On providing feedback on my assignment 5 images, fellow student Sarah-Jane field mentioned photographer Meatyard and his use of masks to me (thanks Sarah-Jane). I had not come across Meatyard before and as I was using a mask in my assignment, I thought it prudent to investigate further.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Illinois in 1925 and died of cancer at the age of 47 in Lexington, Kentucky. He was an optician by trade and regarded himself as an amateur photographer. One day he walked into a Woolworths store in Lexington and bought a set of latex masks. The Smithsonian Magazine describes the masks as “a marriage of Picasso and a jack-o’-lantern”. Looking at his photos, I personally find the masks rather creepy.
Over the subsequent years he posed family and friends wearing these masks in front of buildings. He even created a fictional narrative, complete with a physical album called The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater along with hand-scrawled captions accompanying the photos, where all the people featured in the series wear masks. When asked why he used masks, Meatyard stated:
a mask “serves as non-personalizing a person.”
The masks serve to create a sense of ambiguity. The viewer is drawn into the rather innocent, yet grotesque scene with puzzlement. In some of his images, the poses are childlike and familial, allowing the viewer to remember his or her own childhood, but the juxtaposition of the gargoyle-like mask upon a seemingly innocent body throws this perception totally off kilter and leaves us wondering who these people are and what their real story is. More tellingly, could they be us? Because we are unable to make a connection to their faces, we go off hunting the backgrounds for more clues. Meatyard has transferred the authorship of the images totally to the viewer.
… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously
with the text, is in no way equipped with a being
preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with
the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the
enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.
Roland Barthes, Death of the Author (p. 145)
Yet looking at Meatyard’s images, a certain familiarity resonates with me. It is just as Barthes states in his essay, Death of the Author. We each bring to a reading of an image our own perceptions, culture and value systems. The image above reminds me of scenes I have seen before, namely those of African masks (see below) and more recently in my life, my exposure to First Nations masks as well. Those masks too serve a purpose and hide an identity.
Barthes, Roland (1977). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press
My tutor suggested I look at Ulla Schildt and Liza Dracup’s work regarding animals in preparation for my final assignment. Unfortunately I could not find much information on the internet about these two artists so I have confined my review to the links I could access through the OCA study visit announcement of 12 February, 2016.
Ulla Schildt is a Finnish photographer, currently living in Norway. Her ‘A Rare Visitor’ series is a body of work containing images of natural history museums and zoos. The images are records of spaces that have been artificially created so that man can safely observe nature without having any interaction. Personally I cannot think of anything more depressing than a natural history museum as I can not abide stuffed animals. In absence of viewing a wild animal in its natural surroundings, I would rather opt for visiting a zoo where live animals can be observed, even though their “habitat” may be artificially sustained.
I find some of her photographs rather disconcerting. An image taken in a storage room where shelving on the margins of the frame lead the eye down the row to the end of the room where anatomy parts of the front and rear ends of two reindeer can be seen. Stacked behind them are large wooden crates. A strange place to find animals. By placing the reindeer in what is probably some kind of storage room, only serves to emphasise the unnatural habitat and artificiality of the natural museum. These animals should be seen roaming snow covered land, foraging between pine trees. And then there is the photograph of a series of images, all of which are of animals or portions of animals mounted on small pedestals and further mounted on a larger black cube pedestal as if they are works of art. I can’t make out all the animals from the photograph, but of those that I can there is one that appears to be a stuffed fish; the head of a seal; a rabbit; a small four legged animal which I can’t identify and a fox. I found the seal head particularly gruesome. Schildt has chosen to display this set of images close together and in keeping with the stuffed/mounted theme, has just pinned them to the wall instead of framing them. This seems to add to the pertubation I was experiencing in viewing these images.
Liza Dracup is based in the north of England and has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2012 and the Prix Pictet (Earth) Photography Award in 2009. Her series Re: Collections, is a body of work that is a representation of the taxidermist’s representation of the live animal. She describes this as a “half life” where one can’t quite be sure whether the photo is of a live or dead animal.
