This project has been influenced and inspired by staged photography, figurative art, graffiti, romantic painting, photojournalism, news media, political posters and medieval art.
As previously discussed (here) when there is an imbalance of opportunity, prosperity, security or social tolerance between the regions of the world humans will continue to migrate. Since the first humanids crossed from Africa into Asia and Europe there has been a constant ebb and flow of humanity across the globe yet each generation confronts immigration as if it is a new challenge. Politicians and their media supporters exploit the anxieties of their constituents, internalising the issue, exaggerating the impact, projecting “us” as the victim and “them” as the threat. This process of characterising the immigrant as a threat relieves the pressure on society to address its failings but more fundamentally distracts attention from the human tragedy that is unfolding on the borders of Europe.
The images montaged above are but a few of the thousands available on line that tell a story of desperation, tragedy and hopelessness on the one hand and racism, tribalism, religious intolerance, prejudice and protectionism on the other. This project is inspired by the despair of those millions of people who have left everything they value to seek a safer and better life in another place.
My ideas are influenced by the process of internalisation that is best summed up by Steven George (1) “Blame immigrants for your failings – people like this.”
I have previously discussed how the Abbey ruins are, in themselves, a rich source of symbolism and how its history and status influence this project. (here)
Over the last several weeks I have been looking at the work of a selection of tableaux and staged photographers; the degree to which this niche is filled by such a variety of different practices came as something of a surprise. On one extreme there is Gregory Crewdson with his huge hollywood-style cinematographic productions that are unmistakably staged in the most literal sense of the word and then, at the other extreme, Tom Hunter who uses local people and found locations to create zero budget tableaux which are often as engaging as Crewdson’s, perhaps because of their raw reality.
It would be wrong to suggest that every artist I researched directly influenced assignment 5 but they all contributed to opening my mind to the opportunities of this type of photography.
The ideas I have taken into assignment 5:
The most important idea I came away with is that, like late photography, staged photography offers the photographer a way to address documentary or social subjects without exploiting the victim. (as discussed here)
Gregory Crewdson (here):
- The concept of creating large scale outdoor tableaux as opposed to the small set that someone like Mitra Tabrizan might work with or his own creations using sound stages.
- Broad landscapes with the individual focus points picked out by artificial light.
- The instantly accessible blockbuster atmosphere with its references to popular narrative cinema.
- The strongly denoted psychological elements. This is not unique to Crewdson and easily interpreted gestures appear in Wall, Tabrizan and Hunter’s work. This suggests that they need to exist to make tableaux function.
Jeff Wall (here):
- The use of tableaux or staged photography as “near documentary”.
- Reference the popular narrative form of cinema to acquire its dramatic licence to distort the facts whilst telling the story.
- The willingness to create a visually alluring picture when so much contemporary photography actively avoids this. Wall – “I always try to make beautiful pictures” (2); Crewdson ” First and foremost (my intent) is to make make a beautiful picture” (3)
- Total directorial control, although I recognise that I don’t have the budget to fully control every element of the set or lighting when working outdoors.
- To use painted art as an inspiration and reference.
- To direct significant production time and effort into a single photograph so that the personal investment begins to mimic the efforts of the painter.
- Placing a complete narrative into a single photograph.
- Creating tension between truth and fiction.
- Merging multiple images into a single final piece.
- Directed poses and gestures.
Sarah Pickering (here):
- The appropriation of someone else’s set and the resultant acquisition of that place’s symbolism and meanings. I see Waverley Abbey as a ready made theatre where actors could stage a play and this allowed me, like Pickering, to use the set as a symbolic landscape (here).
Mitra Tabrizan (here):
- To embrace and revel in strong saturated colours and theatrical sets.
- The idea of weaving a contemporary issue into a cinematographic image.
Tom Hunter (here):
- The use of carefully positioned light.
- Using friends as actors.
- Local documentary subjects.
Anna Fox (here):
- Taking a series of photographs from a fixed point and then merging them into a single image. (5)
- Bright lighting that creates depth to the final image.
