Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Conference Paper on John Thomson

The Humanities Initiative at New York University invited me to present a paper on my photographic research and practice as part of their "Ambience in the Humanities" conference the weekend before Thanksgiving. The discussion, entitled "Cinematic Vistas," posed these questions:

At what point do images tell us we are out of place? What landscapes of imagination open up when we enter new imagistic territories? How do unknown and unexpected masses of ambient imagery affect the making of pictures? How, then, does ambience frame the vision of photographers and movie-makers before they themselves attempt to bring the world into frame? What happens when sudden shifts in culture, place, and external stimuli make these ways of seeing apparent? Where are our imaginations located?
For my presentation, I chose to tackle these questions in two parts: first, by introducing a 19th century travel photographer and essayist I am currently researching, and second, by considering about how our photographic practice has changed since we moved to Singapore 15 months ago. For both parts of my presentation, I chose to focus on the subjects of the photographs, as residents of these new "imagistic territories."

You can click through the presentation here:

Excerpts from the script of my talk, from Part 1:

Scottish photographer John Thomson's career has been celebrated by a series of “firsts:” photo-historians claim that he published “the first book ever devoted exclusively to street photography,” he created the first photographic documentary, he was the "first photographer to have a whole society as his subject,” his four volume book on China is considered “a classic of sociological photography and reformist sympathy,” and an “innovative use of photomechanical technology.” On the other hand, Susan Sontag scorned Thomson's later work in London, calling him a class tourist, and "Street Life in London" as “perhaps the earliest model of the sustained look downward.” Likewise, in Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography, Thomson’s photographs serve to demonstrate how the picturesque aesthetic informed slum photography, which in turn, she argues, distances the subject from the possibility of reform and rendered him or her into an object of fascination for Thomson’s middle class public.

These scholars are concerned with the problematic appropriation of the photographic subject for use and observation, a disquiet heightened by the very fact of Thomson’s status in this important strain of photographic use, the documentary.

That said, it is time to restore agency to the subjects of the photographs, those that people the "ambient" landscapes captured in the document, co-create the photograph, and who are engaged in the creation of the image. Subjects resist being captured in a frame in a way that contemporary criticism does not always account for. Prevailing criticism brings to light sets of ideas that trace power and influence from photographer to audience, but do not adequately address the relationship between subject, photographer, and audience in the moment of photographing. This paper will revolve around these three nodes of exchange -- photographer, subject, and audience -- but I hope ultimately to leave you with the subject, the men and women who are in focus in this frame and every frame, though somehow, of whom we can have only glimpses.

From the discussion on the King of Siam:

The photograph and the essay share the same author; nonetheless, interpretative details about the subject resist and append the information provided by the essay text. Photographs radiate meaning in variegated patterns, and our responsibility is to chart the vast differences in what we see, inside the photographic frame, and what we assume, or read about, occurring beyond the frame. The photographic detail exhorts against the division between the indexical moment of photographing and the material photograph. This contingent detail, the King's uniform, is a flaw or an opportunity that, to rephrase Benjamin, will never consent to be wholly absorbed in text.
And from part two, on Morgan & Owens in Asia:

In the first photograph, we have just "parachuted" into this Khamu girl's life - our boat landing at the beach near her village in Northern Laos only moments before. To me this photograph is unsatisfactory, for its prevalent emotion is trespass. This image is brought to you by Dolce and Gabbana.

In the video, the children pose for a group shot. The punctum in this sequence, for me, is the couple looking on -- tourists -- and our future audience.

In our move to photograph Asia, we have found a new use for an old technology, Polaroid transcends language barriers, invites collaboration. When people see what they look like, what sort of image we intend, they adjust, they direct, and they get something in return.

The photographs that bring us the most joy, I believe, were those made in collaboration with the subjects. They are records of an encounter, the willingness to engage strangers, an hour spent together. I made this photograph after we had gotten to know each other, and we had photographed several children in her village. She has changed her skirt from her school uniform to a favorite, and posed herself at home with a friend. She doesn't know why we are there, or what audience these photographs will have, but like the King of Siam, she knows how she wants to look.

Thanks for watching!


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