August 21: Remember contact sheets, and what they revealed about your photography?
At a glance, a proof sheet of negatives printed on an 8″ x 10″ sheet of photographic paper could provide valuable feedback, an overview, contingent, like a manuscript, or something comparable to an artist’s sketchbook, revealing a process of the visual thinking.
Teaching photography, I found that the contact sheets of my students provided insights about their approach and attitudes. The early ones are dominated by horizontal images, as the novice photographer tends to hold the camera like a WW1 Maxim machine gun, shooting indiscriminately with crosshairs centred on the subject, and later, like a steering wheel, directing the vehicle of their aspiring art. Gradually, learning how to hold a camera, with more daring and a desire to experiment, vertical images start to appear, then ‘arty’ angled views before it occurs to them that the image might contain more than one subject.
A very useful book appeared then; Contact: Theory published in 1980 by Lustrum Press, with photographs and the proof sheets from which they were selected, and brief statements from Robert Adams, Judy Dater, Elliott Erwitt, Ralph Gibson, Horst, Hosoe, Geard Malanga, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mary Ellen Mark, Burk Uzzle et al. (others like it have been published since, including The Contact Sheet from AMMO Books, and Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans).
From it I could demonstrate how photographers worked. I used slides of its illustrations, and of significant photographs from artists and photojournalists, to teach composition. Yes, things like the Golden Mean, the Rule of Thirds and other formulae of subject placement, high or low horizons,…
…pattern and repetition,…
…the ‘Dutch tilt’, symmetry and asymmetry, balance and disharmony, counterchange, counterpoint…
…contrast of scale, the figure/ground relationship etc, …and what I remembered of my own learning, from Athol Shmith for whom musical and photographic composition were alike; means of producing coherent sound or vision respectively.
Imagine if there were a ‘proof sheet’ of Australian photography; an overview of the best…
You’ll find such a thing on the Monash Gallery of Art website which, having been built for low bandwidth (I don’t think they have money for an upgrade), provides thumbnails of the finalists in this year’s eagerly contested and long-running William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize, on its 15th anniversary, and also marking 30 years of the MGA. They have a Facebook page too, but let’s not make Mark Z. any richer and Australian journalism poorer. The announcement of the $30,000 winner, the Smith & Singer People’s Choice Award recipient of $5,000, and the Colour Factory Honourable Mentions, will be celebrated at a special event to be confirmed in January 2021.
Interestingly, close to 50% of the images selected by the year’s judges Fiona Hall, Shaune Lakin and Anouska Phizacklea use the simplest of compositions; either the central placement of their subject, or symmetry.
What does this say about contemporary attitudes to photographic design and the value of more nuanced visual composition? These are not amateurs: they have good reason for this simplification or reduction, as we shall see.
A year after Contact:Theory, came another book, the English translation ‘Camera Lucida’ of Roland Barthes‘ La Chambre Claire (1980), which my students read as eagerly as they did Susan Sontag‘s On Photography (1977):
The books which deal with [photography], much less numerous moreover than for any other art, are victims of this difficulty [its tautology]. Some are technical; in order to “see” the photographic signifier, they are obliged to focus at very close range. Others are historical or sociological; in order to observe the total phenomenon of the Photograph, these are obliged to focus at a great distance. I realised with irritation that none discussed precisely the photographs which interest me, which give me pleasure or emotion. What did I care about the rules of composition of the photographic landscape…? (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p.6-7)
This rejection comes out of his long history in examining photographs, not as a photographer, but as an analyst of ‘signs’. Beginning in the fifties, Barthes the mythologist analysed the ideology of the photograph in Steichen’s The Family of Man; in the sixties, as a semiologist and structuralist, he read the ‘rhetoric of the image’ treating photography as if it were a linguistic structure of Saussurean ‘signifieds’ and ‘signifiers’; then as a poststructuralist in the seventies, Barthes set out photographs at the beginning of his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes; the cause of his fascination with photography was the way its meaning was torn from the sign in a structural paradox. Photography ‘transmit[ s] … literal reality’, is a ‘perfect analogon’ of the thing represented and hence ‘it is a message without a code’. The code is ‘not strictly part of the photographic structure’. The message can only be accessed through linguistic signifiers.
