Berlin trip – window photography

During our trip to Berlin in half term, we were offered 3 briefs. I chose to focus on the one titled ‘Through the window, outside in/inside out’. Here I was to explore the window as an intermediate space of communication between exterior and interior, as well as its materiality and reflective properties.

I felt drawn to this in particular as this dialogue between exterior and interior could be used as a metaphor for the interior and exterior self, something I am looking to explore further in my FMP. Here I have segmented some of the photos I feel most successful that I took during the trip, according to the theme I feel they best espouse: materiality & reflection, looking in/out & framing, concealment, distortion, openings, with some text discussing each in turn.

Materiality & Reflection

I was particularly interested in this reflective quality of windows. At once, we are seeing through and also back at ourselves/our reality. It creates a new reality, one that only exists at that particular perspective, a fiction. It is therefore fleeting and ephemeral. Something the camera can exploit and frustrate. In this too, in the process of capturing that reflection I was often capturing a reflection of myself, a self-portrait that was not the primary intention of the photograph. These were intriguingly anonymised though, as I held it up to my face to see through the viewfinder, my face is obscured almost completely by the camera itself.

The reflective quality of glass in windows was apparently a central interest for Walter Gropius in the design of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he made use of spiegelglas (mirror glass) to enhance reflectivity, which we visited on our trip.

I was also interested to discover at the Bauhaus museum the photographs of Marianne Brandt, who was a student and then faculty member leading the metal workshop at the school. Here she had a series of self-portraits using a spherical reflective surface, choosing to make her face visible, which reminded me of a similar sketched self-portrait by M.C. Escher. These distorted reflections are interesting, though I do wonder if she was more interested in the materiality of the metal than the exploration of self here.

Looking in /out – framing

In review of the photos I had taken that could fit under this theme, I found that I did not like the aesthetic of many of them. I found the framed view wanting. Here the selected group lend a certain eery sensibility. I think from the mode of surveillance/observation that this takes. All of them seem to be off kilter for me as a viewer, and there is something particularly sinister with the harsh highlighting in the first picture, of the man at leisure. It reminds me of Hopper somewhat.

Concealment

When we toured the Boros Collection during our trip, we were introduced to the work of Peter Piller, who works from an archive of collected photographs from print and digital media, and in this case from the collection of a home photography retailer operating before Google Maps (who took aerial photos of in residential areas to sell to the residents). One of the series from this collection that we saw comprised 9 photos with houses where the window blinds were shut.

Sleeping Houses (with closed blinds), Peter Piller 2000-4

I found it interesting how he effectively analysed and catalogued these collections, identifying patterns in behaviour and in the stereotyped language of media imagery. Another series showed people washing their cars in front of their homes. I was interested to explore this for myself, and so took photos of windows that were obscured from external view in some way. Particularly interesting for me was the sense that these sleeping buildings were left derelict, or were more susceptible to graffiti. But too that the means of concealment/shuttering often provided intriguing colour. I especially like the colour scheme of the final photograph, with the sub-bleached pale mint green colour on the blinds, marrying with the mottled pastel pink effect of the distressed white-washed brick walls.

Distortion

I like these photos for giving a sense of dislocation. The exterior is not visible, reduced only to a blurred white light, and there is little detail in the interior to provide context here either. It subverts the purpose of the window for seeing in or out, and makes it more of an abstract form in itself – we see the window itself. The surrounding light (or absence of it) is in contrast to that which illuminates the window – we see the window as having a primary function of illuminating the interior, bringing the light in. But in each case this purpose is also somewhat undermined by dirt, or blinds, or colouration of the panes. I am most pleased by the depth and shade occurring in the first photograph here, the most abstracted, with the simplicity of just one pane of glass.

This dislocation was also explored by an artist I saw at the Kindl gallery in Berlin, who made a site-specific in the Kesselhaus there. She covered the 3 windowless walls with true-to-life floor to ceiling prints of the windows that are seen on the fourth wall of the Kesselhaus. When we observe these prints, we are simultaneously seeing the exterior, but not the exterior we would see were those windows in fact real.

