What about The Frank Album?

The course material asks me what my thoughts are on Alec Soth’s Frank Album and whether there are any ethic issues with it?

Soth’s information about the concept is here: https://thefrankalbum.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/help-us-create-the-frank-album/. Nothing is shown of the finished work but I found this on Vimeo ..

The concept is interesting but not innovative; asking a public to contribute a story to a found (purchased) collection of photos without a history. Soth didn’t mind if contributions were fact or fiction – it seems an exercise in putting together the story of a stranger. I find the process more interesting than the outcome, which reminds me of looking at the lives of others on a soap opera or reality TV. The album is a collectable, commodified artwork, produced by the artist through his commercial business. Obviously, possessing something curated by Alec Soth is attractive for collectors. I suspect that it is this provenance that makes the work attractive, rather than anything special about the photographs themselves, which could have been taken from any family album.

While there are ethical codes for news and documentary photography, the ethics of art works seem to more fluid and must be taken in their own contexts. Frank is clearly identifiable from the images but it seems he was not traced, which is unsurprising given the limited circulation of the project. Therefore, it was not possible to ask permission from Frank or his family. There is nothing in the photographs that would seem to be harmful to Frank if published.

If I were Frank, I wouldn’t mind the photos being used in this way; a personal acid test. However, I don’t think there can be a blanket ethical position on the use of found photographs – they should be considered in the specific context of discovery, use and content.

Paul Graham’s ‘mistake’

The course material discusses Paul Graham’s over-exposure mistake that triggered his concept for his work American Night. Graham describes the work as a way of representing America’s fractured society. It occurs to me now with current events, that the overexposure can be read as whiting out and blindness through white privilege.

© Paul Graham, source: paulgrahamarchive.com

I am asked whether I’ve ever made a mistake that I didn’t know how to recover and then, what would I do to turn it into something useful.

I’ve made mistakes in life and allow myself to make mistakes as part of learning. However, I find it difficult to recall many photographic mistakes. I think this is because shooting with a modern mirrorless camera it is difficult for a mistake to get to the point beyond redemption , unless one is not paying attention. Even if something is poorly framed, there can be a change for a second bite of the cherry. There are many in camera aids, such as accurate spot-metering that it is difficult to make catastrophic photos, even if it is easy to making uninspiring ones! I have on more than one occasion dashed out with a camera only to find that it was missing a battery – but there is simply no photography then.

The course material goes onto to discuss another mistake involving light sensitive photographic paper. These kind of mistakes just can’t happen with inkjet paper.

Perhaps my mistake is over-control. If I improvise on the guitar a mistake is spontaneous and out in the world; I play through it or play on it to make something fresh. I’m not sure that this situation can be replicated on a digital camera, unless shooting blind. For street photography in the past, I’ve set the camera on manual exposure and focus and rolled with it, just stopping every now and then to check settings, which gave some interesting exposures. But I’m not sure that level of inconsistency would be welcome for work during this course. Of course, Paul Graham made a mistake and then applied it consistently to a whole series of images, so it was no longer a mistake.

When I do make mistakes, I try to use them to explore ways that may not have previously occurred to me. That I rarely make mistakes with a digital camera could mean that I’m treading too carefully with it.

Exercise: ‘Photography’

Read ‘Photography’ (Chapter 2) in Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture on the oca- student website. Note down your own response to Howells’ arguments. 

Howells & Negreiros’ (HN) Visual Culture dedicates a chapter to photography. It provides a survey of photographic technical developments and examples of works that influence the photography as art debate, and explores the broad uses and subject matter of photography. The purpose of the survey is to offer context to the key debate, ‘photography representation and style: is it just about the subject matter?’. Or, if photography is only about subject matter and not an artistic interpretation, how can photography be considered art.

HN explore the for and against arguments at length, citing a number of commentators, including Roger Scruton (against) and Nigel Warburton (for). The central test they seek to answer is whether a photograph can represent a ‘aesthetically significant intention’, through a photographer’s decision. While they do not express their own position, they give the last word to Nigel Warburton. He proposes that ‘it is only in a series of photographs that a photographerʼs choices can be made clearʼ – a photographerʼs work must be contextualised in a series for ‘stylistic features and intentions to emergeʼ and demonstrate photographyʼs status as ‘a medium which has the capacity to embody important and aesthetically relevant intentions’.

Throughout HN’s discussion we are faced with degrees of choice and intention. While a painter may have the possibility of many artistic choices, it is argued that a photographer has fewer, particularly when a camera is highly automated; so it is more difficult to uncover aesthetic intentions, exercised through choice. Who then is to judge when intention is significant? Is the careful framing of a scene and choice of moment using a fully automatic iPhone camera a significant intention; or must a camera be used where there is control over technical choices? Megan Halpern and Lee Humpreys explore iPhoneography as an emergent art in a journal article . They conclude, ‘Iphoneography represents an example of an emerging art world currently in the process of legitimation by distinguishing the process, artifacts, and actors from mass consumers of iPhones and photo apps.’ Their article explores how artists are not just concerned with the moment of capture, but also with remediation post-capture. This is not new in photography.

