Reflection on Part 1 – Body of Work

I feel that I have made a rather slow start to the Body of Work module, this is probably because I have spent a lot of time on the Research course. I thought that I needed to pin down the Research question as much as I could before I took any photographs, otherwise I might have spent a lot of time taken photos that were not relevant to the topic that I was studying in the Research module.

As the research question started to become a little clearer, comparing flowers in art between Japan and the West, I felt that I should start to make some images. I thought it might be an idea to study the work of some practitioners known for their photographs of flowers and then to produce some images that were influenced by this study. I would be looking at most of these photographers in the Research Study, but I felt it important to include some more contemporary photographs (my Research study is only looking at the period 1830-1940) to see how they may have responded to art from the past and also to broaden my own view of how to make images.

I have found there to be a lot of duplication in the exercises between the two modules, I guess that this is designed to help people establish connections between Body of Work and Research, but personally I found it somewhat repetitive.

Overall though, I am pleased to at least have started to take some photos and I very much enjoyed looking into the work of Karl Blossfeldt and producing images that were influenced by what I had learned. I also enjoyed taking a few photos in my ‘Little Less than Perfect’ series. This was influenced by my background reading for the Research and Body of Work modules. Right at the beginning of the course I had looked at the work of Irving Penn whose flower images were shown on the cover of a number of episodes of Vogue. I was interested in how he sometimes chose flowers that had just passed their peak to give a more interesting image. I wanted to experiment with this, even though his work came from outside the time period I was looking at in my Research. As I say above, I think it is appropriate for me to continue to do this, alongside my research studies

Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932)

 

From 1898 to 1930 Blossfeldt taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Berlin (Karl Blossfeldt | MoMA (s.d.). He did not consider himself as a photographer, instead an “enthusiastic amateur … took pictures with a home-made wooden camera, using his images as a teaching aid in the drawing classes he gave” Adam (2014 p19). He took photographs of plants which he enlarged to show his students the “forms and patterns he discovered in the natural world” (Murata 2014 p1).

According to Adam (2014) we currently only know of a few hundred images taken by Blossfeldt, but it is thought that he may have taken around 6,000 plant pictures altogether.

Murata (2014) describes how, in 1925, some of Blossfeldt’s images were exhibited at the school at which he taught, and it may have been that this was seen by Karl Nierendorf, an influential collector and owner of an art gallery. In 1926 Blossfeldt had his first exhibition outside of academic settings at Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin. The exhibition was very successful; it led to the publication of Blossfeldt’s first book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) in 1928 and to the inclusion of Blossfeldt’s work in the prestigious exhibitions Fotografie der Gegenwart and Film und Foto, both in 1929. Two further books of Blossfeldt’s images were produced; Wundergarten der Natur (The Magic Garden of Nature) in 1932 and, published posthumously in 1942, Wunder in der Natur (Magic in Nature).

Blossfeldt’s work can be stark, concentrating on the forms and patterns of the plants that he is photographing. Stepan (1999 p24) considers that “Blossfeldt’s plant photographs are the best examples of photography following the precepts of Neue Sachlichkeit”. Often translated as ‘New Objectivity’ it originated in Germany in about 1918. It is described by Murray (1997 p368) as “a reaction against Expressionism” and where “a new attention to realistic representation of actual objects in a detailed way – thus also reacting against the muzziness of Impressionism”. This may be a little misleading as, while it undoubtedly stood for realism and objectivity, Neue Sachlichkeit is also renowned for its biting political comment; “its major trend involved the use of meticulous detail and violent satire to portray the face of evil” (Chilvers 2009 p439). The movement is most associated with the painters Otto Dix and George Grosz. Long (2016) places Blossfeldt’s work as part of the “inter-war German Neues Sehen (New Vision) movement”. This movement “aimed to look at the world through the camera lens, using it as a mirror to the reality of the everyday” Tate (s.d.). The Neues Sehen was most closely associated with the work of the Bauhaus and the photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Karl Blossfeldt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To me Blossfeldt’s images are all about form, pattern and rhythm, which aren’t always visible to the naked eye, being revealed by the magnification used. Generally, they are taken from the front, occasionally from above. All his images are monochrome and photographed against a plain, grey background, usually light grey but sometimes dark. Also, the lighting of the subject is very flat and diffused, no suggestion of chiaroscuro here. The effect of this is to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the shapes and patterns of the plants being displayed. The plants are totally out of context, not in their natural setting, which adds a sense of detachment or abstraction and makes it easier to consider their geometry rather than regarding them as natural objects. It makes it a much more analytical process.

