Assignment Four: A picture is worth a thousand words

Assignment Four: Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice. The image I have selected is The Cut by Dara Scully, 2015

A young girl looks to camera, she is holding scissors across her plait

The Cut, Dara Scully, 2015

On the wall to the left of my computer is a black and white photograph; a young girl stares back at me uncompromisingly. Having considered several photographs (see my learning log) this was the image I kept returning to. There were occasions I looked at ‘The Cut’ and I imagined seeing my younger self looking back. The signification that emerged for me is that of belligerence. I could almost hear my mother’s voice – ‘don’t you dare, don’t you cut that plait!’ At which point I would hear the clip of the blades and the braid would be limp in my hand. My parents would have described me as a wilful child. I have interpreted the gesture as an act of asserting identity and autonomy. Given the polysemous (Barthes, 1977) nature of photography this personal response sets the context for my interpretation and analysis of the photograph.

Dara Scully (b.1989) is a photographer and writer based in Spain. She studied Fine Arts at Salamanca University and has a wonderfully lyrical way of describing her practice. She accepts she is obsessed with childhood, ‘maybe it’s because everything is so pure in childhood, so raw…cruelty, tenderness, evil, kindness… they feel all those feelings and show us just as they are.’(Ashley, 2015b)

She has exhibited in Spain and internationally, and was ‘Commended’ this year in the Sony World Photography Awards (People Category). While she is attracting growing acclaim for her work she has also been subject to some critique for her explorations of childhood (not unlike Sally Mann) and death. This posed a question for me around accepted portrayals of children and childhood.

A while back I featured an image of Dara Scully’s on the Instagram feed and immediately it drew a lot of attention; a few were disgusted by her work while others defended it…I embrace the fact that some of the images make the viewer a bit uncomfortable.(Ashley, 2015a)

At first glance the image may appear to denote a candid moment of a child playing. A neatly dressed young girl (perhaps in school uniform) looks to camera, behind her the background foliage is out of focus, the shallow depth of field making her all the more pronounced. Her hair is a little tussled and the parting is crooked but the plait looks neatly braided. You then notice her gaze and the claw like fingers on the scissors that are poised across the plait. Her right hand (almost out of shot) is holding the hair firmly. The black and white nature of the image and the clothes she is wearing give the photograph an ambiguous position in time, it could be contemporary or it could be historical. The Cut’s connotations for me echo myths and fairy tales; those dark tales of childhood, often in woods or forests, where good battles evil.

The studium appears to speak of childhood and possibly coming of age, whereas, the punctum is the scissors and the nature of her gaze. These signs are ‘that accident which pricks me.’ (Barthes, 1981: 27) This is not a passive, acquiescent, childlike look. It has a darkness to it. She looks defiant with wisdom beyond her years. Almost daring the photographer to take a step closer (or maybe even to take the photograph?) and if she does she will sever the plait. There is something threatening in her stance and her gaze.

In exploring the intertextuality of ‘The Cut’ I am reminded of the iconic coming of age work of Szabo, particularly ‘Priscilla’, here the plait and scissors are replaced by the cigarette, but the defiance in the gaze is similar. There are also echoes in ‘Long Island Girl’ and Sally Mann’s ‘Candy Cigarette’.

Szabo’s images recognise the often hidden complexities of the journey into adulthood too.

The innocence of the students can really affect you…a number of [my] images express the inner life, the inner difficulties that teenagers have. (Philips, 2014)

Perhaps, more interesting than the similarities are the contrasts to those images of a more romanticised ‘innocent’ childhood like those of Julia Margaret Cameron, and commercial advertising, which appear to have gained such a dominant place in the collective psyche.

