Recently Peter, our friend Daniel, and I went to the NGV to check out a photographic exhibition. Which is a great thing to do on a rainy Melbourne saturday. The exhibition we saw was called 'Looking at Looking' and explored the role of the photographer in their photographs. There were some amazing images, and I would suggest if you ever get a chance to see the work of Ashley Gilbertson, make sure you do. He's an Australian photojournalist, and the images in this exhibition were part of the Whisky Tango Foxtrot series taken during the Iraq war. And for those of you paying attention (Daniel pointed it out to me, don't worry), the letters from the title are WTF. I can't think of a more fitting title really. The exhibition begs the question, how much editorial influence can a photojournalist have? Are they shooting the 'truth' or telling a story? In seeing a couple of his powerful large prints on display, I can only guess that he aims to do both.
Coincidently, one of the subjects I'm studying this semester at Uni is visual communication. I have been reading articles and textbooks discussing how we look at images. Interestingly, there are a few differing theories. One discusses how we as individuals view images through our own filter of beliefs and life experience to determine meaning. The other school of thought is that there is no 'meaning', and instead, we 'interpret' what we see. One theory presumes societal norms and understanding, while the other takes a more individualist approach. Everything that has influenced us as people will influence how we understand the image. If everyone views images differently, it kind of makes you wonder my why bother with things like advertising. I guess certain brands and logos mean different things to other people than they do to me (you have no idea of the hatred and rage I feel upon seeing the Golden Arches).
Yes, art is of course different to advertising. I guess all artists realise that they cannot control how people react or respond to their work. Maybe that diversity of reaction is the fun bit...or terrifying bit, depending on the response. This makes me think of another artist in the same exhibition - Bill Henson. Yep, an artist that divides people. His images in Looking at Looking were taken from a series he shot in the early 1980s. Using a telephoto lens he photographed people in a crowd, who were unaware they are being shot. I've found a blog which has a few images from the exhibition. I was struck by the candidness of these images, but also by the how people looked, when they don't know they are being watched. For the most part, people's expressions were blank or slightly stern. It made me wonder how we all go through life. Do we only smile when someone is looking?
I was forced to do training at work on dealing with difficult customers. We were shown a picture of an ice berg and told that what we see above the waterline is what people show of themselves. Of course, there is a more substantial amount under the water, highlighting that we've all got more going on in our lives than what we show people. Bill Henson's crowd series gives us a hint of what's under the water. Everyone looked distracted, concerned, deep in thought and for the most part, kind of unhappy. In thinking of Bill's other work, and the associated controversy, I wonder how much of it is driven by the viewers own issues. Should artists have to be responsible for the varying reactions to their work? That would be impossible.
It's good to be challenged, and think. It's great to see how you react emotionally to something, whether it's art, TV, a book, film, or even a conversation with a good friend. Exhibitions like Looking at Looking make me contemplate issues I'd never really thought about before. I like holding things up against my own moral compass and see where the needle points. It's easy in life to focus on the routine and day-to-day stuff we all deal with. But every now and then, you need to take the blinkers off, and watch, and look. Particularly at yourself.