, it wanders around a bit and sometimes lurches from one point to another; in this way it reflects process as much as learning.

I read this book straight after How To Read A Photograph (Ian Jeffrey, Thames & Hudson 2008).  It was just a coincidence that it adopts a diametrically opposed view to that of Jeffrey and so is rather more in line with my own at this stage of learning.  I say at this stage because I acknowledge that it’s quite possible, even likely, that my view will change over the duration of this course.  In the meantime here are my observations on the Jay/Hurn volume.

The book takes the form of a conversation between the authors, which reflects the nature of their photographic discussions during their long association.  It’s an effective literary device in this context and permits differences of opinion to be expressed. For a book about photographs it has the unusual distinction of being completely without images of any kind, save for the author photographs at the end of the book!

It is divided into six sections:

Four Fundamental Principles of Photography;
Meaning And Why It Is So Slippery;
Merit, And Why It Is So Rare;
Art, And Why It Is So Different;
Morality, And Why It Is So Important
Looking At Photographs

The authors define the four fundamentals as the stages of actually making a photographic exposure, to the point of rendering a latent image or digital file. First the selection stage is characterised by the relationship between the photographer and the subject – the authors maintain that a ‘head or heart’ reaction is invoked, a neccessary precursor to the exposure. The second step involves securing the maximum clarity of the image in terms of definition and detail.  The third involves the optimal arrangement of shapes within the viewfinder; and the last is a matter of timing.  Once these requirements are adequately satisfied, the result, the authors maintain ‘…is a good photograph’.  Seems pretty straightforward, then… only this is a book about looking at photographs so that by no means wraps it up.  The notion of what makes a good photograph is discussed at length in the later chapters.

imageAt the Cafe, Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958 Robert Doisneau

In the meantime the authors turn their attention to Meaning.  Citing an image by Robert Doisneau (above) they quote a paragraph from John Szarkowski thus:

It has already been pointed out that photographs often appear to mean something quite different from what the event itself would have meant had we been there. It is conceivable that the gentleman in the picture below [above] is simply telling the girl that he no longer needs her at the shop, due to business being slow. Regardless of historic fact, however, a picture is about what it appears to be about, and this picture is about a potential seduction.

One is tempted to believe that even the painters of the eighteenth century never did the subject so well.

The girl’s secret opinion of the proceedings so far is hidden in her splendid self-containment; for the moment she enjoys the security of absolute power. One arm shields her body, her hand touches her glass as tentatively as if it were the first apple. The man for the moment is defenseless and vulnerable; impaled on the hook of his own desire, he has committed all his resources, and no satisfactory line of retreat remains. Worse yet, he is older than he should be, and knows that one way or another the adventure is certain to end badly. To keep this presentiment at bay, he is drinking his wine more rapidly than he should.

The picture however precludes questions of the future. This pair, if less romantically conceived than the lovers on John Keats’s urn, are equally safe, here in the picture, from the consequences of real life.

from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 1 Jan. 1984

It appears that Szarkowski was right when he mentioned painters applying themselves to similar subjects;  this, by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (although from the nineteenth century) seems to contain a number of similar elements to Doisneau’s photograph.  So much so that Szarkowski’s reading might apply to the painting as well as the photograph.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Café La Mie c 1891

Hurn and Jay do not name Szarkowski, referring to him simply as ‘the critic’, which seems a little odd, but then they are quite dismissive in their assessment of his reading:

“This might be a fine example of creative writing but it has little to do with
the actual photograph. As I understand the circumstances, Robert Doisneau
arranged and set up the scene with model friends. But the image, of these
particular people at this particular location, at this particular time, is about
whatever the viewer believes. This is what the fancy term semiotics is all

These authors may be closer to agreement than it first appears, with Szarkowski claiming  “a picture is about what it appears to be about” and Hurn/Jay saying that “the image….. is about what ever the viewer believes”.  Both viewpoints acknowledge the inseparable relationship between the viewer’s interpretive proclivities and the image, but Szarkowski seems to insist that a correct reading can be formed.   

Knowing that the photograph was ‘set-up’ and noting similarities in the content I wonder whether Doisneau had the Lautrec painting in mind all along.

