Exhibition – Burden of Proof

The exhibition ‘Burden of Proof: The construction of visual evidence’ sought to:-

‘Through the presentation of eleven case studies……examine the way experts, researchers and historians use images as evidence in instances of crimes or acts of violence suffered by individuals or groups.’. (Photographers Gallery, 2015).

Of the 11 studies, I was particularly drawn to the series of photographs created by Alphonse Bertillon (1853 – 1914).  His photographs were taken using…’an overhead camera, equipped with a wide-angle lens, set on a tripod more than 2 metres tall. The images were then mounted on special cards offering graduations in centimetres, perspectometric framing and indications of scale.’  The exhibition supporting commentary explained ‘This elaborate representation system provided a unified, overall view of the event’s material elements: the position of the body and of any weapons, other objects and traces’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).

Below are three examples of Bertillon’s mounted images:-

        Murder of Madam Gilles

Murder of Madame Lack

Above left:- Corpse of Emilie Japy, Steinhal case, 6a Impasse Ronsin case, Paris, 31 May 1908
Above right:- Murder of Madame Gilles, 11 October 1904
Left:- Murder of Madame Lack, Porte Saint-Denis, Paris, 10 June 1912

I found the images quite shocking, in particular the 3 above were murders of frail, elderly victims. The existence of bed clothes around two of the bodies seem to heighten the vulnerability with people being murdered as they slept. Bed is generally the place we all go to feel safe – it is a place of sanctuary and warmth,  and Emile Japy’s choice of bedwear is almost childlike which accentuates the photograph presenting him as a helpless victim.  Further the lighting in the ‘Murder of Madam Lack’ image is dramatic and focussed like a spotlight on the corpse tethered and bound among the bedsheets.

Conversely I found that while the images themselves evoked strong emotions and sympathy in me, the mounts with their ‘ruler-like’ measurements encouraged you to be more detached from the photographs – symbolising the necessary scientific and perhaps ‘cold-hearted’ approach to solving the crime. Combining the image in the mount somehow accentuates the heinous nature of the crimes.

The exhibition commentary also points out that Bertillon himself realised ‘the photographs themselves could have a psychological influence, either on the accused, by inducing a confession, or on the judges’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).

For me the most dramatic element of the images is the overhead perspective. This renders the corpse almost as a ‘sacrificial’ subject. Is it God looking down at the victim?  Is it the victim himself looking down on his corpse as he descends into the afterlife?

I have noticed other images which use the same perspective for a similar dramatic impact:-

This first image of a mountain gorilla being carried through the jungle was taken by journalist photographer Brent Stirton in 2007.  The photograph was taken in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Park rangers had been trying to protect the gorillas but it was a war zone and in the conflict seven gorillas had been shot.  The image shows the rangers and villagers carrying the dead animal to the park HQ.

Gorilla
Rangers and locals carry the body of a mountain gorilla killed in Virunga national park, DRC, in 2007. Photograph: Brent Stirton

This similar aerial perspective evokes the same response from me, that of witnessing a sacrifice, of a God looking down on the subject as the villages carry the corpse to its final resting place.  It seems to almost depict a funeral procession: the vast number of villagers as pall-bearers juxtaposed against the slaughtered beast simply accentuates the size of the main subject.

The next image Bertillon’s photographs reminded me of was one I had saved at the beginning of my TAOP studies last year as I found it similarly immensely powerful and this is again all down to the aerial perspective.  I had visited Israel a few years ago and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always interested me, although I can’t claim to be very educated in it – it is way too complex!  The photograph by Reuters is of mourners carrying the body of a Palestinian militant at his funeral in the Central Gaza Strip.

Reuterspic05
Mourners carry the body of Palestinian militant Marwan Steem during his funeral in the central Gaza Strip. 7 July, 2014.

The overhead perspective again reinforces for me the sense of ‘sacrifice’. The sheer number of mourners carrying this man’s corpse and the perspective from above really only able to show the tops of their  heads and their arms, places the corpse again at the very centre of this image and your eyes are drawn to it. I also really like the lines in this image, the 2 lines of the stretcher and all the lines created by the arms of the stretcher-bearers. It is an extremely powerful and emotive composition.