The success of the image depends on the choice of subject. Blossfeldt has very carefully selected the plants he photographed, choosing a specimen that displays an architecture not normally seen in its usual context. This is perfectly displayed in his image of a Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).

We are used to seeing fern leaves just as they start to unroll, but the success of this image lies as much in the composition as in the natural forms of the ferns. Four fern leaves in the background are counterbalanced by two leaves in front which face in the opposite direction. This attracts the interest of the viewer in working out the composition compared to if the leaves had all been facing the same way. It adds a counteraction to the rhythm of the scene.

Karl Blossfeldt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is also a good example of Blossfeldt’s use of the ‘architecture’ of the plants, it is easy to see the influence this may have had on Art Nouveau designs.

Adam (2017 p22) describes how Blossfeldt worked against the photographic fashion of the time, stating that when he “started out on his detailed plant documentation, pictorialist soft focus was in vogue, yet when he concluded his life’s work, his conception of the image was not only contemporary, but was considered progressive”.

Having studied Blossfeldt’s work I have made my own images, not wanting to copy what he did, but to see how I would be influenced by his work. I did not necessarily choose close-ups for all the images, although the majority were. I chose a plain background and used monochrome, as Blossfeldt did, to focus attention on the structures of the plant. Generally, I took a frontal view of the subject with even lighting, taking care in the composition of the individual plant. Most of all though, I tried to select the subject plants very carefully for the interest in form or pattern that they provided.

REFERENCES

Abbaspour, M. (s.d.) Karl Blossfeldt | Object:Photo | MoMA. At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/artists/24413.html (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Adam, H. (2017) Karl Blossfeldt: the complete published work. Koln: Taschen.

Blossfeldt, K. and Adam, H.-C. (2017) Karl Blossfeldt: the complete published work. Koln: Taschen.

Chilvers, I. (2009) The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4th Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karl Blossfeldt (2016) At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/karl-blossfeldt?all/all/all/all/0 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt (s.d.) At: https://www.michaelhoppengallery.com/artists/58-karl-blossfeldt/overview/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt | artnet (s.d.) At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/karl-blossfeldt/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (1928) (2019) At: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/karl-blossfeldts-urformen-der-kunst-1928/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Long, J. (2016) Blossfeldt, Karl (1865–1932) – Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. At: https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/blossfeldt-karl-1865-1932 (Accessed on 20 November 2019)

Murata, H. (s.d.) ‘Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt’ At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Murata.pdf

Murray, P. and Murray, L. (1997) The Penguin dictionary of art and artists (7th Edition). London: Penguin Books.

Stepan, P. (1999) Icons of photography: the 20th century. Munich: Prestel Pub.

Tate (s.d.) The New Vision – Art Term | Tate. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/new-vision (Accessed on 20 November 2019)

A Little Less than Perfect

I was taken by this phrase when shopping in the supermarket, it was being applied to fruit and vegetables that were perfectly good to eat but were a bit misshapen. It set me wondering about some of the flower images I had seen in my background reading for this module.

