Thursday, 5 December 2013

Exercise: Analyse an essay on photography

For this exercise I had to read an essay from the course reader and answer some questions. I read the essay a couple of times and made notes, paragraph by paragraph, before writing up my summary (included at the end of this post). Once I was happy I had the gist of the essay down I tackled the questions.

In one sentence what is the central argument of this essay?

That a number of different critical ideas forming in the arts, film, and particularly the genre of documentary, helped to shape the discourse on black photography in the 1980s.  

The discussion in regard to photography is set within a larger socio-political framework. Do you feel this is justified by the evidence presented?

Yes, I do. A lot of discussion around representation and the nature of the truth of the documentary genre has a big part to play in any discussion on the subject of black photography. Likewise without a discussion around 'post structuralism' the analysis of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe would be difficult to unpick. Without the theoretical tools the analysis could not take place.

To what extent is the argument limited to Britain in the 1980s, and do you think it would be useful to refer to related movements in other countries?

Although the essay discussed identity and representation of black people in Britain at a certain time period the issues raised are relevant to all people everywhere - even now. The article, written in 1990, was attempting to sum up what had gone before in the previous decade. Changes in thinking since that time are not present in the essay so research on a wider scale would need to be conducted for a balanced overview of the issues. This would include taking into account current academic analysis on the subject of representation of black people in photography and documentary practice. 

It could be useful to make a comparative assessment of what is taking place in other countries in regards to the issues raised - even if only in passing reference. This could help to place the stance on the issues and photographers mentioned at that time into a wider socio-political context.

The essay raises the issue of eligibility - in this case, whether or not a photographer of black subjects should be black themselves. What are your views on this? What are the wider implications of this issue?

My view is that the individual has many sides to their personalities - some good, some bad, some contradictory. An individual cannot lay claim to represent the whole of a culture only an aspect of themselves within a particular culture. It can be argued that Mapplethorpe (as a white, gay, male) has produced work of black male nudes that are non conformist and contest a heterosexual binary gender system. One that had been adhered to by many black photographers at the time of the essay. Mapplethorpe is highlighting the existence of the heterosexual matrix and the absence of 'other' types of black men in photography.

It could be argued that a wider range of voices with differing opinion will help to break up the hegemony of a dominant patriarchal power structure. The representation of 'others' such as women, black, gay, and disabled people in this system could be shown to be stereotyping and non representative. The wider implications are that a post structuralist approach to representation (in all its forms) could help us strive for a more equal and fair society. 

My summary of 'The Vertigo of Displacement' by D Bailey and S Hall.

In the 1980s black photographers challenged and pushed the boundaries of photographic practice. Their aim was to question the representation of black people and the fixed meaning of images. Documentary photography at this time was undergoing a critical re-appraisal and the notion of 'truth' was challenged. Documentary had rested upon a foundation of realist classical texts that placed the viewer/reader in the essentialist position of guaranteed knowledge. For black photographers the challenge was to use the debate to replace negative images with positive ones. A campaign was started by organisations and individuals to provide access to the means of representation.

A further key element in the debate was the discourse around cultural studies and the issue of Hegemony. Black photographers began to explore the issue of control of language, representation and its institutionalisation - attempting to open up fixed positions of spectatorship. This was a move away from the documentary image and realism to a more avant-garde approach to disrupt the naturalistic ideology of truth by unseating the spectator from their position of guaranteed knowledge.

Post Structuralist theory moved the debate around representation of black people to the notion of the decentered subject. The theory argues that plural identities are always decentered and situational. That is, skin colour is only one aspect of being black, and that for instance, a black male may consider himself in different contexts mainly black, mainly male, gay/heterosexual, young/old. That being black does not override the other identities and that they shift along an axis such as class or gender and sexuality.

The decentered subject opened the door for the debate around the black photographer using an essentialist approach to represent all of black culture. This goes against the grain of post structuralist theory, arguing that black signifies a range of experiences and an individual black photographer can only represent a partial view of black experience. This view makes it equally possible for a white photographer with only limited understanding of the black experience being able to say something of significance to a black audience.

Using the theory of the decentered subject the author re-appraises the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. The former has been previously dismissed by critics as a white, gay, male, crossing the boundary of the dominant/subordinate cultural divide to photograph, appropriate, and fetishise the black male body. Similarly the work of Fani-Kayode, because of its obvious Mapplethorpe influence, has been seen as limited and restricted. The author argues that to only view the work of both practitioners in this way is an essentialist approach. That in one respect, Mapplethorpe does appropriate and fetishise the black male body. But, if the critic only looks at the work from this definition they are ignoring Mapplethorpes contestation of the dominant, one-dimensional, representation of black masculinity by a lot of black photographers. By using the decentered approach fixed meanings become unglued and parallel or opposing identities can co-exist.

A similar desire and contestation of the black male form can be found in Fani-Kayodes work. We can see that Mapplethorpe and Fani-Kayode both contest the dominant representation of black male masculinity while at the same time fetishising the male form. But, as a black photographer, Fani-Kayode cannot be accused of crossing the dominant/subordinate divide. So, if Fani-Kayode's work is to be assessed as valid from a decentered viewpoint then so must Mapplethorpes.

Ultimately the struggle for the means of representation still remain. If the representation of black society is controlled by a dominant power hierarchy and access to places where photographic work can be exhibited and discussed is restricted then you are 'not even in the game'. For those black photographers that make it through the gallery door it is necessary to ask what these photographers are doing in relation to discursive practices. There has to be a wide and diverse community that interrogates, evaluates and reconstructs histories that have previously ignored or misrepresented black society and there is a danger that the door will be closed after a small elite has gone through. (Bailey, 1990).

Bailey, DA and Hall, S. (1990) 'The Vertigo of Displacement' in Bailey and Hall (eds) Critical Decade, Ten.8 Vo. 2/3. Birmingham: Ten.8.

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