Scully’s work feels brave, honest and revealing against this backdrop and in an era when there is so much concern about the representations of children. We endure news coverage of out of focus children and hear of schools banning parents photographing events. There is no doubt that safeguarding issues are important and I confess I was mindful of researching this issue. The Cut surfaces an important dialogue about our social concerns for the loss of innocence.  It is suggested this is a largely adultcentric concern with the meanings of ‘childhood’ being largely determined and defined by adults for adults.(Robinson, 2008)

Thus, the defining boundary between adults and children, and the ultimate signifier of the child—childhood innocence—is a constructed social and moral concept. (Robinson, 2008: 115)

In this photograph I see Scully playing with this boundary and deliberately disrupting our conceptions of innocence and evil, childhood and adulthood. She does not do this lightly and the children she works with are active participants in her work, she recognises the delicate ground she is treading, ‘childhood and death are kind of taboo.’ (Ashley, 2015b) There is a perceived crisis in the apparent loss of an innocent childhood but it could be argued that this is actually more of a crisis of adulthood in a rapidly changing world.(Holland, 2004) In The Cut the gaze is confrontational a possible challenge to an established but diminishing power order. It opens a discourse that explores a more contested view of representations of childhood. The Cut, for me personally, recalls those periods of confusion, some darker days, in the twilight period of childhood and adulthood when the rules were unclear and I was grappling with being ‘me.’

Yet the bitter experience of being a child is very often a continuous struggle to escape from childhood, to leave behind precisely those qualities of simplicity, ignorance and innocence that are so highly valued. (Holland, 2004: 205)

Word count: 1,009

References and citations

ASHLEY. 2015a. Dara Scully on childhood unplugged. The Stork and the Beanstalk [Online]. Available from: http://www.thestorkandthebeanstalk.com/2015/10/02/dara-scully-on-childhood-unplugged/ [Accessed 18th March 2016 2016].

ASHLEY, J. 2015b. Childhood Unplugged features Dara Scully. Childhood Unplugged [Online]. Available from: https://childhoodunplugged.com/2015/10/02/childhood-unplugged-features-dara-scully/ [Accessed 4th March 2016 2016].

BARTHES, R. 1977. Rhetoric of the Image. In: HEATH, S. (ed.) Image Music Text. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

BARTHES, R. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang.

HOLLAND, P. 2004. Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery, London, I.B.Taurus.

PHILIPS, A. 2014. In-between days: Joseph Szabo. Hunger TV [Online]. Available from: http://www.hungertv.com/photography/feature/in-between-days/ [Accessed 25th March 2016 2016].

ROBINSON, K., H 2008. In the name of ‘childhood innocence’: a discursive exploration of the moral panic associated with childhood and sexuality. Cultural studies Review, 14, 113-129.

 

Decoding the decoding: Liz Jobey review of a Young Brooklyn Family

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable.(Jobey, 2005)

This review for me started well with this opening statement, it highlights the interpretative nature of ‘reading’ photographs and reflected some of the critiques I have been looking at in terms of semiotics. However, from this point forward I find myself getting increasingly frustrated about what is to me an apparent melange of denotation and connotation with one sometimes being presented as the other.

Jobey starts with a mix of description and interpretation of the image. Highlighting how the viewer might imagine the lives and futures of the family in the photograph – ‘you can’t help wondering what will become of them.’ In the next few sentences it seems clear the assumption of the reviewer is that their futures are not likely to be bright. The review then moves through a series of phases:

  • Some background to the image
  • Denotation
  • Placing Arbus in context and biographical information
  • Arbus backstory
  • Different perspectives on Arbus’ wider body of work
  • Legacy
  • Denotation
  • Concluding connotation and wider social context

From my perspective the flow is not always clear and moves in and out of the image in an attempt to place both Arbus and the photograph in context. It was not so much the structure that troubled me as some of the statements, which for me blurred the lines between fact and interpretation. Statements like:

  • ‘…you can’t help wondering…’
  • ‘We pity them partly…’
  • ‘…her bland white baby…’
  • ‘They look or their marriage looks, already exhausted…’
  • ‘What is clear…’
  • ‘What is disturbing…’
  • ‘…her appearance seems absurd…’
  • ‘…its power comes from the ordinariness they dispute…’

I highlight these phrases because of their resoluteness and the sense of assuming I as the reader/viewer am complicit in these understandings. In my case there were several points where I did not make the interpretation apparently being made for me and where I felt unsubstantiated projections were being made. Only a couple of times does Jobey allude to an interpretation by saying ‘his expression suggests’ or ‘it is an extension of the impression given’. At no point does she appear to own her interpretations and place them in the first person.