A clear learning point from me is that perspective can add serious impact to photographs and I should seek to look to vary these perspective, or at least consider my options for doing so, every time I go to take a series of images.

Sources

Burden of Proof: The Photographers Gallery, 2015

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/22/brent-stirton-best-photograph-dead-silverback-gorilla-congo-virunga, 2007.

http://pictures.reuters.com/

Part 0 – Notes on ‘Dealing with the Flood’ Article

This article starts with looking at Jesse Alexander’s thought-provoking images of Erik Kessel’s work ’24 Hours of Photographs’ where Kessels downloaded and printed every photograph uploaded to FlickR during one 24 hour period. The ‘flood’ referred to in the title of the article therefore referring to the ceaseless publication of new images on the Internet.

I think the artwork could be interpreted as being somewhat derogatory. He presents the photographs as if they have been thrown away in a pile, or are wasting the entire space of a room and not just the floor, by physically ‘filling up’ the room. He avoids the real function of FlickR itself i.e. to be used in a similar way to Facebook and the other so-called ‘social networking’ websites and one of the purposes of the site is to bring together like-minded people interested for example, in a particular genre of photography, or around a particular location. Other purposes of the website include providing inspiration, or educating people in photography. It was never designed to be consumed in its totality, rather, for people to customize and extract the elements which are of interest to them. I do admit however that the artwork was thought-provoking. It made me think of the time and energy expended by all those individuals creating the images. What other perhaps more useful purpose could their time have been spent on? What if everyone, instead of uploading to FlickR on a particular day all donated that time spent to something more useful, more charitable perhaps?

The image reminded me very much of a photograph I had seen on a visit to Marseille’s La Friche de la Belle de Mai, a former tobacco factory converted to a cultural centre for all forms of art including Photography. The image was taken by Penelope Umbrico and was a mosaic of a large number of sunset photographs selected from FlickR on 4 May 2015. She had over 27 million sunset images to choose from (27,7000,711 to be precise!). I think that the same intention was there, to shock the viewer into understanding the sheer volume of photography activity happening in the world, but instead of depicting them as ‘rubbish’ she effectively creates a credible artwork signifying that each individual photograph potentially has its uses, plays its part and has a role not only to the individual taking the image and retaining that memory via a photograph, but also sometimes in a wider context, to create art!

from 27,7000,711 Sunset pictures on Flickr on May 4 2015 by Penelope Umbrico
Sunset Portraits from 27,7000,711 Sunset pictures on Flickr on May 4 2015 by Penelope Umbrico

The article goes onto explain how the photographer Alec Soth suggests that there are 3 ways to deal with this ‘flood’ of images:-

  1. Make the flood the subject e.g. the works mentioned by Erik Kessels and Penelope Umbrico;
  2. Appropriation i.e. select from the flood rather than take photographs yourself (e.g. works by Roe Ethridge where she juxtaposes or superimposes multiple images to create her own new photograph, Doug Richard’s use of Google Street View to create a series of America’s ‘forgotten or economically devastated’ roads.);
  3. Story-telling
This suggests that there is a new genre or ‘layer’ of photography emerging to counterbalance the ‘flood’ which in itself is creative rather than being the ‘end of photography’ as a serious art form as we know it. I personally like the ‘flood’. It gives me inspiration via sites like FlickR, it means that photography is no longer just for Photography Club anorak-wearing nerds that bang on about their elite equipment, it is reaching far and wide and becoming something we all accept virtually internationally as an ingrained part of our culture, and crucially, we appear to enjoy!

Sources

Dent, G (2013) Dealing with the Flood. At: http://weareoca.com/photography/people-are-hungry-for-stories/

Part 0 – Notes on Joachim Schmid Interview

The Introduction section of the course materials encouraged students to look at the work by Joachim Schmid. (Boothroyd, 2014) described the photographer as follows:-

Joachim Schmid (b.1955) is a prominent German photographer who has based his photographic career on using other people’s pictures.  In a genre referred to as Found Photography Schmid provides witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with using photography to document our existence.’

