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ICONIC, IRONIC OR PROBLEMATIC.

February 24, 2019

 At Vicious Collective we really believe in each others work. That's why we do this. The so called 'Art World' continues to choose to obstinately ignore us, or not take us seriously, but we thrive off their indifference. Supporting and pushing each others work on where ever we can. Here is VC's Conrad Armstrong taking VC's Ben Palmer's photography very seriously. Don't worry though, its not an academic essay, Conrad didn't go to Art School and neither did Ben, with the exception of a few brief flings - so this is more of a Love letter from one admiring artist to another. You don't have to read it, just look at the picture and make up your own mind...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ICONIC, IRONIC OR PROBLEMATIC: 

Accessibility to image and meaning in the 21st Century. 

By Conrad Armstrong 

 

Depictions of everyday life are as old as human history. Pre-historic cave paintings celebrated hunting practices, Sumerian tablets recorded their public life nearly 7,000 years ago, the oil paintings by L.S. Lowry show industrial scenes inherited from the 19th century. The 20th century added Documentary and Street Photography and now the 21st century offers an incessant stream of images from social media platforms depicting the banal and epic moments of public and private life. Images flow daily from both self-identifying artists and a cross sections of society with access to Smart Phones. In the West with our (apparently) unrestricted access to the internet, free public art galleries with disabled access and public libraries with disabled access & IT support, those with the ability of sight have access to a previously unprecedented array of images (within reason). 

 

There has been a cultural shift in accessibility to images. They are no longer reserved for the mostly wealthy, able bodied, academic, artistic, intellectual and largely white-male dominated circles. Greater inclusivity has also shifted the discourse around our daily images. Now, potential conversations can sometimes include the actual ‘subjects’ of such images, whereas previously they were mostly ‘objects’ of the artists’ privileged, white, able bodied, male gaze. Although this more egalitarian approach to image consumption must be positive, the ease of accessibility to images we now enjoy has diluted some of their impact and meaning. The iconic work of the so called ‘Masters’ can be viewed in the same searched sentence as throw away ironic memes, pictures of avocados, Jihadi beheadings, cute little pussy-cats and satellite views of every street scene in the world via Google Image Search. 

 

In 1838 the first photograph of figures within a cityscape was taken by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. They were there in the view from his studio window on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The laborious exposure time and cumbersome process of the daguerreotype lacked the mobility and ‘candid’ nature of the 20th Century street and documentary photographers. Ben Palmer’s photographic practice is very much a continuation of the 20th Century street photographers’ work. He takes full advantage of the access enabled by his being an able-bodied, white, male of Western European origin to capture some of the most thrilling, intimate, thought-provoking and daring moments of street photography I know of today. Ben embodies Victor Fournel’s description in ‘Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris’ (What one sees on the streets of Paris) of the flâneur, using his mobility, both physically and socially, to observe a rich urban experience. 

 

Palmer has dedicated much of his adult life to a pursuit of analogue photography, denying his access to the ease of doctored trickery and post production manipulations inherent, necessary and encouraged in digital photography. Denying himself access to the facility of cropping his images, Palmer has developed a far more intuitive compositional style, taking risks and allowing the frenetic dice roll of chance to play some part in the fate of his images. His legendary ‘Bubble Dog’ photograph so playfully and humorously attests to this. Palmer doesn’t presume to be master of his subject, as is so common in the digital age of photography and art. The subject remains in command as he artfully reacts. This process has pushed Palmer to perfect his eye in framing, to understand the physical mechanism of the camera and of the printing process. He is driven to produce images to the best of his ability inside the camera itself. This lack of post-production doctoring is an important aspect of Palmer’s work, made explicit with this image in particular. 

 

Palmer has wandered the streets (maybe for hours), seen the moment with his eyes, pointed the camera, focused, momentarily adjusted composition and taken the shot. This has all taken place in a time frame that would span no longer than a few heart beats. This almost thoughtless moment relies so fully on his instinct and skill as a photographer to capture the shot. He then attempts, through various development processes, to stay as closely and honestly as possible to the original image captured in that moment without any further manipulation. It is in this interesting layer of context that we search for meaning in the image. The exposure to light then remains in the inaccessible and fragile darkness of the camera’s mechanical womb, an embryo on the roll, waiting for the shutter to blink open and expose another fraction of the celluloid. Ben continues to traverse the streets of Paris grasping at flashes of fertile light. The image must then wait patiently in the darkness until Ben has completed his roll. The film is then developed at some future time dictated by arbitrary clicks and born into being as a tiny image on a contact sheet along with many others. These are a family of images connected by nothing more than the linear passing of time along a roll of film. Many of these images will be deemed failures and never grow beyond anything more than a dull fragment on a contact sheet. Many others will be remembered from their moment of conception in time as having potential. Ben is always eager to see ‘how they came out’, but there will be mixed feelings of disappointment and amazement as some of the frames on the contact sheet will seem to have a kind of chance power making them grow taller than the others as they battle for further life. 

