OCA Study Visit: Feminist Art of the 1970s

Although quite young in the 1970s I do have some vague memories of the women’s liberation struggle and these will have been informed by TV and radio reporting at the time. I recall this struggle as been quite visceral but more loud and ‘in your face’ than violent. Coming from a reasonably informed left-wing working class background the young me was somewhat puzzled by it. I couldn’t understand why working class people who themselves were engaging in a form of political struggle with structures of power where so anti towards women in their similar struggle. However, I was quite young and while puzzled by this I didn’t dwell on it; I was in my early teens and had young teen thing to do. It is strange though how these memories and feelings were reawakened by the gallery visit and the pre-reading I had in the days beforehand.

The study visit was hosted by the tutor Dawn Woolley and around 10 OCA students attended. We started in the Photographer’s Gallery and afterwards headed to Tate Modern.

As this was my first study visit I wasn’t sure of the format. It was actually quite simple; we would look around one floor of the exhibition and then Dawn would invite us to comment or raise a question on any of the works that had caught our attention. This seemed to work very well and made for interesting discussions between us all, with Dawn posing further questions or adding further information. There was no pressure to speak and the whole event felt relaxed and informal. At the end I left feeling I had a good day feeling artistically and intellectually stimulated and pleased to have met other OCA students. I hope there will be other study visits I can get to in the future.

The exhibition presented works in varying degrees of ‘accessibility’. Some were obvious challenges to the expected roles of women in the male dominated hegemony of the 70’s while others, particularly those presented as performance art, or documenting it, left me not really sure what the artist was attempting to achieve, if in fact they were trying to achieve anything. I cannot comment on every piece at the exhibition so I shall limit my approach to the works that caught my eye the most.

A series by Ana Mendieta referred to as ‘glass on body imprints’ (1972) caught my attention. She was not the only artist in the exhibition to adopt this approach in her work. She distorts her face by pressing it against of piece of glass. I am aware of the role of attractive women in the history of art and it was clear what Mendieta and others were subverting this traditional representation of woman.



Ana Mendieta: Glass on Body Imprints


The series reminded me of some of the works by Francis Bacon that I had seem at an exhibition at the Sainbury’s Centre at the University of East Anglia last year. I can fully understand and even politically support the subversion intent within work, and while they are compelling pieces I don’t think I would want them on my sitting room wall.

That last comment has made me curious about these challenging works. While I can get behind the ‘message’ I too would seek to place beauty on the walls of my home – in fact I have large photography of an Albatross on one of them – and would not feel comfortable with the raw and visceral. Of course I guess that is exactly what the artist was attempting to convey. However, I am still curious of to why Mendieta and the others chose to press their faces against a small piece of glass. Within the images it is clear that the glass is being held against the face. If the she had chosen to do the same against a much larger piece extending beyond the limits of the frame there would be a stronger sense of artifice, leaving the viewer uncertain as to whether or not this is how she looks. Of course holding the glass to the face does imply a sense of self-mutilation, of rendering herself as ugly which also subverts the stereotyped view of how a woman should present herself to the world.

A series by Martha Wilson called ‘A Portfolio of Models’ (1974) left me curious as to whether the sexual politics of the time had evolved and moved on. Wilson presents us with several stereotyped roles for womanhood: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, the Professional, Earth Mother and Lesbian. It was the last one, the Lesbian and that it didn’t seem to sit with the others that led me to think that gender based politics may have changed over time. All of the others are roles to which woman might be attributed but lesbian is state of sexual orientation. Looking at the other roles I question why can’t they be lesbians too? I acknowledge that homophobia is still around in the UK but we live in more enlightened times compared to the 70’s and I wonder how Wilson would present this work if she was to (re)create it today.