The authors then proceed to dismantle another commonly held belief about the functioning of a photograph, that of its narrative capabilities.  Using the example of war photography, they suggest that the reader inspect such an anthology at random and attempt to discover a narrative; this, they maintain, cannot be done and declare:

“…photographs do not tell stories and they are not narrative in function.”


“For exactly the same reason that photographs are not ideally suited to communicating a narrative, they are not suited to communicating ideas. A great deal of pseudo-intellectual jargon has been written about photographs in an effort to prove that they impart moral messages, philosophical lessons or otherwise carry heavy intellectual weight. The usual result is to make both the text and the photographs unintelligible. Herbert Read has noted that the visual arts operate through the eyes, “expressing and conveying a sense of feeling.”He continues that “if we have ideas to express, the proper medium is language.” This fact, says Read,“cannot be too strongly emphasized.”

[They are referring to ‘The Meaning of Art’ by Herbert Read  (Faber and Faber; New Ed edition, 8 April 1974).  I’ve secured a copy of this and will study it in due course.]

It seems to me that all photographs have an inherent level of ambivalence which varies from image to image.  I tried to conjure one which had the absolute minimum ambivalence and could only come up with this:


It is a true photograph, made with a digital camera and without any manipulation. It doesn’t communicate anything of itself other than simply ‘egg’.  It would be meaningful to a friend of mine who is allergic to egg products and who may well have an emotional reaction to it.  A farmer close to retirement who, having invested heavily in egg production, finds his future undermined by an outbreak of salmonella may have a powerful response.  But these reactions are viewer-generated and the image acts only as a catalyst.


Paul Martin, Lambeth 1892

A good deal further along the ambiguity scale is this photograph by Paul Martin, which I believe is the one referred to here by Hurn/Jay:

“Assumptions concerning the story of the picture would be even more tentative.
It is likely that the children are waiting for (not actually watching) an event,
because the attention of the faces is scattered. The boys in the background
seem to be trying to reach a higher vantage point which probably confirms
this assumption. The policeman is, perhaps, controlling the crowd. But
why does the crowd comprise only children? No assumptions can be made.
Is the event a happy or tragic one? No assumptions can be made — some
children appear unhappy, others are smiling.”

The photograph presents some information which many people (Western, English, with some historical awareness) would consider reliable. They would acknowledge the historical period, the approximate ages of the people, the policeman doing his assigned duty and the varied facial expressions.  It may be reasonable to infer information from the children and young peoples’ clothing since it appears to be somewhat disheveled; perhaps they are all from poor families, spending much of their time in the streets.   But this would be moving further along the ‘ambiguity scale’, perhaps too far for confidence. Indeed, Jay/Hurn consider that no assumptions can be made.  In fact the event for which they had all assembled was to see the funeral cortege of a much despised local policeman, a bully and persecutor of children, who had met his end by swallowing his false teeth whilst in pursuit of a felon.  Once in possession of this information we can place the image and its content in context.

To be continued…

Review: How To Read a Photograph, Ian Jeffrey

How to read a photograph:
Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers

Ian Jeffrey, Thames & Hudson 2008

All italicized text is quoted from the book directly.

I had high hopes for this book because it semed it would address a significant aspect of the photography coursework but even at the start something seemed odd – the first piece of authored text reads:

Technical note: The question of dimensions
Certain of the pictures in this anthology, specifically those from the World Wars, come with measurements added. This is in part because they are previously unpublished and do not yet belong to any historical consensus.  As few have seen the pictures, measurements act as a guarantee that they really exist.

I wonder why Jeffrey feels I would need such a guarantee and how supplying dimensions might allay my concerns.  Does he think that I suspect he has concocted the images artificially, that they are manufactured by him and where not in fact made during either World War?  And if I am so untrusting of his methods, how does supplying dimensions help, since I am not in a position to verify them?  If he has published fake images then surely the dimensions are equally suspect.  But I’m happy to accept that the images have impeccable provenance and that his assurances simply indicate academic rigour.
The book may be more appropriately titled ‘How I (Might) Read a Photograph’ or ‘How I Speculate About a Photograph’ because there is no ‘How To…’ element in the book.  It comprises an anthology of photographers from the early protagonists to the more recent practitioners with a very short biographical note on each, the detail of which is terse and clinical with precious little, if any, attempt made to relate the photographer’s life experience to the nature of his or her work. The text accompanying examples of the photographer’s work concentrates mainly on describing what is plain to see; where readings are made they are often fanciful, nebulous and poorly supported.  There’s nothing wrong with interpreting an image in any way one chooses, but this is meant to be a textbook and I expected more in the way of ‘worked examples’ in order to help me to understand the process.

