A sea of images

Leap Day, February 2020

Are we drowning yet? The most clear way that I think I can express my thoughts about multiple possible media, positives and negatives is a chart. My comments are by no means a complete — or accurate analysis of media types, or advantages and disadvantages. However, it’s a very helpful exercise to do as I now have more questions than answers.
I believe that you can click on the image to make it full size.


9 March 2020

Sprawling on a Pin: Our family was gifted a yearly subscription of Nat Geo by a kind great-uncle, and the magazine opened my eyes to the world.  I remember the issue which feature the newly discovered Terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China. I poured over maps which influenced my future travel. I felt no unease staring at the images of the foreign peoples.  Without overt declaration, NatGeo granted me the ability to stare. I learned about ‘those people’ – peoples who didn’t look like my people- the white “normal” Americans. Through this exposure to the objectifying the other, I must have realized that I could travel and experience the world – in safety and in superiority.

 I was struck by Grundberg’s sentiments:  “There is even an occasional portrait of the kind for which the National Geographic was once slightly notorious: dark-skinned, bare-breasted women, in their customary dress, looking at the camera without any awareness of their impending status as spectacles for adolescent Western eyes.” His statement echo’s Sontag’s observation: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

I am uncomfortable taking pictures of people, other than in a portrait session. It’s been suggested that asking for permission prior to creating the image makes the practice of street photography ok, because permission was granted.  However, as Sontag states above, asking for permission implies that the subject truly understands the intended use of the image, and the reaction of the viewers.  I value the ethical principles of autonomy—in this case- the right of the subject to make an informed decision about the distribution and use of the image.  I was surprised to read the issue of NatGeo where the girl-featured on the cover, famous for her wild green eyes are red shawl was found as a woman…and she had no idea that her image had been seen by people around the world. I think that this is a clear case of being viewed as a person who doesn’t deserve to have self-determination. And the justice meted out for this case was the creation of an educational fund in the young woman’s name.   

I did take street photos in China and Portugal.  I am like a leopard: I watch people and pursue to get a good image. I waited for the transformative moment when I could feel ok about what I was doing.  It didn’t come.  Below is an example of an image I took in Lisboa. 

Grundberg, A. (1998) Photography View; A quintessentially American view of the world. The New York Times. P 35, pp4.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gazing at photographs

24 February 2020

What is my gaze? If photographs are visual evidence of my perception, or regard of the world, then I would say that my gaze is one which is fascinated by construction and storytelling. My gaze is also female, middle class, well-educated and chronically tired. While I can create images, the stories I tell through images arise from the experiences I have had. Does my XX chromosome pattern change how I see, or the nature of my work? Dare (2019) asks “…Truly what is female? And what is their perspective? Is it soft and pink and full of flowers? Or is it harsh and dark and abrasive and empowering? It seems that even within the female gaze there are dichotomies. …The female gaze has no mandatory elements.”

Eilertsen, A. 2019. The female gaze: composite image. Arles, France.

 It’s interesting to note how many “women in photography” contests and grants have emerged recently. Why is there interest in the female gaze?  I would argue that the interest in representation of the female gaze emerged only after the democratization of media: cell phone cameras, internet and all.  Alessia Glaviano, editor for Vogue Italia states “Finally, you see people that are not too thin; one day someone has a pimple and who cares. Or, you know, someone with cellulite. You see all these kinds of things that before you weren’t able to see. Because before the web, if you wanted your images to be published, you had to go through the magazine…. (McKinley, 2016).” Additionally,  Charlotte Jansen (2017), author of Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze states “In the past, photographs of women were made by men for a capitalist economy to favor the male gaze and feed female competitiveness.”

Jansen addresses the power of the female gaze stating  “…the photographs women take of women can be a tool for challenging perceptions in the media, human rights, history, politics, aesthetics, technology, economy and ecology; to get at the unseen structures in our world and contribute to a broader understanding of society. What you can get is not always what you might see.” Jansen’s point is well taken, but I would expand it to say that the photographs taken by all kinds of people can be a tool for challenging the world view.

