Assignment five: What is reality?

This assignment is intended to explore issues surrounding the ‘real’ in contemporary society. I decided to analyse these issues with reference to photographic portraiture using the title ‘Reality and the Photographic Portrait’. This is in fact the theme that I plan to adopt for my final photography course ‘Your Own Portfolio (YOP)’. I took the opportunity to carry out research for this assignment which will have value for my photographic work. It has turned out to be a very useful project giving me lots of ideas to pursue.

Richard Brilliant suggests that a portrait’s success ‘depends on [the artist’s] ability to manifest the peculiarities of appearance and character in a manner that is both accessible and satisfactory to the viewer’. He goes on to suggest that the nature of the artist’s response is affected by three questions: ‘What do I (you, he she, we, or they) look like?’, ‘What am I (you, she, he etc.) like?’ and ‘Who am I (you, etc.)?’. I used these questions as a means of organising my analysis for this essay and I am also planning to use it for structuring my photographic investigation for YOP.

My essay can be read here:

Reality and the Photographic Portrait

And my tutor’s feedback, which was very positive here:

416177. Greenough. 5

This is the last post I will be making in this blog about the UVC course which I have now officially completed. I will miss the mental stimulus that it has provided. I plan to look out for some short courses which will help me keep my learning development in critical studies going. I was interested in the short courses at the Courtauld Institute which my fellow OCA student Vicki is attending but the dates did not fit with my other plans. I am also aware of courses run by The Photographer’s Gallery. I will probably post my learning from any future courses on my main blog .

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Understanding Visual Culture course. I did it for ‘fun’ and it was fun in a way. A better description might be ‘challenging’. Given time constraints and having to prioritise my photographic work (which is to be submitted for assessment) I am not sure I did the course full justice. There are still many ‘grey’ areas in my understanding of some of the issues the course tackled. What I did get from the course more than anything was a great overview of the range of issues which need to be considered in the Critical Analysis of Visual Culture. I now have a good overview of the subject, if not a detailed understanding across the board. It also taught me what kind of questions to ask. I would like to thank my tutor Dr Pauline Rose, who was very patient when my assignments took a lot longer than expected and who always gave very comprehensive and constructive feedback.

Onwards to Photography 3: Your Own Portfolio my final course for my degree.

Assignment four: Visualising the ‘other’

Assignment Four of the Understanding Visual Culture course requires the student to choose one or more topics covered in Part four: Looking and Subjectivity and to write a formal academic essay critiquing a chosen text in terms of these topics. My essay focuses on Richard Dyer’s ideas on ‘whiteness’ and Laura Mulvey’s thoughts on ‘gendering the gaze’. My chosen text is the 1956 film Forbidden Planet directed by Fred M Wilcox. The stars of the film are Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.  The characters and plot of the film are thought by many to be based on Shakespeare’s Tempest.  It was the first science fiction film to be based entirely on another planet away from Earth. On its release it failed to capture the imagination of audiences but now it is a cult classic, and is seen as a precursor to many subsequent science fiction films.

Francis and robot Robbie - key characters from the film Forbidden Planet

Francis and robot Robbie – key characters from the film Forbidden Planet

My text can be found here:

Forbidden Planet Text

And my tutor’s feedback is here:

Tutor Feedback Assignment Four

Assignment three: Decoding advertisements

As I will not be submitting my work on this course for assessment, I have not been particularly vigilant when it comes to posting my work on this blog. I have decided to bring the blog mostly up to date by posting details of the assignments I have completed and the response of my tutor to my work.

This post covers Assignment three which involved choosing a current advertisement or advertising campaign and drawing on the work of Barthes and others undertake a structural analysis to show how it derives and conveys its meaning. I chose the advertisement for ‘Compare the’ as my subject matter.

Compare the Market.Com Advertisement

Compare the Market.Com Advertisement

Here is my submission to my tutor.

Assignment 3 Decoding Advertisements

My tutor’s response was quite positive…It turned out that Alexander the Meerkat is her favourite advertising character!