Some examples taken from the book:

imageDoris Ulmann “James Duff, Fiddler & John Jacob Niles in Hazard, Kentucky 1933”

“James Duff leans against a wall.  JJ Niles nortes details of their conversation
in a notebook. Duff, a middle aged to elderly man, may have dressed for the event
with a jacket, necktie and a pair of decent trousers. The picture is a record of an event;
an encounter during which Duff played snatches of tunes and Niles relighted his pipe.”

Jeffrey observes that Duff is leaning against a wall, approximates his age and identifies several items of his clothing.  The image discloses these facts without the need for reading or interpretation. He expands his view by proposing that Duff played snatches of tunes and Niles relighted his pipe, that Duff had given some thought to his appearance and chosen decent trousers.  All of this is possible but it is mainly conjecture. It would be equally plausible, possibly more so given the condition of Duff’s pants, that his wife had his best pair in the wash and on expressing his dismay she responded ‘Well you’re only chinwagging with that JJ, what does it matter, it’s not church’.  JJ may well have attended to his pipe after the exposure but it seems to have gone out in the photograph… perhaps he was so intent on his note taking he didn’t notice.  It is conceivable that Jeffrey had access to documentary evidence of the precise nature of this encounter and that his observations are factual but if this were so there would be little point in including the image in a book which concerns itself with how to read a photograph.

Jeffrey maintains that “Ulmann’s gift was to get people to act themselves, to be aspiring young people or esteemed elders”  I have looked at numerous examples of Ulmanns work and though I found much of it captivating and pleasing I wasn’t struck by an overall feeling of aspiration from any of the young people depicted. As for getting people to act themselves, that’s pretty much what people did anyway in the those early days of photography.  The idea of acting as someone else or putting on affectation for the camera was a comfortable fifty years away.

I consider her skill as a photographic chronicler lay in her fascination with portraits and particularly those of older people:

” …the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life”

(“Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting,” Bookman, 72, 129-144.)

And she was a prolific photographer, making around 2000 glass plate negatives during her expedition in the Appalachians for Allen Eaton’s book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands between 1932-4 during which her health began to fail, leading to her death in 1934 aged fifty-two.

I will consider a couple of further images which Jeffreys has selected for inclusion in the book and look at his commentary, first this by Henri Cartier-Bresson entitled Mexico, 1934


I would agree that his relaxed posture could be a result of tiredness or intoxication but to infer prudence as a character trait on the basis of his belt’n’braces I feel is absurd.  A prudent individual is unlikely to succumb to intoxication, nor select the open street as a suitable place for a nap. In the image we see another person’s legs from the knees down, from which Jeffreys confidently predicts the attitude of the rest of the body, particularly the eyes. It is tricky enough to read the actual content of the image without speculating on what might be occurring outside the frame.  We may use our knowledge of other factors – the place, date, photographer’s predispositions, the prevailing socio-political climate – to inform our reading of the image, but to assign a very specific interaction to an essentially invisible individual is specious.

Lewis Baltz, “Sand Dunes, 1972”


Jeffreys says:

“The SAND DUNES in question were probably close by and the name had been taken quite naturally – for whatever kind of establishment this was.  In the conceptual era name transfers like this were often remarked on. Somewhere in the mental distance an idea of the coast might survive – but greatly weakened. The scene itself looks like an inventory of what might happen to any cemented wall daubed, smeared, streaked and cracked – and the pavement spotted.”