Irving Penn started taking photos of flowers in 1967, as part of an assignment for the cover of Vogue magazine. Each year until 1974 he produced images of flowers, restricting himself to a single variety each time. He did not choose a prime specimen on every occasion, “He said he was drawn to flowers ‘considerably after they’ve passed the point of perfection’, captivated by their blemishes and shrivelling petals” (Smart & Jones 2019). In Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968 there is barely a petal left on display, it is more a study in form and tones than any traditional flower image.

Penn’s images aren’t just a photograph of a flower, “His apparently simplistic compositions are void of sentimentality and focus on the detail, form and wonder of each specimen” (Roberts 2015). In the same way as Karl Blossfeldt did in the early part of the century, Penn isolated each specimen against a plain background, to concentrate attention solely on the form and hues of each flower. Unlike Blossfeldt, he used subtle lighting to accentuate form and detail.

Whereas Penn chose to photograph flowers that ranged from almost perfect condition to those that were almost decayed, in The Polaroid Flowers http://www.rushcreekeditions.com/enos/enos-master.php Chris Enos produced a series of large polaroid prints that were very much at the decaying end of the spectrum. Her studies were mainly closely cropped images of the flower head with little, if any, background showing. Where backgrounds were used, they were uniformly black. I have only been able to study much of Enos’ work online, although a couple of images appear in books I have researched. To me they seem ‘darker’ than the photos of Irving Penn, perhaps the concentration on the decaying forms in the closeups gives a ‘morbid’ element to the image.

I have produced some images of my own in a Little Less than Perfect series. At the moment there are just a few but I intend to add to them as the course progresses. I have tried to select flowers that are past their peak, but at various stages. Like Enos I have photographed them against a black background, but unlike her and more like Penn, I have not cropped too closely, in most cases showing the whole flower head. The key to me was in the selection of the flower, choosing blooms that are interesting for the shapes, forms or colours displayed. I will be interested to see how this project develops.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campany, D. (2015) Irving Penn’s Flowers At: https://davidcampany.com/irving-penns-flowers/ (Accessed on 28 November 2019)

Ellison, J. (2015) Flowers and the power of a single stem In: Financial Times 20 November 2015 [online] At: https://www.ft.com/content/e98cf6ca-8d3a-11e5-a549-b89a1dfede9b (Accessed on 28 November 2019)

Rigg, N. (2015) The Verdant Legacy of Irving Penn’s Flowers. At: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8062/the-verdant-legacy-of-irving-penns-flowers (Accessed on 29 June 2019)

Roberts, J. (2015) Irving Penn’s Unsentimental Flowers. At: https://medium.com/vantage/ai-ap-pro-photo-daily-exhibitions-penn-s-unsentimental-flowers-dd5dad8e82c2 (Accessed on 28 November 2019)

Smart, A. and Jones, R. (2019) How Irving Penn ‘changed the way people saw the world’. At: https://www.christies.com/features/Guide-to-Irving-Penn-9751-1.aspx (Accessed on 28 November 2019)

Chris Enos’ Polaroid Flowers:

http://www.rushcreekeditions.com/enos/enos-master.php?id=0

http://www.chrisenos.com/portfolios/flowers/index.html#.Xd_xwZ_AM2x

Part 1 – Personal Statement Exercise

Identification of Creative Method & Development of Personal Voice

What form will creative output take?

At this stage of the process I envisage that the main the creative output will be photographic images. In my early reading for the topic I have looked at images of flowers from cyanotypes, collotypes, collagraph, B&W and colour photographs. I feel studying the differing effects that different processes have may well influence my own practice.

How does your theme impact upon your working method?

My chosen theme is images of flowers and the threats that they face. This will differ from traditional flower images in that to illustrate both the flowers and threats may require multiple images and/or a combination of media. In my Photography 2: Landscape module I wrote a critical essay on photomontage and I could build on the knowledge I gained there.    I shall, therefore, also need to investigate other techniques.

Which contemporary creative artists influence you?