If the camera is considered to be a tool, in the same way a paintbrush can be, then it can either be used to paint the wall of a garden shed without artistic intent, or to paint a mural with artistic intent. The art is not dependent on the tool its but the use of the tool; it can either be used for utility (recording subjects) or for art (representing a vision of how an artist sees). Therefore, I share HN’s perspective that it is about intention. But who judges that intention is more problematic – particularly when a photographer may not consider their own work to be art, but photography; while the institutions of art declare that same work to be art and exhibit it as such. Who decides?


Exercise: Rhetoric of the Image

This exercise requires reading of The Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes . As I wanted to explore semiotics in more detail, I also read David Chandler’s Semiotics The Basics .

Barthes’ has text understandably featured at various stages of the OCA photography course. It is about how signs can persuade (their rhetoric) and in particular images and text. Barthes’ discussion focuses on an advertising image for ‘Italian’ food ingredients – so signs that include both image and text (not just the ‘image’). Points of interest to me on re-reading at this point in my studies are:

  • The polysemous nature of images, sits uncomfortably in a cultural environment that seeks definition, clarity and meaning, and simplification. Barthes states ‘all images are polysemous; they imply underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signified, the reader able to choose some and ignore others’ (ibid: 39) It is the centrality of the reader in meaning that is important; that there is not one reading and each reading echoes an individual’s psychology of perception.
  • In contrast, Barthes notes how society uses techniques to ‘fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs‘ (ibid:39). This takes place within the context of cultural codes. For different reading of an image ‘each sign corresponds to a body of ‘attitudes’ – tourism …, … art …’ (ibid:47)
  • Barthes notes the directive nature of text in shaping meaning. Without text, images have no fixed meaning. They cannot be argued as true or false. Just as a statement cannot be argued as red or blue (EH Gombrich).


Exercise: The photographic activity of postmodernism

Thoughts after reading Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’ :

Thoughts on essay

A recurring theme in the essay is the notion of ‘presence’, and its partner ‘absence’.

It occurs in the idea that most creative art has the ‘aura’ of the artist; the original touch of brush marks for example, in the single unique ‘original’. The artist’s presence. Quoting Walter Benjamin, Crimp argues that modernism found it necessary repress photography’s overturning of art’s ‘judgement-seat’ – ‘it is a fetishstic, fundamentally anti-technical notion of art with which theorists of photography have tusseled …’ (Benjamin from a short history of photography). There seems to be a desire in some practitioners of photography for the presence of aura, a dissatisfaction with work perceived as mechanical and untouched by the hand. This is seen in the use of textures to overlay photographs alluding to the canvas of hand created works. It is also seen in the use of legacy techniques such a cyanotypes, which are more akin to print-making than contemporary photography practices. It seems to deny the identity of the medium.

Crimp’s main theme is postmodernism being about art’s plurality – the plurality of copies, and notions of presence and absence. He thinks of presence in three ways:

  • Being there – in front of.
  • A presence that is not there – a ghost for example.
  • A performer with presence – more than just being there.

Crimp suggests that representation through photography gives a ‘peculiar presence … through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original …’. It is this photographic activity that he calls postmodernist.

Returning to the concept of the absent aura in photography, Crimp observes that Benjamin was not disappointed by this but saw it as liberating. Of Atget, Benjamin noted that he ‘liberated the object from the aura … the remarkable thing about his pictures is their emptiness’. (ibid, p113). He goes onto consider how connoisseurs sought to reclaim the aura of photography, using the ‘machinery of art history and museology’, for example through identifying vintage prints. This activity is of course closely related to the market place for art and attributing a value to works that are unique (or limited to some extent) – the possession of something beyond reach of others. Crimp refers to this as the ‘subjectivisation of photography’ – how the “spark of chance” is converted to connoisseurship of style.

© Richard Prince. Source: guggenheim.org

Crimp argues that the photographic activity of postmodernism operates to displace the aura – ‘to show that it too is now only an aspect of the copy, not the original’. He contextualises this with the works of Sherrie Levine (rephotographing the works of Edward Weston and others). This was in turn duplicated by Michael Mandiberg . Crimp also mentions Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills with ‘her self … understood as contingent of the possibilities provided by the culture in which Sherman participates’. And that of Richard Prince, with his use of images from mass advertising (directorial photography disguised as a form of documentary) – Crimp observes that by manipulating the images and recontextualising them, the commodities become a function of absence, acting as clues to ‘their invasion by these ghosts of fiction’.

Crimps conclusion is that ‘in our time, the aura has become only a presence, which is to say, a ghost’. This resonates in the idea of an absent referrent in postmodern images, or the hyper-real.

