Here are some comments about my approach to photography. Rather than a photographer, I see myself as someone who uses photography to help think about things, in this case the character of place and encounter.
See also - [Link]
See also - [Link]
This is an edited extract from a review of my work—theatre/archaeology—with performance artist Mike Pearson - [Link]
For more discussion of my suspicion of photography see my pamphlet “Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall” (2013) - [Link]
In 2003 I started to return each year to the English borders with Scotland, where I had grown up and begun my career as an archaeologist.
I arrived with a question—How to represent this region I know so well?
One answer has been—the performance of document.
Documentation as performance entails a shift of attention to encounter, to how we engage with a site or region, to how we work upon our experiences, making documents, making photographs. This is not the place to share the archive generated by my visits; I just mention that it is arranged in three itineraries through the borders, connecting episodes, people, places in the richest of archaeological landscapes.
Let me unpack the ways that I use photography in this effort. I call it chorography, after an early modern genre concerned with a description of a region such as an English county.
Early in my archaeological career I was responsible for site and finds photography. My chorography of the borders has involved incessant experiment around photography, treated as photowork.
Photography is, to stretch the term somewhat, chronotopic—a space-time engagement by means of an instrument. This instrument, the camera, is, in essence, a darkened room, camera obscura, with an aperture or window on the world through which the outside is projected, via a focusing lens, as an inverted image onto the opposite interior wall. Photography is an architectural arrangement, gatherings and relationships between viewer, room, window, viewed subject. The photographic image is a secondary product of such architecture, albeit the aspect that normally grabs attention.
Spaces and arrangements, geometries and connections between people, events and things: the term that captures much of this is mise-en-scène. I offer a definition somewhat broader than usual, and, according to this proposition that camera work is architectonic, I emphasize structure and arrangement: mise-en-scène is the choice of location and viewpoint, the arrangement of items and actors in front of a camera or before a recording author, setting a scene to be documented, photographed or filmed, such that the resulting account, still or movie has a certain designed outcome, makes a point, communicates a message, fits into a story, conveys the intention of photographer or filmmaker. Mise-en-scène is about staging: the disposition, arrangement and relationships between people, artifacts, places and happenings. Mise-en-scène points to the performative character of photowork, in that the staging is managed. We are prompted to inspect its temporality. The articulation of components before the photographer happens in a decisive opportune moment (to satirize Cartier-Bresson); it all comes together when the photograph is captured. The term (Greek) to describe such a conjunctive moment is kairos (I sometimes also use the term actuality). The photograph, transparency, negative and print, then supplies a material form to such mise-en-scène that persists, may be transported, displaced from site of capture to be viewed at a later time. This temporality is duration: the photograph, in its materiality, can endure, if cared for, and offer articulation with times long gone in another conjunctive moment. The photograph offers connection between the decisive kairotic moment of capture and its new moment of viewing. While duration is an aspect of materiality and curation (the photograph needs a certain amount of care for it to survive), kairos or actuality is specific and located, the temporal aspect of a site specific, architectonic arrangement or assemblage, as just described. Kairos is the event of performance. A persistent moment, the subject of photowork, the material photograph re-presents a return of the moment of capture, in a kind of haunting. A photograph says—this was all here then, and is with us still now. In archaeology we recognize the primacy of these two temporal modes. Actuality: the kairotic association of the past in the present, found, excavated, inspected, documented, performed. Duration: the persistence of the material past in remains, ruins and traces, ghosts.
The duration, persistence of the photograph, the ruin and the trace, is dependent upon materiality, just as performance is located, site specific, embodied and conjunctural, So the performance of document needs to be sensitive to the materiality of engagement, the material and physical processes and properties of assemblage, of gathering people and props on location, as well as those of mediation, the instruments and processes of transforming encounter into document, inscription, depiction.
What then of the relation between my visit, encounter and the document I make of it? This short inspection of photowork simply indicates the important differences between different kinds of documentation, according to their materiality, instrumentality, architectonics, agency, and temporality. Johannes Vermeer may well have traced the image thrown onto ground class by his camera obscura, or perhaps transposed the projection onto canvas. That inscription or transcription was delegated by photography to “the pencil of nature”—the action of light on light-sensitive chemicals. Agency, of artist or natural chemistry, is involved, and much more. Though there are no accepted conventions or definitions, we might, for example, distinguish illustration from representation. If the term illustration is used to refer to depiction that intends to elucidate a statement, representation invokes additional temporal and political modalities. Re-presentation may involve the presentation of self, of a case, of a relationship, of a depiction, before an audience or assembly of people. The political or legal representative may stand-in as delegate for those they represent, constituency or client, in order to present a case.
