Thursday, 14 September 2017

Governor Kay Ivey (Rep)

Portrait of Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery, Alabama © Richard Ansett 2017
(Detail) Portrait of Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery, Alabama © Richard Ansett 2017
Kay Ellen Ivey (born October 15, 1944) is an American politician who is the 54th and current Governor of Alabama since April 2017. Ivey, a Republican, served as the 38th Alabama State Treasurer from 2003 to 2011. She later became the 30th Lieutenant Governor Alabama, she was the first Republican woman elected in this state, serving from January 2011 until April 2017. Ivey is Alabama's second female governor. (Wikipedia)

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Love on Trial

Lauri & Sylvia, London Studio © Richard Ansett 2017
Here is a new work of computer hacker Lauri Love and his girlfriend Sylvia, part of a commission by The Telegraph Magazine out today.

He is appealing against extradition to the US where he will stand trial on charges, which could see him jailed for life. He is diagnosed with some mental health conditions, most significantly in terms of his defence, Asperger syndrome. I attempted to capture him in an editorial way outside the old grey MI5 building and we took so long that they closed the shutters and the office workers (spies I assumed) could not get back into the office with their sandwiches. The police turn up predictably but the heady mix of known provocateur and me as representative of the 'mouthpiece of the establishment' was a little confusing even for them and they more or less left us alone. Its a free country after all, right?! Afterwards we went round to my studio.

Not since Thatcher, it feels like the political landscape is changing and new lines are being drawn, there is a sense that it is possible once again to protest against 'something tangible'. Meeting this new generation, the beautiful creatures of the revolution, there is an energy and hope that "if you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito." (1) I am reminded of Satyagraha, to have nothing is to have nothing to loose and that freedom to hold onto any truth is dangerous to a state that blackmails us with our investment in society.

I am as much the hypocritical, liberal elitist as anyone else I know, so I greatly appreciate these grubby knights who dare to take on the state on my behalf, we should be grateful to them, they are exposed to powerful hidden forces and in photographing them it feels more like an act of ennobling rather than mere documentary record. I recall the photograph of the naked Alan Ginsberg and his life partner by Richard Avedon, natural in their defiance. Avedon had fine tuned his craft by then and understood the power of merely recording a moment for then and now. The subjects have done all the work in imbuing their image with their achievements, that's what celebrity portraiture is. 

This image is in my mind's eye and the nakedness in our portrait feels like a similar metaphor. I feel this is a perfect offering to The Telegraph. It is a game, a dare to publish and we are collaborating in this little act of provocation and in so doing creating a portrait, which is most representative of their relationship to the world.

Alan Ginsberg & Peter Orlovsky, 1963, Richard Avedon


1) Betty Reese, Leadership: A Publication of Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL), vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 1995, p. 67

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Emperor's New Clothes

A news story of an escaped Lion in Essex in 2012 gave me the opportunity to explore the influence of how our perception influences the world and how we record it and how the gallery environment can enable a flirtation with the predominance of subjective influence. As an accidental objectivist I am at odds with what I perceive as a contract of delusion between artist and viewer.

Polaroid from 'Lion Hunting in Essex' © Richard Ansett
The fine art practice is most commonly described as 'a singular and personal response to the world infront of the lens' and so therefore semantically much of the work is and perhaps should be inherently esoteric. Something that appears to be ‘nothing’ to one person is 'something' to another (very often only the artist). We as audience are invited to empathise with this alternative state of mind within the boundaries of the gallery space.

A conventional arbiter of success is in some form of connectivity to the 'hive' mind. To the photographer that wishes their work to be successfully received, the line between our personal view and the audience must be considered and who that preferred audience maybe in our minds eye at all points of the creative process, but most importantly at capture and edit. Alternatively, if our works are overtly propagandist or provocative, we must accept that an audience is essential and therefore we are not as nihilistic as we would like to think. To be freer of influence is to accept that we are continually exposed to forces internally and externally that are influencing us.