In attempting to understand this commentary I’ve searched ‘conceptual era’ and come up with nothing relevant – I can only assume that it is one of the author’s pieces of shorthand which he doesn’t expand upon.  What might he mean by a ‘name transfer’ and who would be making the frequent remarks?  In the larger panel under the image he speaks of ‘Ratios and proportional systems’ claiming that:

“If you can deploy the correct mathematics and use your intuition, you will be able to identify the golden section.  But all rectangles within rectangles look promising in this respect even if they are no more than doors and windows on the facades of industrial buildings”

Here’s an ideal opportunity for Jeffreys to enlighten us on how a combination of mathematical precision and a lack of conscious reasoning may assist us in recognising inherent harmony in the image but sadly he remains silent on the matter.

This is not reading a photograph – it is attaching a manufactured narrative which too often appears based on the flimsiest of notions.

My reading of this image settles on its inherent irony… we know that sand dunes are generally soft, curved, sweeping forms which are natural products, the result of wind and wave action.  The surfaces we see here are hard, angular, unnatural and grubby – quite the opposite.

In summary, I have been disappointed with the content of this book because I feel that it fails to deliver what it so clearly promises.  It has some value as a simple anthology and some of Jeffrey’s flights of fancy are amusing but it has not demonstrated ‘how’ to read anything. There’s something a little odd about the grammar and sentence construction too, almost as if it has been composed in English, translated by Google into French then translated back again.




Exercise 1.1

Four photographs of the same scene, taken within ten seconds, camera set to auto, locked-off tripod.  All jpeg, straight from the camera via Lightroom. What, if any, are the differences between each frame?  Let’s have a look:

PA031166   166166   

PA031167    167167


PA031168    168168

PA031169    169169

Nine seconds elapsed between the first and last frame.  The camera altered the aperture on the last frame from f5.6 to f5.0.  The histograms show small but noticeable differences which are difficult to correlate with changes in the images themselves.  There was a light breeze so the leaves were shaking slightly and the cat’s gaze turned a little in the last frame.

These are the processed jpeg images, generated by the camera’s own algorithm. I can’t post RAW or TIF files on WordPress, but having viewed them in Lightroom it’s clear that differences are visible here too.

Oddly, it seems that each viewer/editor renders the images slightly differently – I tried Raw Therapee, Lightzone, Zoner Photo, Photoshop, Lightroom and Photo Mechanic and each of them presented a slightly different rendition.

“Who’s afraid of Conceptual Art?”

Me for a start, so this program on BBC4 (19th September 2016) was appealing.  Anyone thinking that this would be an explanatory guide, along the lines of ‘this is, this isn’t and here’s why’ was going to be disappointed.  The presenter Dr James Fox, an genial individual who seemed comfortable disclosing his bafflement with the viewer, traced its origins and development from the times of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, through Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’ to current exponents of the art such as Martin Creed with his crumpled paper balls.


Martin Creed, Work No. 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995

He met with several quite entertaining conceptual artists and throughout the interviews one theme seemed to emerge: they were all rather pleased with themselves. Being a successful conceptual artist brings considerable rewards. A common response to some of this work must surely be ‘My Five Year Old Could Do That’,  so bearing in mind the retail cost of a Creed Crumpled Ball (£180 inc delivery & VAT), and having half a ream of A4 copier to hand I thought I’d have a go myself.

This work consists of a short live-action video piece and three images:


Untitled; Andy Webster 2016

It’s a lot harder than it looks.  Creed’s balls are far more artistic than mine, even though conceptually their artistic merit is secondary to the idea behind them.  My work is that of a complete amateur, in both thought and execution and it shows.  But probing deeper, perhaps that in itself is what imbues this work of mine with value – as my very first attempt it can never be repeated; all my subsequent conceptual work will be that of an experienced artist, now matter how limited the experience. It is my index work, against which all that follows may be compared and now I hear a subversive internal monologue:  “Can you see what’s happening now?’  I ask myself…. ‘you started with your tongue quite firmly in your cheek and now it’s merrily wagging away along with all the other critics”

Conceptual art is a broad church and opinions vary wildly.  The Andre work “Equivalent VIII” was bought by The Tate in 1972 for £2,297 and presumably they considered it a fair price; Jonathan Jones writing in The Guardian recently[2] called it

“The most boring controversial artwork ever …”

and presumably wouldn’t give it house-room (though he might usefully rework it as a room for his house).  Two experts, two opinions.  If you added a further three, seven, twenty experts you’d probably get as many opinions again, but that’s one of the values of conceptual art; the artist having given his idea or notion form and substance, the work takes on a life of its own, provoking thought, discussion and multiple viewpoints.  A work of conceptual art might be thought of as the distilled essence of an idea, which expressed in words would take on a far  lengthier and more cumbersome form.