Martha Wilson: ‘Lesbian’ from A Portfolio of Models


In our group discussions Dawn made a very relevant point regarding the exhibition. What was missing was any reference to women in the work place. We didn’t know it if this was a curator’s decision or whether the source collection from which the exhibition is drawn doesn’t include any works covering this aspect of women’s lives. On reflection I do wonder whether the exhibition had a somewhat bourgeois slant to it with this important exclusion. However, this gap was filled by an exhibition in the Switch House wing of Tate Modern. Three artists collaborated in this work: Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly. This exhibition was interesting in that the artists used social science research methods to create their work. The study took place in a factory in south London in the mid 1970s. As exhibited the works included photographs to women and men in the work place and the task they did. But it also used text and official documents – for example ‘clocking on & off cards’. Overall the exhibition highlighted the discrimination women faced in terms of their lower pay and access to the higher skilled jobs and supervisory roles that attracted better pay levels. As an artistic approach this differ greatly from the works in the photographers gallery and probably because of my own background it had an immediacy with which I could connect. Although I view it through male eyes this work seemed more personal and even more relevant (more important?) because of it’s connection to lives of working women than some of the works in the Photographer’s Gallery. That said it is not my intention to form some hierarchy of feminist art, preferring to accept each on its own artistic terms.


The Photographers’ Gallery


Francis Bacon Exhibition


Tate Modern: Women and Work



Exercise 2.6 Near & Far…

This is one of those FiP exercises were I say to myself, “I know about this stuff. The relation between f-stops, focal length and depth of field, I’m happy with this…” On reflection when this happens I should pinch myself or do something do more painful (Hold on I did, more of that later…) because knowing the theory is different from turning out quality images that meet the exercise brief.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on myself. At the location the light wasn’t really helpful and the dark brooding sky was laden with imminent rain. I had to take the camera way up the ISO scale – 1000ISO at one point – to gain the kind of f-stop I needed for a decent depth of field. While I felt rushed I think a bit more forethought and planning would have helped.

That said we had some fun. While some of the poses are quite regular on some of the shots I asked my model to do ‘finger wagging angry’ and another occasion to turn suddenly as if discovering she was being followed. The purpose of this was to have a practice with the ‘continuous shooting’ mode because I’d not use it much on my new camera.

One thing I did do in the way of preparation was to visit the owner’s manual for my lens. Nikon include a depth of field table for each of the key points of the zoom – 24mm, 35mm, 50mm etc etc. I printed these out, cut them down to size and laminated them. I thought keeping them in the camera case would be useful. While cutting down the lamination sheets to size I sliced through my fingertip with a scalpel. The blood was red but the air was blue! I’ve been using these things for years and was really angry with myself for making such a schoolboy error. As they say, you have to suffer for your art!

While at the location I did hold out my hand with Elastoplasted finger and take a shot but as the background was out of focus it doesn’t qualify to for this series. Postproduction on the images below was fairly minimal. We have some big skies here in East Anglia and on the day (latish afternoon) they were looking very moody. Nonetheless, in a few of the photos the skies were ‘burnt’ a little to bring out some texture in the clouds. Otherwise the photographs were as taken.

Exercises 2.3 & 2.4

Below are the images of the cut up and marked photographs required for ex. 2.3. As the subject was Mike’s activity, in one of the images part of Mike became the foreground. That in itself seems counter intuitive. I appreciate its only his shoulder and upper arm but I would never have considered that unless I run through this exercise. The aim was to photograph the activity and I suppose this then becomes the subject – of course the activity could not exist without the person doing it. So, as the camera was peering over Mike’s shoulder to examine what he’s doing with his hands part of him has become the foreground.

How did it feel to now the image has become an object you can touch? Fresh out of the printer it didn’t feel strange at all – before digital media all photographs felt this way, however, once cut-up it did feel slightly odd. I enjoyed the tactile qualities the ‘dissected’ image brought. The individual pieces curled a little and I had to use a ‘pritt stick’ to glue them down and this added to the child-like fun I was having. Once in place to be photographed my mind was taken somewhere else. This cutting up, repositioning and gluing down was all very analogue. I’m sure it could have all been done with Photoshop but the tactile physical experience and interaction would not have occurred. These transformed images now looked like examples of photomontage and I was reminded of the political work of some of the Dadaists.

