Approaching the Theme of Utopia

The following samples of work were presented in the Reflexions Masterclass forum during the Mois De La Photographie in Paris (Nov 2010). One of the challenges of participating in such an event is the heavy demands to create, prepare and present work on a specific assigned theme within a very short period of time. The pressure to create is largely accredited to the knowledge I have of the intensity of the experience of these presentations and the presence of such esteemed and informed artists and guests, with whom I have to share my work. It is daunting and testing; but stimulating and energizing at the same time. One of the benefits of such a thematic task is the possibility (at times necessity) to change and alter ones style, approach or direction, for instance. It also encourages, for me, a type of re-negotiation of self – provoking questions of exactly what ‘type’ of photographer I have become and how I have allowed myself to become this way.

With the thematic works there is also the opportunity to investigate or develop a previous subject matter or project. My starting point for the theme ‘Utopia’ was a ‘mini-project’ that I worked on in 2004. The work as a whole, at the time, was ‘thin’ to say the least. I didn’t fully understand the topic, or indeed photography to any great degree. But, I liked to (try to) make disconcerting photographs at the time and was starting to think about using the camera to respond to real social conditions. For the purposes of the RM, I decided to expand on this project in the context of the specific conditions of today.

Utopias’ are generally ‘models’ proposing an alteration in reality or ‘models’ to understand reality. These conceptual models propose invented places - places constructed in the imagination. In this case, constructed in an ideal future. This connection with an imaginary and an unattainable social condition is inescapable. This reality/imaginary duality can help to devise a useful categorization of a central feature to the theme itself and an interesting point of departure for what would be considered a side-project for the moment. My concentration is on places which are surrounded by a certain utopian trope – advertising hoardings and images which project an ideal futuristic environment. However what is presented is the failure of Utopia. Damaged hoardings surrounding abandoned environments in Dublin, Netherlands and Morocco. (Note to Self: The diversity of location is something worth persuing?)

Notes: One thing is undoubted: the camera creates its own reality, regardless. My intention is to re-inforce the sense of the imaginary. This sense of confusion is an important sensory strategy to represent this theme – introducing a more dynamic and playful focus, use of colour, etc. It was/is important to keep my ‘personality’ within the work, but, perhaps transform my ‘palette’, if you like, perhaps reinforce more energy, more visual stimulation. The subject demanded a suitable approach, yet, still contain a similar vision which is consistent with my ongoing projects. (Nov 2010)

Suspended State (September 2010)

In, Around and Afterthoughts: On ‘Suspended State’ (September 2010 )

'I live my best in the landscape, being at ease there' - John Hewitt, Poet

‘Suspended State’ has charted the topographical changes which have occurred in Ireland over the last 6 years or more – from the height of economic activity (and its effects on the landscape) right through to recession times (and the visible effects on the landscape). Throughout the process of developing this work, there has been a necessity to consciously, and un-consciously at times, adapt an ever-changing approach to suit an ever-changing landscape.

My intention has always been to ‘express’, somehow, the sensitivity I feel and experience when drifting around these changing landscapes; to offer a fresh perception and visually react to that special connection to landscape that I feel. I have always had an impulse to do this work (I am guided mainly by my impulse when it comes to photography). My impulsion to work, and the ‘ease’ I feel when working has become my raison d’etre over the last number of years. I have never really understood why. I have been told that it has to do with loss (I have experienced loss in its various forms throughout my life, and, yes, this makes sense). It has been suggested to me that it also is my way of connecting to that which I feel disconnected to – namely the landscape and a need to feel a compensatory attachment to it (yes, given my rural background, this also makes sense). But, I try not to delve too much into the latent reasons and internal motivating factors behind my work.

However, there comes a time, when at mid stream, that you need to check how fast the water is moving. As I now enter, as I do every year at this time, a period of relative hibernation, and concentrate on re-directing my energy and focus onto teaching life and shift emphasis for a while onto my students work again. With 50-odd in first year and 38 in second year I am feeling anxious and uneasy at the prospect of not finding a calm balance, amid the caos of college life to contemplate and reflect on my own work with a clear and lucid head-space. This is especially difficult in a place where there are heavy financial, spatial and other limitations placed on a handful of tutors to deliver as much as they can in a short period of time.

So as I set about fitting my teacher-head again, I am at the realization that this current cycle of work with what has come to be titled ‘Suspended State’ is coming to a necessary end. However, I am in a most positive frame of mind. I have been lucky enough to find ‘that place’ a number of times recently and come to several fresh understandings about the whole journey and process of dealing with the project as well as deciding on a few directions leading to, hopefully, some closure and an exhibition of the work in the near future.

