caption (image above): Self-published box – The Memory of History, by Lewis Bush, 2012.

I’ve recently arrive at Lewis Bush virtual sphere (aka blog) and am coming out with that feeling of content and surprise that is often too rare. A friend had sent me a message with a text about Don McCullin’s retrospective @ Tate Britain and the feeling was uncanny, for I could hear my voice while reading it. As I went through his blog, that weird feeling kept growing. Again, his essay on propaganda and pornography made me think of the conversation I had with Alfredo Jaar about pornographic images and photographs of atrocity. To top up the journey at Disphotic, a text about teaching photography and I gasp. I’ve been struggling with that subject for the past year and thinking about organizing my thoughts around an extended essay. Reading Lewis’ words confirms the need to share our experiences as authors and teachers, but I’ll leave that for a latter date. It’s still too big a subject for now. I’ll write about a few things that focusing on Lewis Bush brought up.

The word “narrative” is trending in art schools, particularly in the photography departments. Many programs now have “visual narratives” as an option and students are invited to tell stories. The photo-book’s hype made clear that photography is a much more elastic medium than puritanists would like to think. With the notion that photography can play at fiction, just as any other artistic medium, comes several consequences. Some of them have already been addressed here in former posts and have to do with the absence of content and the realization that its materiality is autonomous and can be as seductive as any other. However, it’s curious that narrative, a term so close to literature and cinema, is what is finally liberating photography from the fiction of the realism. Sontag would have love to witness this, I bet. 

When one mentions an author’s ability to produce a narrative, one is mostly recognizing that the author has positioned him/herself in relation to reality. Thus, the use of the term narrative in this context may act as a mark for subjectivity. A narrative may also be a sign of artistic maturity, in the sense that it indicates that the author is aware of the representative power of images and recognizes the fictional potential of his/her art. Writing for Propeller #2, on the theme of fiction, João Peneda stated the following:

Art’s purpose would be to create histories, narratives, tales, in other words: fictions. Because fiction is neither true nor false, it has no contradiction. It is mainly a persuasive discourse seeking the listeners’ approval. On the other side of the coin, art (fiction) has an immeasurable (ideological) power to mystify, to deceive, to simulate, namely when it serves certain religious, political, social or economic interests.
[…]
Man is the only animal that creates and appreciates fiction. As far as we can perceive, all living beings halt at the facticity of life. Only human beings are able to go beyond reality, to embark on the world of representation, of the as if (als ob).

Writing for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (67, 1 – The Poetics, Aesthetics, and Philosophy of Narrative), Noël Carroll brings our attention to some recent uses of the term narrative and the implications of such choices. For example, he mentions the media and how they account for the way public figures “change their narratives”, seemingly equating narrative with rhetoric. While studying authenticity, the idea of narrative often came up tied to identity. That led me to think about trauma and the way memories (and photography) mess with our being. Are selves constituted by life-narratives? As Carroll remembers, this question is part of a bigger discussion. We tell tales, to ourselves and others, and maybe that aspect of our daily lives is particularly prone to fiction, but also to manipulation and lying. Confession would be another derivative worth investigating.

The void I’m often seeing in photographic narratives makes me think about social media, so I wonder whether its success (the photo-books and the different ways we witness visual narratives) has anything to do with the way we’re now collecting data and information in order to construct our identities. Moreover, does it have anything to do with technology? The gaps that guarantee the dynamics of a photo narrative are part of the trade. Sometimes authors get too fascinated by these tricks, these strategies that open-up possibilities and they forget that if it becomes about functionality, then it becomes about design

Jumping on to Lewis Bush photographic work I find that his work is a query about identity (individual and collective), thus challenging narrative structures. In The Memory of History (2012), he begins his statement by saying that “[a] nation is a community of individuals united by a collective memory of the past, but the European Union is a community built on collective amnesia”, to which he adds that the project “reflects on historicist conceptions of time as linear and of history as narrative, ideas which underpin the western belief in continuous progress which contributed to the crisis.”

When asked about his editing process, in the context of a conversation with Alan Knox, Lewis Bush answers:

Once I’d narrowed it down to several hundred images I printed those as small cards and then carried them around with me for several weeks. I’d look them over on the bus or arrange them on tables if I had some spare time. That way I started to see connections forming between the photographs. The final selection was based on a strange mixture of picking photographs with quite precise histories behind them, but also picking ones that had enough ambiguity that they could be interpreted in different ways by different people. To give you an example, the image of the red star emerging from behind the Bulgarian insignia on a fighter jet has been interpreted in a number of different ways by different people. I was very conscious of the legacy of the Soviet era when I took that photograph, but one Bulgarian friend for example read it quite differently, as being about the Turkish presence in the country and in Europe more generally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s