Sarah and I have been making lots of prototypes for Family Saturdays lately but we thought we’d share one we’re having lots of fun with. We took inspiration from the Beverly Semmes’ work in the One Work exhibition currently open to the public and made headless, long armed puppets.
Our new friends:
A Final Reflection
Rather than feeling the constraints of a thesis, this independent study offered the freedom to simply observe for hours on end. Initially the time felt uncomfortable. Sitting for two hours with only one image before me was odd; I didn’t know what to ask, what to write, or how to write. I thought observations would flow from my mind to my pen with ease, but I was wrong. Blockages occurred frequently throughout the semester, not just at the beginning, and depended on the subject matter and my own mental state. Initially, I felt it important to enter the print room with a clean and open mind, however, besides the impossibility of this request, a vacuumed environment did not help foster a healthy relationship between the particular work and myself. When I attempted to enter each session blank, what resulted was banal. I am not saying to force emotions, but to ignore or repress them only lead me to stunted observations.
Removing my mental restrictions helped free my thinking, but still I felt resistances when it came to synthesizing and writing about my experiences. Translating and attaching my organic, untied thoughts to concrete ideas proved quite challenging, and did throughout the course of the independent study. The leap between observation and argument in this particular project really challenged my thinking as I constantly wrestled with myself and tripped over words in an attempt to paint an abstract experience with words.
With the final project came much deliberation; figuring out how to, again, produce a written body of work that appropriately fused my ideas with past experiences in a creative and bold manner seemed impossible. In the end, I decided on conducting five experiments focused on looking at photographs from my father’s surprisingly extensive collection, consisting mostly of early photographs. Each experiment correlated to a specific photograph, both of which I chose. The experiments take advantage of my relaxed proximity to them—meaning I could hold, flip, and examine each as I pleased without the necessary constraints implemented to protect photographs in the Tang. In one I flipped the photograph further abstracting the image, in another I looked at the image in five-minute intervals, and in another I drew the image. Under such circumstances, different relationships between the images and myself unfolded.
Memory accidentally guided the final project. Each experiment tested the boundaries of my own memory and calculated how others, when faced with an unknown image, recall related—or unrelated—experiences. As my relationships grew with each photograph, and I supplemented those relationships with readings, notions concerning memory merged with the politics of photography. Sitting with each photograph—and holding them, which I could not do previously—sparked awareness of the bizarre simultaneity between the immediacy of the image as an object and the temporal anteriority of the captured subject. It highlighted a perhaps obvious difference between the capture moment and the lived moment it inhabited. As I worked, it became obvious that what attracted me to each image seemed incredibly difficult to articulate and research: the abstract characteristics of photography and the social biography of each image. Understanding the social biography, something I became fascinated with over the past months, was also similarly difficult to grasp as most of the information was lost. However, observing my parents interact with a daguerreotype—one of the mini experiments—quieted some of my unanswered questions. Watching them situate themselves across from the image, hold it, move it, and set it back down, fidgeting, nervously attempting to create a relationship, strangely substituted the social biography I yearned. Watching them, a specialist (my dad) and a therapist (my mom), interact with the object illustrated the ways in which photography works as a social object. Each experiment furthered my relationship with photography—even as I continuously hit walls of questions and theoretical noise—and for that I am grateful.
 Term coined from Nathaniel Cunningham’s book title (Face Value: An Essay on the Politics of Photography). The title resembled others that concerned similar aspects of photography, mainly the anxiety and oddness that defines the medium.
toned gelatin silver print
1910, printed by Berenice Abbot in 1956
Gift of L. Bradley Camp
Bathroom Surveillance or Vanity Eye
Gift of funds to purchase from Jane Greenberg, ‘81
The Art of Spying in Long Looking
The juxtaposition of Eugène Atget’s Paris Interior with Martha Rosler’s Bathroom Surveillance or Vanity Eye recalls similar pairings done in a class I took two years ago called the Domestic Interior. Folded into both photographs lay notions of privacy, domesticity, and gender; though Rosler more explicitly alludes to and exaggerates such concepts in her constructed image, similar ideas still surface in the design of the photographed French interior. Together, the photographs reflect their respective social climates through visual documentation. However, rather than discussing both, I will indulge in just one.
