Position and Practice – Week 8

Exploring Contexts

I’ve never considered myself a deep thinker in relation to my photographic practice. That’s not to say I’m shallow and superficial. Having consider the content from this week’s course material, and reflecting on my past work (particularly since starting ShutterPod), it seems more akin to having always subconsciously set my work in context.

Hans Ulrich Obrist‘s description of his curation of The Kitchen; a collaborative approach to showcasing artworks in a different way to the then norms has made me realise that my way of working has never knowingly included the desire to see my work displayed on gallery walls. Much of my recent work has involved running workshops where I help others to create their own photo-art; production of my own work has taken a back seat but often when I have created work it has been given away to friends or sold affordably at local craft fairs. I have always been driven to share and promote the work of others; to see their work shared and enjoyed by many. The creation of a one-day alternative photography festival was one way I have attempted to do this, as well as the very first exhibition I took part in where I printed my work on long transparency film sheets and hung them from ceilings for people to walk and see through, allowing glimpses of other participants work to draw people in.

Obrist talks about the influence the lectures by his professor, H C Binswanger in regard economics had on his way of thinking about how to he could make a contribution to the European art world. He references Binswanger’s book, Money and Magic, and points out that this work demonstrates that “endless growth is unsustainable, both in human and planetary terms”, which, given the drive behind my project proposal, resonates deeply. He talks of how these views, including the idea that it is not essential to just keep producing new goods, influenced his way of thinking when it came to creating an exhibition. This resulted in, via the input of other artists, the plan to use his under-used kitchen as an exhibition space.

This is definitely a different context in which to show work. Most people, I am generalising here, would, if asked where they would expect to see an art show, respond with, “in a gallery”. By taking work out of the traditional gallery context – which for some people still has that feeling of being “high-brow” or unwelcoming if they do not perceive themselves as having a high enough social status to walk through the door and probably relates to the gallery space being tied to a “retail’ experience and perhaps the attitude “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” – can it open the doors to everyone regardless of background?

Jeff Wall, a photographer whose back-lit transparency work has been highlighted this week, was quoted in a Guardian interview last year as saying being a photographer may have actually been a “misstep” and that his subsequent photographic work was “a big mistake”. Giving a monetary context to his work, particularly when his image Dead Troops Talk (shown below) sold for in excess of $3 million in 2012, it is interesting to consider why he may feel as though his photographic work has been a mistake – he describes himself as “slithering” away from painting to photography so perhaps he does not rate photography in the same context as painting? If the art world has financially “valued” his work so highly, is he concerned that the content is not of value? Is the content out of step to the price paid?

© Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk


Gregory Crewdson‘s largescale cinematic-style work has also been showcased. Published in a book and to appreciate the detail, well suited to a gallery display,  the question was also posed as to what, when by its nature it may be more suited to dark cinemaesque location, a gallery venue could add, or subtract, from the images. Martin Parr’s Xerox printed exhibition Common Sense added a global element, being simultaneously printed and exhibited around the globe.

Many of the photographers also created photobooks, particularly pre-internet, while now, post-internet, eBooks and apps are increasingly being used to show work.

Leonie Hampton‘s short film was used to showcase her photographic interpretation of her mothers’ OCD. But she also created a book and a specific app for purchase.

And the contaxt of the images, where and how you choose to show your work, is intrinsically linked to how they maybe interpreted by those seeing them. What is there meaning?

In this week’s article in The Camerawork essays: context and meaning in photography by John A Walker, the notion of  a photograph’s meaning is pursued. He raises questions about how the context of the image can influence its meaning. He says that his students often said that a photo has as many meanings as there are humans who see it – each person will interpret it differently. And if this is so, will this render the image meaningless? But he also elaborates on how the “venue” in which it is seen will also effect the reaction felt by viewers along with the how its original “birth” meaning can change over its “life”.

This has made me consider the model release form. When signing a release form, a model can stipulate where they do not want the image to be used, or if they do not care at all. In this way the image may already have a context before it is even published.

Thinking about my ideas for the MA, I have felt from the start that whatever I end up producing I want it to have an external “home” – for it to be outside, not inside. Perhaps this sits with my belief that art should be accessible to all, no part of society as humans like to create it should have dominion over art. That it is classless; that if people do not feel the need to dissect it or understand it, it is not a barrier to liking or disliking it.

By travelling, physically and via the technology and telecommunications available to us, we can start to consider even more accessible ways to share our work. There has been much this week to inspire me in considering new means of exhibiting work but I also hope that true collaboration, without ego, is something I can pursue through this MA.

By meeting like-minded photographers (not necessarily in ‘genre’ but in ethos) where dynamic opportunities to showcase work can be nurtured, achieved and exploited for all involved, would be another means of exploring contexts.