Unexpectedly I prefer Dracup’s body of work to that of Ulla Schildt’s. Perhaps it is the manner in which the taxidermy has been photographed. All the images have been taken in a portrait style with black backgrounds and this brings about a unifying component to the set of images. It also focuses the attention solely on the animals or the body parts that she has photographed. It also helps that Dracup has focused on the individual characteristics of each animal she has photographed: the brilliant colours of the kingfisher; the individual feathers of the magpie’s wing; the cheeky beak and iridescence of the starling’s plumage.
These two bodies of work are quite dissimilar and one can’t really compare the one to the other apart from the fact that they both deal with the subject of taxidermy.
One can’t think of photographers who photograph trophy hunting without thinking of David Chancellor. Chancellor is a photographer based in South Africa, recipient of many awards and is well known for his documentary work. His illustrious profile can be read here. Over time he has turned his attention to documenting the commodification of wildlife in Southern Africa.
For centuries big game hunting has always been a pastime of the wealthy and this past time was avidly practiced by kings and presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and King Henry VIII spring to mind). In a bygone era hunting used to be a matter of survival, or some would say a matter of skill and courage, but nowadays it is a lucrative tourist attraction, where animals are corralled into big camps and “big game hunters” are guaranteed a kill of their choice. Eco-hunting has also taken root. A practice where a dart gun replaces the rifle, the animal is not killed but merely tranquilized long enough to allow the “hunter” to pose for the obligatory photograph of his “kill” and for the accompanying researchers to carry out their routine inspections or tagging. The animal lives to see another day, but more sinisterly also becomes party to a poacher’s paradise.
For the purposes of my review I shall be looking at two images by David Chancellor. Probably one of the best known images of Chancellor’s Hunters series is Huntress with buck, South Africa, which won the 2010 Taylor Wessing portrait prize.It is an image of a young girl with beautiful red hair, seated on a bay pony with a Blesbok draped over the pommel of her saddle. The girl is dressed in khaki clothes which echo the muted tones of the surrounding savannah grasslands. The overall warm, earthy tones of the horse, girl and buck form a complementary contrast to the light blue sky and the slight blue tinge to the mountains in the background. The colour palette of this photograph is rather reminiscent of Jan Vermeer’s landscape paintings, as can be seen from Vermeer’s An extensive dune landscape with a farmhouse and a bleaching ground painting below.
The Huntress image is a rather disturbing image. Upon closer observation, we can see that this representational image has a few disconcerting disconnects or ironies. As Peirce states in Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners ‘Anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index … Indexical signs ‘direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion’ and this image fulfills these statements.
Our immediate focus is drawn to the lovely, young girl who sits upright like a Joan of Arc on her steed. The photographer has chosen a low viewpoint for this photograph, positioning his main subject in the centre, with her head in the upper third of the frame, visually depicted higher than the mountains in the background, while she and the horse form a powerful triangle in the centre of the image. This placement lends an aura of power to the young girl. This idealized placement of the girl is similar to the figure of Liberty in Eugène Delacroix’s The 28th July: Liberty Leading the People (1830).
The girl gazes down at the viewer with a deadpan expression on her face. What should be a symbol of purity and innocence (the young girl) has actually turned out to be an agent of death. We see the evidence of her actions proudly draped in front of her like an offering to the gods, while she holds the Blesbok’s head aloft by one of its horns. Her horse’s head is bowed subserviently and its sad gaze is averted as if it is ashamed of the role it has played in this killing. The beautiful Blesbok, once a symbol of carefree spontaneity and beauty, has been reduced to a symbol of death and all the ugliness that still awaits it upon slaughter.
‘It’s a complicated image. I don’t think she particularly has a pride, or is happy with what she’s done – she’s ambivalent but has a certain grace. It’s an image that creeps up on you.