 

This image is a kind of mechanical miracle, a Deus ex Machina. The process of selection, chance and consideration that has bought it into being. Light photons from a Parisian Street now exist within the screen of my Laptop in Glasgow where I now write about it. This is nothing but extraordinary. My accessibility to this image is unprecedented. I too am an able-bodied, white, Western European male from a similar class background to Ben. Like Ben, I have had the privilege to bury my head in the canon of Human Art and Imagery for much of my life. With the white privilege of being able to freely choose our area of interest in art rather than having it choose us through any necessity for survival. Myself and Palmer are both fully aware of the flawed search for meaning and interpretation in this image. I am asked to pontificate upon its appropriate place within my own goal of establishing it as an Iconic, ironic or problematic image; within the genre of street photography. An interesting secondary filter to be aware of in its current presentation is its selection by artist and curator Rowena Boshier for an exhibition of Ben’s photos she is putting together with critical responses from various people, such as this piece of writing. And Rowena is an able-bodied, white, Western European female . . . 

 

As these layers of context seem to build insurmountably around our search for meaning in the image, I realise I have failed to even mention much that is to do with the image itself. For me to access interpretation of this image is clearly problematic. How can I not be projecting my own meaning onto this image? I believe, on first interpretation, that this image is everything my title suggests. I think it is simultaneously Iconic, Ironic and Problematic. 

 

It is ‘Problematic’ in terms of consent from any of the subjects depicted in the image and the ‘meaning’ implied by composition on the ‘subjects’. A commentary on French law regarding consent within the genre of street photography states; 

 

“While also limiting photography in order to protect privacy rights, street photography can still be legal in France when pursued as an art form under certain circumstances. While in one prominent case the freedom of artistic expression trumped the individual's right to privacy, the legality will much depend on the individual case.” 

 

And, of course, these laws differ from country to country. 

 

The photographing of minors and other vulnerable members of society without their consent is clearly problematic and will be illegal in many cases. It remains, however, the task of an artist to challenge society’s values and its viewers’ perceptions, to be the brave black mirror in exploration of uncomfortable themes and spaces. As Samuel R Delaney states in Empire Star: 

 

“The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society’s values, can force it to change.” 

 

This photograph is both artistic and potentially criminal; both judgements imposed by others before a word can be uttered from the author of the photograph itself, Ben Palmer. 

 

It is important to note, on the subject of consent, that Palmer does practise consent with his subjects far more than most street photographers of whom I am aware. I have witnessed him asking permission on many occasions to take someone’s picture, not just presumptuously snatching their image off the street for his own purposes. Ben has taken the trouble to build real relationships with the Roma people in the camps of Paris before even producing a camera. I have seen him make trades with street people for their image, giving them money or food in return, and abstaining from taking their photo when he had nothing to give. This care, compassion and non-presumption of entitlement is what gives Ben the edge over other more callous, white, able-bodied, male photographers whose presumed privilege entitles them to take similar shots, that often lack integrity, soul and most importantly authenticity. 

 

In western society people with disabilities are still very much marginalised and, in many cases, demonised thorough lack of empathy and understanding. The physical geography and architecture of the urban environment tells us this every day. Many spaces in the city are seriously inaccessible to all but the able bodied. Disability access ramps are often brutal additions to old buildings, imperfectly lashed on to a design and signifying our imperfect shift in values away from arcane ableism over time. Disabled access seems to be shown as a nuisance and aesthetic blemish. The steel ramp is often a shameful afterthought as society struggles with its own conscience. In this photograph the disabled character inhabits the peripheral space on the picture frame, an awkward addition to the composition, sunlit face framed by the shadows beyond. There is some hope in the image though as we see the person supported by technological advances in mobility and life sustaining machinery. The figure of their faceless guardian, representing the small and undervalued army of carers who make their survival possible, stands in their own shadow even further toward the edge of the picture. The literal fringe. Their caring hand firmly rests in light on the head rest. The element that connects the two worlds present in this image, is a pair of expensive looking, black, mobility machines. There is a strange similarity in the design of the hubcaps on both machines. They resemble a five-pointed radioactive hazard symbol and could be read as an abstract device conveying a subtle warning at the potentially dangerous undercurrent in the image. Is it even safe for us to look at this image? 

 

Is this image harmful? 