2019. A Conversation and Deconstruction of the Female Gaze in Photography. Lomography Magazine.

Jansen, C. (2017). How female photographers are deflecting the male gaze. CNN Style. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/girl-on-girl-female-gaze-photography/index.html

McKinley, A. (2016). The ‘Female Gaze’ in Fashion Photography. Lens. The New York Times. https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/the-female-gaze-in-fashion-photography/

26 February 2020

I am unsettled by the misappropriation of the terms ‘voyeur’ or ‘scopophilia’ by writers of photography. The Latin root of voyeur indicates that it means “to see”, and is related to “to know” and the Proto-Indo-European weide-. It appears, but I couldn’t find the exact date, that the term took on the psychologic meaning sometime in the last 150 years. My entry into the discussion: I’m having a hard time utilizing “voyeur” in any way except for the original definition. I would prefer, instead, to say “curious”, or “admiring” or as De, above, alludes to, “forensic”. Perhaps even “like a geometer”. But to soften the usage of voyeur is to blur the line between sexual aggression and gaze. I’m a bit inflexible when it comes to definitions as words are communication code- a universal meaning  ensures that our intentions are accurately expressed. Just my two cents 🙂 

I have now reconsidered my position on the use of voyeur to describe an interest or fascination. This was the original definition so it make sense. It seems a bit disingenuous that these terms was utilized in describing the viewers interest in the image. My gut feeling is that the terms were adopted more because of the controversial meanings of the word and less because the words mean exactly “to see” or “to like to see”.


Into the image world

16 February, 2020

“…a text’s unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination”.

Barthes, R. (1967). Death of the Author.


The final phrase in this essay reads “we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” This is an interesting idea when applied to the making of an image, and could read something akin to “in order for photography to have a future, the photographer must sell out to the viewer”. My choice of words here may be not quite reflecting the original quote, however, i feel that this idea is true on a number of levels. Firstly, the arts wouldn’t exist without appreciators. If there were no audience, the work would remain invisible to the world, to be consumed only by the creator. Nothing wrong with that, it is more like a closed circuit– a pulse is created, but travels the wires in a circular pathway until the impulse is deleted. Secondly, I wonder if Barthes’ supposition could be applied to cases where artists find a niche which resonates with and becomes popular with viewers. Viewers want more of what they like, and the artist falls into a loop of producing similar work to please the viewers, and as capitalism is wild and free– to make a living. It seems that the term “ransomed” as above, could literally true for the popular artist.


19 February 2020

I had my weekly tutorial group today.  We viewed the work of one classmate who is exploring the experience of soccer (sorry- football) fans of a team local to him. I think that his work has a fresh and almost reverent feel.  A group of young boys who were kicking balls around for fun was captured in one image, and I was struck by the scene.  The youngest boy was playing alone with the ball as his older friends were playing together.  This image seems iconic as this situation – the youngest not keeping up and being excluded- is a human experience.  I felt a little bit wiser for viewing this as it clicked that it’s not about exclusion, but maybe more about the desire for the older kids to be recognized as a pack.  The composition was well balanced, and the colors were fresh. My perspective on color may be skewed as I live in a region which is currently covered in white snow. 

Two group members were catching up and planning work.  It’s very encouraging to see how other classmates work, plan and reflect. My work: I had experimented last night with hanging fruit in a windowsill a la Juan Cotan (late 1500-1600 Spanish still life painter) and employed a hen to stand in for the game featured in his painting.  I felt like I just couldn’t get the look I wanted, in fact, I feel that the image resembles a failed elementary school science fair project. I presented this image (as a cautionary tale) about 5 of the poultry/ Dutch still life images I had styled. I received feedback that the failed science project image was the most interesting!  Just when I was ready for a laugh about it.  But I can see now why it is more interesting.  I will describe this in more detail in my project progress page.  Several people talked about how it seemed surreal, and the tutor suggested that surrealism could be interesting to explore. I am suspicious and slightly uncomfortable with surrealism. I believe that my background is solidly middleclass. I am intrigued by Sontag (1977) who said:

Surrealism is a bourgeois disaffection; that its militants thought it universal is only one of the signs that it is typically bourgeois.

Sontag, S. (2011). On Photography. p 49.

21 February 2020

Viewers make meaning: Weekly discussion.
Our task was to post an image which fellow students had not seen before, then comment on the meaning or intent of our peers work.