David Chancellor, Mail Online
One of the definitions of an ideology is “the general process through which our systems of belief and desire are produced and consumed. On this view, various parts of a society or culture act to produce (and also make available to consume certain styles of thought or ways of thinking” (Hall, 2015 p. 162). Big-game hunting is an expression of Social Darwinism ideology, where the rich and powerful overcome the poor, struggling classes. What better way to display one’s power, riches and authority than to travel to far flung lands and conquer the resident wildlife of that country … what courage! (I am being cynical here – just in case someone reading this post misconstrues my meaning of the previous sentence).
In Hunter with giraffe, Ladysmith, South Africa above, we see the American hunter sitting casually nestled against the giraffe which he has just killed, clad in his camouflaged hunting jacket, smoking his pipe. His rifle (the instrument of death) is propped up against his leg and arm nonchalantly. The giraffe is graceful even in death, as its neck creates an elegant S-curve over the hunter.
In contrast to the Huntress image mentioned above, Chancellor has chosen a viewpoint that is almost eye-level to or just a little higher than the hunter. The positioning of the the hunter and giraffe in the centre of the frame follow the syntagmatic spatial dimension of centre and margin. The scrubby grass in the foreground, thorn trees on camera right, and surrounding hills with their thorn bushes on camera left echo the undulations of the giraffe’s neck, and the vast expanse of sky overhead, create the boundaries of the image, which supply the viewer with supplementary information about the hunter’s terrain. The proximity of death and thorns conjure up a biblical image in one’s mind.
In this image, however, the hunter does not dominate the prey. The hunter with his camouflaged jacket and faded jeans, and the fact that he is sitting in the shade of the giraffe, almost blends in with the surrounding vegetation, while the giraffe with its distinctive orange and white markings demands centre stage. Ironically, in death, the giraffe takes on a protective pose around the hunter, almost like a cat curled around her newly born kittens in a nurturing manner. In both images a certain tension is visible. There is that frozen moment recorded in time that leaves the viewer wondering what exactly came before that instant (the fatal shot) and what happened after it (the chase). Hall (2015, p. 184) concludes that ‘the stillness of the action creates both narrative tension and expectation’.
Although these two photographs are images of people, they are really portraits of the animals. It is their narrative that is being told, not the hunters’ and it is their narrative that we should keep on telling.
John Hafner is a Montana based advertising/editorial and sporting photographer. He seems to specialise in sports hunting photography. Notwithstanding the commercial aspect of his images, I still feel his work is worth a mention and appropriate for my final assignment as his work involves quite a bit of staging. As he is a commercial photographer, I have only included links to his images, as I don’t want to run the risk of copyright infringement.
What I really like about his work is firstly the choice of models. For the most part he has chosen gritty, rough looking individuals (you could translate this as ‘rednecks’) although he has included some women in his portfolio as well (field & stream 47). In this photo we can see the photographer’s perfect timing in capturing the spent cartridge being ejected out of the shotgun’s chamber.
Secondly I like the way in which he has captured and interpreted the light and shadows in his outdoor photos (see duck-commander 2, field & stream 19 and field & stream 8). For the most part he has made excellent use of natural light, although he probably used a bit of bounce flash with some of the outdoor portrait shots. His night portraits obviously are done with flash, but the flash is not intrusive and seems to blend well the surroundings. I won’t be commenting on his indoor portraits as my assignment will be shot outdoors.
Even though the photos are staged to a certain degree, one can feel the sense of anticipation of the hunt in the images. Hafner pays close attention to his subjects and tends to let his backgrounds blow out on occasion (duck-commander 4), which I really don’t mind, unlike my camera club judges who would comment that there is not enough detail in the sky. I don’t think everything has to necessarily be perfect in a photograph – after all we don’t live in a perfectly highlighted/shadowed world. We do have white skies in North America during the winter – its a fact of life.
