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.