Visual Notebook
I have started to keep a visual diary again for this work. This was something I used a lot in college and something I encourage my own students to do. Ideas evaporate. The diary is a collection of ongoing notes, ideas, sample images, drawings, sketches, similar artists’ work, proposed exhibition plans; scribbles, doodles and coffee rings. It is the physical manifestation of the ongoing thought process, which facilitates the conceptualization of the body of work up to that point, and has helped me to find direction for that process. It gives me something tangible to sit with – on busses, at breakfast, at work - with which to consider approaches and ideas. It has become my external brain to an extent and something which I feel is an integral part of how I work (below are some Samples of Pages and Selected notes)

Issues of Audience (Diary Notes: July 2010)
I have settled on some issues of ‘audience’ that have been bugging me for some time. By ‘audience’ I am alluding to the ‘ideal viewer’ which, as Jeff wall suggested, exists in the mind of every artist. For instance, if the work is trying to express a social issue, that audience is a large segment of society; if it is conceptual art, then maybe a more art-savvy, informed and discerning viewer. Issues of ‘elitism’ abound, I have discovered that my work, while to some extent is open-ended when it comes to what any given individual can ‘get’ from the work, has got an ‘ideal viewer’. This is evident in my decision process thus far, as I have become more and more submerged into the work (Note to self, June 2010: “I have also to question whether people see this project solely as social commentary when frankly I do not?”) I have to acknowledge that my work was not about the recession, not about the landscape, not about social conditions, not about the economic conditions, not about documenting what is simply there. It is, at some levels all of these things. But, at its very essence, my work is also not about these things. It was and is, however, in its very nature, about one thing – its about ‘photography’! It was and is about my own explorations of photography – about changing approaches, about forcing a certain vision that I hope to me my own, about finding the right expression to suit the ‘aura’ of the landscape; it was about consciously adapting my approach to an ever-changing landscape which would somehow ‘express’ the social, cultural and economic condition or ‘state’ of my country as reflected in the landscape. It is a complex interplay between subject and that subjects representation. I feel I used the landscape, the economic reality of that landscape, to explore photography. My audience are people who may recognize and identify with this. Maybe?.

Abstract Documentary (Diary Notes: July 2010)
Another question to be grappled with is: How far abstract can one go and still remain documentary? What may seem a contradiction in terms is something I like to explore. In fact at the last meeting of Reflexions Masterclass, director of the European House of Photography Jean-Luc Monterosso commented that this approach was a nice ‘hook’ throughout my work which ‘pulled and pushed’ the viewer in extreme ways. The lack of sense of scale needs, at certain points, to be ‘grounded’ in reality. Yet, not too much. (Note to self: should the tripod, when visual in the picture, be in the same position every time?)

Rhetoric, Document and Lunar Landings (Diary Notes: Sept 2010)
There is a rhetoric of ‘suspension’ implicit in many of the images (the title itself suggests a country in a condition of economic immobility). There is also in parts the perception that one is ‘suspended’ – hovering, floating, hanging over these landscapes – where there is no real sense of scale or size; where there is a disconcerting lack of contact with the physical and with the real (Note to self: Can this express anything about the psychological condition of the present?) There is also a visual rhetoric of ‘exploration’ in some of the images – one is, hopefully, subtly reminded of the visual iconography of lunar landings and visually connect the terrestrial ambiguities presented in here (Note to Self: Why this approach?)

This particular cycle of work is coming to a necessary end. I am struggling to bring a sort of closure to this project. The reality that this does not suit a book format, that it is most effective when printed large and experienced in a gallery context, is a positive realization for me. My plan is to find out-of-gallery locations to exhibit (perhaps empty shop units, factories, or maybe a one night exhibition in the darkness of an abandoned estate in Longford, for instance). I am unsure at this point about the financial realities that may thwart my wild ideas, but, its worth a shot. I feel the work is at its most relevant right now and it needs to be shown. I may need help! Any sympathetic philanthropists out there take note.

'Postcards From The Celtic Tiger' - Xuhui, Shanghai July 2010

POSTCARDS FROM THE CELTIC TIGER confronts the radical contrasts resulting from massive shifts caused by the economic boom to the recent downturn, presenting a collective vision of contemporary Ireland through visual art.

Using photography, video and sound to challenge stereotypical metaphors relating to Irish landscape, or employing collage and digital imagery to respond to recent changes, the artworks range from the satirical to a subtle, visual poetry. Also included are pieces utilizing strong documentary practises and found footage reflecting current events and trends in Irish society, from the Peace Process to youth culture.

