Chance

© Gillian Wearing (1992-3) 'I'm desperate' - Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say

Since developing a strategy for photographing change (specifically regeneration and everyday change in Deptford) in a documentary style, I have been aware of one way that chance is affecting my images. Therefore I am interested to address the factor of chance in photography and to see whether chance can or is affecting my work in any other way.

I will start by describing what I feel is the major factor of chance within my project so far. People are a feature within the landscape of the scene my camera frames. They are a feature because I choose when to trigger the camera shutter and the majority of the time I do so when people are in the frame. The reason I want people to feature is because I feel they can show everyday change (which is a theme of my project), especially when there is more than one person. The aspect of this process I don’t have control over is what the people featured will look like. I enjoy this element of chance immensely, both in the photographic process and the resulting images.

There is a subordinate element of chance present in the images. Because the images are composites made up of multiple people who were in the same place but at different times, the relationship between the people in the composites is one partly of chance. I say ‘partly’ because I shoot many images to make up the composites. Therefore I have some control over who features and their imagined relationship in the frame. However, since the basic element of random people featuring in the contributory images exists, the composites have a chance factor to the way they are made up. I would argue this chance factor makes the composites more interesting and curious.

My Body of Work course looks at chance in 4 different ways. These include Coincidence/Street photography, Chance encounters, Found photography and Accidents.

Coincidence/Street photography:

I consider my kind of photography to be street photography with the chance factor of which people appear in the images being coincidental. Therefore this was the type of chance that I feel most closely resonates with my work. Although it sounds like the course is talking about handheld street photography, I believe a tripod-based approach can offer different results but also effective ones. For example, the right timing is easier to accomplish with a tripod-based approach but it requires the photographer to already be in the right place. Inevitably the results are different as a tripod-based approach is more considered whereas handheld is more reactive.

In Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography (2008), an exhibition at the Tate Modern, street photography and photography in the studio are seen as distinct and contrasting genres. However, as the exhibition progresses it becomes apparent that a crossover between the two genres could be possible. Artists like Norman Parkinson, William Klein and Robert Doisneau ‘demonstrate how the street became a site of staging’ – (Tate, 2008). Going the other way, Andres Serrano and Helmar Lerski ‘show how studio photography began to record people from the street’ – (Tate, 2008). This was the part of the press release that interested me most as I had always previously thought that the two genres were distinct.

I have contemplated staging my own composites with people I know from either Deptford or the surrounding areas. The composites would look similar to the ones I’ve produced for Assignment 2 and I’m producing for my Work in Progress. They would however, be made up of actors who I could get to pose for the cameras in order to form narratives relative to my artistic vision. In term of chance which is the subject of this post, I feel staging the composites in this way would be the opposite of coincidental and any ‘happy accidents’ that might occur because of the random people featured would disappear. I therefore feel vindicated in not staging the scene with people I know as this would limit chance being allowed to flourish in my composites. Also I think it would be rather unfeasible in terms of getting enough people available at the same time! Furthermore, in some of my composites that I feel are approaching a narrative anyway, there is a sense of staging occurring behind the scenes. This is in part brought about by experimentation with making the composites in some way surreptitiously ‘stand out’ which I have been conducting in Work in Progress.

My work does kind of ‘make use of coincidences the street offers that are beyond the control of the photographer.’ – (Boothroyd, 2013: 40), as mentioned in the course. I say ‘kind of’ because it is always the same coincidence (what the people featured will look like). Therefore I pretty much know what my chance factor is but can’t control what it will look like. As I’ve said I like this fact and I feel it adds to the project.

Chance encounters:

The type of chance encounters my course talks about is that of connections with other people by chance. I don’t have a real connection with any of the people who appear in my composites. However, they are all in some way connected to the area of Deptford as they are walking through its streets. I think it would be a funny coincidence/chance encounter for the people who appear in the composites, if they were to recognise themselves in an image if I were to exhibit the project or publish a book. Then we might have a real connection!

Sophie Calle didn’t have a real connection with any of the strangers she followed on the street. However, she ‘photographed them, without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.’ – (Calle, 2010: 164). This kind of approach is quite intrusive in my opinion in creating art yet it is also very romantic (the fanciful type) and whimsical, which for me gives the work a mysterious, attractive edge.

I like the concept behind Chris Coekin’s series The Hitcher (2007). I can imagine it developing from hitchhiking with a stranger and taking their portrait into a full-blown series. The factor of chance is which stranger is kind enough to pick Coekin up from the side of the road. In this way it is intriguing to see who it is that would provide a somewhat trusting offer as to let a stranger in their car. I liked looking at these people’s expressions as well when Coekin pulled out his camera as another act complicit in more trust.

© Gillian Wearing (1992-3) 'I'm desperate' - Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say
© Gillian Wearing (1992-3) ‘I’m desperate’ – Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say

I have come across Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-3) before. I find some of the things people decided to write on the cards quite depressing but also revealing so I do admire the work. In terms of chance, Wearing had no idea what kind of statement the sitter would decide to give to the world on the card. Both Coekin and Wearing’s projects have managed to link street photography with the conceptual art genre. While Coekin’s resulting images are pretty straightforward, Wearing’s reveal something of the person’s thoughts and even soul because of the card.