Compare the mimetic and what we may term the eidetic, in relation to this performance of document. The mimetic, imitation, the work of mimos (actor in ancient Greek), refers to a set of questions about the real and the represented. Often mimesis is connected with metaphor and simile: the relationship between real and represented is one of analogy, comparison, likeness - “it was like this”, “as if it happened like this”. In its reflection of everyday life theatre is both synecdochic—standing in place of, and metonymic—substituting part for whole. Richard Schechner emphasizes a temporal component: performance is restored or twice-behaved: physical, verbal, or virtual actions that are not-for-the-first-time—“here is the way it was”. The notion of the eidetic takes the matter further and poses questions of how we treat the materiality (the actuality) of performance and the performed. I take the eidetic to refer, psychologically, to mental imagery that is vivid and persistent; eidetic memory means memory of a sensory event that is as accurate as if the person were still viewing, or hearing, in the presence of the original object, present at the event. There is no need to restrict ourselves to the usual association with “photographic memory”. I note the fascinating etymology, with roots in the Greek eidō and its cognates (to know, see, experience; that which is seen, form, model, type, image, phantom) and hold that performance is eidetic because it raises questions of what is real and what is simulated, what persists, what is at the heart of experience (knowledge, impressions, physical materials?). Performance, as eidetic, is ironic—in its act of representation performance is this and that, simulated and real. The political representative is a person speaking in democratic assembly for others, conveying their voice. Performance is ironic in drawing upon theatrical metaphors; for while we might suppose a script, performance has no such sole origin and there is always the gap between script and act, as well as between performer and audience, representative and constituency. What is being acted out in performance? Who is speaking in democratic assembly—representative or constituency? We should answer that there is only ever the irony of reiteration without an ultimate origin, simulation without an original. Representative or constituency?—at best it is both. And in these iterative chains the question of performance is immediately the question of how we may speak and write of performance, given the irony. Performance is about re-iterating, re-mediating, re-working, re-storing, re-presenting.
For me, this is archaeology. We seek in vain a representation that will explain the ruin of history. In dealing with remains, the archaeologist is always working upon relationships between past and present that circle around the impossible irony of trying to turn action and experience, material form and body, remediated, into representation. There can thus be no finality to mimesis, only constant reworking and restoring.
So my performance of document in the Borders is about incessant return and reworking around these material architectonics.
My photowork explores three overlapping moments: code, mediawork, the quotidian.
Visits, and especially the way they are documented, are always coded. There is always predisposition and expectation. Medium is always governed by formal properties, conventions, schemata and simply material properties (what is possible with photography, text, video). We might visit in search of beauty or history or enlightenment. The representation of landscape since the seventeenth century has been dominated, for example, by an aesthetic of the picturesque and sublime—formal properties of staging, framing and mise-en-scène (geometric balance and layout in placing the subject, color and tonal contrast), chronotopes and tropes (scenic features of landscape, the ruin in the pastoral; the castle over the river; the road leading into the distance, for example).
My responses—imitate the genre, repeat, that it might be known better; and the repetition in new contexts of genres designed long ago reveals their working, the code. I have explored the means whereby the classic landscape photograph is made. There are many on this website. And then satire, mannerism, pastiche, to overemphasize, to exaggerate and so expose the code, that we might retain an independence and vitality of engagement. Retreat from the formal and polished—I rely upon notebook, diary, the weblog (mshanks.com), celebrating the transient. More generally there is allegory. The English borders with Scotland are haunted by Roman remains of the edge of Empire in the face of the barbarian north, medieval banditry, dynastic conflict between the two kingdoms, insecurity and threat of invasion, an intellectual revolution between Scottish enlightenment and English industrial power, a moorland landscape in a northern shire. Instead of their pursuit, find the mundane and vernacular that holds no allegorical significance.
A focus upon modes of engagement, the performance of mediation, as much as the material output, is manifested in my constant experiment around:
framing: emphasized in formal layouts, single or composite, broken or challenged in time series, in video, in video grab, panorama, panograph;
surface and materiality: fine art print, Polaroid, transparency on a light box, digital (low resolution) and analogue (high resolution) projection, the ubiquitous computer screen; attention: resolution, density of detail/information, depth of field and focus, the placing of subject in the frame;
practice: the experiences of site and instrument in relation to subject; large format set up and operation; the miniature camera out in the field and prompting quick and nervous attention and arrangement, catching the eyes of people encountered, catching the skylark ascending; and audience, viewing alone, in company, on site, elsewhere.
Is it the unique features of a place that make it what it is, that deliver the sense of place, create its haecceity, its “hereness”? The moment of encounter is kairos, which also refers to ambience, atmosphere, weather. I hold that it is mainly the everyday, the quotidian, and not the exceptional that makes somewhere what it is: the overlooked, the commonplace, in its particular associations and arrangements.
Perhaps more precisely it is that fundamental relationship at the heart of making sense—the distinction between figure and ground, between signal and noise. This is the relevance of a forensic sensibility. At an archaeological site, at a scene of crime, anything might be evidence, relevant to the construction of a case, a narrative of what happened. The challenge is to distinguish what will carry meaning from what is irrelevant background, to separate signal from background noise, to place a figure in the background landscape, cityscape, in the architecture.