Towards an Open Work: Authorship, Ruins and Photography

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Author’s Photograph, Window of the Dice Lounge, Levenshulme, 2015

In October 2015 I began to document the painted smearings on the internal surfaces of windows of the Dice Lounge, opposite the now abandoned Royal Bank of Scotland, on Stockport Road. Initially the regular gestures of the white Windowlene paint obscured the view into the premises. Over time the marks changed as condensation, from the plastering of the interiors, sporadically washed away some of the thinner parts of the paint; when it settled for long enough this action left speckles and, when it became more concentrated, left blank tracks on the glass. In order to compensate for these gaps the workers re-smeared the glass with replacement pink windowlene. Some of my photographs show a layer of reflections of the sky and of other buildings. These reflections look as if they have been incorporated into the striations of the paint and have created a set of hybrid, disordered images.

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Author’s Photograph, Window of the Dice Lounge, Levenshulme, 2015

These pictures can be seen as records of visual ruination that admit the material qualities contained within acts of perception[i], photography and within authorship itself.

Earlier, in February 2015, I dropped my digital camera. I had no idea what the outcome of using this ruined camera might be since only the automatic function operated and I couldn’t even use the screen. This meant that I shot ‘blind’ and relied on guesswork due to uncertainty as to the consequences. At the time I felt that the end results were not particularly interesting, the lack of choices of exposure, and control of composition, meant that there seemed to be less room for a satisfying sensory, optically informed record of the chosen environments, and also for my presence as an author. It seems that less ability to choose resulted in a more disembodied quality emerging, one where the camera operated as an unthinking eye.

 

Why should this sense of authorship be so important to me? Now that I am using a replacement, fully-operational camera who, or what, is the author of these images of windows: the man who wiped on the Windowlene, the team who put on the plaster, or, the condensed evaporation from that plaster, the glass manufacturers, the manufacturers of my camera, or the laptop and the software on it?[ii] In a sense it seems that the photographs are found ‘paintings’ which I didn’t create, but rather that I selected. In another sense they are images that I have created, by means of considering such things as: viewpoint, format, exposure and depth of field. There’s a contradiction in my use of the camera, and according to Rexer (2009), prior to the existence of photography the optical investigations of seventeenth and eighteenth century scientists and ‘natural philosophers’ such as: Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Galileo Galilei and Benedict de Spinoza amongst others meant that for them the lens became, “a vehicle of rationalising knowledge of reality beyond the self and beyond the constructions of religion and politics.”[iii] Elkins (1996) extends this analogy,

 

“All the principal metaphors for thinking, knowledge, and truth itself have to do with seeing: notions such as illuminating, casting light on a problem, being enlightened, insightful, clever, distinct, or brilliant are only the symptoms of this relation which has become as deeply ingrained as thinking itself.”[iv]

 

So, in this sense, the camera allows me to experience matter at one remove, mediated through the camera and dealt with in an objective manner. The photographic images produced are illusions mimicking things in the ‘real’ world. They are simulations of other objects, and it strikes me that the distance created between the paintings on the windows, and their representations, could be said to lead to a degree of detachment- something I’m uncomfortable with because it implies a separation from my surroundings. The camera here assumes an attitude to the world rather like a single eye in a head fixed statically in space.

 

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Author’s Photograph, Window of the Dice Lounge, Levenshulme, 2015

However, my use of the ‘ruined’ camera did make me reconsider the optical nature of the camera- I had to imagine what the final image would look like. The act of relying on prediction produced deeply flawed, badly exposed results and I equate this to the difference between an idealised image and one based on the senses. This altered my view on the nature of the ‘deadpan’, frontal shots and the squaring up to the object associated with objectivity, or ‘truth’. So that I would question how objective this medium is and how much does photography really does separate me from the world? I don’t feel detached, I feel very present when I take photographs. I am present bodily when using a camera in terms of: the way that I stand, the height and angle I hold the camera at, the feelings I experience when taking the shots and my personal likes and dislikes in front of the subject matter. I often experience an overwhelming expansion of boundaries in the interactions I have with the visual material I photograph. The photograph above reminds me that the same finger that pressed the button on my camera also produced some of the paintings I will discuss in following posts. I view the creation of an image as a process that is an exchange of external object and internal subject. How do I resolve this conflict? Can both ways of experiencing using a camera be true simultaneously? They are rather more objective than my paintings, since I have much less trouble in articulating verbal responses to them or is this really because of the assumptions I’ve made previously about what photography is? I have less issue attaching a narrative to a photograph than to one of my paintings, and I feel that I can take photographs and write on the same day (something that I find near impossible with painting and writing).

 

The photography critic Lyle Rexer (2009) explores the subjective nature of photography when he describes how the photographer Roger Newton uses lenses as diverse as oil, cow’s eyes and diamonds. Newton believes that, “As an imaging apparatus, the lens is at least as generative as it is imitative.[v] I have produced photographs of the view through the rippled glass of the windows of my front door. When focused on the individual ‘cells’ of the ripples act as distorting lenses that disrupt and compress the image that the camera would normally record. I am considering buying a sheet of this so that I can photograph some of the ruined structures in my area whilst incorporating a simulation of my poor eyesight, and as a degradation, or ruination, of the associations of objectivity that the sharply focused image has. This will mean that my photographs of the structures of ruination will become less prosaic and approach the subjective nature of my paintings more fully. Could this be described as a shift from something like a third person authorship to one approaching something more like a first-person approach?