Found photography:

This type of photography is quite different to mine, although I have looked at the archive of Deptford in photographs in Images from Lewisham (2019) while searching for inspiration. Piecing back together destroyed photographs found on streets, Joachim Schmid has an interesting way of working  with photography. Schmid, working with found photographs is leaving himself entirely in the hands of chance with what he will find. As well as this his practice requires a lot of diligence and hard work to locate, restore and find new meanings for these photographs.

I found The Frank Album (2013) by Alec Soth online but with no accompanying comments for the photographs. There are some ethical issues I have with posting someone else’s photographs online and appropriating them but here it seems to have been done in good taste. The book was made in the 1950s which means ‘Frank’ would probably be very old by now. None of the photographs were too revealing of Frank’s personal life and inviting readers of the blog to make up a new character for Frank is curious, playful and full of chance. Each of the photographs of Frank posted online in 2013 presumably had lots of short, accompanying and made-up comments which made new meaning for the photographs. As I’ve learnt in the post: On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1982) – Allan Sekula, captions or comments attached to images can be used playfully: ‘In an art context the photographer would be likely to have control over the caption and could playfully and deliberately subvert the possible meaning of the photograph by constructing a misleading caption.’ – (Hall, 2019). I understood this from Allan Sekula’s long but insightful essay: On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1982). I think this a prime example of this subversion of meaning happening. With Soth leaving the results of the meaning of the work up to chance, he didn’t have much of an idea what how the comments would reconstruct the story of Frank.

Accidents:

I feel my work is quite different to accidental; rather it has been constructed from thought-out processes and decisions. I do understand the idea of arriving unexpectedly at an accident and going with it as the new direction of the project. Paul Graham’s American Night (1998-2002) project is an example of this happening. I like Graham’s accident and the fact he had the confidence and audacity to turn overexposed images into a project. I think it makes the viewer look at the photographs in a different way than looking at ‘properly-exposed’ photographs. I arrived at a different meaning to that of Graham’s own perceived meaning in his series. For me the overexposed look conveys being dazed, perhaps at the state of isolation and detachment apparent in the overexposed scenes situated in America.

I haven’t to my knowledge made any mistakes that have become the focus of a project. Usually it is when I experiment with an idea that I arrive at the direction for a project. I would describe these experiments with an idea as developments as although they changed the direction of the project, they don’t fit into the category of accidents.

I would say that the last project I’m going to look at in Chance is a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes if it is looked at solely photographically. The Day Nobody Died (2008) by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is dressed up as clever conceptual art but I think there should have been some substance to the laying out of photographic paper as the results don’t reflect war in my opinion. I feel the project works if scrutinising the way war and security works but at the same time it could be seen as subverting the ethics of war photographers. In my opinion it does pose interesting questions about the engagement of viewers of war photographs in comparison to this project however. Overall I feel the project trivialises war too much even though it raises points that are very relevant in war and security today.

Chance is a very interesting and vital consideration at this stage for a body of work. I am glad I investigated the different ways chance can arise in a project. I feel chance does have a role in my work; the lack of control over what the people appearing in the composites will look like is refreshing. The fact that Deptford has a history of vibrant characters helps in this regard! I can’t see there are potential possibilities for chance to take a larger role within the project. I would be reluctant to implement any more chance anyway as I think I am satisfied with the amount of chance currently in the work. I have discussed with my tutor the chance factor of how people will look in the images and we both agree having a tripod set up already and waiting for any ‘happy accidents’ to occur before the camera works in my project.

References:

Boothroyd, S. (2013) Body of Work. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Broomberg, A. and Chanarin, O. (2008) The Day Nobody Died. At: http://www.broombergchanarin.com/hometest#/the-day-nobody-died-1-1-1/ (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Calle, S. (2010) In: Iversen, M. (eds) (2010) Chance. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Coekin, C. (2007) The Hitcher. At: http://www.chriscoekin.com/index.php?/ongoing/the-hitcher-series-2/ (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Graham, P. (1998-2002) American Night. At: https://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/americannight.html#a (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Hall, J. (2019) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1982) – Allan Sekula. At: https://johnsphotography3cs.home.blog/2019/08/19/on-the-invention-of-photographic-meaning-1982-allan-sekula/ (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Lewisham Borough Photos (2019) Images from Lewisham. [Photographs] At: https://boroughphotos.org/lewisham/ (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Sekula A. (1982) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. In: Burgin V. (eds) Thinking Photography. Communications and Culture. Palgrave, London

Soth, A. (2013) The Frank Album. At: https://thefrankalbum.wordpress.com/ (Accessed 26.11.2019)

Tate (2008) Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/street-studio-urban-history-photography (Accessed 25.11.2019)

Tate Modern (2008) Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography. [Exhibition] London: Tate Modern

Wearing, G. (1992-3) ‘I’m Desperate’ [Photograph] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wearing-im-desperate-p78348 (Accessed 26.11.2019)

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