Informing Contexts, Coursework - The Index and The Icon

Photography is fundamentally different from other art forms with regards to its relationship to representation and truth. Although a viewer is no longer likely to view Elsie Wright’s famous Cottingley Fairies, as genuine today, purely because it was presented to them in the form of a photograph, it is still commonplace to believe that a photography is tied to reality much more closely than other art forms, or to look through a photograph to the subject it depicts. There is a causal, indexical relationship between the subject in the photograph and the subject in real life. As Sontag writes, ‘A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened’ (Sontag, 1977, P.5) and ‘A photograph is not only an image, it is a trace, something directly stenciled off the real’ (Sontag, 1977, P.154)

Morgon Ashcom plays with this ‘expected’ authenticity in his series What the Living Carry (2017), an early inspiration for my current project. In Ashcom’s work, we are presented with what appear to be fine art documentary photographs of a rural, American town. Alongside theses images are letters addressed to Ashcom, a hand drawn map, and objects photographed out of context. The viewer is invited to imagine the significance of these artifacts, and one begins to draw connections between the different elements - putting names to the people and places depicted in the photographs, and creating their own narratives. In reality however, this small town is a completely fictional. No such place exists, and the letters and map are all of Ashcom’s own creation.

I am particularly interested in Ashcom’s use of what appear to be readymades, formal appearing documents and maps, as well as objects shot out of context. This kind of image is accepted as a reproduction of reality to an even greater extent than other forms of photography. It’s apparent lack of artistic flair suggesting that it is objective and unmanipulated. However, as Ashcom’s work shows, this form of image is no more bound to truthful representation than other forms of photography.

I plan to use similar means to build on the the narrative in my series Witness Marks. I have considered transcribing first hand narratives from my subjects, or photographing significant objects out of context, to be presented alongside my images as ‘evidence’. With the aim of uncovering the stories and histories behind the places I am photographing, I believe that this would add interest and intrigue this work, along with an element of veracity.  

Last week I considered the different contexts in which my work could be consumed, and I proposed that my work could be seen in the realm of art, but also hoped that it may be also be viewed as documentary photography. If presented as art, any subjectivity or manipulation on my part would be accepted and understood. However if I wish for this series to be consumed as documentary photography or photojournalism, then a level of objectivity and ‘accurate’ representations would be demanded by my viewer. I must keep this in mind as the project progresses to guide my approach from now on.   

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