Panorama, Bettina Pousttchi (2019)

Openings

I was also interested in windows where the distinction between interior and exterior was less clear – when the window is open or broken. A broken window implies some sort of violent act (whether human or not), in the act of breaking the glass itself, but also violating that boundary of exterior/interior. But whether cracked or open, it would still for us be defined as a window all the same.

Unit 2: Future – Future self-portrait further research/context

I felt my experiment in the future self-portrait (capturing the view of self when we are able to see through the eyes of others in a telepathic future) was successful, but I wanted to think more around this notion of self-image and how we are concerned and influenced by how others perceive us. This had me think back to previous research of mine around the male gaze and female depictions of themselves . This seems to be a recurring concern of mine!

I was aware of a new BBC series presented by Mary Beard around the nude in Western art, and was particularly interested to take a look as I knew that as part of this she had explored being the subject of a life drawing study. She was driven to do this from the sense that ‘I am still looking for a naked portrait of an older woman who looks like I feel.’, and from using an example from Rodin that typical mainstream western art uses the naked form of an older woman as a symbol of what has been lost (the beauty of youth), and not depicted in a sympathetic way as we do see with nude depictions of older men.

She who was the Helmet maker’s once-beautiful wife (1887), Auguste Rodin

She wanted too to put herself in the position of the people she has been studying throughout the two programme series (the nude models). There is a self-consciousness though to this and it’s interesting to hear the feelings she had around this situation and her own perceptions of self in this scenario. She simultaneously casts herself as old (in her physical appearance) and adolescent (in her psychology).

I do feel a bit apprehensive about this – I think oh, I hope I don’t look too fat you know it’s a terrible kind of, well, adolescent vanity really.

She asks Catherine Goodman, who has agreed to draw her nude, if this is a common apprehension in her models. The artist answers that actually many of her models enjoy the gaze of another, the opportunity to just ‘be themselves’ for a short while. This is intriguing I suppose. It’s a unique sort of situation in the modern world, to be looked upon naked without judgment or sexualisation. This is perhaps the draw of nudism. But I am less interested in the impulse to be seen naked as the desire to understand how others perceive us per se.

Mary is still aware that some viewers are going to think ‘Did she have to?’ about her being a nude model – implying again that she feels herself an undesirable sight, “whereas I feel quite sort of, slightly brave about doing this”. It is literally bearing all in front of national television after all! Something I think many people would outright refuse to do. But it is interesting she is surrendering to this vulnerability and displaying that most private view of herself. Having sat for Catherine twice, on her third visit Mary allowed the cameras in, and admitted to being nervous.

It’s funny not having seen anything that you’ve done… of me I mean. It’s funny because I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me. Which is really what it is, isn’t it.

This is a curious phrase I will return to below, but particularly since Mary Beard is a familiar face on our television screens now, presenting many documentaries and now regularly appearing as a presenter on Front Row Late. Indeed, her first documentary series caused a stir from some quarters, as trolls and commentators such as A.A.Gill felt her unapologetic aged appearance should have no place on our screens. So she must be aware of how some view her, but perhaps the intimacy of life drawing is affording for her a glimpse of the view of someone with a deeper (and more human) understanding of her. We then see Mary’s nudes and hear her first reactions to them, alongside Catherine.

Oh wow! I thought I’d be a bit horrified of them. And I’m not remotely horrified by them and I think that, you know, the fleshy over-60s bits kind of work fine. I look at myself and I don’t think ‘Oh god she should lose a bit of weight’, I think ‘that’s me‘. And you know to some extent, I feel happy with it.

I notice I wasn’t much looking at you. You know, we were chatting quite a lot but I wasn’t looking and well I saw you looking at me and thought you are actually trying to work out how to do my tits.

