Never Photograph Barns

Corrugated Metal, Ben Dolman 2012

A couple of weeks ago whilst reading a post on Wayne Ford’s excellent and highly recommended Wayneford's Posterous blog I came across 'The Hippocratic Oath of a Photographer' written in 1937 by Mehemed Fehmy Agha. lists or rants of things he not will not photograph and one of those things is BARNS.

About halfway down the photographic list of don’ts is the following line  "Above all, I will not photograph old barns in Connecticut (so-called marvellous textures of weathered old boards)" and he finishes off  the oath with "In fact if I can help it I will refrain from taking any picture of any description, under any pretext whatever". I tend to run for the hills whenever I see list of things not to do but this one made me smile and ponder.

The final line from the oath “refrain from” reminds me what I did in my own practice some years back foregoing painting and turning to computers and photography as my prime creative output, the reason I refrained from painting is it became for me a creative and intellectual cul-de-sac, I hope I do not end up the same place with photography. I am still relatively new to photography but not image making and there are certain shared aesthetic and conceptual issues in different contemporary creative practices but I am just starting to come across some of the quirks specific to photography. Also being new to photography I do not know what the clichés are in the medium and when I come across them I like to see why they became a cliché, if they will always remain a cliché, can a subject be de-clichéd, can I use a cliché in an inventive way, is calling something a cliché lazy or are certain types of photographic clichés beyond redemption. Following the links from Wayne Ford’s post lead me to a post on Martin Parr’s blog ‘Photographic Clichés’ that continues on from M.F.Agha in a contemporary context, lighter in tone and for me more insightful noting what Parr perceives in current or developing photographic genres that are becoming cliché or overdone. Martin Parr encourages that photographers seek things that are being missed or “avoided” and not just ape known successful photographic subjects.

When I saw Number 13 on Martin Parr’s list ‘The Long Landscape’ it made me chuckle as in a previous post ‘After Constable’ I noted that I wanted to use the panoramic format in landscape photography which I shall continue to pursue but minding Martin Parr’s advice to consider the subject matter carefully and look for the “avoided” and not mimic another photographer or a photographic style which is not easy.

Ok so there are certain photographic clichés from the past and present but before accepting them I need to test them first, are they local, are they cultural, are they gender specific, are they temporary of a particular moment. Being told something is a cliché, passé or "not to do" makes me want to do it, a bit like being told not to eat or drink to much, but we or I do it either through curiosity, greed, to challenge the rules and see the reaction to our indulgences. We may end up feeling ill, racked with guilt, chastened but it was an experience, an lesson of our limits and choices.

In my research so far I have come across what some perceive as photographic clichés but before accepting them I need to test them first, are they national, are they cultural, are they gender specific, are they temporary and only a whim to a passing fashion or a trend. Being told something is a cliché, passé or “not to do” makes me want to do it, a bit like being told not to eat or drink to much, but we or I do it either through curiosity, greed, to challenge the rules and see the reaction to our indulgences. We may end up feeling ill, racked with guilt, chastened but it was an experience, a lesson of our limits and choices.

It seems to me the more I learn about a subject which in this case is photography my practice can become  somehow limited or liberated my new found knowledge, the path I take becomes more perilous as the innocence of the subject diminishes. Lets look to see if too much knowledge limits the creative act first. I believe that through learning we can become less innocent and intuitive, our knowing can become cynical and counter productive. We can began with thinking of more reasons not to do something rather than just do it, the instinctual can be drown by the conceptual and theoretical as we start to question to much about something before doing anything rather than ask questions after doing something. The constant need to ask has it been done before or does it fit the concept, is it intelligent, is it contemporary, can lead to creative constipation. To constantly try and be NEW, AVANT-GARDE, EXPERIMENTAL, RADICAL, REACTIONARY can become joyless and tiresome. The next problem with too much knowledge it can lead to self-referential image making within a creative discipline, this is especially notable in my experience fine art practice and academia where a tunnel vision can become all to common and the practitioners and theorists self congratulatory. Dialogues confined within chosen cliques can lead to dull or incomprehensible conversations, it can be too safe and unchallenging, no crudeness and rawness here, everyone is knowing, vague and cultivated.

So knowledge can be limiting but it can be also liberating when knowledge be it old or new can open up new possibilities and not hinder intuitive and playful making, something which TED talks seems to excel at. At TED the speakers are given a fixed timed slot in which they have to communicated quite complicated ideas in a plain, simple and often in a very entertaining and engaging manner. For me for knowledge to be expansive it has to be liberating and engaging is its communication, a communication to a wide and varied audience as this is when interesting tangents and connections can occur. The communication of knowledge throughout history has been passed down through the use of words and images, the container these words and images has been the story that has been aurally passed down through generations, painted onto the walls of caves, written and illuminated in scrolls, craved in tablets and printed in books. We now live in an age where the book has been superseded by the WEB, the very platform used by TED. The web is in its infancy and it has no barriers, no censorship, no control, its is lawless and archaic but it liberates and makes knowledge freely available. I still love the printed book from the smell of the paper of a newly printed book to the act of turning of a page to see what is on the next page, just holding a book in my hands is comforting and enveloping, I spend too much on them and I even make them but they are not the future of communication, the web is.