Greenough, 416177, Ass. 3 feedback

Project White

This project involved reading an essay White  by Richard Dyer (Evans et al, pp 457) which is about the illusive nature of  ‘Whiteness’. Dyer is a Professor of Film Studies at Kings College London and as such his discussions take films as his texts. The project then required me to watch at least two films: Simba  which is British film from the mid 1950s which is a colonial adventure film centred on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya; and The Battle of Algiers  which is an award winning Italian film by director Gillo Pontecorvo which is about events during the 1954-1962 Algerian War against French Rule.

Simba  is organised around a rigid opposition of white  and black with white standing for modernity, rationality, order and stability and black for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence. Dyer demonstrates how this is played out through the film’s mis-en-scene. Emphasis in the film is on this division which is depicted as visual and bounded. Everything about the native black people is visually  primitive, dark and threatening, whereas the white characters are generally depicted as reasonable and conciliatory. The film could be seen as an endorsement of the moral superiority of the white values but also suggests a lack of confidence in whether this will prevail. The Mau Mau uprising is represented as an unstoppable dark force.

The Battle of Algiers is altogether a different kettle of fish. To begin with it is a much better film. Simba is predictable and amateurish. The Battle of Algiers is intriguing and moving. The latter is in black and  white which gives it a sense of gravitas, almost like one is looking at newsreels from the time.

The Battle of Algiers takes a completely different slant on the issue of whiteness. White in the form of the French are presented as the barbaric oppressors. Black in the form of the Algerian revolutionary movement the FLN is represented as the wrongly oppressed. The French gendarmerie are depicted as racist, sexist bigots and the Algerians as devout, law abiding Muslims. In order to put down the guerilla forces of the FLN the French bring in the paratroopers under a commander Mathieu. Mathieu uses a range of oppressive measures to root out the leaders of the FLN, including curfews, bombing and  torture . Mathieu is also shown manipulating the media to mobilise public opinion in favour of his actions. Towards the end of the film he appears to have suppressed the uprising, when all of the leaders have been captured or killed. However there is an interesting postscript which shows the mass public protests which took place two years later. These eventually lead to the Algerian independance. So once again the inevitability of the eventual collapse of colonialism is represented. Curiously this postscript reminded me of the recent uprisings during the Arab Spring which of course were directed at oppressors in the form of corrupt dictators and military juntas.

Evans J. & Hall S (eds) (1999) Visual Culture: the reader  London: Sage

Project Women artists

This project is specifically about British artist Sarah Lucas and involves annotating images of four of her works and relating them to the ‘isms’ so far discussed on the course.

The first work is ‘Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber’:

Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber by Sarah Lucas

What this work depicts is pretty transparent. The sexual organs of both the woman and the man are constructed out of fruit and a copper bucket and these are placed on a bare mattress which is lying on the floor. The work is a sculpture of a man and a woman lying in bed naked and ready for sex – ‘au naturel’ as it were…The top of the mattress is bent and leans against  a wall. The use of everyday objects to construct the sexual organs, such as the melons for the woman’s breasts,  references the use of such words in popular slang. In this way Lucas is showing how sexuality is embedded in language through association with everyday objects. Arguably this could also be taken as an illustration of how the roles of men and women are culturally determined and patriarchal society is perpetuated. This idea is further reinforced by the fact the fact that the woman is lying on her back with her sexual organs available to the rampant male by her side, which parodies the role of the woman as presented in popular culture. Placing a man and a woman side by side in a work of art also hints at the question of the role of both sexes in art and perhaps more relevantly the role of women in art (or the lack of recognition of such).

The second work is Human Toilet 1997. This is a self portrait photograph. She appears to be naked and is sitting on a toilet. She is holding the cistern in her hands.