Criticism of art (and fine art photography especially) is that much of it acts as a form of dog whistle or password, (it's a form of self harming passive aggression) and to belong, one feels one must agree to be part of it. The success of this form of golf club mentality inevitably excludes those 'not sufficiently evolved' to grasp the subtle complexities of this hidden language of those invested in the pursuit of 'favour at court'. Both groups of people appear on the surface to be so far removed from each other to be considered an entirely different species. I know because I consider myself both a progressive secular leftist elitist liberal and an earthy peasant, face pressed against the gates. But I accept responsibility that my psychology and glass ceiling is to be suspicious of belonging. It does however give me a unique perspective on tribalism with my detached adopted perspective. So, super ironically, I am destined to always challenge any status quo that I attain. From this permanently objective perspective I see that much of any understanding of reality is driven by a misguided sense of our empathic ability but the trouble with empathy is that everyone thinks they have it but it is not for us to decide. It can only be determined by those that are receiving it.

As much as in the creation of work and interpretation of space, I am observing the influence of state of mind on finished works. Very often the more open and potentially ambivalent a work appears, the more easily it is subject to the emotional projections of others. In a section of society where direct expression of feelings has become an anathema and to some extent terrifying, the artist and the artist space is a safe place to connect and feel something. A screaming and laughing addict masterbating into the lens of my camera (attached) is not something one would feel at ease with confronting whilst returning to one's Audi with one's weekly shop from Waitrose and may still even be too visceral for a gallery space or certainly above our dining room table (if not carefully contextualised or juxtaposed). Much rather the calm ambiguous landscape with some hidden primal tension under the surface. I get it.

Ambivalence ultimately is the key to a successful work. 'Successful work' safely explores and exploits the 'world out there' under the guise of some patronising misplaced empathy. The very worst examples play artistically with desperate and dangerous documentary themes re-framed as art, virtue signalling with a political agenda.

Because I am childless I believe I have re-appropritated a sense of legacy, projecting it towards my archive. Legacy is the enemy of weak work, the practice of nothingness and egocentric banality maybe a fad and future tragic-comedy document of how we lived now. How embarrassing, when the work of the early 21st century is pondered over by future audience and the context from which this work has been inspired is nolonger present and we are left with innumerable, content-less landscapes, thousand yard stares (guilty), endless photographic reinterpretations of paintings from art history (guilty), in now clearly tragic attempts to imbue the photograph with the gravitas of ‘real art’. The gate keepers of the photographic industry increasingly disdainful of the pure medium and the photographers so desparate for the glimmer of success dance along to the piper’s tune to the edge of the cliff. The photographic art community is so urgent in its need to be recognised as part of the art world that the pudding is over egged and our own self doubt is exposed.

So when a friend of mine says with anger in his eyes at my 'Lion Hunting in Essex’ private view that he just doesn’t get it and that these are just pictures of bushes, little does he know that he is the child in the crowd shouting ‘mummy mummy why doesn’t the king have any clothes on?’ I can't tell him of course it would spoil it but also no-one is listening, we are all too invested in maintaining our position in the club but what we fail to see as the leftist progressive middle class (of which I am clearly one) is that we are passively patronizing those that dare to call us on our hypocrisy and our failure at any semblance of civilized engagement with a wider world.
Ritchie, from series © Richard Ansett

Monday, 6 March 2017

Object of Desire

Expanding on my previous post on the anathema of the concept of 'otherness' or 'queerness' as a celebration of 'not' being part of greater society, rejecting Arbus's self harming label of herself and her subjects' as 'aristocratic freaks'.

In this context I am discussing my new work, 'Geoff and Tina, Basildon, Essex' currently showing at 'Transgender, Gender and Psychoanalysis' this week and later at the Arte Laguna PrizeI am looking ambivalently at the existential nature of persona through the exploration of the transformation itself. Although this is ostensively a portrait of 'Geoff and Tina' the work is as auto-biographical as the self-portraits of those exploring their own identities in the same space. This follows the tradition of my practice in using the relationship with others to communicate my own interests consciously and unconsciously in that moment.