So she was happy with the result, and seems she came out of the situation feeling good about the depiction of herself by another. What most interests me though is what she said prior to seeing these drawings. “I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me.”

This is intriguing to me, because the role of the artist here can only approximate or mimic how someone might view us in real life. In this modelling scenario, they are manufacturing an intimacy that would not otherwise exist, and therefore the view of the model is not a real one from their own lives. Yes, the artist can and often does seek to establish an understanding, a relationship with the model to more accurately capture their perception of that person, but the perception itself is not natural, it is not quite the same kind of perception that the people in our lives will have of us (beside the fact that each person in our lives probably has a unique one). This I suppose has parallels in the research problem, and the observation effect. It is impossible for us to observe or research naturalistic behaviour because the very fact that we are observing them warps the results.

There is a deeper problem however, to do with whether someone could accurately depict how they view another person. So imagining that a person in our lives was an artist, could they draw how they see us? This is the problem of validity in self-reporting – if we were to ask someone exactly how they viewed a person, even if they were fully compliant and adopting a ‘no-holds-barred’ response (throwing social convention bias to the wind), we would not get an accurate response, because this is something they are making conscious and rationalised which would otherwise not be. We simply cannot escape the cognitive biases that oversee our rationalisations to give a pure answer (though one question to consider is if we in fact do want to know how people see us through this cognitive lens)

This can be considered with allusion to identity theory accounts of how self-reporting of individuals around their own behaviour can be inaccurate. An oft used method is to ask people (through a self-administered survey) how much exercise they perform, and then compare this to direct observation of their exercise (unknown to the respondent) – for instance we might see someone over-report how much they exercise in a week. Answers usually reflect not only the actual self that we observe ourselves, but also the self that we wish to be (ideal self – reflecting the people we aspire to be), or the self we feel we ought to be (ought self – reflecting the internalised norms we have identified from the behaviours valued in our society). It can therefore make sense for someone to pep up the account of their exercise routine to paint a picture of themselves that is more flattering to their idealised or normative perceptions of self.

So wouldn’t these idealised and normative notions of identity also play a part in how someone consciously describes another person? If we are incapable of reporting our selves devoid of such influence, it is dubious we could do so for reporting of another. The act of portraiture in this sense is a projection of the values of the artist. We can better understand under such terms the male gaze in art, though perhaps not excuse it. The male has internalised norms around the female – what is valued (sexual appeal, physical beauty, submission, virtue, etc.), and so depicts or judges models based on this – hence how Rodin’s elderly woman is seen in terms of the loss of such qualities, rather than a more sympathetic depiction.

This reminds me of the famous destruction by Winston Churchill of the portrait Graham Sutherland created of him in his later life, now dramatised in the series The Crown. He reportedly said that it made him ‘look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand.’ and fought against it being publicly presented to the House of Commons for being unsuitable. It is therefore not always to our benefit to be shown how others see us, as it might well conflict with our self-perception in a way most unnerving.

It too has echoes in the early Dove real beauty campaign adverts – where the comparison was drawn in the forensic sketches drawn based on the physical descriptions of individuals and a stranger who had met them. The point drawn here was that we have less flattering self-images than a stranger would and should be more accepting and less judgmental of our appearance.

It’s interesting how none of the sketches actually bear much resemblance to the models though! A little like the exercise we had back in unit 1, describing an object to another person. Translating what we visualise in our minds into words so that another can visualise it accurately is very challenging! It is challenging enough to translate our mental visualisation into a visual representation on paper.

So all this means I come to some key questions. Is it ok that when we see a portrait/self-portrait we are not seeing an exactly true representation of how someone is immediately perceived, but something filtered through the artist’s own values (shaped and influenced by the time and place they are in). In fact are we seeing that person at all or is this a depiction of what they signify based on the artist/society? Or is that actually how we see the world – would an ‘exactly true representation of immediate perception’ actually not relate to the human experience at all, and this signifying and valuing actually be closer to the truth? When we want to understand how others see us, do we instead mean how do they place us within the world we live in based on these values and signifiers, or do we mean how are they immediately perceiving me? I think it might in fact be the former – we want to understand what we mean to people, not solely what we look like. Am I beautiful on a deeper level to you, not only superficially?

