Charlie’s Atkinson’s Note: This article is written by my good mate Peter Barker-Morgan. He studied at Blackpool & Fylde College Of Art And Design specialising in photography. He currently is working with me in the Netherlands for a product photography company.
Peter: Writing as a photographer you might be surprised to learn that my first love isn’t images – its language.
Disclaimer, etc: Any and all opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone – so please – If you feel the need to direct hate at anyone in particular about anything mentioned in this article – like the bit about Daily Mail readers being idiots or smoking being cool or that I don’t like Americas got Talent or that I haven’t mentioned what camera I use – Please direct it at me.
As a child I was diagnosed with Dyslexia – for anyone that doesn’t know Dyslexia is what termed as a learning difficulty – Its caused (or so I’m told) by the left and right sides of the brain being ‘ineffectively wired’ together. The result is that my spelling is bad, my punctuation is worse and my handwriting is pockmarked with un-capitalised capital letters and capitalised un-capital letters amongst other, lesser, difficulties (as I sit in a bar at Schipol airport typing this I find myself adding capital letters to words that neither want nor need them).
My reading is OK though – which is either hard work on my behalf or a quirk of nature – who knows?
The result of all this is my family payed vast swathes of money for me to have the best education they could afford me – something that I am overwhelmingly grateful for.
During this time I took A levels in Philosophy which is where my love (obsession) with language took form. But while interested in photography and drawing from a young age the two failed to merge until I left school for university.
Before we – I write and you read – go ahead with this article I should take the time to explain a couple of things.
Firstly, I think it would be a good idea to explain the title:
1. Semiotics basically means the language of images, Its how advertising (the worlds greatest evil) works.
Its the way that advertising agencies can make you buy things you neither want nor need – think about it, you wouldn’t buy all those things if they didn’t communicate subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) though the medium of images/film – basically its the reason that smoking is cool (Marlboro Man, Clint Eastwood, etc).
2. Context is how the meaning of something changes when its environment is changed.
Print some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s images in cheap paper and put them on the back of a door in a public toilet and the context change would arguably move them into the realm of pornography – but confined within the covers of a coffee table book in a middle-class sitting room they are viewed as art.
Secondly, I’m going to take this opportunity to explain that without any exception my family are all extremely stubborn – there’s a story about my Grandfathers Uncle having an argument about the deffiniton of a word – even when it was pointed out to him in the dictionary he refused the accept that his was the wrong one.
With this in mind – I can continue and say that it took me until halfway through my degree to believe that Semiotics existed.
I’m not really sure why it took this long – perhaps it was because I idolized almost exclusively photographers such as Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths and Larry Burrows – photographers who were content to document.
The problem with being a documentary photographer though is that you have to strive to be unbiased – after all, journalism is of no use to anybody if it isn’t neutral (or at least trying to be) – thats why nobody who hasn’t had a full frontal lobotomy believes a word from (to use two rather extreme examples) the Daily Mail or Fox News – even if they are on occasion telling the truth.
But ultimately you are a product of your environment – your upbringing, your friends, the books you read and everything that you have ever (and ever will) come into contact with – so, as much as I’m loath to admit it – I have been forever changed in some small way though the act of Charley Atkinson showing me clips from Americas got Talent while I was writing this article. Its entirely possible that in some small way they will have changed the outcome of the finished piece.
So its pointless trying to be impartial – why try and do what’s actually impossible?
From This You Have To Come To The Conclusion That All Images Are Propaganda.
Copyright: Yevgeny Khaldei
Yevgeny Khaldei’s image of the Hammer and Sickle being raised over the Reichstag isn’t a document – its propaganda presented as document and people swallowed it as a document.
All of this coupled with the notion of how easy it is to change the meaning of an image entirely by pointing the camera two inches to the left or two inches to the right before you press the shutter made me reconsider my stance on Semiotics.
I came to realise that they were an irremovable part of making an image – and that they are there irrespectively of your wishes towards them.
The thing is that everyone automatically reads semiotics to some degree – how many people do you think started smoking because of that link between a cool macho cowboy and his (supposedly) favourite brand of Cancer stick? (Also coincidentally how Adbusters forced home the notion the that smoking is not cool).