"A subject is merely a vessel through which to explore one's own humanity and sense of place. It is relational. A portrait  is how we see others and therefore more about the artist than the sitter." - Pablo Picasso

Whilst my primary concern is this communication of my feelings in relationship to a sitter, I would like to caveat such a seemingly selfish statement with the further declaration that the therapeutic value of photography to others as a way of allowing them to be 'seen' is part of an essential moral balance and portraiture is a collaboration, permission has been granted. The moral tightrope act is complicated by the exploration of subjects with physical and mental health issues (see previous posts 'Representing Otherness' and 'Dignity'.

The trans experience is a helpful vehicle to explore in visual terms, the need for a developed persona as a protection against the world. The less comfortable we are in our relationship to society the more pronounced the persona as a defence. My interest is to investigate the persona that may have been successful in protecting us to a certain point in our lives but has become a hindrance to future progress. So, when asked about my interest in the nakedness of a subject, one answer is that it is a metaphor for the stripping back of the protective layers to expose the genuine, vulnerable human. In photographic terms I feel this is the closest thing that we as the protagonists can come to representing any kind of truth in a single moment. 

"The expectation of the photographic portrait is that it somehow representative of some sense of truth or observation of the person, some form of insight into their nature. This is as impossible as in paint but there is a declared sense that it is 'of' someone. The fine art photographer as portraitist has to reset the parameters of seeing so as not to be judged by this convention." Pablo Picasso

'Geoff & Tina' is new work and this is a new edition created for this event and there is another transformation happening; from the pixels stimulated by the light from the source object to the creation of the finished framed Gyclee print as tangible object of desire, presented in the gallery space (which in this case is a community hall in Elephant and Castle and the Arsenale di Venezia). This goes some way to representing my own process of engaging with the world in an 'actual' way and this is an essential part of the artistic process. The Internet is a useful space but it is like dipping a toe in the water as a precursor to full immersion. If we are committed, then we are recognising our work as a part of ourselves and the risk of rejection in asking society to accept us is greater, we are stepping out of the safe confines of our constructed universe and daring to face society in microcosm in the gallery space.

Thanks to Tina and the National Portrait Gallery who researched these quotes from Picasso for their recent 'Portraits' exhibit.

'Geoff & Tina, Basildon, Essex' © Richard Ansett 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Representing Otherness

A letter to Clair Rees curator of 1001 critical Days Tomorrow;s Child after a discussion over breakfast at The Wolseley 09/01/2017

Dear Clair,

an answer to your question "How do you represent mental health with photography?"

There is a danger of me banging the same old drum here for anyone that knows me well but...

The filter through which we as audience view the world and ‘read’ photography is influenced primarily by the aesthetics of the market place as well as an editorial mindset represented by a linear narrative, so when we are presented with work that sits outside of this, it is either rejected or we attempt to pigeon hole the work to subjugate any personal responsibility for the content. So very often work where the parameters of viewing is ‘less normative’* can be misinterpreted as cynical, cruel, humorous, weird, crazy, exploitative or perhaps just bad. Arbus' work is a great example of being completely misunderstood, perhaps even deliberately, by well known writers, critics and curators. But in her exploration of the world, she defined her subjects as ‘aristocratic freaks’ as she attempted to find a tribe to ‘belong’ to, although ultimately she was unable to square the circle of existential loneliness.

'Aristocratic freaks’ feels a little dated in my multicultural mindset, the implication of a freak or queer is that the subject sits outside of normal definitions, so regardless of any positive fashionable spin, it is surrendering to a conservative notion of normal and excludes rather than includes as an act of self harm if we define ourselves in this way. So in the representation of disability but especially of mental health the camera’s brutal realist eye exposes the nature of the illness and how it manipulates the body as it presents itself to society, stripped of any form of romantic and patronising idealism, therefore ironically demanding acceptance from society on the subject's terms!

I have attached two links to two series, one representing physical disability as a triptych of Alan who has Cerebral Palsy and a sequence (inspired by the cool scientific observations of the Muybridge collotype) of a young man with mental health issues in a day centre in the Dombass region of East Ukraine, exercising for the camera.

