At the end of February I posted a contact sheet series of pictures of a man moving about in front of an incongruous photograph screen in an urban setting. In the series his relationship with the screen and its open door remains unexplained. (here)
I was interested to see how people would read this series and asked for comments via one of the OCA Student Facebook pages.
The posted comments were:
“I think these work well as a very short story. It’s as if he is being shown the back-stage area behind the facade.”
“I think these contacts work as a series. I was not familiar with the concept of non-places either – my lesson for today. I totally agree with Rob’s comments. I think you have captured the man’s reactions/puzzlement perfectly.”
“I enjoy the narrative in this; I feel like he is “casing the joint” though his motives are unclear. The mundane becomes interesting simply because you have photographed it, a great example of the power of photography.”
“This is great. I’m not familiar with the non-places concept but here I simply see an engaging vignette of a man bewildered by the surreal experience of seeing the rural facade invading the urban landscape. To me he’s considering going through the door but decides against it. It’s a fantastic minimalist ‘one-act photo play’ (a much underused format IMHO).”
“I think it’s brilliant and a wonderful example of non-places. Thanks for introducing me to that concept as well.”
“I love the idea. It could work as a series. The pedestrian comes in from the left, the opten door keeps his attention, and leaves the scene from the right.”
“Made me smile Steve. As someone who spends so much time travelling through archetypal non-spaces (airports) – it very much reminds me of the bewilderment I observe in those places. Out of interest – was the subject interested in what you were photographing through the door when he came into the scene, or was he already there. I sometimes find it a useful construct in street photography to express an interest in something just to see if that encourages passers-by to do the same and become part of a scene.”
Not surprisingly, as the respondents are all photography students, the series was read as a narrative and thereby as a single piece not individual pictures. People saw a story in the man’s relationship with the open door that varied from “casing the joint” to “bewilderment”.
If this exercise shows anything it is probably further proof, as if any were needed, that context is everything. These are technically below par photographs, lacking the consistent framing that is usually desirable in a series, taken in changing light, of a man pacing in front of a wooden screen that has been disguised by a photograph of a rural scene. By posting it on a photography student Facebook page I am suggesting that it has meaning and potentially proposing that this meaning is more important that the quality of the photographs. My fellow students have commented on how they read the series but not on the quality of the photographs.
This is an intriguing feature of photography. It is a medium in which, if the picture is placed in the right context, we will look for intent and content before considering form, in fact quite often form appears to be irrelevant. I am unsophisticated enough to still believe that first and foremost a photograph needs to be technically good if not excellent and I still find this to be the great challenge of photography. To me, the great photographers combine technical expertise with the ability to introduce meaning but I sense that some of the greatest photographs of the twentieth century were taken purely on the basis of form and it is only in retrospect that students, critics, academics and sometimes the photographer have invested the picture with great meaning.
Post modernism is the great “opt-out clause” of photo criticism; if meaning is in the hands of the beholder and the author’s intent irrelevant, the photographer cannot complain if meaning is read into their work that contradicts their original intent, equally the viewer cannot read a photograph incorrectly “because all subsequent meaning is supplied and applied by the viewer” (1).
However, I am always interested to see interviews with photographers who reject the, often well established, interpretation of their work. When considering a photographer’s work post modern theory would suggest that there is no need to seek out the photographer’s opinion but I have to admit that it is usually the place that I start from.
So, did I have any intent when photographing this series? I was interested in the photograph, why was it appropriate to post a huge rural mural in a soul-less urban shopping centre? Did whoever made this choice believe that I, the passerby, would be uplifted and transported to sun drenched parkland just long enough to be reinvigorated for another visit to TK Max? or, did they believe that this photograph transformed the non-place into a rural idyll? It stuck me as being an extension of the architect’s model where tiny trees and grass verges are added to show that a building will be placed in a natural setting even if it is being built on a desolate brown site. The man, by extension became, one of the tiny figures that are added to the same models but he is missing his perfect plastic partner and two plastic children and is not playing the part that has been scripted for him. He seems confused by the rural scene in the middle of the urban desert, what could be so ugly that it has to be screened, and what are the consequences of passing through that door to find out?
(1) Jay, Bill (1992) Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography. Tucson: Nazraeli Press