I am interested in the work of Jeff Wall, particularly the many references in his work to great painters of the past. Generally I am interested in the influences within and between different art forms, in particular the mutual influences between photography and other art forms. In terms of my own influences, I think that the work that I do for my Level 3: Research module, where I will be looking at images of flowers from Japan and the West, will have considerable influence on my own photographic output.

Part 1 – Theme and Work Plan

Mind Map of themes and relationship between Body of Work and Research modules

Work Plan

TASK Deadline
Assignment 1 – Reflective commentary, integration of Research and Body of Work, outline of theme, work plan, personal statement and mind map  

Review and amend following tutor feedback
End of Dec
2019  
Assignment 2 – Revise personal statement and work plan Send initial creations and reflective commentary

Review and amend following tutor feedback  
End of March 2020

End of April 2020
Assignment 3 – Creative work and reflective commentary. Revised personal statement and work plan

Review and amend following tutor feedback  
End of July 2020    

End of August 2020
Assignment 4 – Continue creative work and send evidence of peer to peer critical review, revised personal statement  


Review and amend following tutor feedback  
End of Nov 2020  

End of Dec 2020
Assignment 5 – Send final portfolio of work, revised personal statement, reflective commentary, self-assessment of final work and integration with Research  

Review and amend following tutor feedback  
End of Feb 2021
 
End of March 2021

Part 1 – Reflection

Identify relationships between your two creative activities.

The six strongest pieces of work I’ve chosen are:

From Art History 1:  My written Review; The Norwich School of Painters

In this piece I looked at the work of the Norwich School of Painters and this led on to my self-directed project on the Landscape Photography course. I gave a brief overview of the School but looked particularly at the work of John Crome and John Sell Cotman. In the review I tended to reflect what others had written on the subject but started to form my own opinions as I annotated the paintings by Crome and Cotman. I think that the analysis and annotations of works of art on this course helped me in considering several aspects of my photography including composition, lighting and the use of colour. This course seemed to be the start of my interest in combining Photography and History of Art in Creative Arts as at the end of the course I switched degree pathways from Photography to Creative Arts. I did this as I felt that I could learn a lot from studying the two topic areas alongside each other. This project could be extended to further consider landscape portrayal by members of the Norwich School, something that I did to a degree in the self-directed project (Asssignment 6 \Photography 2- Landscape).

From Art History 2:  My Critical Review; Was Edward Burne-Jones a Great Religious Painter?

https://light-writing.co.uk/arthistory2/index.php/2016/12/13/was-edward-burne-jones-a-great-religious-painter/

This was probably the longest piece of writing I have done on the various courses. I enjoyed the research a great deal. What I have learned from this assignment is that I need to start to form and propose my own opinions much more firmly rather than simply report those of other critics. My interest in the topic was stimulated by a visit to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where I saw The Star of Bethlehem. I followed this up with a visit to Tate Britain and other galleries to see other Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood works. I can take from this my enjoyment of researching topics that interest me. I enjoyed seeing the work of Julia Margaret Cameron at a recent exhibition at the V&A. Study of the PRB and development of photography by and since then is perhaps an area to consider.

From Art History 2:  Project 7; A Creative Variation of an Eastern Work

https://light-writing.co.uk/arthistory2/index.php/2016/02/27/project-7-a-creative-variation-of-an-eastern-work/ 

I really enjoyed this assignment, I looked at Chinese ‘boneless’ painting, particularly their representation of flowers. I learned a great deal about their technique, composition etc and then tried to apply this to a photographic interpretation of their style. I think that there is great scope for combining the two subject areas of Photography and Art History in this topic.

From Photography 2 Landscape: Assignment 6 – A year in Toll’s Meadow

https://light-writing.co.uk/land/assignment-6-transitions/

In this assignment I tried something new, taking a statement from David Hockney about the limitations of photography, particularly with regard to its use of single point perspective. He describes conventional photography as being like “looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops–for a split second.” (Tate s.d.). I tried to produce an image which challenged this statement by creating a montage of multiple shots. This again is something that I might be able to follow up in considering combining research and Body of Work.