I appreciate it may seem that there is an impertinence in my critique of Jobey’s essay, it is after all a comprehensive review, but going through this process has helped me in thinking about the importance of language and the recognition of the interpretative nature of semiotics. I needed to understand the source of my irritation in reading some of the passages. It has also highlighted the challenge of making personal interpretations and assuming that they can be generalised, something that other social science research methodologies have been grappling with for years in a way I haven’t yet seen to the same degree in this field.

References:

Jobey, L. (2005). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing , N.Y.C. 1966. In S. Howarth (Ed.), Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (pp. 67-76). London: Tate Publishing.

 

The Dad Project & Country Doctor

Black & white image of a single figure in a doctor's coat

w. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor, Life Magazine, 1948

Wow, that was a hard read. I had to take Briony Campbell’s photo essay in several bite size chunks. The Dad Project is extraordinarily intimate, touching on something so personal yet at the same time universal in theme. It also tackles a subject, which I think is still to a certain degree, taboo. Part of is power for me is its ability to resonate, it speaks to me as a daughter, now a stepdaughter and a photographer. I utterly relate to her thoughts around narcissism, and not putting yourself in the frame.

I think there are similarities with W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor,” in terms of what I would define (as an ethnographic researcher) as ‘participant-observation’. They were both engaged in studying cultures, that of the work of the Doctor and of a family undergoing one of the most profound changes we have all have to face. They both appear to draw on humanist traditions and looking to speak of human experience and relationships. Both sets of images also pose questions about the human condition.

They also have their differences. While Eugene Smith’s works remain fresh and vital, for me they have an almost painterly quality. The fact that they are black and white highlights the tonal differences and the chiaroscuro effect. I am also conscious of the fact that while Eugene Smith built a rapport with Dr. Ceriani he only spent 23 days with him and his community. Briany Campbell’s work is about a lifelong relationship coming to an end in its physical form. She also puts herself in the frame as a means of acknowledging this relationship. Not all of her images are in sharp focus and I think their softness speaks of emotions, and the ambiguities and challenges she writes about struggling with. They have gentleness and like others my response to her words and images has been tears. Tears for the beauty and pain she has captured, and tears for my own family losses and grief.

When she speaks of it being an ‘ending without an ending’ I think she is referring to the story living on in her images and photo essay. I also think she is talking about her on-going relationship with her father even though his physical presence is no longer with her.

The High Street

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Title: The High Street

Exercise: Find a street that particularly interests you. Shoot 30 colour and 30 black and white images in a street photography style. Reflect on your experience and work.

Approach: I thought about where I wanted to go for some time. I thought about somewhere very ordinary, a town high street that could be anywhere or an area that looks tired and neglected. So, did I go somewhere with obvious character or see how I might work with a place with a less obvious identity. Added to which street photography is not a field I have worked in other than covering some big public events. I was not particularly comfortable about taking my camera out in public and despite reading around the subject still felt unsure about what the ‘rules of the game’ both socially and legally were about photographing people as they go about their daily lives.

Reflections on ‘The High Street’

This was an exercise I enjoyed more than I imagined I would. It was not an area I visit regularly and when I do I tend to be driving through so it is not somewhere I have spent much time observing. I was not at all comfortable about stepping into the High Street with my camera, it felt obtrusive, particularly as most of the time I work with still life and food.

I had decided before I went I would try and avoid shooting people and focus on capturing the essence of the High Street. Inevitably, I did capture people but those shots were generally from behind. Once I got started I began to notice things I had never seen before. I was absorbed by my surroundings and while there were some longer shots that were interesting it was the points of details that increasingly caught my attention.

I did not have a specific plan in relation to shooting in both black and white and colour; in fact part of me thought I might shoot everything in colour and then change some in PS. However, once I got started I saw more and more in terms of colour or black and white, different aspects seemed to lend themselves to different treatment. I also became interested in the ‘traces’ that people leave; in ways to capture everyday life without necessarily having people in the frame. This has perhaps been influenced by looking at the work of the other photographers included in the course.

Colour leant itself to the more everyday, to aspects of action and daily life. The black and white seemed to add drama and emotion. It is not a case for me of whether I preferred one set or the other, they achieved different things. I am pleased with some of the results I got from both. It seems to be a matter of appropriateness – of context and narrative!