As i mentioned briefly earlier, the camera can record 'clues' to a subject mindset if we strip away a need to impose an 'opinion' or even sympathy in the pursuit of a subject's representation; persona, dress, body language, the nuance of expression and the state of our environment are all indications of how a unique world has been formed as protection from the 'hell of other people' (sic) and society.

I refuse to accept any sense of failure in this approach, I am convinced and determined by the democratic nature of the New Objectivist approach in the fair representation of all members of society as equal and worthy of celebration and it is connected to the ideas of moral relativism that we touched on this morning over breakfast; that there are some indisputable truths within and beyond our awareness and certainly out of reach of our clumsy attempts to define our existence.

My work now is increasingly focused on images that ambivalently explore our relationship to reality truth rather than present any subject in terms that might arrogantly interpret the lives of others kindly or otherwise. We can never fully know or understand the life of another person and it is the height of hubris to represent our work as truthful. Our works are merely simple childish sketches, like cave paintings; most valuable as representations of our relationship to others and therefore more revealing and autobiographical.

*I am  loathed to use the word ‘original’ as I was recently reading an Elias Canetti essay that partly defined it in these terms, “ Originality, must not be demanded. The person (sic) who wants to have it will never have it. And the conceited and well-contrived clowneries that some people have served up in order to count as original are still in our embarrassed memories."

Man Exercising for the Camera, Ukraine  (from sequence) © Richard Ansett

Alan in his Bedroom Rotating for the Camera (from sequence) © Richard Ansett

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Burn the Witch

During the shoot development of images with Tina, a retired lorry driver from Basildon, Essex, we went for a brief walk around her area. Tina was fully dressed in a dramatic red sparkling number and red heals. I am always impressed by the courage of anyone to be themselves, I think my empathy relates to my own memory of the painful process of extricating myself from my hetero-normative cocoon as a young gay man.

The ‘trans’ experience is similar but not the same, gayness cannot always be seen, so there is some relief from the relentless undefinable attention. There is always a fear, after one’s first queer bashing, that the next hurtful experience might be round the corner, especially if you cannot escape the visual representation of who you are. We all should take responsibility for the effect of any unwanted attention on our fellow humans even if our motives are decent, it is hard not to be distracted by a shiny object in all this mundanity.  The emotional response to negative, unwanted attention affects us in different ways, some of us withdraw into isolation and depression, others find the strength to be ourselves and magnify our personas further as a polite fuck you to society; there are many responses to the journey towards self-realisation.

Although we live in a relatively free thinking society where we can ‘be’ and behave however we choose, there are still invisible forces externally and internally to be defeated and I think anyone that does not rely too much on the scaffolding of cultural representation to define themselves should be celebrated as an inspiration for us all.

So ‘coming out’ in the area we live, when anger and frustration at society can easily be mis-directed towards difference, is not without its dangers. In showing ourselves we can risk exposure to forces that seek to hurt us. Children very often have a cruel existence, the playground is a place where brutal behavior can be normalized and because they are children they may not be aware of the hurt they are inflicting, as adults we have a responsibility to attempt some awareness of how our behavior might affect another human being.

These pictures show Tina walking me towards the scene of the Guy Fawkes night bonfire where the flames were fed by the children of the area, pulling up the fence around her property. No one else’s fences were touched. I am shocked by this act of passive violence, a threat to individualism and to Tina personally. She mentions it so casually, there is no sense of stress or bitterness in her voice and she is matter of fact about the experience. I can only presume that perhaps this is normal for her, which adds to my feeling of anger and sadness.

I ask that we think for a moment how this might feel, to know that there are people who harbor hateful feelings and threatening behaviors that know where we live or will not hesitate to abuse us. How might this affect our personality, our confidence and our ability to function in society? These images are a record of the result of prejudice that leaks down from the seemingly innocuous dog whistles, politically incorrect humor and insults that casually demean and de-humanise, the results of which are very often impossible to define.

I see these pictures of Tina as a Phoenix rising from the ashes, her courage is an inspiration to many new ‘T-girls’ too afraid to step out of the shadows. She supports and allows many people to stay at her house. There is so much amazing work going on in the support of other people that goes unrecognized by medals and awards, this is the truly normal human condition, so much kindness and support offered with no expectation of reward, it is everywhere.

