Redeye Lightbox @ Look 2011: Control
In September 2010 I took part in the Redeye Lightbox course in Liverpool. The culmination of this project was the exhibition Control at the photography festival Look 2011, which, as a collective, we also took to East London Photomonth in October 2011.
Image credits clockwise from top left: Gemma Thorpe, Pablo Allison, Liz Ashburn, Peter Mearns, Garry Cook, Dave Rawlinson, Clare Danek, Ann-Marie Conlon. Centre: Petra Stridfeldt.
This is an article that I wrote as a foreword to the publication associated with the exhibition Control. Control opened on the 13th May at the Baltic Creative warehouses in Liverpool. The exhibition was the culmination of the work of ten photographers, including myself, on the Redeye Lightbox programme in 2010. The exhibition was also supported by designer Ben Mclaughlin and mentor Dewi Lewis.
Control, it seems, may be the most fashioned accomplice to photography. Consider both the camera and the photograph; each is a product of, and for, control. Alongside this, as the following work may demonstrate, that which the camera points towards, the subject matter of the photograph itself, can also be a telling compatriot to mechanisms of control.
Of the photograph: it is widely expected to be demonstrative of reality. When we consider the mechanisms by which a photograph comes into being, what reality, or whose reality do we see? What part does the photograph play in bearing witness to the world? The photograph is a magnificent tool; it may re-present the world in a number of different guises. Opinion can be given, formed, suggested or ignored by the photograph, and that photograph can, in turn, have great control over our perceptions as a viewer. So photography controls, and as a viewer, we read a photograph in terms of what we do and don’t see contained upon its surface. Our world is edited and placed before us as photographs. Our response to this world can only be a reflection of our own analysis, judgment and understanding.
The images that we see here as part of the Control project serve as mediators between our own experience of control, and another’s understanding of sociological, political, architectural, technical, urban or rural control mechanisms.
It is the latter of these control mechanisms that is of interest to Liz Ashburn. In Wilderness?, she explores the very nature of that term. After consideration, we may come to the realisation that our landscapes are entirely man-made. Centuries of land use, through farming, building, mining, harvesting, fencing and preservation have constructed the environment that we see today, an environment often termed ‘natural’.
The portraits from Conlon, Cook, Danek, Stridfeldt and Thorpe are indicative of the additional controlling influence of the photographer. These photographers have expanded the collaborative nature of this project by creating relationships, necessitating trust, in the formation of their portraiture series. As Barthes would have it, the portrait photograph is the intersection, opposition and distortion of four image-repertoires. The sitter in the portrait is, at the same time; ‘the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.’1 Arguably, as viewer, we see the subject within another repertoire – as a product of our own judgments. We see the control of the subjects of their portraits through the demonstration and comments on several aspects of daily life.
Thorpe’s work is a thoughtful piece. Considerate to its subjects, her images show their subjects’ vulnerability, through the portrayal of their struggle for confidence and independence. Conlon also describes the struggle for control in the subject of her portraits, Colin, as methadone, epilepsy and shoplifting control his daily life. His addictions are paramount in determining the relationship that he has with society, and perhaps that which society has with him. The images in the series are subtle and engaging, offering us a glimpse of an existence on the margins of society. It is at once familiar and oblique.
These terms could also be used to describe the work in On Silence. Danek’s calm images open a portal into a world that few ever experience. Writing appears noisy and forms an interesting visual element to understanding the mechanisms of silence, while the subject of the portraiture is scrutinised for the clues that are indicative of the ability to maintain this unique and personal form of control.
The polarity of Stridfeldt’s Want amongst these portraits is striking. She deconstructs the traditional methods and appearances of portrait photography. Her work eliminates the personal, her sitter is anonymous; they are representative of a people and not a person. We cannot judge this single person who sits, but we consider their place as identifier of a whole human race. Stridfeldt’s sculptural work is a comment on the behaviour of consumption, a reminder of the suffocating and irreversible nature of our actions. By denying us the right to view the protagonist, we can at once be implicated and implicating in our actions.
The images in Cook’s Women and Alcohol demonstrate another side to consumption. Snapshot imagery still shows us the perfectly manicured nails and immaculate hair that controls an appearance, as the alcohol begins to become accomplice in the control of personal and group behaviour.
The urban environment is becoming humanity’s most prolific of creations. Since 2010 it is estimated that over 50% of the world’s population now live in an urbanised environment, and nowhere is this shift more widely apparent than on the changing face of China. Mearns’ work nods to a plausible political and global future as he looks at elements of societal control in China, whilst the work of Allison and Rawlinson offers us a fascinating insight into the architectural governance of urban and suburban everyday practices.
As Tuan describes, ‘…a college must have not only adequate classrooms and facilities, but it should feel commodious and liberating to it’s students who go there to enlarge their minds.’2 Allison’sSchools, however, offer us something quite different. By eliminating the usual references associated with the educational environment, we see these places as either intimidating containers or protecting guardians. Are they devices for instruction or obstruction? The architecture of these buildings could be seen as prison-like and intimidating. On the other hand, if we see these structures as protective, we are left to contemplate the reasons why we feel that their residents may need protection in the first place.
A modern flaneur, Rawlinson sees past the physicality of the urban architecture, and into the effects that it has upon the spatial practices of the residents of the city. As city-residents, we are complicit in the use of the spaces around us; we tend to follow given paths. De Certeau terms the wandering of the city-dweller as ‘urban texts’. We are ‘…clasped by the streets…that turn and return [us] according to anonymous law.’3
The street is, of course, one of the major sites where we are also complicit in our control byphotography. The street is the place of consumption, a venue of choice for display of photographic media. Through this mechanism, we find, expand and form new ideas about politics, society, or fashion. By controlling the camera, and our viewpoints of the world, what photography offers us is a means by which we can investigate honesty, relationships, and literal and metaphorical truths. Ultimately, here, we are all at once in allegiance with both photography and its subtle and quiet accomplice, control.
1. Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida. Vintage.
2. Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minnesota.
3. De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. California.