Research: Stills, Sarah Charlesworth

I came across Sarah Charlesworth’s Stills last year on Twitter when I saw a review about he exhibition. She was included in the group known as The Pictures Generation, alongside Cindy Sherman and Loiuse Lawler amongst others, key in relation to the appropriation movement.

She had originally conceived of Stills in the 80s, and at that time showed only 7 images.  She had identified pictures of people falling, jumping, or in one case – performing a stunt, in the press (I’m not sure if the stunt was in the original collection of added later and am interested in this anomaly but will need to think a little more about it).  She re-photographed only the part of the image that captures the person, and enlarged it, further distilling the moment.  Charlesworth was one of the first photographers to make mural sized photographs, which nowadays are not so unusual.  I was a little shocked by this, and it proved to me how we take things for granted.  The first photography exhibition I specifically chose to go and see, just before I became pregnant with my third child so at the beginning of my photography interest, was filled with enormous images by Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff  and Jeff Wall, all of whom make use of scale in their practise. I don’t think I thought about large photographs being unusual before reading about Charlesworth being pioneering in this regard.  “The size of the works in Stills signal(l)ed, however, that the physical presence of a photograph was enormously important.” (M. Witkovsky, 2014)  I am more and more interested in this ‘importance’. I have recently hit upon the oh, so, obvious realisation that as soon as you photograph something you ‘objectify’ it – which is about giving an importance of some description.  The word objectification carries with it a pejorative sense, but I think I have started to wonder if ‘objectification’ will in future need a clarifying adjective when I use it. To objectify something by photographing it can be useful and valid, as opposed to derogatory (females used to sell), or commodified (babies in baskets, for example – represented like a piece of merchandise).  The falling bodies in Stills have already been objectified simply by being photographed at the moment of their deaths, but by enlarging them to such a scale, Charlseworth succeeds re-humanising them, even when the figures are rendered almost abstract.

Charlesworth returned to and completed the work in 2012, finally settling on 14 images (from a possible 60 she had identified) that were exhibited at the  Chicago Art Institute in 2014/15.

The images are shocking and immediately prompt plenty of questions as I look at them.  Who, where, how, what, why were they being photographed?  Mostly, as curator, Witskovsky says in his introduction to the exhibition book, we ask “would we have made the choice to leap as they have done?” (M. Witkovsky, 2014)

Although all of these images were taken long before those now infamous planes flew into the towers in New York City in 2011, anyone looking at them today cannot help but be reminded of that event.  However, “Charlesworth could not have imagined that her works might so closely align with a later event in history such as 9/11.  She worked hard to eliminate the conventional linguistic framing that conveys such history, denying to viewers the comfort of making sense of the tragedy.” And “It is, however, an invitation both to consider our historical and societal ‘place’ in the world and to assess the structures of meaning within which we operate”. (M. Witkovsky, 2014) Since it is so difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate thoughts about that event from this work, it becomes even more powerful than it might have been.  And although I wouldn’t say the images are somehow prescient, our relationship with them is shaped by context and history, which is worth noting.

I agree with Charlesworth who is quoted by Witkovsky in the introduction, as saying, “(economic and social conditions) […] are implicit and internalised to such a degree that they inform every aspect of our self and social consciousness upon which all praxis is founded” (S. Charlesworth 1975).  Witkovsky adds that, “[t]he task of the radical artist was to lay bare the devices that structure larger systems of meaning – framing and narrativity in press images, for example – while crucially implicating oneself and one’s art within these systems”. (M. Witkovsky, 2014)  Charlesworth’s attitude is different to, and perhaps a progressive development from, the position of the Situationists since they somehow do not implicate themselves and set themselves apart, better than and above the bourgeoisie.  When in actual fact, their entire project is borne out of and only possible within the superstructure that they are criticising and wish to dismantle entirely.

As an aside from the images of Stills, I want to address something else that was pertinent for me when reading through the words for this book.  Charlesworth is referred to as a conceptual artist/photographer.  I have been wondering for a while now if all photography is fact conceptual, in varying degrees, and that the more polarised it becomes, in relation to form vs. concept, the more interesting I find it.  I begin to see a continual balancing act between concept and form where photography is concerned.  Perhaps this is true of all art.  I wonder if Charlesworth manages to incorporate both polar opposites – an extremely rich and elegant concept, and due to enlargement and subsequent  degradation of the image, almost abstraction in some cases, of the human form, a relatively extreme sense of form.

Finally, one of the most encouraging sentences I have read of late is:

“I don’t believe it is possible for an artist to take an objective position.  And it’s uninteresting for an artist simply to do an analysis of a popular visual culture …”  (S. Charlesworth 1975)

I have been worried about my own writing for UVC.  I of course want to improve as a writer since I see it is an integral part of what I do, equally as important as the photography.  And genuinely pleased with much of the advice I was given in my feedback.  However, even before I started I was concerned about having to write in a formal, academic way for this particular module; a style of writing I don’t much like to read myself and one which I’m not keen to emulate. I want my personality to be expressed in these pages just I as I do in every photograph I take. But I also want the writing to communicate as best as it might do.  Objectivity in critical writing is deemed to be important, and I was given several pointers about how to achieve it.  But I am reminded of an anthropology book I read, called Taboo, where the case for reflexivity in anthropological writing is explored.  “To expose the Self and to open it to question is not merely to question the individual anthropologist or anthropology’s specific theoretical hypothesis.  Rather, it is to question the Self in its extended sense; that is, the anthropological effort itself, and social system that gives that effort its force.” (Dwyer 1982)  Conversely, an opposing view is quoted in the same book and suggests such writing is “banal egotism” (Probyn 1993).  I think I would like to find a way to address the issue of objectivity, and maintain Dwyer’s words in mind as I do.

I will hold onto Charlesworth’s sentiment as I progress though the course.  Because what she says in the above sentence totally and utterly addresses my concerns and thoughts about how I approach the written work for this course.

I am very likely going to choose one of the images from Stills for A2 however, it is well to consider that the work is most effective in its entirety.

Bibliography (A work in progress) 

Witkovsky, M (2014) ‘Stills Sarah Charlesworth‘ P. The Art Institute of Chicago. D. Yale Publications: New Haven & London

Kulick, D (1995). ‘Taboo‘ Kulick, D & Willson, M. (eds) Routledge pg. 13







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