In an earlier post I wrote about my encounters with the work of art critic Terry Barrett and his assertion that art “needs interpretation”.  I think it’s often possible to mount a fairly plausible counterclaim to this in the case of photographs but for conceptual art I’d say he’s right on the money.

As for my own career as a Conceptual Artist I feel I would be unwise to give up the day job, even if I had one.


[1].Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? BBC Documentary 2016. 2016. Autumnwatch 2014 Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Y1Mc3YxjRY> [Accessed 22 Sep. 2016].

[2].  Jonathan Jones: Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII: the most boring controversial artwork ever. The Guardian. [online] 20 Sep. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/sep/20/carl-andre-equivalent-viii-bricks> [Accessed 22 Sep. 2016].

Planning for the Square Mile series


The idea for this project arose because of a recent house move to a small hamlet in West Dorset.  The new house is less than a mile from the village of Nettlecombe where two of my childhood holidays were spent at the local pub, the Marquis of Lorne.  I was aged ten then;  it was fifty years ago.  In the intervening years I have changed a great deal but the area itself is little altered.  Looking through my Mother’s assiduously albumed enprints from the time, I see many of the features of the area remain identifiable. The child in the images though, is gone forever. My memories of those times are fragmented now, some of them are probably even acquired memories from my sister and parents and it is this notion of fragments I wanted to express in the photographs for this assignment.

A simple straight image wouldn’t convey the ten-year-old’s fascination for the place.  My home at the time was in the outskirts of Manchester and in Dorset I found surprises round every winding green corner.  I recall the importance of the weather and how it was a subject of considerable concern for my parents, who were probably banking on a relaxing beach holiday with my sister and I playing, just in sight, in the ankle-high waves.  It rained.  A lot.  This aspect is not a ‘live’ part of my memory but I have heard the tales of the weather repeated over the years.

I wanted to encapsulate these memory fragments as representative images rather than capturing the actual sites themselves.  At the same time I wanted the general content to be identifiable but through some obscuring device, rather like the passage of time itself.  I also wanted the images themselves to have some internal harmony and be pleasing images.  No pressure, then.

I decided that the ‘safari’ approach would be likely to result in a hotch-potch of disparate images so I set myself the task of identifying a number of likely subjects.  I thought about how I would approach each image, with varying degrees of exactitude.  I waited for the right weather and time of day.  Some of the ideas presented greater problems than others but I ended up with a dozen or so ideas to select from.

I was pleased with the pre-planned approach.  In the past, on other photo excursions,  I have often found myself wandering around losing heart quite quickly; this at least gave me a direction and framework to work to.  I felt that it nurtured creativity rather than stifling it. I read an observation made by John Szarkowski about the difference between painting and photography, paraphrased as painting being concerned with adding content to the image and photography with taking it away.  In narrowing down my intentions I was able to remove a lot of ‘noise’ at the outset and concentrate on my ideas.

All the photographs were made with an Olympus OM-D M-1.  Most of them utilised an old Zuiko 50mm f1.8 lens intended for a 35mm film camera;  this gives an effective 100mm view on the smaller OM-D sensor along with paper-thin depth of field, a useful selecting/obscuring device as mentioned above.   Some were taken with the rather more modern M-Zuiko Pro 24-80mm.  All were exposed using aperture priority and exposure compensation where required.

All are presented in a square format – it looks a bit like the format of the old chemist-produced images in our family albums.  I added a soft black border because….. well, I just think it looks better on the screen.  I worked on the RAW files a tiny bit in ACR and added a little screen sharpening in CS6, resized to 1500px and converted to the preferred Adobe 1998.  I consider them to be acceptably unadulterated images, although I’m not yet entirely sure why this should be important.