Postcards from the Celtic Tiger is made possible with support from Culture Ireland, Cork City Council, The Irish Embassy in Shanghai China, the Culture Bureau in th Xuihui district, Sirius Arts Centre, Cork Film Centre and the Arts Council. . This exhibition is the next chapter of important cultural twinning activites between Cobh, Cork City and the Xuhui Disctrict in Shanghai, China. The exhibition links in with other outside events connected to Expo 2010 currently taking place in Shanghai. For more informaiton please contact: Peggy Sue Amison at: or: 087 633 1974.

‘The Photo Course’: The Point of Departure (June 2010)

“…All in all you’re just another brick in the wall…..” – Pink Floyd, The Wall

This series is part of the ongoing ‘The Photo Course’ project. I wanted to do something which reflects the ‘void’ that I experience every year at this particular time, when I say goodbye to another group of students that I have worked with in the college. I can only describe this void as something akin to the end of a relationship, when there is an over-riding feeling of sad reflection – an uneasy emptiness at a time of transition.

There is a sense of vacancy about my series of blank exhibiting boards, for instance. They are taken just after the students take their work down after their end of year show. The little squares are one half of the hanging mechanisms which remain attached after the work is stripped from the boards. This work is not about resentment or antipathy towards students or towards my job. Its about ‘detachment’. It speaks of a certain reality of these transient, ephemeral relationships which are built year upon year between myself and my students. In a way, it is my attempt to deal with the departure of people who I have invested so much paternal energy and time into - ‘facilitating learning’ as the textbooks proclaim. This series reflects that point of departure. Maybe that feeling that is manifest in me has to do with the reality that these boards and those half hanging mechanisms are all that is physically left for me after my yearly investments in other peoples work. There is also the reality of times relentless melt and the passing of yet another year.

The following images were taken on my last day, when the building was empty and I floated around aimlessly looking for..'something':

June 2nd 2010

The following Images were taken before and after and around some of my classes with this years graduates (September 2008 - May 2010).

Sept 29th 2008. Class 3. Notes
After 907 class. Feb 2009
Sept 2008.

Approaching the Theme of Borders: Some Considerations, Past and Present

The theme of 'Borders' is part of my presentation to the 2010 Reflexions Masterclass in Basel. Each participant was asked to approach notions of ‘Borders’ in Photography. The following blog-post contains some musings on how my work to date may have dealt with borders. I like the idea that I can revisit old work (even some I really do not like to acknowledge or necessarily want to share) and re-contextualize it within a chosen theme. Maybe I can learn about what kind of photographer I am from such a practice.

On Defining Borders
Borders define certain spaces. They immediately give notions of demarcating geographic boundaries - separating nations, cultural entities, economies and peoples. They signify division - conflicted or contested landscapes, either side of a divide, which are forced into duality and opposition. In this regard, a border represents history drawing lines in the sands of geography. It is the definite entity inscribed into a landscape - the ‘place’ where there is a union, a contact-point, a barrier or a separation.

On Border Experiences
Yet, every border is equipped with its own set of conditions. Personally, I think of my trips through-out South-East Asia and the various crossing-points between countries: the 5ft wide river that separates Burma from Thailand in Tachilek and the stark differences between the two places; the presumably unauthorized border control I encountered while entering Cambodia from Laos on a small wooden boat – where an ‘officer’ dressed in army gear from the waist up and Bermuda shorts from the waist down stamped my passport before I was swindled out of 5o dollars to retrieve my backpack, which had been anchored off shore in a boat by three local grifters. I think of Laos itself – a country defined from a buffer zone to keep waring factions apart. I think of the time I mistakenly entered into American soil from the Canadian side without my passport (just trying to take a picture, stupid kid, of where they both meet) and suffered the humiliation of hyper-strict border controls on both sides. I also think of the boat crossing between Tarifa in Spain over to Tangiers and the distinct cultural differences between North Africa and Southern Europe.

Tachilek, Thai/Burma Border. 2005

Cambodia. 2005

Interzone. Tangiers. 2002

On Borders Within the Image
A constant physical and psychological ‘border’ within all photography is the barrier(s) which exist between the photographer and the world photographed. Just by looking at my image from Tangiers, for instance, we can identify this to a degree. This image fell out of two-three rolls of film I shot whilst I approached the coast of Tangiers from Spain. This was my first sight of North Africa and was a visually stimulating couple of minutes and the image is amongst my favourites from my work to date. But, briefly, and in a critical way, we can suggest three borders which inhabit and are enclosed within the image itself – apart from the obvious border photographed between North Africa and Europe. Firstly, the border between my own subjective perspective and the physical surface of the world I am looking at. Secondly, the glass of the docking boat which adds to this sense of distance between inside and outside and maybe adds to the ‘being-there-ness’ quality of the image. And, finally, the actions of the camera itself - focus, use of depth of field, blur, etc - which reinforce that distance and emphasize that boundary between inside and outside worlds, between subjective and objective perspectives. The camera makes each invisible to an extent. When Susan Sontag suggests that images “hide more than they reveal” she is partly referencing this very notion. The photographer tries to naturalize the images true-to-nature views and hide the construction beneath the seductive surface of the image. Here it is evident. I wanted the viewer to share my visual experience of that moment of that scene as it opened up in front of my eyes. Similarly, the below images of a morning in a hotel in Marseille and the water seperating North and South New Zealand try to share the sense of visual experience and share my sense of zest for that subjective moment.