I was interested in a lot of Joachim’s comments throughout the interview and made the following observations:

‘If you look at many photographs – that’s true not only for snapshots – it’s nearly impossible not to notice recurring patterns’ I assume this is generally how photography developed anyway: rules of composition didn’t happen by accident, they developed by looking at images that somehow appeared to ‘work’ whilst others looked ‘unbalanced’ or unpleasing to the eye somehow. The ‘recurring patterns’ while the art form was evolving would have included keeping horizontal and vertical lines parallel to the edge of the frame, picking 3 items to include in a group rather than 4, say, using leading lines etc. Colour theory would also have been developed by the physical human reaction to seeing contrasting colours together. Both types of emerging ‘patterns’ would have led to photographers taking images which generally comply with rules of composition and colour.  Now that photography is much more advanced it should be no surprise to us that given the volume produced, that focus on patterns within photography has evolved to looking at e.g. how wedding group images are formed which best ‘fit’ the needs of the married couple to remember their guests, the way they interacted on the day etc., and why these formats are copied in their 1000’s. Schmid has developed this into more of a scientific study of the patterns and how they seem to educate us ‘subliminally’ to take photographs that conform to ‘norms’.

‘A digital presentation seemed to be the obvious way to present digital images. I was happy with the results but I noticed soon that it is difficult to get an attention span of more than a few minutes for digital presentations. Then I tried books. People look at them much longer, page by page, going from book to book. I have seen people who spent two hours looking at books’. This should be obvious to anyone who uses the Internet regularly. The entry point is via a search engine which presents slithers of information together to allow you to locate the article containing the information you need. The skill of scanning snippets of information at high speed is related to using a computer and the efficiencies you gain from that. Why would you then assume to use the same piece of equipment to fully digest information (be that an image or an article)? Very frequently I print stuff off from the Internet in preference to reading it on screen, not just because it saves my eyesight from the glare of a screen, but simply so I make a point of reading it through thoroughly from start to finish. It is the same with images. Also there is a sensory, tactile pleasure gained from holding a book or print, feeling the texture and even sometimes smelling the pages/prints (especially old musty ones!).

‘If millions of people are happy taking the same pictures again and again they won’t stop.’ Sontag highlighted the ‘work ethic’ drive to capture and record all of our images and she even went on to suggest that this is very apparent for certain nationalities who are traditionally predisposed to having a strong work ethic such as the Chinese and Germans when they are on holiday. (Sontag, 1977). Further, people are not generally interested in the millions of other photographs out there that match their ‘set’, they are just interested in their own and therefore it’s actually totally irrelevant that the global stock of photographs contains so much repetition or clichéd patterns.

‘I think we have to face some facts hardly anyone talks about. One of them is overproduction, not the overproduction of photographs but the overproduction of photographers. There are hundreds of art schools in Europe, each of them churns out another bunch of young artists every year, and most of them don’t stand a chance on the art market. A limited number of galleries, a limited number of collections, shrinking budgets of public collections, and a constantly increasing number of artists.’ This is something which probably the OCA welcomes with open arms, but from a student perspective, I think Schmid is worrying too much!  Students of photography will have multiple reasons for studying it in 2015: they may want to just generally improve technically for their own personal (hobby) satisfaction; they may want it to support another venture such as that of teaching, where this skill might be used to provide additional learning materials or charity workers who may wish to advertise their own events, create their own websites etc. Maybe many just simply enjoy it ! Years ago, the majority of students of photography probably set their sights on higher achievements, but generally had fewer reasons to study it – perhaps they wanted to go into journalism or take portraits of celebrities or the royal family, the common denominator was that this was likely to be their main source of income; nowadays the link between the study and the target end result might be a vast range of reasons not solely linked to generating income.

Sources

Sontag, S. 1977 On Photography. Penguin Modern Classics, 2014.

Boothroyd, S. (2014) An Interivew with Joachim Schmid. At: www.weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/