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