On Conflict and Duality
I remember one of my tutors in IADT, Mick Wilson, telling me that there was always a suggestion of ‘conflict’ within many of my images that was, maybe, a bit too ‘obvious’. True, much of my photography at that point seemed to work directly at times on a type of duality between two opposite objects or ideas within the image – for instance a lot of work I did placed a direct relationship between the ideals of the advertisement billboards of the Celtic Tiger against the ‘reality’ of the surrounding environment. Or the below image of the prosperity of Bangkok against the poverty of the city. Barthes in Camera Lucida had suggested that many images - or messages, to be more appropriate to his argument, seem to work in this way. I think I was trying to create ‘messages’, or something to that effect. But, I feel that these images were stepping stones in my development, and were a way of both looking at the world critically through the camera and trying to make my images more than just ‘pretty’ pictures; ones that maybe were making statements about the world I knew. Over the years I have tried to be a bit more subtle in this approach, maybe more suggestive.

Future Projections. Napoli. 2001

Bangkok. 2004

New World. Wellington, NZ. 2004

On the Theme of Urban vs Nature
A common motif, however, running through-out my work, is one which references an ‘urban vs nature’, or ‘human development vs nature’ approach. Informed, to a degree by legacy of Atget, or the work of the New Topographics, this is evident in the very early work from the midlands project – a very definite theme which dealt with the increasing development of housing estates and industrial estates in small rural towns. The below image, for instance, displays the almost violent rupture of nature with such development. While the image on the right references the ongoing struggle with an unruly nature – someone has painted over the moss on the wall. (Note to self: what is interesting in this image is that I had started to think about referencing landscape traditions, or maybe subvert traditions, by making spaces look like broader landscape compositions, etc. This is something I have carried on throughout my practice over the last few years).

On Undefined Borders
Part of the Midlands work, in essence, dealt with the notion that while many areas have demarcation points, the ‘midlands’ was essentially an undefined entity – a non-geographic, non-place which was under constant construction and redefinition at the height of the development. The work suggested and described the ‘porosity’ of the sorts of borders that existed in both rural towns due to suburbanization and the conceptual expansion of the midlands region. It was difficult to identify any definite border which demarcated where the midlands began and where it ended. I remember seeing shop units and commercial paint vans in Wexford and in Mayo, for instance, which proclaimed their business as ‘Midlands Electrical’ or ‘Midlands Paint Contractors’. Thus, maybe part of the project suggested that the Midlands was partly defined through commercial desires to break out of the limitations of ‘the local’. (Sidenote: An underlying theme of the project showed the effects of globalization, maybe, and economic ‘liberalization’, or speculative lassie-faire economic policies, which have made traditional borders increasingly impermeable.)

On the Subjective Border
Photography can also explore borders from an autobiographical perspective according to subjective perception. On a deeper level, a border can relate to an opposition between an inside and an outside world – between subjective and objective or between what is intimate and what is external. My recent ‘Sketches From Home’ series is about the relationship between my rural background and my photographic work – a reflexive body of work which tries to explore, in a real way, the sense of guilt, the sense of ambivilance to breaking family lineages, maybe(?). With this project there is a direct attempt to explore the tension between two impulses – tradition vs artistic. The camera can, in this regard, bring together two worlds for a clearer understanding of both.

With this on-going work, there are also vulnerabilities. To allow others to visually trespass into my inviolable space (again, crossing my own personal boundaries). Here others can view how I negotiate my own nature through photography - a medium that has opened up new worlds and perspectives to me. Hopefully people will understand that I try to explore my nature in an open and honest way. I feel that much of the works I have seen of this theme of ‘lost traditions’ when it comes to rural life is documented by outsiders who naturally promote a strong sense of ‘loss’ or demise (of culture, or tradition, or whatever) or a highly emotive sense of pathos. The real conditions of rural life to the outsider is mis-understood. I want my work to be as subjective as it can be – to explore the real conditions of my own relationship with rural life. I no longer live in rural Ireland, but it is very much a part of who I am. I feel that each time I use the camera, I force a new understanding of my life, my culture, the landscape, and the medium of photography itself and how and why I use it.