RELAY IN CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC PRACTICE

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF‘  AND  ‘OBJECTS IN THE FIELD

By way of looking at a Research Point I am directed towards two examples of relay in use in contemporary photographic practice.  The first, Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself‘, explores the text of an email received by the artist from a lover in which he was ending their relationship and which closed with the words of the title.  The second, Sophy Rickett’s ‘Objects in the Field‘, takes its title from terms used in astronomy which focuses on images of astronomical subjects taken by an astronomer using a special Three Mirror Telescope designed and built by himself and the complex relationship that developed between the artist, the scientist and the images.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF  –  SOPHIE CALLE

41d8lO3+9PLI have had great reservations about the work of Sophie Calle, a French photographer / provocateur, since I learnt of two of her photographic projects one of which (‘Suite Venetienne‘) involved following and photographing a stranger, who she picked at random, as he travelled through several countries, and the other (‘The Hotel‘) for which she went through and photographed the private possessions and beds of guests at a hotel at which she worked for a short while.  These works strike me as being the product of an artist with such a strong need to satisfy her own deep inner urges and voyeuristic enquiries that she has no concept of or interest in the sensibilities and feelings of others.  She is not a person that I could develop any empathy with and I am therefore guarded and apprehensive in my approach to her work.

The body of work entitled ‘Take Care of Yourself‘ that Calle produced as a result of receiving the ‘break up’ email comprises an extensive collection of texts, images and DVDs and I have neither the time nor the motivation to explore it at this time.  I have found this description of the work on Artbook which gives an interesting if rather subjective account of it.  (*1)

‘In this remarkable artist’s book, French conceptual artist/provocateur Sophie Calle presents 107 outside interpretations of a “breakup” e-mail she received from her lover the day he ended their affair. Featuring a stamped pink metallic cover, multiple paper changes, special bound-in booklets, bright green envelopes containing DVDs and even Braille endpapers, it is a deeply poignant investigation of love and loss, published to coincide with the 2007 Venice Biennale–where Calle served as that fair’s French representative. All of the interpreters of Calle’s breakup letter were women, and each was asked to analyse the document according to her profession–so that a writer comments on its style, a justice issues judgment, a lawyer defends Calle’s ex-lover, a psychoanalyst studies his psychology, a mediator tries to find a path towards reconciliation, a proofreader provides a literal edit of the text, etc. In addition, Calle asked a variety of performers, including Nathalie Dessay, Laurie Anderson and Carla Bruni, among others, to act the letter out. She filmed the singers and actresses and photographed the other contributors, so that each printed interpretation stands alongside at least one riveting image of its author, and some are also accompanied by digital documentation. The result is a fascinating study and a deeply moving experience–as well as an artwork in its own right. Already a collector’s item, this is a universal document of how it feels to grieve for love.’

Whilst I am unable to make any serious objective observations on this project as I have not explored it in anything other than a fleeting way, I find it possibly significant in the context of the artist’s psychology that she chose not to involve any men in the ‘interpretations’ included in the project and also considered it to be 

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OBJECTS IN THE FIELD  –  SOPHY RICKETT

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Copyright Sophy Rickett

This rather more accessible body of work comprises several series of photographs, a video and texts.  Helpfully, the text of an interview between the artist and Sharon Boothroyd of the OCA in which the work is discussed is included in the study workbook and this adds somewhat to the understanding of the aims and conceptual background of the project. Essentially Sophy Rickett explored the history and archived material of a number of images of astronomical subjects taken by retired astronomer Dr Roderick Willstrop who, during his time working at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, designed and built a Three Mirror Telescope which he used to produce detailed negatives of comets, stars and other subjects.  Her project also looks at her relationship with Dr Willstrop and the images themselves as they collaborated towards the completion of the work and memories and emotions that arose as a result of difficulties encountered in bridging the gaps between the scientific and the artistic approaches that each brought to the table. A brief description of the project from The Photographer’s Gallery Blog is given below (*2).