Its why Sex sells – as Bill Hicks inferred when he described the prefect adverts for Coke and Snickers- the adverts they would make if they ware allowed to.
I cant remember who to attribute it to but someone said ‘being illiterate in images in the 21st century is akin to being illiterate in the 20th.’ and there probably right.
The thing is – we all do it on a subconscious level anyway – its just a matter of bringing it to the surface.
Copyright: Peter Barker-Morgan
Using this image that was taken without any intention of conveying meaning, it could be said that the conveniently (and chance) placement of the sausage is symbolic of a penis and the fact that the ketchup is on the bread and not in the bottle is indicative of the loss of virginity.
‘Man cannot live of bread alone’ etc.
Basically its a perfect example of what’s was on my mind as an 18 year-old – one one level food, on another sex – all done without even intending to illustrate it.
Copyright: Peter Barker-Morgan
This image on the other hand is the result of seeing a collection of individual signs and iconography and responding to the in such a was that the they were framed to convey an intended message.
1. The car is a Jaguar – an iconic and extremely conservative british car (even with fords repeated attempts to sex the brand up)
2. The number plate displays both the Union Flag (Jack) and the St Georges cross on it – both icons that have been appropriated by the english extreme right in recent decades – these flags also have overtones of oppression having been flown (and still being flown) in parts of the world.
3. The setting is a small town or within the affluent outer suburbs of a city. Its not busy, it only has small shops with old fashioned signs – not the type you see in bigger towns or city’s – this is the sort of place that racial hatred simmers away under the guise of ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Englishness’ – unlike in bigger town and city’s where more often it boils over.
4. The rain and overcast weather is use of pathetic fallacy to infer the authors views on the political climate at the time (the extreme right tend to do better for themselves in times of need (this image was taken in 2008))
As I mentioned briefly before context is the way that something is viewed differently when its surroundings are changed.
Semiotics are the most important factor by far when you create images – but context I feel is the most important fact afterwards.
And it comes naturally to us as photographers to want to show people what we have created and most of us – unless your Gary Stochl – do show our work to people.
So – using an exhibition as example – Context plays a part in everything from choosing what photos sit next to each other, to what you print the photos on, to the gallery space itself, to who you invite to the opening night to, what wine you are serving them, to your business card, to how you dress, to how your hairs cut, to how shinny your shoes are, to what your shoes are made of, to what publications you have advertised in, to what you email address is, to how good you website is and also a million other factors that are perhaps more vast then the numbers of men that fought it out on the dusty plains of Troy.
Art exhibitions are probably the most context conscious heavy experience that it is possible to have – ever.
You are directly dealing with people who’s business IS context (my Brother James is finding this out for himself at this very minute at his end of degree exhibition).
But seriously (and forgetting about exhibitions for a minute, because they are a worse experience then watching Lynch Dune) – it is why Gary Winogrand’s book ‘Women are Beautiful’ wasn’t a success.
It was a small and unassuming book that wasn’t large enough (physically – not the body of work its self) to impress and coupled with the poor quality printing the art world dismissed it. Basically It wasn’t taken seriously. Which was a shame.
There was also the opinion that there was something slightly pervy about a book dedicated entirely to candid photos of women taken without there knowing or consent on a street – I disagree with that personally – I feel it was more Winogrands personal exultation of women – as opposed to the work of some deranged stalker type with a camera.
But I digress.
How you present you work is imperative (unless again you are Gary Stochl in which case a paper bag filled with prints will work just fine). But most of us are not Gary Stochl and so have to play by the rules.
I Imagine that at this point a degree of you have got your internal monologs working in overdrive – something along the lines of ‘ but if my work is good enough surly someone will notice me’. Again – unless your Gary Stochl they wont.
It like going to court – just because you’re innocent doesn’t mean that you will not end up going to gaol at the end of it.
Of course – you can also use context while creating images – that go’s without saying – see Marcel Duchamp’ ‘Fountain’ for details on how to do that effectively while upsetting people at the same time (and Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ if you want to learn about upsetting even more).
Anyway – What you just read was more or less a summary of (what I feel) were the most important things that I took away from my degree.
Skimming over three years of drinking and occasional work.
But there you go – I’ve basically given you a free degree.
Or taken away from you a part of your life that you’ll never again get back.