The blue-hued bathroom in Martha Rosler’s photograph explores issues regarding the separation of private and public spheres. A typically private space, the bathroom, is made public not only by the circulated collage, but also by the unrealistically large blue eye reflected in the back mirror—an eye that uncomfortably resembles my own blue eye. Each decorative decision reflects something about the imagined bathroom dweller; two sinks suggest a partner, excessive lighting perhaps alludes to their vanity, a stool signifies their time to sit and stare, and the selection of objects sprinkling both sink areas, though unidentifiable, no doubt add to this list of assumed traits. As I surveyed the scene, noting the flatness of the cabinets, bizarre wall texture and general layout, I caught myself judging. Peering through at life that was not mine, mirroring the eye meant to be mine. The eye un-privatizes an extremely private place, nonetheless, in both this image and Eugène Atget’s the rooms were ready to be exposed, as if they expected it.
Why does the eye appear feminine? What does that say about gender, internal and external judgment? Is any of this real? Other works from Rosler’s collage series, blend images of war with mindless, self-consumed ads she found in newspapers and magazines to parody and critique the roles of women in society as the stereotyped housewife. This impolite blue eye could reference society’s preoccupation with vanity during the 1960s and 70s as the Cold War continued overseas, or the expectations and portrayal of women in the media. These questions and brief answers could only be understood after situating Rosler within history; her elusive yet prominent attention to feminism, incorporated influence and distaste for the media’s translation of war, both come together in many of her works and surfaces in Bathroom Surveillance or Vanity Eye. Despite the eventual need for research, the accounted for anxiety originally crept through the photograph during my observational session. Without research, as noted in my previous post, certain elements—that can prove to be distracting at times—surfaced and furthered my understanding of the image. Viewing a photograph out of context, without the comfort of its intended accompanying images, completely changes the initial intended purpose; like a chameleon, such photographs visually transform and assume new meanings as their contextualizing spaces and wall partners change.
Though technically this will serve as my last official post, as it coincides with my final session, over the next few weeks I will also post a reflection.
Camouflaging Realities: Pre and Post Reflection of Seniors Project (13), 1999
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post stemming solely from personal observation, though I asked for the name of the image and artist so as to properly cite them, I purposefully performed no outside research. Now, prompted by my advisor to return to the work, much more can and should be said concerning Nikki S. Lee’s photograph The Seniors Project (13), 1999. Thus, this will act as a response; a pre and post experiment shedding light on the difference, and crucial balance, between blind looking and educated looking.
Korean-born artist Nikki S. Lee fuses photography and performance to explore identity in most of her recent projects. Unassuming compositions feature Lee as she repeatedly disguised herself to fit different desired identities—an elderly woman serving as just one, in this series she also transformed into a lesbian, exotic dancer, Hispanic, and tourist. As Lee proudly acknowledges in an interview, “I make a kind of art that seems very simple at first, but once you peel off the layers you find many stories inside it.” I unknowingly stopped after the first or second peel. For two hours, I sat before the framed photograph, questioning its value, purpose, and qualification as art, and felt compelled to ascribe meaning to it. Uncovering this seemingly ordinary snapshot riding solely on blind observations allowed for a solid, but surface level understanding. The isolated photograph did not share the space with its fellow images, and in taking it out of context Lee’s presence was lost on me. So although Lee tricked me, as she stood there completely caked in makeup, the influence of the photograph’s setting significantly impacted its readability.
Once Lee is recognized as a hidden subject, the entire image transforms. Aside from the digital date, unknown but equally aged gentleman, and camera flash across her glasses, the believability coursing through the image also flows from Lee as she magically assumes various identities with ease. She tricks audiences into believing, into only peeling back those first two layers, by employing a typically truthful tool: the camera.