‘In 2012 Sophy Rickett began working as Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge. She began an ongoing, cross-disciplinary project initially inspired by some old analogue negatives of the night sky, and her encounters with the scientist who produced them, Dr. Roderick Willstrop, retired fellow of the IoA, and inventor of the Three Mirror Telescope. This camera telescope produced black-and-white negatives of space by using three mirrors instead of the previously practiced use of one or two in other telescopes, to widen the optical path of light entering the lens and therefore increase the detail with which an image can be configured and captured. Rickett has re-visited negatives from 1990/1, the short period during which the telescope exposed analogue negatives before being converted to a device for digital capture, and produced new prints that develop the tonal and wider aesthetic qualities of the images. For another part of the project Rickett wrote an accompanying text. The artist combines a personal account of time spent at the institute – incorporating scientific and vernacular language – with other memories and narrative voices, to give a vivid sense of her experience while considering the nature of collaboration, obsolescent technologies and our relationship to space.’

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The course text asks me to write down my own responses to the two pieces.  Both artists have taken a relatively simple subject to explore, Calle’s being a deeply personal and emotional one which paradoxically she has opened up to become extremely complex and public, and Rickett’s being an initially more measured and academic approach to the mechanics and science of recording distant objects which then became more emotional, complex and introspective as it developed.  They have both employed what Roland Barthes defined as a ‘relay’ style of presentation where the text (and any other forms of narrative accompanying the images) has equal weight with the images and adds considerably to the story and its scope for interpretation.

Neither concept engaged me sufficiently to want to spend the time required to source and explore all the presentational elements of the work but I did read a number of reviews and I also read the text which accompanied the images in Rickett’s ‘Objects in the Field‘ project which I found interesting even if I struggled to see its relevance at times.  She writes in a highly descriptive and almost poetic style which I found engaging and some understanding of the artist’s intentions in including some of the less obviously relevant elements was gained from the text of the interview with Sharon Boothroyd which was helpful.  In order to have given a fair appraisal of Calle’s work I would have needed to dedicate a considerable amount of time and money to access it in all its complexity, but having read a number of appraisals by those who have taken the time and trouble, a number of whom were not fully complimentary!) I think that I would have struggled with sticking with it and gaining any significant reward for the work put in.

The course text also asks me how the two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative.   In the mid to late 20th Century, narrative photo essays were much more direct in their approach to their themes and their subjects.  Whereas the composition and styles of the images and their detailed subject matter might have been selected at times to reflect wider concepts and meanings, they were by and large more documentary in nature and the accompanying texts were factual and directly related to the subject matter. Examples include Walker Evans’ ‘American Photographs‘ of 1938, Leonard Freed’s ‘Black in White America‘ of 1968 and more recently Sebastiao Salgado’s ‘Genesis‘ of 2013.   There was little scope for the viewer’s imagination to wander far from the presentation in front of them and although the power or subject matter of the work might well have triggered an emotional response, it was unlikely that it would have led to entirely new fields of imagination and exploration.  

Calle’s and Rickett’s works range widely both in terms of their methods of presentation and their content, much of which might not appear directly relevant to the initial subject. Whereas the start points might be clear, the progression of the pieces can lead to obscure and apparently unrelated areas which leave the viewer asking questions both about the artist’s intentions and thought processes and about their own perceptions and life experiences.  Asking questions rather than providing answers and turning the viewer into an active worker with, rather than a passive absorber of, the artwork seems to be the purpose of  postmodern photographic art, a purpose which can either engage or repel the observer depending on the individual and the subject and presentation of the work. It can often appear to the viewer that it is the exploration of a piece rather than the understanding of it that is the goal of postmodern art and that whether you capture the artist’s meaning in the work or not is of no importance.  Indeed it is often clear on conducting further research that in many cases the artist had no clear intention and no interest in whether the consumer finds a particular meaning or not.  

Both Calle’s and Rickett’s works clearly fall into the postmodern category of narrative work, a field of photographic art that I have yet to fully engage with.  

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REFERENCE SOURCES

(*1)   http://www.artbook.com/9782742768936.html

(*2)   https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/

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