Notes from a Zoom talk organised by Arts University Bournemouth
Beyond The Still Image – 02.12.2020
Paul Wenham-Clarke – Professor of Photography – Arts University Bournemouth
Michelle Bogre – Professor Emerita of Photography, Parsons School of Design, New York
Michelle Bogre introduced the talk by discussing ways in which documentary photography has expanded in recent years to move away from the traditional distinct categories of documentary. She made the point that the previous categorisation of mirror and windows is often now blurred, so that a documentary project may well be both. She also spoke about how use of multimedia and constructed images is now well established as a tactic in documentary.
Stephen Mayes then spoke about how the advent of new technologies and means of consumption suggests that the traditional rules of documentary – truth, objectivity – need revisiting and that perhaps there is a need for new terminology to differentiate the newer approaches to avoid confusion. Digital technology makes it much easier for both the artist and the consumer to utilise photography in ways that were never possible in the past. Photo-editing software and sophisticated web design means we are no longer constrained to produce and view images as absolute truth.
Alexey Yurenev spoke about his new – unfinished – project ‘Silent Hero’, where he is using software to construct moving images based on thousands of photographs from the second world war in Russia. His work moves a long way from the traditional idea of documentary as he intends his work to evoke an idea, an impression, of his grandfather’s wartime experiences. He is clear that this is not truthful objective reporting, but a work that his is own thoughts based on thousands of still images and his own family history.
Bayeté Ross Smith spoke about his work where he collaborates with friends to construct images that are a product of both his and their ideas about perceptions in identity. He uses different forms of presentation to depict how we perceive people differently depending on how their image is presented. If Alexey Yurenev’s work demonstrates Stephen Mayes thoughts on the impact of digital technology on documentary, Bayeté’s work is less about technology and more about agency and ownership of the work.
Laia Abril spoke about her work ‘A History of Misogyny’, and in particular her project on abortion rights and restrictions around the world. Without suggesting this is any lesser of serious work than the others, the work is intended (and has been) to be presented in an exhibition space and so is perhaps less groundbreaking than some of the others.
Lewis Bush spoke about his work in interpreting radio signals from spy stations, and how he uses these to produce images of signals to illustrate his concerns over the power of the state. He then mentioned his new work concerning the early work of Werner Von Braun for the Nazi weapons program. This seemed a lot less interesting than the other speakers, and the use of highly stylised imagery did not help. Having said that, I watched his presentation again several months later and came to the conclusion that my initial negative reaction was largely due to one or two phrases he used in his introduction that seemed particularly glib and inappropriate. Setting those aside helped me to see his work as it stood and I found this second viewing much more rewarding.
At the time I said “In terms of the intentions of the session I found Alexey Yurenev and Bayeté Ross Smith more interesting than Laia Abril and Lewis Bush, again without commenting on the relative success of each artist. The nature of the session means it is unfair to comment on the work itself but the approaches of Yurenev and Ross Smith were far more relevant to the subject matter.” Reviewing this entire presentation again several months later suggests to me that viewing these presentations together in real time wasn’t the best way to see them, and that viewing each separately was much more useful and helped me to appreciate how each had adapted the idea of documentary photography in new ways (to me at least).