As a time-stamped snapshot, suggesting its anecdotal and societal truths, its fashioned validity seemed entirely believable. It resembled a photograph one could find in the drawers of my dining room table where hundreds of similarly time-stamped photographs sit each documenting a real moment from my life. But then, what is ‘real’? After reading more and placing Seniors Project (13), 1999 amongst others of its kind, a deeper realization surfaced enhancing and enriching previous observations. Now that the layers are pulled back, more questions arise concerning photography as a practical tool and as an artistic one. Where would you draw the boundary between art and document using this as your example? Would you have fallen for this disguise?
Chris Bruch’s shopping cart is our inspiration for our final Family Saturday of the semester, which is right around the corner! Sarah and I have been working on our prototypes by mixing spray-painted silver macaroni to channel Bruch’s metallic objects with our trusty pipe cleaners, beads, wire, buttons, and many more materials. We hope to see you there!
Bruch’s Shopping Cart:
Going Back to the Basics: A Comparison
As my project nears its end, I decided to reflect and return to a previous session not yet discussed in this forum. Two photographs shared the two-hour block, intended as a visual comparison. Immediately after assuming my looking position I was frustrated. Though similarly monochromatic, one black and white the other red, the images did not initially speak a common visual language, and did not utterly oppose each other either. By returning to the visual basics and devoting time to each, subtle similarities and differences arose concerning the composition, purpose, and subject matter present in the two photographs.
Emmet Gowin snapped a photograph of a burnt book in 1974; forty years later that same photograph sits lifeless on the print room table before me. Geography Book, an aerial photograph of a burnt book,walks a fine line between art and evidence, a dilemma previously faced and discussed during this project. The photograph simultaneously documents a moment and illustrates Gowin’s seemingly diverging interests as a visual documentarian. The photographically preserved book is badly burnt, the text and accompanied maps transformed by fire, thus forcing an alternative purpose to its previously functional, didactic object. No longer serving as a resource for further understanding of geography, the debris-covered book now functions as evidence of a moment. The sterility of the composition and nature of the subject matter revive questions concerning photography: why is this valued? How did it find its way to the Tang Museum? What about this image defines it as art? This photograph, and the red-hued image to its left, raises challenging questions concerning the nature of photography as an artistic medium.
The compared photograph by John Christie follows a geometric order furthered by the shared aerial view. “Exhange” depicts two forms of evidence: a postcard headed to England and an accompanied image of a woman mirroring the position of a lifeless, oblong object that lies besides her. The peculiarly titled image seems to document relatively ordinary objects; however, the compositional arrangement and placement within the Tang Museum’s photographic collection transforms the work into a rather strange piece of art—or evidence. While observing this image I attempted to first maintain a typical visual breakdown, noting the structural elements and the visual relationships. This visual description dulled in comparison to the hidden oddities within the image. Reading the card and analyzing the image only furthered by confusion. Was this image ever meant for public use or an audience? Or was this merely a private exchange between two people? Now that it has fallen behind the white walls of the museum, how has its function changed?
Fluctuating functionality drives these two images by Gowin and Christie. Their purpose prior to the attention of the camera differs as the respective objects are now preserved and immortalized and art.
Geography Book, 1974
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Tang Teaching Museum, Gift of a private collection
“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it,” (Armstrong, 14).
Though I agree with what John Armstrong stated in the above excerpt from his book “Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art,” falling into endless questions concerning an artwork tends to naturally occur in my weekly explorations. Questions regarding its object-ness rather than its visual-ness kept floating to the surface. My purposeful prior lack of knowledge of the photographs inadvertently provokes these questions. Though I go into each session with an open mind, and perhaps just a few exercises planned, by the end of the two-hour period unanswered questions scatter the pages of my notebook. Despite my pestering questions, a relationship still forms.
