Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Photobook, narrative = story = entertainment?

Alec Soth shoots John Gossage shooting. Grey Lynn, Auckland, January 2009

In a recent post on his blog,  LITTLE BROWN MUSHROOM, Alec Soth talked about a lecture he gave where he outlined his desire to consider his audience and to make photobooks with narrative on the basis that by presenting a story the reader will be pulled in and "entertained".  Alec said that the day after his lecture he went to hear John Gossage speak and was a taken aback when John made this statement, “Entertainers try to please their audience – artists do what they do and the audience comes to them. I don’t think about my audience whatsoever.”

Potentially here are two quite different and opposing yet also apposite approaches.

I have seen both Alec and John work. Alec's approach is analytical, he makes lists, he knows exactly what he's looking for. He is a connect-the-dots photographer where one image links with the next on a fundamental conceptual level. I like this, it's intelligent and the pleasure for the reader comes from trying to work out Alec's connections. This makes Alec a slower paced photographer as much of the hard work happens before the lens cap comes off.
John on the other hand is more of a stream-of-consciousness shooter, working intuitively knowing deep down just what he's looking for. Martin Parr told me that John can make a book-in-a-block, and it's true.

Whatever the approach the role of the reader cannot be ignored. Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay The Death of the Author states that the essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the "passions" or "tastes" of the author. Accepting this, surely then it's a question of presenting images that will allow the reader to construct their own story which may in effect have no relationship whatsoever with the authors original intention. And I see no problem in this.

The best work in my view comes from image making that is spare and not overloaded.
Images that remind us of what we know already rather than try and convince us of new truths. Think of Paul Graham's man mowing the lawn from his Shimmer series.  We can all connect with this from our own experience. And from John Gossage's work in The Auckland Project, the image of a bent over nail or a paint splash on a wall. We are all familiar with these small overlooked signifiers. Our own stories flow from these images with ease.

I think there is a danger in trying too hard to make photographs that are significant, impactful and important. To try and educate and effect change. This can lead to work that is contrived, overloaded and just doesn't work.

The last word here is from John Gossage, "what I said is what I believe about intention and the practice of trying to make things real and honest. The results may very well be entertaining, and I often hope it is. But if I try for it I always get confused on who is speaking."
Here is Alec's original post.

1 comment:

generousmedium said...

What does it mean to be entertaining? A quick short definition that comes to mind is that art entertains if the viewer is engaged and somehow thrilled. To paraphrase my favorite quasi quotation from Francis Bacon, who's certainly not your typical artist-entertainer, "Serious art needs first of all to engage the nervous system." I'd say the sticking point here is between entertainment and authenticity.

I'm no expert on postmodernism, any more than that I acknowledge that it's the air we currently breathe. But it seems to me that the problem with this Barthes' formulation is twofold. First, who is the reader? First and foremost the author, I would guess? Next the author's intimates. And then perhaps some wider public? All of whom bring different contexts to their experience of the work. Contexts which interact in some ways fairly predictably, and conversely in ways that are highly surprising. That surprise, which I think is perhaps analogous to my quasi-Baconian nervous engagement is a large part, maybe most, of what I look for in art that I care about.

A further point here is that while context is essential it's perforce a shared experience. Most audiences exist because someone has pointed them toward what they ought to be looking at.

Secondly while I accept the importance of the viewer constructing a story about or explanation of artwork, and that that occurs relatively autonomously, I'm not sure that that is really the point. What seems to me to be the real issue is what quality in the work makes for interesting stories. This is where the art as entertainment idea seems to me to run into trouble. Certainly you can, if you have the knack, construct engaging stories in art, and it can be great art, too. But even in that case there has to be something else at work, especially if it's *great*, hell, even if it's just good! I'm with Gossage here. The best stories seem to always be the ones I don't see coming.