To teach ‘composition’ was, almost overnight, an anachronism. What mattered now in a photograph was the studium and the punctum. Barthes concept of the ‘punctum’ is well chosen…not a neologism but significantly since the 16th century has meant a mathematical point, a full stop, a small unit of time, and also apt, in medical language, is also the opening of the tear duct, and the eye’s ‘blind spot’ (punctum cecum).
Barthes the post-structuralist represents his concern with photographic affect which…
…in Camera Lucida lies not in the choices made by the photographer (composition, framing, subject matter), nor in photography’s ideological messages, nor even in photography as a structure to be analyzed…looking at a photograph is as immediate, as evidential, as Thomas touching the wounds of Jesus. (Sarah Sentilles, ‘The Photograph as Mystery: Theological Language and Ethical Looking in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida’, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 90, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 507-529)
The punctum is a wound, a trauma. Yet the major evidence of its effect on him, a particular photograph, does not appear in Barthes’ Camera Lucida.
Feeding into that thesis is his own trauma, and his notes about it in his Journal de deuil (“Mourning Diary”) after, and recording his response to, his mother’s death on October 25, 1977, and maintained until 15 September 1979, his last writing, and perhaps never intended for publication. The entry for December 29 records that he had received a reproduction photograph of this key image in Camera Lucida, the Winter Garden Photograph. He vows he will henceforth keep “in front of me, on my worktable.” On January 20, 1979 three months before he begins to write Camera Lucida, he mentions this reproduction again.
The intimate Journal de deuil (“Mourning Diary”) when finally published February 2009 by Éditions du Seuil reproduces François Lagarde‘s portrait of Barthes at his desk on April 25 (ten days into his writing of Camera Lucida)
Lagarde provides an object lesson in composition, of the ‘environmental portrait’ genre, in which the subject’s surrounds — the ‘ground’ — more fully signifies personality than the ‘figure’ itself, though Barthes (who perhaps was not just a little vain) in Lucida makes clear his contribution:
…very often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…
So let us say it is a collaboration more intense than that for other portraits in this form, and that the portrait subject has given close attention to that which is to be revealed behind him on the fastidiously tidy but well-used desk, with its peeling veneer, on which the calendar gives the date. His handwritten notes are set in a rack, beneath which are his reading glasses, and where his pipe tobacco in a tin awaits his next break from the writing that he produced at a cracking pace. A table lamp illuminates a little vase containing roses like those that he picked for his mother and himself whenever he could, and like those kept in the little ‘shrine’ above her bed in which she died, and in which he henceforth slept.
Almost dead centre of the composition is a watch, reminding us, like the calendar, of another concern in Camera Lucida; Time (“by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”) , the photograph suggests that it is already dead…”). Above a makeshift, labelled shelf are three frames; a picture of their home in Urt on the left, a picture of camels on the right, and in the centre the reproduction of the famed Winter Garden Photograph. Here is the only copy of that picture, enlarged from Lagarde’s portrait. Squinting at this blurred and indistinct trace, one can just make out a naive, centred, snapshot composition, and what he describes:
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 a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother seven. He was leaning against the bridge railing, along which he had extended one arm; she, shorter than he, was standing a little back, facing the camera; you could tell that the photographer had said, “Step forward a little so we can see you”; she was holding one finger in the other hand, as children often do, in an awkward gesture…
In ‘constituting himself’ for Legarde’s picture, Barthes folds his hands too, just as his mother did as a child and, no doubt, in death. Margaret Olin remarks on this transference in discussing Barthes drawing of a comparison of one of his mother’s family photographs with another by Van Der Zee by which she argues it is “the composition of a photograph, not the pumps or the necklace on a real person, [that] enabled him to make the identification. Presumably, Barthes recognized the family constellation, even though to do it he had to move the detail, the punctum, from one photograph to another. Barthes’s mistake [about a necklace, which Olin discusses earlier in ‘Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s ”Mistaken” Identification’ in Representations , Vol. 80, No. 1 (Fall 2002), pp. 99-118] may seem like a simple case of missing the forest for the trees. But the detail he thought he needed to search for was indeed important, if absent. His effort, then, illustrates other highly significant aspects of the punctum: the punctum may be the composition [my emph.]; the punctum may be forgotten; the punctum may be in a different photograph.”