I also like the way in which Hafner has paid attention to the tones in his photos. The tones are muted and slightly warm in keeping with the autumn and winter seasonal vegetation. This is something I may have problems with as our forests are still quite green at this time. I’ve noticed that many of Hafner’s photographs are shot from a low point of view, well below the subject. This angle conveys a sense of power, emphasising the predator and prey scenario that is playing out in the image. In some of his images he has chosen a higher vantage point and this in turn creates a sensation that the hunter is being watched by the prey which is hidden in a tree or behind a bush higher up the mountain. His images also convey a sense of stillness, even the group photos of the hunters sitting in their blind have that sense of quiet anticipation. One can almost hear the silence in the images.
Something else to bear in mind when I do my final assignment is to include a few detail shots. Hafner includes detail shots of spent cartridges, close ups of birds, parts of the rifles and hands.
As far as some of the semiotics of the images go, the rifles signify death and destruction; the strangely camouflaged men convey a sinister sense of foreboding which reinforces the death signification theme which run through all the images. This is borne out in Susan Sontag’s statement (1977, p.54):
The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism.
She is known as ‘a contemporary master of socially critical photography’ (The Art Story)
She explores female personas, sexual desire and domination and self identity and put names to female stereotypes
Sherman uses many props, costumes, wigs and makeup to recreate her personas
She has a single unifying trope in all her images, namely that she gazes directly at the viewer of her photos, forcing a confrontation and allowing the viewer to compose his/her own narrative
Her photos do not reveal any truth – they are all fabricated narratives
Sherman was heavily influenced by watching TV and movies
Cotton (2009, p. 192) makes the argument that Cindy Sherman’s work is ‘the prime exemplar of postmodern art photography’.
She generated an entire following of photographers working in a style similar to hers, e.g. Ryan Trecartin and Nikki Lee.
… Cindy Sherman has shown herself to be the ultimate master of self-morphing, utilizing everything from old-fashioned makeup and prosthetics to digital technology, inventing and portraying extraordinary alter egos and multiple identities that brilliantly reflect our image-saturated culture—and in the process inventing her own genre.
Cotton, Charlotte (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Robert Longo on Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #25 (1978) [webcast, online]. The Museum of Modern Art. 3 mins 26 secs. 19/01/2016. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9kL0YMpQDg (accessed 12/03/2016)
Just a few notes on DiCorcia’s working methodology:
Dicorcia’s work is a mixture of documentary and staged tableaux for which is best known
Well known for his use of lighting in street photography
While shooting Hustlers, he paid his subjects, causing controversy in the photographic community
DiCorcia only plans stages his photographs up to a point and then relies on something unexpected to happen
He does digitally manipulate some of his images by removing or adding items
He does not direct people
Very often he does not know his subjects
He usually has his camera on a tripod
Sets his photos up so that the viewer can assert his/her own interpretation to the image – open narrative
DiCorcia has no patience for visual passivity. “I’ve been trying to create photographs in which the emotional and psychological content is time-released… From the very beginning, I was fighting against this media-created idea that imagery is so disposable that it’s exhausted within a very short amount of time.” His tendency is to slow time down, an apprehension that has nothing to do with entropy. Instead, it is a seduction into the act of looking.
Another quick summary on photographers’ approach to their work. This time on Taryn Simon.
Dubbed “an Annie Leibovitz of the conceptual world” (Globe & Mail)
She mixes politics, science and anthropology with aesthetics and formalism in her work
Her work requires a lot of planning, research and writing the accompanying texts
Her work is intentionally disorienting and rather bland
She uses a deadpan approach to her portraiture so that she doesn’t convey her own convictions to the viewers and also to encourage her viewers to engage fully with the images
The use of text with her images plays a large role in defining her work. She is interested in the space between text and image, which helps to create the narrative.
She uses rather scientific methods of presenting her work. In her oevre A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters her portraits are presented as a periodic table, the backgrounds are all grey and any outside influences have been “erased” (Tateshots)
Batchen states: ‘the paragraph or two that Simon writes to accompany each image could be said to furnish each subject even more than the image itself does’
In describing her work to Batchen Simon says: ‘You arrive at the work visually and digest it as an aesthetic object, often not knowing what you’re looking at. You then discover the text, which centers your focus and allows you to rediscover the image. The two play back and forth in this manner until you move on to the next’.