From Photography 2 Landscape: Assignment 5 – Self-directed project

https://light-writing.co.uk/land/assignment-5-self-directed-project/

This assignment furthered my study of the Norwich School of Artists. They were known for shunning the ‘idealised’ landscape popular at the time, instead portraying what they saw in their immediate surroundings. Bottinelli (2013 p59) believes that the artists “captured the life and look of the City of Norwich” and this was something that I attempted to do in the Assignment. I chose locations painted by Norwich School artists, but simply used this as a starting point  and, instead of trying to produce a variation of their work, I produced my own portfolio that I believed “captured the life and look of the of Norwich” today. There could be scope for developing this work further combining a study of Norwich School artists with contemporary landscape photographs of th area.

From Photography 1: Context & Narrative: Assignment 5

https://light-writing.co.uk/candn/?p=538

This Assignment involved constructing a stand-alone image. Again I borrowed from my Art History learning and looked at an image made by William Hogarth called The Politician. It was election time in the UK when I was undertaking this Assignment so I constructed my own version of the image which I called The Politician 2015. This assignment showed how I was starting to look at combining my learning from History of Art with my photographic practice. There is scope for further development of this.

Items of Potential Interest from these 6 pieces of work

  • Research of art history and production of photographic images informed/influenced by research
    • Chinese flower painting
    • Landscapes of Norwich School painters
    • Pre-Raphaelite paintings and photography
  • Challenging conventional photographic representation, e.g. Hockney’s ‘paralysed cyclops’ comment on single point perspective
    • Look at different ways this has bee approached in other art forms and attempt to produce photographic images to achieve the same aim – e.g. cubist approach
Personal Creative Voice
  • I don’t think that I have a personal creative voice which is different for the two subject areas. In my most recent Photography module the Assessor’s comment was that “There is a sense of you trying to articulate your voice across the assignments, but as you move to the next level it is important that you continue to develop a stronger sense of your personal interests and sense of invention, with a clarity to your intention.”  In the critical studies for both photography and history of art the assessors thought that I needed to “build your own opinions more specifically than some of the generalised statements”.
  • Perhaps what is starting to differentiate my photographic work from that of others is a willingness to go beyond a traditional approach to a subject and consider how it can be both represented and presented to an audience.
  • How do I produce my work? So far this has been digital photography, but in my initial reading for this course I have been interested by cyanotypes and collographs so there could be scope for including this.
  • What are the most interesting aspects that I can take from each subject area?
    • The way that art from the past has influenced photographic practice
    • Challenging accepted photographic practice in representation of topics
    • Allowing study of other art forms to influence my photography
  • How can I integrate these aspects? Following discussion with my tutor for the Research Module I would like to attempt this by considering Japanese Art and its influence on the West (Japonsime). I would choose a specific time period, e.g. 1840-1940, and consider how the art forms have developed and influenced each other in Japan and the West. In undertaking this research, I would look at how images of flowers were portrayed over the period and consider influences and areas of difference.
  • In response to this research I would produce a Body of Work of my own photographic images of flowers with an analysis and reflection on how they had been influenced by my studies.
  • I would hope to produce something more than a simple image of a flower, looking also at the threats to their survival, such as climate change, insect pollination, etc.
  • In this way my two topics of Art History and Photography would combine to produce a single body of work.

REFERENCES

Bottinelli, G. (ed.) (2013) A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School. Norwich: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

Tate (s.d.) David Hockney: 60 years of work – Exhibition Guide | Tate. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/david-hockney-1293/60-years-work (Accessed on 25 June 2019)

Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery

Q.  When is a selfie not a selfie?

A.   When it features Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman’s work has a simple concept at its heart – she takes photographs of herself. In fact she has been taking self-portraits since long before the term ‘selfie’ entered common usage. But she does not take selfies in the generally accepted sense of the word – Sherman adopts a persona but leaves the viewer to decode what the image is all about. Her works have no title that would assist in interpreting her images, although most belong to a series that is titles, e.g. History Portraits, Fashion or Film Stills.