 

My interpretation of the two children in the luxury mobility car can only be heavily affected by my own class background, that of a lower middle and working class white experience. I assume these children are from a more wealthy and privileged social class, because of the extravagance of their toy and their prim, white, matching hats. This I guess is where the potential irony of the image lies as we interpret our own cruel injustice in the scene. Both subjects could be potentially vulnerable if left alone on the streets, particularly as the children are seemingly unaccompanied. Experience suggests that we can assume that their guardian, au pair or parent is close behind, but out of the picture frame, and therefore a compositional choice adding further drama to the image. Interestingly, given that I see through the able-ist conditioning of our societal programming, on first inspection I might conclude that the disabled person ‘cannot’ be of the same class as the children and their mobility machine is not taking them to the same destination as the luxury toy car. Although the mobility machine of the disabled person has a much more vital function, and is a far greater material and ideological contribution to society than the expensive luxury toy car, it is still somehow inferior. My conditioning as an able-bodied person raised in London would perceive the disabled person to not be socially mobile, and to be greatly handicapped in their prospects of survival within the competitive capitalist system, no matter what their background is. By being disabled, they become a kind of sub-class in society’s eyes, and worryingly in my own eyes, until this image and my search for meaning within it challenges me to reform this perception in myself. This for me is the most uncomfortable aspect of this image. It’s also why seeing and interpreting this image is important and necessary as our perception and attitudes to those with disabilities is in the most part dangerous and pathetically inadequate. 

 

In the canon of western art, social and mass media, there are innumerable depictions of able bodied people. It’s only quite recently that any groups other than the white privileged of society have been shown in any significant or sympathetic way, and even these depictions of minority groups have been made by a largely white able-bodied privileged group. For this reason, the most iconic images of mental health and disability that come to mind are still Hogarth’s renditions of torture in Bedlam, Ken Kesey’s ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ 

and perhaps Lars Von Trier’s ‘The Idiots’ as prominent or iconic depictions of people with disabilities and mental health issues. All of which are incredibly problematic for their own reasons, and haven’t particularly helped change our current able-ist views. Other such images that have perhaps had a more positive and constructive message towards shifting and challenging attitudes have not been perceived as worthy of becoming iconic by the art world. The art world suffers from similarly negative issues as most other industries that operate within the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. However, we must note the societal enthusiasm, support and financial success of the Paralympic Games in London 2012. Also, the French ‘buddy comedy’ 2011 blockbuster ‘Intouchables’ by Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano that grossed an amazing Box Office taking of €360 million on a €9.5 million budget, the film not only stars an actor with disabilities but also an actor of colour as his co-star. Once capitalism wakes up to the lucrative possibilities and will to support works that depict minority groups, I am sure we will notice a change in the tide of this trend. ‘Intouchables’ originally struggled to find investors to fund the film, due to nervousness around the theme of disability. One financier reportedly asked if perhaps the character could ‘walk a little bit’. With the film becoming the highest-grossing French film in many countries, we would assume financiers won’t be so nervous next time they are asked to back a similar project. This trend of slowly moving away from Films & TV that predominantly revolve around depictions of able-bodied white males is being felt throughout all minority groups. The trend is driven by their financial success and the enthusiastic support from the groups represented. Profit, after all, is the only real ideology of capitalism. 

 

‘Intouchables’ is definitely not exempt from criticism, as the actor, François Cluzet, who plays the wealthy quadriplegic character in the film, is still an able bodied Western European White Male. With so few roles available to actors with disabilities, this choice to not use a disabled actor and wheel chair user makes this film still just a small step in the right direction, but still remains ingrained with problematic of ableism and for this reason lacks true authenticity. This is a clear example to back another reason why we wouldn’t expect the disabled person in Palmer’s image to have any decent prospects in life, as even jobs and opportunities potentially ideal, aren’t being filled by people with disabilities. Perhaps, one day in a similar way to women being banned from Shakespearean theatre, ‘blacking up’, or the white actor Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Ghandi in the 1982 film ‘Ghandi’. Our unacceptability of female roles played by male actors or roles for people of colour being played by white actors, will perhaps one day be equivalent to our acceptability of unable-bodied roles being filled by able-bodied actors. This of course will only be if we continue to strive for a fairer and more inclusive society, with great levels of accessibility for all. This greater level of accessibility is not an inevitable result of ‘progress’ and the passing of time, but something that must be fought for and supported. 

 

Ben Palmer’s depiction is not malicious or mocking. There is a real sympathy and humanity in this image. Ben has pointed his camera and tried to present a scene as authentically as he possibly can within the limits of the medium. I contend, although Palmer personally disagrees, that it’s also important to acknowledge his own family experiences with disability, having a disabled sister who requires considerable care and support. Ben would prefer a kind of anonymity from his images. I want the 21st century to ask for artists to be accountable for their actions. No longer does the patriarchal excuse of ‘separating the artist from their art’ seem justifiable. Disability is a difficult subject to address, but I think Palmer has the authenticity of experience and understanding to deal with it with integrity. 

 

This image should be accessible by all for the important discourse it could prompt around our personal and societal values towards disability & access. I therefore make the case that this image should be regarded as iconic rather than ironic, and should be lauded for its brave approach to such a problematic subject as we continue to struggle in search of meaning. 

 

Conrad Armstrong 

Glasgow, 21.1.2018

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