19th Century Romantic Painting
Having chosen Waverley Abbey as my location (here) I researched oil paintings of ruins; initially I was interested in how the romantic painters dealt with the difference in scale between ruined buildings and human subjects but I quickly realised that there seemed to be an accepted aesthetic of warm light regardless of the location of the ruin.
This idea seems so closely associated with paintings of ruins that I believe it can be used as a signifier to connote that the ruin is indeed ‘romantic”. Contemporary to these paintings Waverley Abbey was a “garden feature” in the grounds of Waverley Abbey House so to use this light links the Abbey to part of its own history when it would have been seen as romantic.
Fifty years after Hubert Robert was painting his romantic ruins Louis Daguerre, perhaps best remembered for his contributions to photography, was also painting ruins. The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel is lit with the cold light of the moon but I was struck by the partially unexplained light in the left hand corner.
It is a similar idea to Gregory Crewdson’s technique of using directed light to pick out the important subjects but it goes a further than that by adding a mystery to the scene. I felt that this was an idea that could be carried forward to my photograph.
Medieval Religious Art
In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (5)
I am appropriating this idea into my final image where the area to the left of the pillar will represent the place of danger and to the right the place of sanctuary. This uses medieval religious art as a referent and helps provide a link between the final image and the site’s origins.
Pose and Gesture
As mentioned above pose and gesture is important to the creation of tableaux and I researched many paintings and photographs to help plan the shoot and to discuss with the actresses (see shoot plan here).
I was particularly influenced by the photography of Steve Curry and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. I notice that Andrew Wyeth has also been an influence on a number of other photographers including Tom Hunter (6).
A Supplication for the Beggars
In 1529 a Protestant lawyer by the name of Simon Fish wrote and distributed a pamphlet, that today might be referred to as an open letter to Henry VIII, asking him, Our Sovereign Lord, to dissolve the monasteries and appropriate their lands and wealth.
Fish puts forward a complex and detailed argument that highlights the disparity in wealth between England’s poor and the church. He describes how much of this wealth was generated by being paid to pray for the rapid progress of souls through purgatory, a conceptual place between earth and heaven that the Protestants argued had been created as a commercial rather than religious concept.
The idea of the poor begging for alms from the rich church provides a metaphor for the immigrant supplicating themselves before the authority of the establishment to gain access to a place of wealth and prosperity. I have written a little more about how this document fits into my thought process here.
In this context the meaning of the word supplication is important;
- Its accepted meaning of “a humble plea; an earnest request or entreaty, especially one made deferentially to a person in a position of power or authority.” connotes the humbling of an individual when making a request, a possible loss of dignity and the requirement to become subservient to the person in authority. This speaks to the idea that an immigrant’s identity and self worth are fundamentally and negatively modified by the very act of requesting asylum. Having the power to offer or refuse sanctuary gives the established authority power over the supplicant, who hitherto was not within their sphere of influence.
- The word is often used in the context of a religious act such as “addressing a solemn request to a god” or a request for a special blessing within a litany. This forms a link between the idea of begging and the religious act of prayer and therefore fits into the underlying religious theme of this work.
(2) de Duve, Thierry; Pelemc, Arielle; Groys, Boris; Chevrier, Jean-François (1996) Jeff Wall (second edition 2002) London: Phaidon
(5) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.
(7) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.
(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Loisirs (accessed at the artist’s website 14.10.15) – http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/france/
(1) George, Steven (2015) People Like This (accessed at the author’s website 15.10.15) – http://www.peoplelikethis.co.uk
(3) Crewdson, Gregory (2012) GregoryCrewdson’s Photography Capturing a Movie Frame: Art in Progress: Reserve Channel (accessed at Youtube 23.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7CvoTtus34&feature=youtu.be
(6) Hunter, Tom (2009) Anchor and Hope (accessed at the Artist’s website 15.10.15) – http://www.tomhunter.org/unheralded-stories-series/