On pilgrimages, road-trips and the states in-between. Or, how a photographer may find the world.

There are many possible pitfalls in undertaking work that pivots on ideas of covenants, faith, visions, and miracles.

Not the least of these is the strong possibility that the work will veer off-course in one direction, and onto the sharp rocks of parody, or another and into the over-soft swampland of piousness. Even writing about these potential disasters can bring about an appalling urge to metaphor.

Gentle satire may in fact be the desired intention for the work, such as is the bass note in Swandown. (Fly Film/Channel 4 2012) In this film, made by Andrew Kotting and Ian Sinclair, a mock-Homerian voyage is undertaken from Hastings to London in a swan-shaped pedalo. Although there are undoubtedly elements of real difficulty to overcome in the journey, one reoccurring impression is of a self-conscious mockery; both of the “epic’ voyage undertaken, and of the 2012 Olympic hubris happening in London and the U.K at the time. In addition to these political elements there are quiet revelations of the landscape and poetic juxtapositions played out via the cinematography and the chance encounters along the way. The film balances any propensity to pompous political critique or overly sentimental odes to the English landscape by using the visual elements of surreal silliness in a beautifully poised way.

Without this level of self-awareness at play, there is a real risk that a project can sink beneath a weight of condescension, self-righteousness or didactic irrelevance. These are risks faced by photographers working in a post-documentary world. How can stories be told that are engaging, empathetic and complex, without reverting to the conventional triangulated relationship of artist-subject-viewer and the inferred and problematic hierarchies contained within those positions?

Photographers who go out into the world to find and tell these stories are increasingly looking at ways to combine still images, text and moving image. These combinations can more accurately mirror the complexities of our relationship to the material, and offer multiple levels of representation.

An example of the utilisation of some of these combinations can be found in Alec Soth’s recent work, made in North Dakota at the height of the current oil boom, and commissioned by the NY Times. file://localhost/(http/::www.nytimes.com:interactive:2013:02:03:magazine:north-dakota-photos-audio.html)

Soth’s set of stark and rich B&W images are presented with detailed captions and quotes from the subjects, and they were made in tandem with a short video, produced by Soth but shot and directed by Isaac Gale. (http://vimeo.com/59220781)

In reading the credits it becomes clear that there was a deep level of collaboration between the two artists, as Soth is also the interviewer for the video work. Indeed the two bodies of work combine to create a more extended work once both have been viewed. Soth’s stills are amplified and given a cinematic richness of backstory once the video has been viewed. This does not impoverish the experience of viewing the still images; they stand alone as crisply rendered photographic moments, containing an unflinching level of detail and depth-of-field that delivers a textural subtext of its own around the black oil, the white snow and all the tones in-between.

Making work that incorporates elements of a search or the visual tracking of a series of clues in the landscape within its process also runs the risk of devolving into something more opportunistic and potentially shallow, lazy or exploitative; the road-trip-with-camera formula.

This methodology is occasioned in part by a rich tradition in photography from its earliest days. Since Ansel Adams packed a darkroom onto the back of a mule and headed into Yosemite, the urge to head into the wilderness with a camera and record the wonders of the world is one that many photographers have succumbed to. This is not to deny that such urges have resulted in brilliant and breathtaking bodies of work. The trajectory of contemporary photography has been propelled along lines traversed by Eggleston, Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams and many more. Each of these photographers have combined in varying degrees a need to tell a human story with the desire to find it in a world beyond their own. In the current world of the contemporary Stephen Gill inserts the ephemera of his travels into his cameras and images, staining and burying the prints in the land he photographs. Ryan McGinley seamlessly slides between the worlds of fashion, commerce and art with his staged and semi-staged large-scale photographs of an idealised American youth in the landscape.  Christian Patterson plays the role of detective, following in the footsteps of a notorious couple of murderers in the American mid-west, finding and photographing clues along the way. All these practitioners have a strong and clearly articulated intention for the work, and if only one thing exists before the journey begins it is this.

To guard against the potential problems for my project outlined above then, it seems then that the notions of intention & self-awareness become central tenets of the process, and can perhaps be best described collectively as the integrity of the work.

It seems useful therefore to begin making a list of ingredients that might go to make up this elusive integrity.

Ideas around globalisation, the contemporary and the ways in which an artist can hope to be disruptive, brought to the fore in the January seminar, are a good place to start when thinking about intentionality.

Self-awareness is a more slippery proposition. The position of the self as author of the work informs every process and decision, albeit often in only partially articulated ways. This position is a complex one; social and humanist ideals sit uneasily alongside the history of representation in documentary practice, and rub shoulders awkwardly with ambition and academic achievement.

At best perhaps these two themes can be further developed and investigated, offering themselves as a compass along the way to measure how far off course my process is taking me.

3 thoughts on “On pilgrimages, road-trips and the states in-between. Or, how a photographer may find the world.”

  1. Okay, Becky, here we go:
    One of the interesting things about this entry is the way it acts as a kind of “defensive forcefield” – it seems to start from the position that one needs to defend’s one engagement with spiritualism and miracles: that the contemporary art world has perhaps become so cynical that our default setting is to scorn the otherworldly. And to a certain extent, I think you’re right. But this worries me too – that our sense that we need to be self-aware might actually undermine the very real engagement we all have with the freaky, unexplainable shit that happens to us. I think Yvonne’s work sums this up perfectly for me: that on the one hand, it seems deeply self-aware – its staginess, its fashion. But on the other, it could be completely oblivious – just weird because that’s what it is – weird, disruptive, otherworldly imagery that stands alone.

    I’m also interested in the way we’ve lost the connection between technologies like photography and spiritualism. You’ll know this already, but the whole invention of photography was tied up with the occult, as were things like electricity and radio – ways to charge or discover the ether. So in a sense, spiritualism has always been about the same things as photography – using alchemy to discover the unseen.

    The other thing I’m really interested in at the moment is the intersection between technology, modernity, colonialism and spiritualism. Frankly, I thought I was a genius for having figured this out. But then I discovered that Rebecca Solnit wrote a book about Muybridge and the creation of the myth of the West (as in the American West) in 2003. I’ve ordered it. Will let you know what it’s like. She’s a wonderful writer – I think she’s also written about Ansel Adams etc. She’s the queen of psychogeography – understanding spaces by moving through them while also tracing their histories and the impacts those histories have on people’s lives.

    So I guess this is my long way of saying: put self-awareness to one side for now. See where the images take you. Then trust that you’re a critically engaged person able to reflect on those images and make good decisions about them.

    That is all. For now.

  2. Thanks for your insight Anthony. You are dead right when you say that I wrote it to conjure up a defensive forcefield; and also completely right in your advice to set aside over analytical and self conscious judgements for now. Easier said than done, but I shall try!
    I will check out Solnit, and put my faith in the act of making for a while…

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