Red flowers, rooster and blood orange

I posted this image of the red rooster, velvet, flowers and orange. My original intent was to practice the style of the Dutch still life from the early part of the 17th Century. I styled it with sparse decor thinking that the rooster would dominate the image.
I appreciate the time and effort demonstrated by my peer group. The feedback was generous and insightful. The majority of the feedback reflected the dominant (my intended) reading, where the rooster was viewed as a paramount component– not only in his size compared to the decor, but also in his presence. In regard to a negotiated reading, several peers referred to Dutch still life, and one said that the rooster was a symbol of vigilance against sin- which lends a greater meaning to this image in light of the subject of vanitas paintings.
In response to this feedback: I will keep experiment with the painterly/still life/ Dutch master look and lighting as I think it is successful. Peers immediately connect to it and recognize it. The saturated red is strong and can have negative connotations- I think I will not use that again. I am thinking about where my work is going next, and this exercise has increased my awareness of how people read work. I will probably style my images with more visual sensitivity.

Barthes, R. (1967). Death of the Author.
Sontag, S. (2011). On Photography.


Constructed Realities

11 February, 2020

I was struck by the quote from Susan Sontag: “Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile of the mimetic arts.”  Firstly, I need to unpack her statement– it appears that she is saying that to photograph is to capture the world in a realistic way. Realism is easy (facile), therefore unappealing, therefore photography is unappealing?  I appreciate that, while photography has been derided as inferior to painting as an art form, I believe that  photography results in the capture of a unique, and therefore valuable, slice of time.  Interestingly, Sontag also states that photographs “testify to time’s relentless melt”. 

I am posting an image which I took last night which reflects a constructed scene.  This image is styled after Peiter Claisz “Turkey Pie”, 1627. Claesz’ image features a stuffed turkey in the back-right hand corner, which could symbolize wealth or good fortune. I am working on a series which focuses on moments of life (momento vivere) aimed to celebrate the fleeting moments in life by slowing down and enjoying the present. I have chosen to work with live animals in my constructions. Sophie, in the back right, symbolizes the vivacity and agency of life, and like other animals, is a bit curious.  While I can plan for the props, the background and the lighting, I can’t plan on the animal’s reactions. Perhaps, rather than using the term “constructed”, these images are active collaborative fictions among beings.   When I make the image, I am paying attention to my work, and also the animal– to make sure she is ok, and doesn’t wander off. It’s interesting to work with live animals in that they do have their own interests and motivations, and sometimes challenging to “direct”. Capturing an image of the chicken interacting with a still life is a testament to “time’s relentless melt”.   This makes me pay full attention to what i am doing– it’s like a form of meditation… which is the message behind the momento vivere. It’s about being here now.

References: 

Claesz, P. Turkey Pie. 1627. Oil Painting. The Rijksmuseum.
Eilertsen, A. (2020). Sophie at the banquet.
Sontag, S., 2001. On photography (Vol. 48). Macmillan.

12 February, 2020

Comments which I received:
“Amy, that image is stunning, you’ve managed to capture the richness so well, and to have a real live chicken is a treat for the viewer. Its great to unpick the greats, thanks for sharing your take on Sontag’s annoying quote!”
AE comment to self: I, too thought that Susan Sontag’s quote was disappointing… And in retrospect I should have further investigated the context which she had written this. I was really impressed to receive the next comment from a fellow learner:

“In fact, Sontag is writing about the relationship between photography and Surrealism. Sontag considers that when the shutter is pressed, it captures a random collection of subject material, linked purely by the fact that they happened to be present when the film or sensor was exposed. The elements of the picture, whatever they may be, are forever linked by the fact that they happened to be in the camera’s field of view when the shutter was pressed.”
AE comments: I found the original quote: “In fact is it the one art which has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility, while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race (Sontag, 1977). ” While the classmate’s comment had lead me to assume that Sontag believed that the automaticity of the camera was responsible for the photographic outcome, I now believe her point was that photography has brought about an artistic revolution- not one of pure Surrealism as was feared, but one of which is “ineffable in the national reality- something, possibly that has never been seen before”.



Reflections on Witkin, Tavormina, Hunter, Richon, Litensky

Joel Peter Witkin: 8 February, 2020


Witkin’s grotesque work appears to be that of a provocateur, one who seeks to shock provoke disgust from viewers. His images often feature human and animal body parts, humans with unusual morphology such as hermaphodism, and backdrops which are not dissimilar to ones pictured in Bosch’s Hell.

