Friday 9 March 2012

In Discussion: The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton

In preparation for a seminar, Charlotte Cotton's popular photography theory book 'The Photograph as Contemporary Art' (Thames & Hudson, 2009) was the topic of discussion, in particular Chapter 2 'Once Upon a Time'. This chapter brought to light contemporary art photography which is often described as 'tableau-vivant photography'. This means 'living picture' in French. Google Dictionary describes tableau-vivant as 'A silent and motionless group of people arranged to represent a scene or incident'. In relation to photography this is posed image to construct a narrative.

The image below was interesting to deconstruct and draws inspiration from a particular popular painting.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy 19:00 hours' (1998) by Yinka Shonibare

It features five moments in the day in the life of a dandy ( 'a man who is excessively concerned about his clothes and appearance; a fop.'), performed by the artist. An apparent reference is to 'The Rake's Progress' (1732-33) by William Hogarth about the young cad Tom Rockwell. There are 7 episodes in Rockwell's life that Hogarth paints vividly following the character's pleasures and consequences of his debauchery.

The first painting in the series ' The Rake's Progress'

Shonibare's tableau-vivant photograph represents different moments in the day all set in historical interiors and Victorian fancy dess. Interestingly the roles are reversed showing a contemporary satirical twist. Charlotte Cotton writes 'The Caucasians are shown to be 'colour-blind' to the artist and his skin colour. His place within Victorian society appears to be protected by his guise as a dandy, the declaration of self-fashioning and authenticity being assured through pronounced artifice in manner and dress'. Shonibare's Victorian Dandy was commissioned to be shown first as posters on the London Underground system thus intended to align with today's popular commercial imagery.

Realizing this genre of photography has certainly been insightful as tableau-vivant photography is becoming increasingly popular especially in modern art galleries and understanding the origins and meanings behind these 'posed' images widens knowledge about photography and art history.


Further Reading:

In Discussion: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

In the first Visual Exploration seminar the topic of discussion was John Berger's influential book Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972) which is based on a four part BBC documentary of the same name.

Discussing this book was certainly interesting as many topics were conversed such as the layout of the book, similarities of images and readings of images changing over time. Berger states on the front cover 'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak... The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled'. Berger brings to light the idea of what we see and what we know and how the knowledge 'never quite fits the sight' meaning how we see is about perception and that images is the first form of communication. As photography is considered one of the newest form of visual communication how we read images is important so Berger's book has certainly been a recommended read for photographers and artists alike.

The first thing a reader will notice is the layout as it is quite unusual making the experience of reading this theoretical book different as would expected. It is split into 7 chapters with alternating pictorial chapters and written analysis of the images from the previous chapter. A reason for having solely image based chapters could be that the viewer is subconsciously storing read images into their memory preparing for the next chapter so images can be retrieved in relation to the text. Although this is a clever way of reading the page layout itself is quite distracting especially in the written chapters where all the text is in bold font and there are no clear spaces between paragraphs; the eye is forced to dart around the page rather than focus on the text itself. However, regardless of layout Berger writes in a manner that is accessible to all ages rather than make the reader decode his words which could be lost in translation.

Two images from chapter 6 were discussed: (please note the images in the book are monochrome however the paintings are in colour)
Woman with White Stockings by Gustave Courbet (1819-77)
Demoiselles au bord de la Seine by Gustave Courbet (1819-77)
These paintings by Gustave Courbet are particularly interesting in relation to the meaning of images over time. Throughout art history the perception of female beauty has been quite curvaceous with a fuller figure and pale skin (seen in the above paintings) however the idea of beauty today has changed considerably to tanned 6ft slim model figure such as Gisele Bündchen. A reading of these paintings are that the voluptuous figure denotes a perception of status and wealth. Despite some readings changing over time, one that is seen today is the idea of the dominant male painter/photographer and the submissive female. These paintings are innocently erotic yet there is an element of a 'man's gaze'. (read Laura Mulvey's feminist film theory essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema') Berger states in chapter 3 (page 47) 'The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.' In Courbet's paintings he is depicting his women an 'object of vision'.

Overall John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' has been an insightful read and the issues discussed are still relevant today despite being published 1972. Our lives will always consist of images and understanding why and how we see and read images in a certain way is a vital part of how we communicate.

See the BBC 4 part documentary here:

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