Yesterday, as part of my MA, I showed a collection of photographs entitled ‘Creatures’. Some of the photographs and the supporting text can be found in the Gallery section of this website, under ‘Creatures‘.
Different things appealed to different people, but what most people agreed was that the book was particularly engaging. Why was this? What is it about the book which holds our attention, or rather captures our attention so much more – or rather so differently – than pictures on a wall?
One aspect is the fact that on looking at the images on the wall (or any collection of images) one moves; one has to walk from one picture to the next. It may seem an obvious point but it’s one which I hadn’t considered when setting up the exhibition. With a book of course, one is sedentary. Obviously one can walk with a book, but even then there is a difference, with a book the viewer is in control, the viewer has control of time; when images are on a wall, there is inevitably a sense that at some point one must move on. There also is something very personal about a book of photographs as opposed again, to those on a wall. We are all familiar with photograph albums and have no doubt at one time or another spent idle moments looking through the pages of our own family collection. There is then, I believe, a sort of empathy which exists between viewer and artist when images such as these are presented in book form. It is the act of looking at a book which is very personal, it’s a remembered action, one which we do quite unconsciously which connects the viewer with the images.
When the images are on a wall, they become objects, that sense empathy is broken – or rather, it doesn’t exist. A phrase used by someone during the feedback was ‘mechanical’. The selection of the photograph, the enlarging of a detail soon becomes clear as a process which almost threatens the work in terms of its actual content. Someone said that he first viewed the work on an intellectual level, and then, at this point where the intellectual/process part of the work threatened to dominate, this intellectual engagement became an emotional one; this was when he realised the images were my old family photographs.
This was an interesting point in that during the feedback, I began to think that it would be better to show the original, unmounted, photographs rather than mounted copies, or at least, copies which more accurately reproduced the original image. There needs to be a greater distinction between the two. One set are my family photographs, they are intensely personal – the others are photographs of different people; they are not personal (although the contributed in some way to a personal moment). Also, someone suggested – in terms of work shown on the wall – that there needs to be fewer images and perhaps larger details. This however wouldn’t be the case with the book. Again, time is at play here; with a book, one has control over time, one can flick through the pages, put the book down, open it again moments, days or weeks later. In a gallery, or with images on a wall, that engagement is, as I’ve said of a very different quality. One has to (physically) leave images behind, and, in a sense, this is no bad thing. The present passes and moves behind us, the present exists for as long as we are consciously aware of it being present. We hold the image before us, as we consciously hold life before us, and then we move on.
So there is a sense – one that needs to be explored in greater depth – that the temporal aspects of perceiving an artwork are at play here. There is the emotional engagement which might be stronger when images are presented in a book. It is interesting in that during the show of work, a colleague told me about friends of his who’d been to Auschwitz and who had seen a wall of snapshots found in the camp. I told him that I had the book and after the feedback began to think about how different my engagement with these images would be in terms of seeing them on a wall and seeing them on the page. Turning pages makes one subconsciously think of one’s own family albums and this gives the photographs of a stranger a somewhat personal quality.
Thinking back to the suggestion then that there needs to be fewer images and details which are physically larger, I would suggest that the opposite might be true. Perhaps the details should be shown on a scale identical with those of the original photograph? Perhaps they should be places in an album all of their own? Perhaps they should be shown as a pile which one can pick though, or in a cardboard box or suitcase from which one can take them.
There are many possibilities which need to be explored. I believe the photographs as they are, work, but I am intrigued by the emotional and temporal aspects of the way in which they are shown.