Witkin, J.(1987) Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs.
Bosch, H. (1482)The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

While Witkin’s work has been described as “calculated madness”, Witkin employee classical elements into his work. Characters stand as if marble statues, such as in Bacchus Amelus (1986), while book piled at the figure’s feet are topped by a skull are reminiscent of momento mori. Abatemarco (2018) states that Witkin’s works “call to mind the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries- compositions depicting objects that are symbolic of death and human transience.”  Witkin’s Las Meninas, however, appears to have similarities in composition and tonal variation to scenes from Bosch’s The Last Judgement. For example, the plane that supports the figures creates a sense of depth to the work, while the figures themselves are not fixed to perspective formed by the plane.  They appear to be flat pieces stuck to the canvas/ image. Witkin states that he sees beyond the surface of the objects in his work, and believes that, although the objects may be disfigured or dead, “my work shows the beauty of difference” (Abatemarco, 2018).

With a few exceptions, I don’t agree that Witkin is showing the beauty of difference.  Witkin’s choices of material and subject vary greatly from what might be identified as beautiful.  In Las Meninas, a skirted figure appears to be sitting on or in a hooped, dome-shaped device—the wheels are distributed on the round base in a way that suggests that the hooped seat is meant to pivot in circles, never going anywhere.  The skirted figure smiles enigmatically.  While beautifully lit and constructed, I do wonder, is this meant to shock me? 

Witkin’s use of severed body parts appears to be less about the beauty of the part itself, but more about that nearly anything can be arranged and lit in the manner of the Dutch or Italian masters and pull a viewer in, who, only after seeing the body parts, becomes repelled. Sontag (1977) states “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.”

Witkin has a reputation for allowing his negatives to get scratched and damaged, which to me is akin to “aging” a wooden chest by sandpapering the sharp edges, and creating artful dings and damage by the application of carefully aimed hammer. In addition, his use of silver gelatin printing gives the images a look from a former century – which Glueck (2006) calls “19th-century horror”. I wonder if part of Witkin’s appeal is his images often appear to be aged– which can encourage the viewer to place more value in them, while also creating a feeling that, what ever these contain, they are not contemporary. If these images are from another time, they can provide the viewer with psychological distance from the subject, which makes the images easier to accept as they are not occurring in this world.

Despite the subject matter, his technique is interesting and beautifully constructed.  I am interested in applying the chiaroscuro, or cellar light to scenes incorporating contemporary objects, like toothbrushes and toilet paper, or fast food.  Witkin provides an inspiration for further exploration, as Glueck (2006) suggests “You don’t have to buy into Mr. Witkin’s Stygian visions to realize there’s a master of surrealistic photography at work.”

Abatemarco, M. (2018)  The beauty of difference: Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Pasatiempo. Santa Fe New Mexican. From- https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/art/the-beauty-of-difference-photographer-joel-peter-witkin/article_61829c74-e5de-51df-ad12-63b5d1ae46e9.html.
Bosch, H. (1482). The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Glueck, G. (2006). Art in Review: Joel-Peter Witkin. The New York Times. p 37.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography.
Witkin, J. (1987). Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs. From: https://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/meninas-self-portrait-after-velazquez


Tavormina, Paulette 10 March, 2020

Tavormina, P.(2010). Peaches and Morning Glories, After G.G.

The byline of Paulette Tavormina’s commercial website states: “This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded forever in a perfect moment that is the photograph”. Tavormina indicates that her work is a “personal interpretation of timeless, universal stories” in “response to the Old Masters” (2020) which she hopes that will affect others like the 17th century painters affected Tavorima.  Critics have raved about Tavormina’s work, such as this from The New York Times (2016): “At first glance, you might easily mistake one of Tavormina’s images for a Zurbarán or a work from the Dutch Golden Age of painting”

Paulette Tavormina’s still life photographic images have been described as “beautifully collected and displayed …[and] have the ability swallow you whole. They embrace the viewer in a dark, lush sense of nostalgia that is dually intimate and larger than life”(Glembocki, 2016). Tavormina’s 2015 book, Seizing Beauty, features her nature morte images inspired by 17th century European masters.  Her use of cellar light and dark backgrounds illuminate the artfully styled fruit, vegetables, flowers, insects and sea creatures. Her work mimics and can be mistaken for an oil painting. Tavormina’s images are sensuous, visually pleasing, detailed and – almost perfect. So, what’s not to love about Tavormina’s Seizing Beauty?