Human Toilet 1997 C-print

The walls of the toilet are bare and the woman looks pale. She is averting her gaze looking down. This work seems to suggest that woman’s role in society is akin to that of a toilet. The implication is that women exist to serve the interests of  men however base these may be. Although the subject, Lucas,  is naked,  the image is not sexual. An alternative interpretation is that she is disgusted with herself. There is a second version of this photograph Human Toilet Revisited  in which she is sitting on a toilet smoking a cigarette. In this work she is wearing a tee shirt but with nothing covering her legs.

Human Toilet Revisited 1998

Here again she is averting her gaze with her eyes looking downwards. She has her knees bent and her feet on the toilet seat. The toilet seat is down. There is a narrow window with a rough wooded frame behind her. The reading for this second work could be taken as per the first except that in this second photograph she is less a part of the toilet – she is not holding the cistern. She seems to be comparing herself to a toilet, almost as if there is an element of self loathing. This could be associated with the smoking. Perhaps she considers that this habit relegates her to the status of a toilet. Both images are present depressing image of women. Perhaps this is how Lucas views the role of women in life and in art.

The final work  is ‘Self Portrait with a Mug of Tea’. This work is a collage of digital prints mounted on brown paper. Lucas sits with her legs wide. She is wearing blue jeans and a shirt. She is holding the mug of tea in her right hand and has a cigarette in her left. She is looking out beyond the viewer.

Self Portrait with Mug of Tea 1993

This quotation from an interview with Lucas sheds some light on her approach in this image ‘I suddenly could see the strength of the masculinity about it – the usefulness of it to the subject struck me at that point, and since then I’ve used that’ (Lucas quoted in Barber, p.16). Her aim here is to confront the ‘normal’ cultural roles of men and women in society. She is not dressed up for the voyeuristic scopophilic delight of males. She looks like a man. She is not modestly averting her gaze and taking delight in being seen. Rather she is ignoring and looking beyond the viewer. Her pose, the mug and her cigarette also represent her manly pose and her confrontation with gender stereotyping.

Lynn Barber, ‘Drag Queen’, Observer Magazine, London, 30 January 2000, pp.10-16

Project Gendering the gaze

The source material for this project is Laura Mulvey’s excellent essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey proposes that the western cinema has been structured along the lines of the patriarchal society that exists today. Films are made to satisfy the scopophilic urges of the dominant male. Women are presented in as passive objects to be seen. According the Mulvey the cinema goes “.. far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” The main thrust of her argument is about how men derive pleasure when watching films both from looking (voyeuristically) at the women characters and through identification the male characters,as ‘ideal ego’ role models.

I have also to watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo and comment on it. I have yet to obtain a copy of the film. I will post some comments on this at a later stage.

The project also asks how the portrayal of contemporary black music in video matches up to Mulvey’s insights. This image is typical of the way in which women are represented in these videos:

E! reality series “Candy Girls”

They are scantily clad. Their involvement is largely visual. The vocalist could be either male or female. In the case of a female star she too is likely to appear in provocative clothing. The videos are constructed to provide the (male) viewer with intimate views of the bodies of the female dancers. They satisfy the male scopophilic gaze. They most certainly turn the women’s to-be-looked-at-ness into a spectacle. The women also serve as Ideal-ego role models for female viewers. This is clearly evidenced in the mode of dress of young women at clubs, parties etc. They emulate the provocative poses of the role models in the videos.

The final part of this project involves annotating Manet’s Olympia in terms of the gaze and the various characters within and without the image.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
(Musee d’Orsay)

The form of this portrait reflects a classical representation of the reclining nude. What differentiates this painting is the nature and direction of the gaze.The nude female figure would normally be expected to avert her gaze  or cast her eyes down – not so in this painting. This is what made it so shocking at the time it went on show. The woman looks directly at the viewer. She is given a face and a personality.  Her gaze is confident, strong and uninhibited. She does not show modesty and she confronts the male viewer head on. This makes it difficult for the viewer (assumed to be male) to objectify the nude figure. In a way the confrontational gaze seems to deflect the male gaze, and to cause embarrassment to the male onlooker seeking scopophilic pleasure. The black servant also looks directly at the woman. She is holding flowers but the woman is ignoring her and looking straight at the viewer, without distraction.

