The theme set for these two weeks of studies was ‘Criticality’. During these two weeks we were thus asked to conduct extensive research on work by practitioners whose work we felt aligned closely to our own current work and also to look up theory that might help embed our own current work in a theoretical context. Thus, in this post, I will present the working concept and the theoretical context of my current work in progress (click HERE to see gallery of images) that will hopefully become the final major project that I am to submit in partial fulfilment towards the degree of Master in Photography.
The Concept of the Project
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,Wilfred Owen, ‘Sonnet: On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action’ (OWEN 1994: 38)
Great Gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse.
Spend our resentment, cannon, – yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.
Yet, for men’s sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!
It is commonly believed that birds withstand being kept in a cage because they only retain a short-term memory of their caged condition. If we were to accept this common belief (and let it be said that modern science has accumulated enough evidence to help reject this belief), we could ask ourselves what would happen should a caged bird, by some miracle, manage to link retained short term memories of its caged condition and construct a holistic topography of its state? Would the caged bird become aware of its seemingly eternal imprisonment inside the cage and feel completely dejected and exasperated? Or would the bird, now aware of the passing of time and its mortality, find solace in the fact that in its experience of its being towards death there lies its release, its freedom? A caged bird still sings freely in the cage; even though it has lost the capability of traversing space with its wings, due to the fact of it having been caged, the experience of death-to-come opens for the bird the dimension of time – the bird chirps in the cage because it has time to do so.
I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake(BARTHES 1993: 96)
The first decent photograph I took as a child was of a massive crane stationed at the Red China dock. The photograph is now lost and only its memory has been retained. It was a beautiful crane, shot from a very low viewpoint, with the early afternoon sun shining right behind the structure, rendering the crane in the resulting image into a darkened silhouette that somehow still retained all of the crane’s minute details. This image felt then like a premonitory symbol of death – and this feeling may have propelled, aided and expedited its eventual loss. It spoke of a futurity; and in doing so through the properties of its medium made that future be perceived anteriorly – a coming end witnessed in the present, held there, static, in the amber of the image. We could liken this childish feeling of mine on witnessing the image I had made of the crane to Barthes’ experience of historical photographs, especially when he says of them that “there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (BARTHES 1993: 96).
This project revisits the symbol that announced the now actualized end of time: the crane. In photographically documenting cranes found on the island, each image will find itself layered upon the long-lost image of the crane taken in childhood – each image referring to that original image; each photographed imaged of that particular structure essentially a memory of a memory.
…and when we will finish mapping the trajectory that this original image had forcefully charted out and that made possible the opening up of time, we will have reached the end of time. The bird takes one final look and then flies off leaving a world and its end behind.
Reifying the Concept of the Project
The project, in being a photographic documentation of cranes found on the island of Malta, will invariably take the format of a photographic typology. Bernd and Hilla Becher are one of the most famous teams to have worked within the conceptual framework of the photographic typology, having assiduously photographed industrial plants, water towers, blast furnaces and other vernacular architecture “from the same angle of view, at a certain time of the day, under an overcast sky that supplies the most uniform lighting, and the image of the subject occupied a certain size on the photographic paper” (İNCIRLIOĞLU 1994: 19). Other artists have taken a more liberal approach in the construction of their photographic typologies. Ed Ruscha, for example, in his book ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ (WHITE 2013), used different aspect ratios and photographed his subjects from different angles, at different distances and at different times of day.
Marc Freidus defines a typology as “a collection of members of a common class or type” (cited in İNCIRLIOĞLU 1994: 11). Adams and Adams provide a more nuanced definition of the term typology: “A typology is a conceptual system made by partitioning a specified field of entities into a comprehensive set of mutually exclusive types, according to common criteria dictated by the purpose of the typologist. Within any typology, each type is a category created by the typologist, into which he can place discrete entities having specific identifying characteristics, to distinguish them from entities having other characteristics, in a way that is meaningful to the purpose of the typology” (cited in İNCIRLIOĞLU 1994: 13). In this latter definition, we bear witness to the typologist being invested with the capacity to create the typology. The active role the typologist now has in the creation of the typology evinces the subjectivity inherent in the making of the typology. As Adams and Adams state: “The physical members of the type […] are discovered, while the mental conception and the description of the type are formulated, or in other words invented, by human minds” (Ibid. 15).
Thus, what shall differentiate this photographic typological study of cranes, guided by the artistic intentions described in the preceding section, from a simple classification of cranes? As in all fields of investigation, the photographic typology has its own set of basic assumptions which one, to some extent, must adhere to. If we take Freidus’ simple definition of a typology, then a photographic typology must at the very least be “a collection of members of a common class or type” (İNCIRLIOĞLU 1994: 11). Typology is distinguished from classification in that while the former is “a process of definition” (Adams and Adams, 1991, cited in İNCIRLIOĞLU 1994: 13) the latter is simply a process of “attribution” (Ibid. 13). This project shall not document the results of an indiscriminate process of photographing cranes; the aim of this project is not to produce stock imagery of cranes. Most certainly it is to be expected that only cranes of a certain structure, that are lit by a particular kind of lighting and that can be viewed from vantage viewpoints shall be considered worthy of being photographed. But this selection process is only the start – in the final stage, the typologist (hence the author of this post) will select from the hundreds of photographed images of cranes that bear all the aforementioned elements those that contain that mysterious, vital ingredient that will establish and permit cohesion within the typology. The typologist shall define, tacitly or explicitly, the criteria by which the entity, in the form of a photographed image of a crane, shall make it eligible for entry into the typology or not. Only the photographed images of cranes that contain within them “the coherent physiognomy […] to be the members of a singular type” (Ibid. 19) shall be retained.
BARTHES, Roland. 1993. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
İNCIRLIOĞLU, C.G. 1994. ‘Typologies in Photography’. METUJFA, 14(1-2), 11-22.
OWEN, Wilfred. 1994. The War Poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Chatto & Windus.
WHITE, Maria. 2013. ‘Edward Ruscha ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ 1963’. Tate [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/projects/transforming-artist-books/summaries/edward-ruscha-twentysix-gasoline-stations-1963 [accessed 12 April 2019].
Crane in Malta. March 2019 at Marsa. Photograph by the author.