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7285) © Richard Ansett 2016

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7287) © Richard Ansett 2016

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7294) © Richard Ansett 2016

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Mosquito Trapped in Amber

I am aware of the increasingly high production values of both film and television drama and even some reality shows. Many films and television programs now have incorporated incredibly high standards of photography, beautiful light and composition that envelop and support their narrative. This work is equal to the abundance of aesthetically beautiful but ultimately shallow still photography that floods the market presented as fine art photography. It would be fair to say that perhaps there is some element of chicken and the egg going on here, in so far as it is the still image that has inspired film to raise its game incorporating classic and contemporary photographic themes. This is exciting, we can see our work and ideas seeping into the zeitgeist, becoming part of a standardized repertoire to reflect modern life but I feel that many still images defined as fine art now feel like nothing more than a still frame lifted from somewhere else.

So, the challenge now and initial arbiter of quality for any photograph, is whether it is capable of elevating the technical aesthetic to a level that can only be explored by the still image. What defines a great photograph above and beyond a transferable aesthetic to the moving image?

First and foremost there must be an acknowledgement within the work itself that there is a reason for interrupting the timeline, for cutting into the inevitable flow and observing the content 'In stasus''. As a portraitist I am particularly interested in the complexity of emotion expressed by the human face, the 1000s of barely observable muscle movements that betray our emotional state, only fleeting and overlapping in film, barely registered as part of a complex narrative. With the still image there is a frozen moment that can be scrutinised outside of the normative timeline. We can hold an emotion and not let go of it like a mosquito trapped in amber.

I have never found that two dimensional beauty is enough, both in people and art, it is fleeting, seductive and disarming, I want to possess it definitely but once I have consumed it I tire of it quickly, I find myself only seeing the flaws. Beauty is a successful mask that hides that which is most interesting in us; it is more often an instrument of deception than an arbiter of knowledge or truth. Beyond this shiney surface is a seam of complexity that transcends conventional time. Normative beauty has become (and perhaps has always been) part of our medication to assist in our survival as we engage with the complexities of our present, it is the art equivalent of Prozac and many images commercially fulfill this transient criteria, as amyl nitrate hits my brain and floods me with pleasure for a few seconds, so does much work we are exposed to everyday satiate our desire as we drive past a poster or flick through a magazine but it fades quickly and leaves me with a headache only cured by the consumption of more of the same. Further I find myself seeking the flaws in anything presented as perfection hence I cannot spend too long with that which is presented as close to it, the longer I am with it the sooner I become bored, then angered and finally threatened by it as I fail to compete on an existential level with the message of purity. So what elevates an image from the morass of perfectly lovely but ultimately shallow beauty to one of lasting value?

The inclusion of the immediate historic narrative within the image, the cars, clothes, technology, anything which is present in the landscape that is representative of the era within which we are passing through, deliberately or incidentally, is an essential element in increasing an images chances of future value, this may include elements that in the present moment might feel unattractive, especially to the nostalgist; a MacDonalds sign, a rubbish bin, a Toyota Prius. Included in this is the technical make up of the production of the work itself, the very nature of the image can indicate the era of its creation. The addiction to nostalgia as a prop to elevate work in the moment in the pursuit of the transient 'hit' from our audience is my main gripe; we are sacrificing our works' long term value reducing it ultimately to the fish and chip paper of history. I see few reasons to create a photograph that merely replicates an era of photography long dead and this has been my argument against the use of analogue film techniques in my article 'FILM IS DEAD' for Hunger magazine. There are some exceptions that play off these ideas by juxtaposing contemporary content with nostalgic processes but mostly I immediately disregard all works that do not negotiate in some way with the present. 

The path of least resistance is not the solution to great work or work with any sense of legacy, mostly we must explore and celebrate the present and if we find the present to be a place we do not want to explore or that we do not find attractive, we should examine why that is within ourselves but ultimately we should be vigilant to the unique powers of the defining moment, the value of suspending emotion and action in time, creating an immediate history.