Project Images of woman

For this project I had to review John Berger’s picture essay (Chapter 2 – Ways of Seeing) and watch episode 2 of his TV series Ways of Seeing. The first task following this was to prepare two collages of images from magazines and newspapers which illustrate two opposing views of the visualisation of women today.

Here is my first collage. It shows how women are represented (for the most part) in the popular press and men’s magazines. Essentially women are placed on show for the sexual gratification of men. They are objectified and are depicted as available. ‘Indulge your fantasies’ as the headline in the centre says.

Woman as sex object

The second set of images are images of women who are successful in politics and business. Here there is a curious mix of woman as nurturer (smiling, helpful), woman as role model (businesslike, successful, chic) and woman as castrator (bossy, dominating, powerful)….

Woman as role model, nurturer and castrator

The second part of this project involved collecting images of nakedness and the nude. Berger makes the distinction by saying that to be naked is to be oneself, but to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised by others. The distinction if thus that the nude image is created specifically to be seen by others. The nude man/woman is on display. The subject is objectified.  Lord Clarke makes the distinction differently. He maintains that to be naked is to be simply without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art. There is some overlap in these views as art is made to-be-seen. I decided to put in a google search first for ‘naked’ and to take the first few images and annotate  and classify them as nakedness or the nude. Then to repeat the process for a search based on ‘the nude’.

The first ‘naked’ image is a photograph by Spencer Tunick who makes series of photographs of people who are naked in public. Interestingly this image is intended as art – Tunick refers to his work in this way. And in fact this is how I interpret this image. The large numbers of people are indeed being offered up for display. They are presented anonymously. We seem to be being invited to imagine ourselves within this scene which can readily be interpreted as sexual.

Mexico City – Spencer Tunick

The second image is from a news report in the Guardian newspaper. It shows a naked cycle ride. The image on the face of it represents nakedness. It has not been made as art or to be seen by others. It is simply a news report.

York’s naked bike ride pedals into its seventh year – Guardian Newspaper

The third image is of a group of clowns posing for a photograph for a naked calendar. This is interesting because it could hardly be called art as Clarke would call it yet it is made specifically to-be-seen by others. A distinction here however is that the individuals are being themselves and are recognised as such. This is part of the fun of calendars such as these. So I would classify this image as depicting nakedness.

Members of San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory.
Photo © Naked Clown Calendar

The final image is a photograph of Mischa Barton which was on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in the UK. Here it seems to me she is presented as a nude to be seen by men for scopophilic pleasure and women as an Ideal-ego.

Mischa Barton – Cover Cosmopolitan UK

I next typed in the word ‘nude’. The first image is a rather strange image which presents a naked manikin who has her face and arm covered with what looks like ‘bondage’ clothing for sado-masochistic sexual acts – a gas mask and a curious contraption on her right arm. This for me is presented to be seen as an object – definitely a nude. But can a manikin be a nude?

Lucy in the Nude by Airbournevirus Deviant Art website

The next image is from an article called ‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press website. It shows a naked woman diving to return a volley ball. Whilst this could be presented as an item of news, it can so easily also be seen as an image which objectifies the female form. The fact that the woman has an attractive figure readily supports this view. This brings into the debate the question of how the viewing context might change the interpretation of whether an image is simply a depiction of nakedness or the nude.

‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press

My final image is a copy of a painting by Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer. The for me definitely falls under the category of the nude. Why one wonders would a snake charmer wish to carry on her trade in the nude??

Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer

Project Author? What author?

The title of this project is interesting and very relevant to the subject matter. ‘Project Author’ with a capital A suggests the Modernist view of the author – ‘a privileged creator of meaning and authority in the work in question’. “What author’ with a small a presents the contemporary/post modernist view – this implies ‘The Death of the Author’ as Barthes has it with meaning being largely derived from the reader/viewer’s interpretation.