Her conceptual approach is alarmingly simple -she constructs (or chooses) a suitable backdrop, dresses up in clothes and changes her appearance with make-up, wigs and (more recently) prosthetics. It was fascinating to see a copy of Sherman’s notebook where she had written how she was going to achieve the portrait she wanted. Although the concept is simple – a huge amount of detail goes into constructing the scene just as she wants it.

The images I admired the most were in the Film Stills series, produced between 1977-80. Scores of relatively small portraits filled one of the gallery rooms – each a distinct scene from a film that you think you have seen. They are not copies of scenes from any particular film, rather generic scenes that remind you of something you had seen.

In this way the viewer is invited to bring their own interpretation to the scene – what’s happening here, what is she doing, what might happen next? Sherman has the ability to construct these scenes in both simple and complicated settings. For example #48

Seen from the rear, Sherman stands alone with her back to the camera and with just a suitcase as a prop. But the dramatically lit figure and dark brooding background convey a sense of danger. A simple scene where the questions and suspense are made by the setting and lighting.

By comparison # 14

This is a highly complex setup, where the expression on Sherman’s face, reflection in the mirror, the glass of wine on the table, jacket on the chair, portrait on the sideboard all offer pointers for interpretation as to what the scene is all about.

Sherman doesn’t give answers in these portraits, she asks questions of the viewer who bring their own prejudices and stereotypes as they decipher the scene. I could have spent most of my time at the exhibition in the room containing the Film Stills series, investigating the scenes and considering the ingenuity of the concept.

In some ways I found that the rest of the exhibition suffered from following on from this series. Sherman’s later work embraced colour and were printed on a much bigger scale but, to me, seemed less intriguing than the Film Stills series. I admired the Centrefold series as well as the Fashion images. The fashion series especially were, literally, larger than life, and lost the intimacy that was generated in the Film Stills.

It is interesting to consider Sherman’s influence on photography. Gerry Badger writes

“Sherman’s work as a whole has been a crucial component of the feminist influence upon women’s photography, yet it seems clear that she came to it by examining personal concerns – a love of movies, a penchant for dressing-up. She claims that she had never heard of the ‘male gaze’ theory when she began Untitled Film Stills. Yet, through this exploration of the personal, she instinctively created a body of work of work that touched upon wider issues concerning the representation of women”.

Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille.

The Disasters of War – Don McCullin at Tate Britain

“catalogues the brutality and fatal consequences of war in such a stark, confrontational and unflinching manner”

“There are many scenes of savagery and suffering”

“another dismembered carcass, this time impaled upon a tree-trunk”

These quotes could be applied to the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain which I attended as a member of an OCA study visit. Room after room displaying the horrors of war and scenes of absolute inhumanity.

In fact, they are from the art critic Alistair Sooke and do not relate to the McCullin exhibition. In a BBC article he considers what is the most powerful work of war art from the last two centuries. He concludes that

“nothing quite matches the originality and truth-telling ferocity of the Disasters of War, a series of 80 aquatint etchings, complete with caustic captions, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)” (Sooke 2014).

Plate 37: Esto es peor. (This is worse.)   
(Francisco Goya [Public domain])   

                                    

Plate 39: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (Great deeds! Against the dead!)
(Francisco Goya [Public domain])

Some people have questioned the display of McCullin’s work in a public art gallery such as Tate Britain.