The last image in the sequence is for exercise 2.4 and is an example from my recent non OCA Work blog post. I took dozens of photos of this and the best I could come with is in that recent post. It shows the roofline and the sides of the building completely cropped out to bring the eye towards on the centre of the image. Even still I’m not completely happy with it as I feel the bold dark banister on the right of the orange floats is too ‘heavy’ and as such distracts.

I don’t know if this is within the spirit of the exercise 2.4 but I had already dwelt heavily on this image beforehand but as an image it did fit the criteria asked for in the FiP workbook.





Exercise 2.2 People & Activity: Mike & His Moths

We teamed up with friends recently on a birding trip to Cornwall. My friend Mike who, apart from being an ace bird photographer, is also into his moths and brought his moth trap along. Each night the trap was set up and in the morning the contents examined. With me just starting Part 2 of FiP and pondering what kind of peopled activity I should photograph, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

The FiP workbook asks us to consider various factors before taking any shots. Some of these were easy for me. For one, Mike was happy for me to be hovering around with a camera while he did his stuff. Technically one problem involved which IOS setting to use for the night shot. 3200ISO is what I used and even then I was down to 60th sec at my maximum f stop. I liked the idea of having Mike lit from the light of the trap and opted not to use a flash. I feel a flash would have run contrary to the theme of how naturalist go about their business. I know the light is artificial but it is a key part of the photograph itself and a flash lit shot would have taken that important aspect away.

The intention is not to harm the moths and so Mike undertakes some quite delicate work the their processing. This presented some technical issues for my photography as to record the activity required some close-up shots. Moreover, while at home Mike would process the moths in his shed here he had to improvise and used a windowsill. This limited my ability to position myself relative to the ‘action’, however, I feel that I achieved some quite strong compositions by using the window frame within the image.

The seven images I have used in this exercise follow a linear narrative. As such Mike sets up and switches on the trap in the early evening. The following morning the trap is examined and the common and easy to identify species of moth are released straight away. The others are carefully stored in plastic bottles while the process of identification and recording of species and numbers then takes place. Some species were worthy of being photographed and Mike has a camera with a macro lens and flashguns just for this process. Once complete the moths are released back into the wild.

The close up images raise some interesting questions. Part 2 of FiP is about the portrait and as these images show very little of Mike it could be argued they don’t sit well within the exercise. However, in exercise 2.2 it is the activity that is the subject of the photograph. The two close up images presented here show key stages of the processing of the moths: their containment in plastic bottles and their ultimate identification. The former require small delicate movements on a macro level while the later, comparing the moth with text and images is a more of a cognitive activity. As such the photographs capture these activities well. The final photograph, showing the release of a moth underpins this argument for the use of the earlier close up images. Here if we can see a moth at all it is very insignificant. The raised finger of Mike is the ‘action’ in this image as it implies that the bottle is about to be tapped, shaking the moth free into the vegetation below.


Why black and white? During a recent telephone conversation with Jayne, my tutor, we covered some of my earlier attempts at B & W. Jayne rightly pointed out that some of them had ‘noise’ in them and so I felt I needed to revisit the process. I found a useful You tube clip giving a tutorial on turning colour images into B & W. As this was a different approach from the one I used before I adopted it for this series. That said I still need to get my head around ‘gradient map’ and how it differs from ‘levels’.

I also found another useful clip on ‘dodging and burning’ and used some of the techniques demonstrated. In the past I’d be quite wary of using this and actually avoided it. Having practiced a bit more now with D & B I’m growing in confidence with it; now that I’ve learnt to be more subtle and less heavy handed with my approach.