And this is where it becomes so emotionally charged – we find it tangled with the ideas we have ourselves of our actual, ought and ideal selves. Will you flatter me by reassuring me that I do conform to some of the characteristics I hold in the idea of the ought and ideal? Is my perception of my actual self accurate to how you view me? Or worst of all, do you reject all these views of myself and see me as something utterly different to my self-perception?

I suppose in my ‘future self-portrait’, under this identity theory, the ability to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and fully grasp their perceptions (not only immediately but alongside the value judgments and signifiers they see) might distort all sides of our self perception – the actual, ideal and ought. We might find these perceptions merge with that of another, or contrastingly experience a visceral disconnection when observing ourselves through their eyes – an ultimate outer body experience. That we do not naturally consider these 3 separate elements of self perception as distinct in our minds makes me think that this process too might be unconscious and hard for us to fully comprehend.

It could be interesting to ask various people in my life (from different social groups) to provide their perception of me, in either drawing or description. Of course, this self-reporting would be highly flawed, but perhaps as I have just discussed, we are more interested in this flawed lens than the pure view. That it would be moderated by social conventions, and likely a sense of not wanting to insult or embarrass, could be interesting to explore. It could also help to combine my instructional work with this other avenue of exploration which I have continued to be interested in.

Unit 2: Fine Art – Dérive (pt 2)

Following on from my previous post, where I noticed I had repeated a certain composition across some of my photos of the walk, I sought to research a little more about this.

I recalled seeing something similar in Van Gogh’s landscapes that I had seen in the summer, at the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition, and looking into more of these confirmed my theory that this could have been something I picked up on there. Here he has also made effective use of yellow and blue to make even greater emphasis of this composition – dividing the canvas by its horizon near the middle, but off-centre focal point (though his tending to the right where mine was to the left). I find it interesting that he would be returning to a similar strategy for two very different scenes – the rural and the urban, with comparably similar palettes also. The small red tree on the path in the left painting is positioned almost in the same place as the figure in red on the streets in the right one.

I wonder if there was intention for Van Gogh behind this or if, like in the case of my photos, it was accidental or perhaps even just a result of him having honed his style and preferred colour palette? Were it to be intentional though, it could be seeking to draw comparisons between these different locations – or perhaps serve as a reminder that though they might seem opposing locations, that they share the same viewer (or that we are seeing it through the eyes of the same artist) they have a unity of experience? That no matter where we might find ourselves at a given moment we still experience the same ‘what it’s like to be me’ in that moment? It might be interesting to create a shared colour palette for my three compositions to explore this further.

I used google image search to find out if the algorithm could find further instances of this composition. However, I found that the image recognition software was more apt to see the subject than compositional comparison – this suggests to me a more sophisticated programme than where it might first have looked at blocks of light/shade/colour (and so composition) but now is identifying objects within those blocks. It was interesting to me to see that the software was distinguishing 3 different subjects in these images: Tree, Apartment and Street, reflecting the change of environment along my walk. The images it saw as being visually similar all fell within these 3 categories, and some do replicate my composition.

I sought to further abstract this composition, and this deconstruction of three complex images was interesting. I think the cut paper works are more successful – the precision of the shapes achieved and the flattening of the colour fields I think work well to focus the eye on the shapes and their relationships together. A more simplified colour palette also helps here I think, and I like the use of a contrast for the ‘horizon’ line. I wonder if a casual observer would still get a sense of the perspective in the original composition, or if these flattened fields would disrupt that sense of your eyes being drawn in.

These recall for me geometric abstractions like those of Malevich and Moholy-Nagy. It might be interesting to explore further whether some of my fields are overlapping of other shapes and to explore more tonal colour palettes.