To bring religion into the understanding of the punctum again, Jay Prosser identifies Camera Lucida as Barthes’s “most felt Buddhist text”…
“The essence Barthes finds in photography which he calls punctum, the poignant detail that wounds us about photography, is referenced with the pointing in Zen Buddhism. In order to designate reality, Buddhism says Sunya, the void; but better still: Tathātā, as Alan Watts has it, ‘the fact of being thus, of being so; tat means that in Sanskrit and suggests the gesture of the child pointing’. Barthes had read Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen by this main conduit of Zen in the West in the 1960s and 1970s and cites it in his bibliography (not translated in the English Camera Lucida). In Watts, Nāmarūpa or “name-and-form”, the signs we use to classify our world, are said to be ultimately void’. At the heart of Nāmarūpa is Śūnyatā the emptiness of form… the gesture of the child pointing at that or nothing…”
However, looking at the Winter Garden Photograph Barthes cannot ease his grief…he has “nothing to say”. “The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, nothing to say about her photograph … I have no other recourse than this irony: to speak of the “nothing to say”. The Winter Garden Photograph is therefore an empty sign, and is not reproduced in Camera Lucida because as Barthes reasons, it would be part of our ‘studium’ “…but in it, for you, no wound”.
If what they do is like the pointing of a babbling baby, and the result, the killing of the object, that would make a big problem for photographers, but it is one that great photographs resolve, and so, to return to the Bowness Prize, may I pick a winner, one with good reason to use a centralised composition?
It’s by collaborators Honey Long and Prue Stent and was made on Kokatha country at an abandoned salt stockpile at the edge of Lake Hart in South Australia, a location germane to both current consciousness of indigenous history and black lives, and of European-descendant Australians’ exploitation of the country’s mineral resources.
It is a salt-encrusted rock that sits at the exact centre of frame in harsh blazing sunlight. The effect is deliberately, and misleadingly, ‘dead-pan’. From behind the boulder emerge legs and arms of what at first glance appears to be one woman, but on second, cannot be; there is a weird anatomical dislocation. And it is a dis-location in the sense of this particular landscape and its indigenous, and its recent, corrupted history, as the artists explain…
Too often we think of landscapes as static. For example, where there have been human interventions, a landscape can transform quickly and dramatically. This area sits on the edge of the Woomera exclusion zone. A major military testing site with a dark history of environmental degradation, the effects of which have directly impacted local First Nations people, their land and its animals.
It is from continuing work by these collaborators, sculptor and photographer (Long studied sculpture at Sydney College of the Arts and Stent Photography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) who join each other (in some cases quite literally, in custom-made costumes) in front of the camera, in the landscape.
Honey and Prue have been working together since 2010 and are currently based in Melbourne where they exhibit at Arc One Gallery, Melbourne (2018), and overseas at PhotoEspana, Madrid (2018) and Nicola Von Senger, Zurich (2018). Notable group shows they have been in include Eyes on Australia, Pingyao International Photography Festival, China (2019); In Her Words, Horsham Regional Gallery (2019); Future Feminine, Fahey/ Klein Gallery, Los Angeles (2018); London Photo, The Female Lens: 9 Contemporary photographers, Huxley Parlour Gallery (2018); The Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award Finalist Exhibition, Gold Coast (2018); REVERIE REVELRY: Fashion Through Photography, Ballarat Foto Biennale (2017); and Trash Cans For Hearts and People Have No Soul, Fotofestwal Lodz, Poland (2017).
Currently represented by ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne, they are, I believe, a winning combination, but I shall have to wait until January to see…
2 thoughts on “September 11: Centrism”
Honey and Prue are a good example of how a photograph cannot be a message without a code. If you had never seen a photo before and you saw one of theirs, without the irrelevance of Photoshop, the content would be incomprehensible. The act of photography would not overcome the metaphysical awkwardness of their images. Even with more usual subject matter a photo will always remain highly codified – famously, two dimensional photographic images shown to tribes for the first time had to be carefully explained before becoming comprehensible.
I love the writing of Barthes but he invites argument sometimes – like the best writers.
Great article James.
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