The web has it’s negatives like the Facebook Delusion, online shopping which keeps emptying my wallet and some really nasty stuff but it’s positives from Google Maps which I am still in awe at how I can zoom into anywhere in the world to the freedom of information easily outweigh the negatives. The web makes knowledge joyful, it lacks reverence, the chaotic stream of consciousness of seemly incongruous ideas and images can actually confound knows and offer new possibilities, expectations can be upended and new interpretations opened up. The web led me to Wayne Ford and Martin Parr’s blogs and it also brought my attention to David Gutternfelder a photojournalist who had been using panoramic photography whilst on a field trip to North Korea. David Gutternfelder had taken a Hasselbald XPAN panoramic-view 35 mm camera along with his usual digital camera to document North Korea but it was the photographs from the XPAN that give me a new perspective of the country through the panoramic composition, the photographic frame of the XPAN limits the gaze to the linear aspect, the vertical space hemmed, a spacial containment that fits the subject well, North Korea. I did not see any icebergs in the photographs from North Korea that Martin Parr saw as a cliché in “The Long Landscape” but I saw that the long landscape could be credible when choosing and dealing with a given subject carefully.

New knowledge can open up possibilities and challenge past certainties but how does one find a balance of  new knowledge of the subject or medium whilst trying to remain intuitive, have a degree of uncertainty, the willingness to take risks and embrace failure. Can we read the books, talk the talk, go to the exhibition and then pretend just to suddenly forget everything and just be impulsive again, I do not think you can as it will be a forced or faked innocence, trying to be unknowing whilst knowing is just a futile mind game, a game that can led to the absurd and the overtly ironic. Lets take a look at photographing of barns, I have taken photographs of barns before I read the “The Hippocratic Oath of a Photographer” by Mehemed Fehmy Agha, the barns were not the intended subjects of a project, they were photographed because they were there and caught my eye. I have kept a couple of photographs of barns as they were later used as part of a sequence of images, they gave context to something else or they were used as a counterpoint. After reading the oath and finding out that barns were maybe a photographic cliché did I stop photographing barns, did the new knowledge within the photographic ward me off the subject was “overused” and there was a “lack of original thought” [Text from Oxford English Dictionary, definition of cliché], did it stop my previous unlearned impulsion to photograph barns, no it did not. With the new knowledge I choose to question it and use it, I went out and looked for barns to photograph to see if the cliché stood up, to compound it, to see if there was a new way at looking at barns.

I photographed the barns in black & white and colour, I photograph new and old barns, I photographed barns close up and from afar. Did I overturn the cliché - unsure, did I develop my photographic practice - not really, did I manage to create a meaningful or provoking photograph - no, did I bring something new to the genre - no, but I had to test the notion that barns had become a photographic cliché for myself. With this new knowledge in the iconography of photography what happen in my case was I become a documenter of a conceit, I could not find a playful intent or re-imaging of the subject, now this maybe just the subject BARNS was not for me and with another subject I could find a more inventive approach and offer an alternative insight in the photographs. In the end the barn was no-longer a cliché for me it was just a barn, just an object located somewhere made up of different materials. I guess what I did in the end was to strip it of its usual depiction situated in a romanticised  rural idyll through the of flatness of my documentation of it in an industrial agricultural setting, this maybe be enough to redeem the work though they are perhaps a bit too mundane and boring. I have nothing against the boring, I often seek out the mundane though I prefer the chanced happening upon than it as a defined subject. The chanced upon or unexpected event is the key for me, for this where I can truly momentarily suspend being too knowing and guarded in my image making but use my new knowledge to see potential from this encounter whilst remaining intuitive, it does not happen much but when it does it reaffirms why I wanted to do photography.

I did stumble on a photographer that did something interesting with the barn though, Noemie Goudal’s photograph Les Amants - The Lovers (Promenade) 2009 takes the landscape inside the barn, it is a construct rather than something happen upon, a staged inversion of the norm. In the photograph we are shown a photograph of a bridge leading into a landscape on the far wall inside a barn, the photograph is printed onto multiple sheets of paper a bit like a bill board image, there are folded lines in the paper showing it is an obvious reproduction, a flat image hanging at the far end of the barn offers a glimpse of an outer space that leads off from the real inner space of the interior of the barn, the illusion is helped with the careful arrangement of stones and dirt in the foreground of the barn. Noemie Goudal’s photograph of the barn interior has weathered boards that so upset Mehemed Fehmy Agha but Noemie Goudal in her photograph makes a familiar and perhaps overused aesthetic anew with a playful use of space and imagery. A staged, installation and interventionist approach with a subject can sometimes seem contrived, stilted and render photography as secondary, just a document serving another work of art rather than be the work of art in its own right which some of Noemie Goudal other work exhibits but in the case of this photographs the staged works and the photograph of a barn might not be a photographic cliché.

So as I continue to learn and understand what photography is I will continue to come across subjects that on my first encounter with them I thought were novel and interesting but are actually deemed by some as cliche and old hat, this is fine by me, I can take their views on board but in the end I will trust my own eyes and see if the subject can be re-imagined. Nothing is new and we are always influenced by past masters or cultural movements, there are rarely true revolutions in the arts, normally things evolve slowly through reaction, subtraction or addition to something that has come before. Mehemed Fehmy Agha rejection of barns in photography was a reaction to lazy photography, a tried metaphor that could be a barn or an iceberg for Martin Parr. Everything has been photograph, some subjects more so than others but their context is continually changing and that can be through the eye of the photographer.

Barns, Ben Dolman 2012