After creating images depicting America’s nuclear testing program in the 1950s during last term, I had a desire to focus on lighter and more relatable subject matter.  I just wanted to create pretty pictures.  I studied art history for two years in college and, like many people, was enamored with the high-angled side-lighting, deep shadows and chiaroscuro pervasive among the master painters in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch painters appealed to me, especially the memento mori and vanitas styles. However, I wanted to convey that life exists right now, in this moment, which is a slight shift from the “remember you will die” refrain featured in the Dutch paintings. As I began my visual experiments, a friend recommended Paulette Tavormina’s work. 

Tavormina, P. (2010). Cabbage and Melon, After J.S.C.

Paulette Tavormina’s images in Seizing Beauty are visually arresting.  While paging through Seizing Beauty, I was simultaneously amazed and jealous (l realize that nothing is new under the sun, but I do try to be original). Tavormina’s lighting is sophisticated: She captures a full range of tones, from the very dark, to the very light without having an issue with overblown whites or flat blacks  Each individual leaf, grape and insect is equally well illuminated, an effect that is at once flattening and freshening.  Many of her images are inspired by the masters such as Spanish artists Zurbaran and Cotan; Flemish painters such as Claesz and Heda (Tavormina, 2020). Malaguzzi, writing about Tavormina’s work, states “Heda achieved a trope l’oeil effect with pictorial proficiency while in Tavormina’s work it is a natural consequence of photographic technique…[through photography] the artist turns something intended as an illusion into something real (n.d.). When is a copy of an original an addition to human culture? Is it more of the same? Roland Barthes (1975) had written “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

Her work is voluptuous and strangely distant. Not a particle of air stirs, and butterflies hover with strangely straight wings. Fruit, perfectly placed, appears float in masses, like clouds, undamaged by the burgeoning weight of the arrangement. The New Yorker (n.d.), of Tavormina’s images, describes “Fruits, vegetables and flowers spill from their containers in an almost obscene display of abundance…Everything seems poised between voluptuousness and rot, at once gorgeous and doomed.” The irony of my desire to display life through still life is not lost on me here.  Indeed, life itself is always moving and changing, something that is not appreciable in still life.

I searched for a deeper grounding in theory or message in Tavormina’s work. What does Tavormina want the audience to experience?  Her artist statement reads “I have made in response to the Old Masters are intensely personal interpretations of timeless, universal stories. Years from now, I hope that the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me (Tavormina, n.d.). I would wonder: Will a photograph of a still life inspired by a painting outlast the original?  I begin to hold suspect her statements, like this one: “I am particularly fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and color palette, and Coorte’s unique placements of objects.” Artists have a unique opportunity to market themselves and their work through statements. The introductory essay in Seizing Beauty explains “the artist’s personal cipher is revealed within this complex and refined intellectual operation, as if by an enigmatic game, through meaningful individual touches that rightfully earn her a place in the art scene and cast it in the internal play between illusion and reality (Malaguzzi, 2016)”. Reads to me like word soup. So, what’s wrong with Tavormina’s work?  It’s visually pleasing and demonstrates a talent for food design.  Tavormina does have an opportunity to better describe her motivations and message.

Barthes, R. (1975). Image Music Text.

Glembocki, A. (2016). Mar 9 Book Review: Seizing Beauty by Paulette Tavormina. Musee: Vanguard of photography culture. Accessed: https://museemagazine.com/features/art-2/features/book-review-seizing-beauty-paulette-tavormina

Malaguzzi, S.(n.d.) Paulette Tavormina “The Oysters”. Paulette Tavormina Website: https://www.paulettetavormina.com/silvia-malaguzzinew

Malaguzzi, S. (2016). Gossamer Threads: Paulette Tavormina and the Golden-Era Still Life. Paulette Tavorima: Seizing Beauty. Monacelli Press: New York.

Tavormina, P. (n.d.) Paulette Tavormina website. Accessed:https://www.paulettetavormina.com/artist-statementnew

The New Yorker. (n.d). Goings on about town. The New Yorker. Accessed: https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/art/allison-schulnik-2


Tom Hunter

Olivier Richon

Laura Litensky