“I don’t have a particular issue with being exposed to the terrible side of human nature, seen in the right context this can be edifying as much as it is alienating. In this case however the horror of much of the subject matter is made more still uncomfortable and harder to bear by the handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in. It’s an old quandary, but what does it mean to view an image of someone blown apart by a land mine, presented as a work of art, and then to shortly afterwards to exit through the gift shop and buy a similar image on a postcard.” (Bush 2019)

I agree with the sentiments concerning the gift shop, although such merchandising seems ubiquitous, nearly all the exhibitions I have been to recently seem to have the same arrangement. But what about the claim that the handling of the work and its context make the horror of it harder to bear? This seems to relate to the printing, framing and display of the work, presented in a ‘fine art’ fashion, emphasised by these images being displayed in an art gallery, the Tate. Does the display of the work in such a fashion elevate it to a status it does not deserve, or does it detract from the subject matter?

The photographs were originally taken for publication in newspapers and magazines, mostly accompanied by articles or explanatory text placing them into a certain context. Does experiencing them in a gallery change the way in which we view them? In a way yes, it is bound to – apart from anything else the size of the prints on the gallery walls is much greater than when originally published in The Observer. In addition, the gallery images are printed in exactly the way McCullin wanted them to be (he printed them all himself) rather than being subject to the vagaries of the newspaper printing processes of the time. So the experience of viewing them is different, but not necessarily inferior, in fact in some ways it is vastly superior.

But does the display of such images in a fine art setting affect how we view them. Again I think the answer to this is yes, it must do. It is a very different experience to shuffle around an exhibition room with scores of others rather than the solitary practice of viewing them in a magazine. The images themselves are elevated to a different setting on the gallery wall – you want to study them in detail, consider the message, the composition, how they have been printed. But does the setting – Tate Britain – make the horror of the images harder to bear. Art galleries have long depicted images of war and suffering, I doubt that anyone would query the display of Picasso’s Guernica in a gallery or Paul Nash’s The Menin Road. I wonder if this has something to do with the images being photographs rather than any other art form. Is it because of the realism of the photographs in displaying the horrors that brings it closer to home for the viewer and therefore less suited to display in an art gallery? Or could it be the sheer number of images of suffering that are on display that induces a sense of ‘compassion fatigue’?

On many occasions McCullin has denied that he regards his images as art or himself as an artist but has acknowledged Goya as an influence in his own work. But the mere fact that he has such an exhibition at Tate Britain suggests that influential others regard his work as an art form.

To me, the discussion around whether the images are suitable for display and the quality of the exhibition should not solely be about how the images are shown or experienced. Would similar comments about the “handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in” have been made had the exhibition at the Tate been Goya’s 80 etchings in Disasters of War. Somehow I doubt it.

To go back to Alistair Sooke’s article, he quotes the art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau commenting on Goya’s etchings

“I have lived with these prints, which many people consider too shocking, absolutely unbearable, and I find in them – besides the heartbreak and outrage at the unspeakable violence and damage – a great well of compassion for all victims of the suffering and abuses they depict, which goes to the very heart of our humanity.”

This, I think, is how we should judge McCullin’s work do we find in them that “great well of compassion for all victims”?

I think that the answer to that is ‘yes in some of them’. For me, I think that his image of a grieving Turkish family does that, as does his image of the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam.

In other images he more displays the reality of everyday life in conflict zones such as his early photos from Berlin. Some display the horrors of war in a similar fashion to Goya’s – but don’t necessarily convey the same effect of compassion with the victim.

Does the way in which McCullin’s images are displayed and the fact that they are in an exhibition at Tate Britain influence how we view them – definitely. In some ways positively, in others less so.

Does the exhibition have flaws – yes. Should it have been put on – definitely.

Bibliography

Bush, L. (2019) Nihilistic Photojournalism? Don McCullin at Tate Britain. At: http://www.disphotic.com/nihilistic-photojournalism-don-mccullin-at-tate/ (Accessed on 28 May 2019)

Sooke, A. (2014) ‘Goya’s Disasters of War: The truth about war laid bare’ In: BBC 17 July 2014 [online] At: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140717-the-greatest-war-art-ever (Accessed on 28 May 2019)