The first issue for consideration within this project is to consider whether the work of two contemporary artists (the notes suggest Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine) are better explained as a result of my reading of Michel Foucault’s essay What is an Author? and Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author.  I have decided to look at the two suggested artists.

Cindy Sherman’s seminal work was her Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980. This  is a series of photographs which of Sherman acting out the role of various female characters from anonymous Hollywood ‘B” movies. Interpretation of what the characters represent is left to the viewer. To me the images include characters such as the bored and sexy housewife, the innocent and vulnerable secretary, the battered wife and such like. Sherman is said to have stopped producing the images when she ran out of cliches. I have looked at her work in the past and had generally thought it to be about the way in which women are presented as a series of stereotypes in the movies. I had perceived the work to be largely about gender and identity. I had thought that Sherman was illustrating how identity, and in particular female identity,  is unstable and constructed and how we are driven to consider in terms of media driven preconceived norms. What occurs to me now is that Sherman might also be acknowledging the ideas put forward by Foucault and Barthes. By presenting a series of cliche identities for women in the movies she is demonstrating how (to quote Barthes) “text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,drawn from innumerable centers of culture”. Sherman’s stereotypes have become so because they have been recycled by numerous authors and writers of film scripts over time. In this sense it can be seen as a direct challenge to authorship.

In the case of Levine I think I have always considered her work as a direct challenge to the concept of the author. Her work is largely based on appropriation which directly challenges the originality of work by artists, authors etc. By rephotographing the work of other artists she is confronting directly the originality of art and proposing that art is an amalgam of influences from a huge array of sources.

The project also calls for me to consider ‘If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s aura left?’. In a previous post,  I have defined Benjamin’s aura to be ‘something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history’. At its heart ‘aura’ is about the sense of wonder that something engenders as a result of its unique and imposing presence. In a physical sense I best understand this in terms of the feeling I get when I look at a wonder of nature – a great mountain, a monumental waterfall etc. These are things which are unique in terms of place, time and history. So the question is how does my understanding of the ideas of Foucault and Barthes influence my sense of awe about an original piece of art. Well I know and accept that the work may well have been constructed from ideas gleaned from myriad sources and that is may well have been defined by cultural conventions prevailing at the time it was produced. So I would certainly question the originality of the content. However, I still feel drawn to admire the artist’s skill and intellect. This could be about their mastery of the media in painting or sculpture or about their synthesis of ideas in more conceptually based art and literature. I am beginning to wonder if I have become so conditioned by the [Modernist] norms that I am unable to see beyond these but I genuinely do feel a sense of awe when I stand in front of a great work of art. I think this sense of an ‘aura’ may well derive from the sense of place and time associated with the work, in the same way that looking at an historical building or artefact causes one to reflect on its history. On balance therefore I do believe that there is something left of Benjamin’s aura, but I feel my explanation of why is somewhat inadequate.

The next question posed in this project is ‘Does any of this explain or validate the un-regulated nature of the internet’. There is no doubt in my mind that the content one sees on the internet demonstrates very clearly how ideas are recycled and in this sense it is a clear demonstration of Foucault and Barthes’ thinking. As to whether it explains the lack of regulation of the internet I am not convinced. I think this is due to the fact that the internet us a world-wide ‘space’ and there is  no body in a position to regulate it. Many individual countries have tried to suppress it but people in these countries have found ways around such local censorship.