Relation to my own practice

My current practice sits at the straight photograph end of Crimp’s spectrum of photography-art (the other end being directional – ‘self-consciously composed, manipulated and fictionalised’). Mine is the kind of photography that relies on my presence and attention for the moment where I am and my eye for visualising a frame that might have visual interest when photographed. It relies on what is present in a place, rather than what is added later through manipulation. It is quiet in its absence of manipulation.

Presence is a psychological idea that interests me – our own presence in a moment, mindful and without distraction. It is connected with the psychogeographical genre. With photography mirroring that presence and, in the case of the canal, the water mirroring its changing environment. The water reflects the image, the camera catches reflected light, the mind reflects upon meanings extracted from reflections – some long past, others that are imagined and may not even materialise.

On an unrelated thought – there is perhaps a mystification of ‘aura’ to avoid using overtly commercial language in the context of art. So the value of a painting could be justified by because the ‘aura’ of a famous artist is in the work. More straightforwardly, its value is in its scarcity and marketability as an attractive object (like a diamond perhaps). Similarly, photographers hoping to make their work valuable, must limit its supply.


Exercise: the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction


This exercise asks for an opinion on Walter Benjamin’s essay and the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer (in 1927), cited in the OCA course materials, who ‘remarked that objects would become known for how they appeared to the camera, not how they actually were’.

Walter Benjamin’s essay

Walter Benjamin’s influential essay was originally published in 1936 and analysis the effect on art of ‘mechanical reproduction’ (photography and film) . With this history of visual culture, the essay came around 4 decades after the quality of film reproduction had reach a high standard and became a medium of expression in its own right. Open Culture offers an insight into the earliest films at around 1900 – beyond Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 Horse in motion, which was more scientific in nature . The essay also significantly pre-dates the age of digital reproduction and the internet, with the worldwide web first open to the public in 1991 .

Benjamin’s essay plots the history of the reproduction of art, observing that art has always been reproducible with a degree of effort and varying success at fidelity to the original. This kind of reproduction would include the creation of forgeries that sought to pass has having the same value as the original object. Lithography was invented in 1796, which allowed artists to reproduce art at a speed that would keep pace with printing. However, the invention of of photography (1839) represented a revolution in reproduction. The work of the hand was replaced by the work of the eye and a machine, offering the opportunity for far more speed and precision in the reproduction than had previously been possible. However, still infinitely slower and less reproducible than the digital images and networks of today.

Benjamin makes some interesting ontological observations about photography (and film) as compared with traditional art works.

  • He notes that a reproduction does not have a unique location in time and space, whereas an original object can only be in one place at one time. The original object, therefore has it’s own unique historical fingerprint and cultural presence. Benjamin argues that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’.
  • Unlike manually created reproductions (or forgeries), Benjamin argues mechanical reproductions are outside the ‘whole sphere of authenticity’. For two reasons: the reproduction is more independent from the original (it can show different angles, only certain elements, levels of detail, tonality, and colours for example). And, ‘technical reproduction can it the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach to the original itself’.
  • Benjamin comments that mechanical reproduction always ‘deprecates the quality of the presence of the original’, where it is a work of art or a photography of a landscape. This is echoed in John Tagg’s much later observation that a photograph represents ‘a new and separate reality’ . Questions of authenticity of an art object reproduced in a photograph are wiped away (‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning … its substance … the history it has experienced’). Benjamin refers to this as eliminated aspect as ‘aura … which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’. There is no longer a ‘unique existence’ and the reproduced object can be taken to any location: ‘a tremendous shattering of tradition’.

Having examined ontological questions, Benjamin examines the implications for communication (‘sense perception’). There are elements of his discussion that I feel are later echoed in Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle . ‘The masses … overcoming the uniqueness of reality by accepting its reproduction … destroying its aura’. Benjamin suggests that the perception of a ‘universal equality of things’ has meant that even unique objects are no longer perceived as such. Tellingly he states, ‘the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scopes, as much for thinking as for perception’. A ‘society of the spectacle’.

The age of digital reproduction

Douglas Davis’ The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995) recontextualises Benjamin’s essay at the outset of the internet age. It however, predates mobile technology, including the now ubiquitous camera phone (the iPhone was first released in 2007). Both Benjamin’s and Davis’s thoughts are summarised, fittingly, in a YouTube video produced by Then and Now .

Davis’s essay concludes with, ‘here is where the aura resides – not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.’ While authenticity or aura was deprecated in the age of mechanical reproduction, Davis suggests that it has shifted beyond the thing itself to the point of consumption of the reproduction.


The digital age is young but has torn apart the world known by Benjamin and Kracauer. We are now in a world where there is uncertainty about if there was an actuality that shaped an image or if it is purely of the digital world. It seems as the implications of situation are unfolding right now. James Bridle’s radio series, New Ways of Seeing questions how we are to make sense of the world in the information age.

There is truth in Benjamin and Kracauer’s arguments, but we have also moved beyond their time and face new and recent uncertainties, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.