 

Author's Photograph, Untitled (Myopic Garden), 2015

Author’s Photograph, Untitled (Myopic Garden), 2015

Do Gerhard Richter’s blurred photographs and photo-realist paintings enact something similar? His indistinct attitude to the truth of the image world could be said to actually stress the emotional, embodied aspects of the image (something contradicted by the neutrality of the greyness of many of the earlier paintings).[vi] Richter has repeatedly explored painting’s long, uneasy relationship with photography: while either medium may claim to reflect or express reality truthfully, they both suggest only a partial, incomplete or fragmented view of reality. Does his practice therefore produce failed attempts at a synthesis of objective and subjective representation, and of painterly authority?

 

 

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Author’s Photograph, Door of the Former Royal Bank of Scotland, Levenshulme, 2015

 

What is the difference between finished photographic and painted surfaces? Elkins (2011) thinks that,

“[In a] . . . sense photographs are all about touching. When I hand someone a photograph I am touching its surface. . . if the photo is onscreen, I may touch the glass to point out something, smearing it a little with the grease in my fingertip”[vii]

I agree with Elkins; when I am looking at the world, even when mediated by a screen, I feel that the material nature of the experience is evident. Greasy residues are left on the screen, as they are on the door of the former Royal Bank of Scotland (see above) and are traces of embodied presence. The camera, or screen, is a material object and as Marshall McLuhan (1964/2001) suggests they both act as extensions of my nervous systems, or prostheses in much the same way as my glasses, my brushes or my paintings[viii]. Although, for me, the final photographic prints and screen images are homogeneous, industrial surfaces, rather then the more varied, handmade surfaces of the paintings I have produced. For these reasons I consider my photographs to be studies, or sketches, rather than final outcomes of my art practice. Although, my final photographic prints and images on a screen are also partly aide memoires, since they are simulated surfaces rather then the actual surfaces of the paintings. I consider, for these reasons, that my photographs are studies or sketches, rather than final outcomes of my art practice but since I am exploring the concept of an ‘open work’, it seems apparent that the studies can function as a component of the final exhibition, alongside the more ‘final’ painted works[ix].

 

Footnotes

[i] The photograph of the reflected bank integrated into the wiped paint on the window bears a remarkable similarity to my memories of the way the world appeared to me when my pupils had been dilated with atropine.

[ii] The extension of my authorship into the network of co-authorship will be explored later in this thesis in relation to my own paintings.

[iii] Rexer, L. (2009) The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, Aperture: New York  p189

[iv] Elkins J (1996)“The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing” London: Harcourt p219

[v] Roger Newton, 2006 Op Tics (Portland, Oreg: Nazraeli Press,) in Rexer, L. 2009 The Edge of  Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, Aperture: New York p 189

[vi] find richter source

[vii] Elkins J (2011) What Photography Is Routledge:London

[viii] McLuhan, M (1964 2001) Understanding Media Routledge:London

[ix] Similar to the way that Sylvia Bächli’s 2009 exhibition in the Swiss Pavillion of the

Venice Biennale functioned (see later description of this).

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2 Responses to Towards an Open Work: Authorship, Ruins and Photography

  1. garyspicer says:

    All interesting stuff Chris. I am a little unclear what you mean by “I feel that the material nature of the experience is evident”. I think this came via Elkins? In the context of these ‘found’ images, I would be interested to know how the material nature of the experience is evident? Do you mean the experience of looking? In which case is it the retinal / biological process you are referring to? i.e. how we see and mediate with our bodies (eyes) or from the perspective of Phenomenological (Merleau-Ponty) The window images put me in mind of his ideas relating to being “Illuminated by the true light”. I think light is very significant to your work both literally in terms of illumination and symbolically in terms of revelation and knowledge.

    • chrishamer says:

      Thanks for pointing this out. On further reflection it seems that evident is a word I should be wary of using because it implies something fixed, and obvious. The phrase “I feel that the material nature of the experience is evident” perhaps deserves its own paragraph in order to develop the thought more fully.

      I was considering the nature of the camera as an extension of my nervous system (as described by McLuhan) but, on reflection it is apparent that I feel that the materiality of the camera also extends into, and from, the objects that are recorded. The purpose of the piece was to explore the ways that photography could be viewed subjectively and objectively and then later explore how this is involved in my painting practice.

      I find it difficult to comment on the distinction between mediation by bodies and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, as I don’t know enough about the later. (Could you expand you thoughts on this for me?) I do however find the concept of assemblage (derived from Deleuze and Guattari) in Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter helpful. Instead of the objects in the world being composed of essences they are elements that form relationships, which can be described as fluid, as temporary, as patchworks or as mosaics. These components are not seen to have a hierarchy and therefore the theory fulfils some of my experience of the world and of the question of what, or who, created the images. Some of the thoughts raised by this theory begin to question all sorts of assumptions about the place of the self, and of the human, in relationship to the material ‘stuff’ around me/us.

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