The final question posed is ‘Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?’. From a personal perspective I am always interested to find out what the author was intending. I will generally read artists statements and have some frustration with artists such as Richard Prince who claim never to comment of their work. So does this mean that I am forced to look at the work within the narrow confines of the artist’s direction. No it does not. I feel free to form my own views. I read a comment from Peter Haveland an OCA tutor on this topic recently which I think summarises very well how I would view this issue now –

“Once a work has been finished and moves out into the world it has an existence all of itself, rather like children having left home, and whatever the maker intended and however well that intent was realised, a whole range of other factors come into play. Not least of which is the variety of knowledge and experience that each viewer, reader, listener etc. brings to the work. Then there is the passage of time and the new things that have happened since it was made added to which we have the new situation of the image (or whatever), for example the meaning of a painting made to hang over a fireplace (Rubens’ Samson and Delilah for example) in a specific private house may well be changed by being hung in a gallery amongst other works. The maker’s intentions cannot take these things into account and so although it is fascinating and often enlightening to know what the maker was getting at the real artistic value of the work can be independent of this”

Project Good taste (work in progress)

In this project I have reviewed the Dick Hebdige essay The Bottom Line on Planet One (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp 99). The aim of the project is to present my answers to a series of questions:

Does Hebdige make a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture?

He does not specifically do this. Instead he compares two magazines Ten.8 and The Face. He constructs two imaginary Worlds, one to represent each of these magazines.

In the  First World the relations of power and knowledge are ordered so that priority is given to the written word. There is a strict hierarchical system system wherein a priestly caste of scribes proscribe the form and content of all legitimate discourse and control the flow of knowledge. These priests are served by technical operatives who produce engravings of images to supplement the texts of the priests. The scribes also have responsibilty for placing the engravings within an historical and theoretical frameswork. At no point does Hebdige specifically mention ‘high’ culture but the First World is a clear parody of it. The structures and activities of First World  fall squarely into the ‘Sphere of Legitimacy’ as defined Bourdieu in his hierarchy of legitimacies.  (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp176). This is the world of Ten.8.

In the Second World, which is a much larger planet, images take precedence over words. The use of language is to supplement the image by describing the moment it embodies. It no longer has the role, as in the First World of presenting the image in its historical or theoretical context. There is no explanation of  the origins of images, their functions, effects or meanings. There is no hierarchical system of priests and scribes. Knowledge and information is disseminated by a motley crew of disparate sources. It is as if the Bourdieu’s hierarchy of legitimacies has been collapsed into the Sphere of the Arbitrary – the domain occupied by ‘popular’ culture (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp176). This is the world of The Face.

So indirectly it could be said that Hebdige makes the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture in the way in which he contrasts the two worlds. However, his real intention is to contrast Modernism with Postmodernism.

What are his arguments against the ‘People of the Post’?

Hebdige’s argues that the ‘Posts’ ‘have been working to liberate the signifier (image) from the constraints imposed upon it by the rationalists’. What he means by this is that they have challenged whether it is possible to analyse images to decode what they mean – in their view it is not- or if it is possible for an author to create a unique work which is not just a series of references to other sources – again they believe it is not . They have launched a multi-facetted attack on authority (which provides the structures to decode representations) and authorship (which claims originality for particular works). The consequence of all this is that what is left is a world devoid of meanings, history or structure. Hebdige describes the results of the actions of the ‘Posts’ as a ‘drift into autism’.  (People with autism say that the world to them is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of).

Explain my views on the difference between high and popular culture today?

‘High’ and ‘popular’ culture are essentially defined by the cultural activites which society has determined fall into each category. What falls into each category has over time been strongly influenced by class and educational divisions. ‘High’ culture activities are those which are deemed of high value by the higher social and better educated classes. They are generally surrounded by an establishment of learned societies, universities, colleges, art historians, curators, art critics and such like. ‘High’ culture events tend to be eliteist. Access to them is difficult and can be very expensive. Given the mystique surrounding the activities in ‘high’ culture those who are not ‘in the loop’ may avoid participating, seeking to avoid appearing foolish.

‘Popular’ culture is the set of cultural activities which are readily available to all. There is no establishment structure and access is relatively inexpensive – it is the domain of the mass market. In order to attract people there is a tendency for those promoting ‘popular’ culture events to sensationalise and to appeal the the more lurid aspects of society. .


Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing  London: Penguin

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage