Is it art?

Early on in this project I posed the question What is art? And one year on, I was wondering if I’m any closer to an answer.

Looking for a second time at some of the books I own, there was one that drew me in more than the others – Freud’s paintings in the National Portrait Gallery catalogue of his exhibition in 2012.

It may be that this is one of the few books that is not photographic based and in my initial review of it, I think I may have undersold it. Yes, the use of light in his works is something to be admired. But – something I missed first time – I have now begun to question what my idea of perfection is.

A lot of what is called photographic art aims to create the perfect image. If it cannot be done in camera, it is completed in post-production. The result is a fantasy world, in which what you are seeing is the figment of the photographer’s imagination.

That is fine if you like fiction. I much prefer non-fiction, in which the world is less than perfect, and I find it a hell of a lot more interesting living in an imperfect world.

In my original post on this subject, I wrote that consistent high quality is what separates professionals from someone who has just come back from the camera shop. The best artists however have the ability to make the viewer create their own story from the piece of artwork in front of them.

Freud does this really well by the expressions on the faces of his subjects and, especially as some of his works have neutral titles, the viewer is forced to complete the story.

Probably the most famous portrait ever is the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile. We all have different interpretations of the woman behind that smile. There is no right or wrong answer to what that is. Your imagination can never be wrong.

Is it art? I still have no idea if what I’m producing here is art. Defining and refining the ideas for this project has been a really refreshing experience. Trying to tell a story through the images I’m creating is more important than placing the work into a category.

Almost Out


Tonight I went to a screening of Almost Out by Jayne Parker at the National Portrait Gallery.

I have to admit that I’m not that keen on “performance” art but from the various synopses of the film describing it as being about the relationship of the artist and her mother, I thought I would give it a go. I was not disappointed.

The film or to be more precise the video was produced in 1984. With a backdrop of a video editing suite, the artist and her mother are nude amongst the equipment. The contrast between the human body and the technology of the time grew on me as the film progressed. I gave up wondering why they weren’t discussing their lives in a more homely environment. To put it into context, the year this was filmed is the same as the title of the book by George Orwell and also the birth of the Apple Macintosh computer with its “Big Brother” television advertisement.

As part of my day job, I was given training on video (a skill I very rarely use). And what I have been taught is that the sound is much more important than the vision. The tone of the voices, use of language and sometimes the lack of audio with the visual still running forced my sense of hearing to a heightened level.

At the end of the film, it dawned on me that even though the premise of the film was an in-depth study of the people in front of the camera, still after ninety minutes you knew very little about them. Yes, they may have been talking about some really personal issues but you have no idea if the artist has any siblings, what the mother does for a living or how the mother met the daughter’s father. Which makes you question the factors in really knowing someone.

It was a real shame that there wasn’t an opportunity to ask the artist questions at the end of the film. When Jayne Parker introduced her film and said that she had not seen the film for a while and would like to have heard what the audience thought, it was a real missed opportunity. Through a bit of luck, I was sitting not too far away from her and was trying to see what her reaction was while also concentrating on the film. It would have been nice to hear what that was. Before I left, I did leave her one of my business cards for this site and I do hope this post finds a way to her.

15 MARCH 2014 Now that I’ve had a bit more time to reflect on the film there are lots of questions that keep coming back to me. Was it necessary for the mother and daughter/artist to be nude? How powerful would the film had been if they had been fully clothed?

When the mother is in shot, you don’t see the daughter/artist but only get to hear her voice. And when the artist is in shot, the cameraman is never seen. However, there is a telling second or two in one clip with the mother when the daughter/artist reaches over to flick a switch on the equipment surrounding them and you glimpse that the artist is fully clothed. You don’t actually see the mother and daughter nude together. There are times when you do feel that her mother has made this huge sacrifice for the daughter’s art to be a success.

It goes without saying that being without clothing in whatever art form it may be, is exposing yourself to the world. The way this film was shot and I guess in part due to the technology used, there is a real CCTV voyeuristic feel to it.

The thing is the bodies may be on display, stripped of any barriers, but you don’t get a real deep understanding of who the people are on the inside. There is a desire to know more. I guess the holy grail of great portraiture is to be able to capture the essence of the sitter and not just the physical attributes. I suppose that is why the National Portrait Gallery decided to show this film.

The nude form is a powerful tool. But why is it that the art world is more interested in the female form than the male nude? How different would this film had been if it was a father and son? For me, the fascination of the film was the exploration that the female body can produce another human being and the bond between mother and child from embryo to baby to child to adulthood. Something a father and son would never experience.

There is so much more to think about, so don’t be surprised if I update this again soon.

15 MARCH 2014 (Update 2) I have no idea if the artist Jayne Parker now has a daughter or not. But I do wonder if she would allow herself to go through the same experience as her mother if asked by her daughter.

Maybe sometimes it is more interesting to leave things as a mystery than to discover the true facts.

David Bailey’s Stardust

I’ve been debating with myself about using this picture of David Bailey, which I took as part of my job for the organisation I’m employed by. The picture was taken using their equipment and ethically belongs to them. If you bear with me I will explain why I decided to use it here.

The National Portrait Gallery this week opened an exhibition of Bailey’s work entitled Stardust. All the images on display have been personally chosen by Bailey and I have to confess that I have yet to see it. However, on the first day open to the public, I purchased the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

When I took the picture of Bailey back in November, I knew very little about him and his work. With all the publicity surrounding the opening, it has been easy to find out more about him.

In an interview in the Irish Independent, Bailey says that he doesn’t take pictures but makes pictures. He also comments in graphic terms about some of the photographers who have photographed him without a deeper understanding of the man in front of them.

Before I even pressed the shutter for my snapshot of Bailey, I knew that I had very little chance of creating the greatest image of my career. There was very little time to take the picture and I had no control over the surroundings.

Going back to Stardust there are less well-known images together with the iconic ones that have defined Bailey’s career so far. They are a brilliant record of the characters and places of the world that Bailey has occupied. Bailey has said that this isn’t a retrospective of his work and I do hope that whatever his next project is will be as spectacular as this one.

I have to admit there is a love-hate relationship with David Bailey. I love that he has inspired so many other photographers through his work and that his name is synonymous with the art of photography. I hate it when people refer to the job of photographer as being “David Bailey” in a light-hearted way. I guess there are worse things to be called and really it is an honour to the man himself.

So why have I decided to break the rules and post this picture here? It is a fine example of how not to take a portrait. This project is all about discovering the skill that is required to capture the unique essence of the sitter in front of the camera. When I asked Bailey if I could take his picture, his reply was, “a boy has to earn a living somehow”.

The exhibition runs until 1 June 2014.