My Other Half – A critical self-review by Shaun Mullins.
The objective of this project was to create 6-10 environmental portraits and I chose to produce photographs of my wife in different locations in our home, dressed for and performing the typical activities that I often see her doing. I wanted to convey the idea of different identities for each activity as seen through the eyes of the artist by including myself in the picture. The artists Cindy Sherman, Larry Sultan and Tina Barney inspired my idea for using a domestic setting as well as carefully constructed and acted out scenes.
In my logline I state “Identity comes from both the observer and the observed.” Erving Goffman wrote: When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be. (Goffman, 1959, p.28) This Goffman calls the theatre of self. In performing her different tasks Sarah wears an appropriate costume, chooses an appropriate location to stage her performance and acts as expected for each roll. Thus, for her keep-fit activities she brings out her former identity as ballet dancer through location, costume and performance (using her techniques of dance stretches). And for all her other activities her costumes, locations and performance changes to suit each roll.
Sarah’s identities are all constructed and therefore I constructed the photographs to act as subtle metaphors for this. Under my direction, Sarah acted out each scene as I photographed them to create an illusion of truth. David Bate wrote: Rhetoric names the means by which arguments are made, even in photographs…In Barthes’ definition, the ‘given meaning’ of a photograph hides the ‘constructed meaning’….The apparent innocence of the photograph is what Barthes identifies as the paradox of photography, which ‘seems to constitute a message without a code’ (Barthes, 1977, p.17) Fundamentally, photographs are convincing because they hide ‘behind’ the referent, the thing in the picture….This seeming ‘innocence’ of photography is part of its rhetorical power…Photographs give the illusion of a transparent access to ‘reality’ as the real ‘language’ of photography…..Barthes premised this rhetoric of an image in the distinction between the denotation and connotation of a picture. A denotation is ‘what we see’, what can be described as simply ‘there’ in the picture. Connotation is the immediate cultural meanings derived from what is seen, but is not actually in the picture. (Bate, 2009, p.17). Each of my photographs have constructed denotations for activities that we can recognise through the visual signifiers that our educated knowledge informs us of such as to identify costume, objects and types of locations. From these recognised denotations we can surmise the intended cultural connotation for the photograph and for Sarah’s implied identity.
The idea of adding my presence to the photographs has been used many times before, my most memorable example is Édouard Manet, Un bar aux Folies Bergère (1882) and was the original source for my idea. By including myself in the pictures I believe that I have added a further level, that of the idea of the male gaze. Berger writes, Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (Berger, 1972, p.47.)
Édouard Manet, Un bar aux Folies Bergère(1882)
On yet another level, it can be argued that another set of forces are also at play, that of Roland Barthes idea of the four image-repertoires. Roland Barthes writes: The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. (Barthes, 2000, p.13).
In my last photograph my wife is not in the picture at all, this is to connote the idea of Sarah’s private identity. This idea of the hidden identity was inspired by a physics book by Lee Smolin, I imagined that a part of a person’s personal identity has a nature akin to a black hole a place that cannot provide nor leak out any information. Smolin writes: So the surface of a block hole is like a one-way mirror: light moving towards it can pass into it. But no light can escape from it. For this reason the surface of a black hole is called the horizon. It is the limit of what observers outside the black hole can see. I should emphasize that the horizon is not the surface of the object that formed the black hole. Rather it is the boundary of the region that is capable of sending light into the universe. Light emitted by any body inside the horizon is trapped and cannot get any further than the horizon… Behind the horizon of a black hole is a part of the universe made of causal processes that go on, in spite of the fact that we receive no information from them. Such a region is called a hidden region. (Smolin, 2000, p.70) Taking this theory and applying it to a photograph, I can see a parallel with Barthes idea of ‘a message without a code’ and a black hole’s horizon. The photograph has a surface (the referent) like a horizon beyond which we cannot see, other than the horizon/referent itself. The photographic horizon provides no further information beyond its surface and no new or additional information can escape from it. The photograph acts like a one-way mirror in so much as it only provides us with nothing more than the information we provide for it in order to interpret its surface, the ‘message without a code’. Moreover, the photograph sits on a boundary between two universes the universe the photograph physically exists in and the trapped universe that we interpret from the surface, created by the unseen object (the camera). The photograph tantalises us with the idea of a hidden universe ‘made of causal processes that go on’ beyond its physical surface, below the horizon/referent.