Experimentation, Exploration & Reflection

Although my FiP work takes up a lot of my free time I still like to do my own thing. Recently I spent a few days with friends in Devon and Cornwall. Naturally I took my camera and came home and uploaded over 300 shots – now reduced considerably due to editing.

I used the opportunity to experiment, to explore some themes that have been buzzy around my head for a while now. Having ‘sat on’ the results of our trip for a few days I now present 10 images, which I feel reflect the spirit of my exploration and experimentation. Moreover rather than writing an explanatory and reflective text I’ve also experimented with my sketchbook and present a scan of these notes to accompany each photograph.

Exercise 2.1 Plants & People

Following the approach of Blossfeldt the FiP workbook instructs us to photograph leaves, flowers etc against a white background. Having done this we are to approach photographing people in the same style.

Quite why we were instructed not to clip off the leaves, flowers etc I’m not entirely sure but I’m convinced Blossfeldt had it easy! As a budding photographic artist, holding down a full time job and with often competing commitments I had a Sunday morning between 9:00 and 10:00 to complete this work. The conditions were not ideal: bright intense sunlight and a strong SW wind. And what’s more I don’t have a macro lens. So there I was in my garden with my partner kindly holding a sheet of white A4 paper while the various stems and leaves were being blow around vigorously by a strong autumnal gale. Nonetheless, I persevered and produced the photographs below.

The strong sunlight is perhaps something Blossfeldt would have avoided. A flat light would have been better but I had to work with what I’d been given. As the background was intensely white I intuitively rendered the colours more intense and sometimes sharpened the image in post production. I feel this gives the plants a hyper-real appearance, which is enhanced further by the unnatural white background.

Although the portraits were not to stand next to the plants (and Spider…) I felt I’d like to try and echo the same lighting effect. I didn’t want to render them ‘hyper-real’ as that may seem unnatural but I did want a bright flat background. Once again the context of location and timing influenced my choices. These people are photographed against a ‘magnolia’ wall in a corridor with the light source being a large window in front of the subjects. The original images as taken look quite different. A lot of postproduction has taken place to take a quite flat, even slightly under exposed image, to what is presented here. In RAW the images were brightened and the later the levels were adjusted. Further to this I had my first experiments with ‘dodging’ in that the background wall was held back to remove some superficial shadowing.

Early reflections make me feel I’m happy with the results here, although I think I should check out how others control their dodging and burning in photoshop. Mine was very experimental and I’m sure I could improve my technique – YouTube here I come…

FiP Part Two – Research Point

Karl Blossfeldt (1864 – 1932) was teacher of sculpture who had an interest in the natural world. In order to bring this interest into his teaching practice he used photography to take detailed images of plants, their leaves, stems, flowers etc. Isolating his subject in front of a sheet of white card Blossfeldt was able to emphasise the detailed structure of the plant. Any natural background would have distracted the viewer from the photograph’s intention.


Karl Blossfeldt (Southbank Centre website)

It was also interesting to discover that he designed his own photographic equipment as macro lenses and cameras did not exist at the time. Blossfeldt eventually published his work to a wider audience and it was met with both popular and critical acclaim. His work was embraced by the Surrealist movement and the wider art establishment:

“The philosopher Walter Benjamin declared that Karl Blossfeldt ‘has played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world’. He compared him to Maholy-Nagy and the pioneers of New Objectivity, and ranked his achievements alongside the great photographers August Sander and Eugene Atget.” (Southbank Centre Website on Sunday 2nd October 2016) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/hayward-gallery-and-visual-arts/hayward-touring/future/karl-blossfeldt-–-art-forms-in-nature-0

I rather liked his work finding a resonance within it that linked to my own experience. My life long interest in birds and to a lesser extent other fauna, dragonflies, moths and butterflies for example, has lead me to collect identification books. The classic ‘field guide’ approach is to place the text on the left page and the illustrations on the right. The illustrations themselves often follow Blossfeldt’s approach of depicting the species in various plumages again a neutral background.