An older woman sits captured in black and white, tilt your head down and the woman appears reversed in white and black, slowly shift again to the right or left and your face appears in the reflective material backing the photograph. Her stillness is contagious and uncomfortable; I am still and she is still and has been for over a century. This encased daguerreotype from Mimi Hellman’s collection forced me to sit still, perfectly still, for two hours one Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago. I found myself getting lost staring, creeping closer and closer then pulling away with ease not naturally present in our daily culture.
The reflective nature of the photograph connected me to the image by literally incorporating my face into its historic surface. Daguerreotypes first came into use in the mid nineteenth century as a means of cheaply producing and preserving images of individuals. After an exhaustive exposure time and seemingly magical developing process, a detailed photographic image appeared on the treated silver-plated copper sheets. Due to the physical properties of the metal sheet, particularly its characteristic shine, the resulting image oscillates as it interacts with light and its environment. Unlike the framed images we encounter on the walls of museums, libraries or homes, unwelcomed reflections periodically interrupt our viewing. Here, however, the sudden glimpse of my eye or ear helped stimulate a relationship. Initially my reflection bothered me, I wanted it to go away as I do when glare from lights flash across the surface of a painting. Over the two hours I learned how to interact with this temperamental photograph and admired its reflective nature. Though I had my questions, the eerie silence the photograph instilled, muted my questions resulting in pure reflection.
Chances & Turns (2013)- Pitt pen, Staedtler marker
The Tang’s interdisciplinary show Classless Society begins with luck: spin the wheel, find an income bracket, and hope for the best. The influence of one’s class on one’s opportunities is significant, and throughout the entire research process I was struck by just how much opportunities can stack for or against someone. On a cognitive level young children show the influences of their environment (classless news section; article soon to be added).
I was inspired both by this exponential series of hurdles and the aesthetic of the exhibit. I thus created this drawing based on those feelings, and with elements of games like ‘Chutes & Ladders.’
Evidence of Identities:
Photographs create instantaneous yet durable reminders of a specific moment. They document and preserve, but why? Who for? Are they art or evidence? What is the difference between art and evidence when it comes to photography? As a relatively honest medium, photography has historically served to document moments and people, to truthfully visualize history. Were those moments, people, places captured for personal reasons or to serve the public? I think the difference hinges on intention, but if those personal reasons are lost; if the original intentions die with the taker or sitter, if the audience does not know, then is it art or evidence? A photograph taken by your sister or my father or the school photographer was done to preserve you. But what if, once you are no longer here, that photograph serves to represent a generation, a medium and a moment. Then that photograph looses its original purpose as a personal artifact and transforms, winding up in a catalogue of portraits exhibited in a museum or sold at an antique shop. Is that why many of the photographs now sit in this collection? Because at some point they lost their original purpose and arbitrarily gained new value as artifacts?
Photographs, particularly portraits, capture the identity of whatever lies before the lens. Today, I sat before Nikki S. Lee’s photograph (though at the time it was unknown to me) depicting an elderly couple proudly standing before a black-and-white portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, who, just as proudly, holds a clapboard. The couple in color appear dressed up—a suit for the man and a checkered blazer, headscarf and white gloves for the woman. Standing just below the black-and-white Hitchcock, the couple offers their appreciation for the director and knowingly align themselves with his work. Both images reflect the identities and interests of the respective subjects. The objects, angle, and clothing speak to the subject’s individual interests, status and culture.
Similarly, the subjects were camera-ready and completely aware of their impending visual immortalization. Though the couple would not typically dress so elegantly, and Hitchcock was not always seen with a clapboard, and in that sense both images are slightly exaggerated, they still speak a truth. How would you dress and pose for an image, do you think about how you will be preserved when that picture is taken?
Nikki S. Lee
The Seniors Project (13), 1999
Collection of Tang Teaching Museum, Gift of Leslie Tonkonow ‘74 and Klaus Ottmann