Reading & Research: Art Photography and Female Photographers

17th March 2018, Arts University Bournemouth

I started looking at SOURCE: The Photographic Review Winter ’17 (Issue 92). There was an article by Richard West that I started reading because I am really struggling with the questions about what the difference is between what an ‘artist’ produces and what someone else produces when they take a digital image. There were questions about what makes a photograph art that were fascinating to me, because who decides what the status is?  The answers given by Juliet Hacking seemed to be made up of several elements: where you study photography or fine art (which changes according to fashion); prizes and awards; where the photographer gets seen; who they get taken up by – dealers, shows, exhibitions;  who writes about them and where. But status is never stable. Fundamentally the answer seems to be that art photography is what the institutional network say it is. To me, that bodes ill for anyone outside of those traditional institutional networks as most are dominated by males, and most genres in photography and art seem to be dominated by male ideas of subject matter and male ideas about what constitutes a good examples of those genres.

I picked up Digital Snaps because it keeps coming up as recommended on Amazon. The work of Laurie Novak (Reverb) remind me of tracing paper experiments I made a few months ago. I was also fascinated by the section on Japanese Purikura photography as I’d never even heard of it before. I read the chapter on travel photography because I have extra work to complete on assignment 3.

There was a sentence that jumped out at me about what middle class mothers do with their family snaps. Do different parents do different things with their images of the children? Do different ‘classes’ do different things? Are mothers and fathers taking photos of their children for different reasons and do those images look different? This was an interesting question to me, particularly as I later read a sentence in Women Photographers by Constance Sullivan that asks ‘whether we can recognise and discuss per se female visual intelligence’. Are the images that male and females take of their offspring any different visually? I haven’t ever noticed a difference. I suppose I take most of the family photos in my family, but my father took the most when I was a child. I think that were I to look at his photos of me and mine of my children they’d look broadly similar and would be taken for the same reasons. My dad would call himself working class – certainly he came from a working class background. I suppose I am categorised as middle class; by the time I came along my dad was an engineer and my mum worked for a bank. I don’t see why there would be any difference in why family snaps were taken or what different parents would do with them now? But I will research this topic again later as it’s interesting.

I find that each broad line of research I follow answers something unexpected and also brings up lots of questions I hadn’t really considered. Asking these questions I found that I wanted to look at more work by female photographers so I started with Photography; A Critical Introduction by Liz Wells which had a section about women and photography that was a good introduction.

The Other Observers by Val Williams answered one of those questions I had but didn’t know I had. She talks about the work of Jo Spence and says that ‘by introducing the machinery of portraiture into the photograph, Spence reminds us of her presence, of her participation in the photograph, challenging the family’s percieved notion of it’s own self-sufficiency and perfection.’ I’ve see that idea of clues that indicate the presence of the photographer used more and more frequently lately and I hadn’t really processed why that might be happening. I think Beyond the Family Album by Jo Spence is something I would like to follow up as it feeds in to a lot of ideas I’m having for my own work. I think the way the Polysnappers used photography to look at representations of family life that were dominant and considered most ‘natural’ at the time (and still are) is very powerful. The ideas about the nuclear family and the way it is supported by both legislation and by a visual representation that presents a highly romanticised and idealised version of it isn’t something I’d consciously thought through, but it has a direct effect on expectations that society has about me as a woman and expectations I put on myself that I don’t always feel comfortable with.

I then looked at Women Photographers by Constance Sullivan. I have a very long list of photographers I would like to follow up from this book. Again, images and sometimes sentences jump out at me as relevant. This one was ‘flounced sleeve, standing in for centuries of feminine guile and coquetry’. It was just interesting to think about a resurgence of this fashion and how I might use it as a representation of those qualities in portraiture. Does it represent the same ideas now? I have several tops with sleeves like this; they are very impractical, but when I was a small child I really loved the idea of being a medieval princesses with pointed hats and flounced sleeves and I think that I still have that child in me that wants to dress up; maybe that’s why I buy them? I find them hard to wear in the course of everyday life, especially in the context of my role as a mother with the domestic chores that entails, and at art classes where they are a real annoyance and are always dragging across my work. In this book I saw several photographers creating mythical characters from sitters and I like the idea. There were examples from Julia Margaret Cameron and Anne Brigman.

I had a quick look through ‘Life is Good and Good for You in New York by William Klein. I really like the use of text in the photographs; I think it adds a feeling of strength.

I have Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz at home, but I had a look at a copy of A Photographer’s Life 1990-2008. Some of these images were taken by Susan Sontag, and reading parts of the text it was obviously that Leibovitz had felt her loss keenly; I felt the inclusion of images and work by her partner was almost like trying to put back a missing piece. She included personal images and images she had been commissioned to take. She said ‘I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.’ I felt some sense of reassurance that she’d said that, but as yet I’m not sure why.

Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


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