The recording of a conversation with a friend followed by the writing of a transcript from memory before listening to the recording was instructive. The process showed that I had remembered the conversation as a coherent whole when in fact, listening to the recording, it was as a series of mini conversations. Comparison of the transcript with the recording showed that there were frequent digressions by both of us off the main conversation point, followed by a return to the main thread, and then further seemingly random digressions at a tangent followed again by a return, but often not quite to the same place or topic whence the focus of the conversation would change slightly and proceed. Yet I remembered the episode as more or less a single coherent conversation.
It appears that while I was participating in the conversation I was composing a narrative as the conversation went along. Thus, as my friend finished speaking I would add a rejoinder, then they would speak again; however, subconsciously I was ‘integrating’ what was being discussed to and fro into a narrative; anything that was said by either of us that didn’t immediately ‘fit’ was forgotten as being of no consequence – but was remembered when heard on the recording.
Was my remembered conversation the true one? It’s likely that my friend has remembered the conversation in a roughly similar fashion as I had but, because we are different people, would have ‘joined different dots’ in what was said resulting in a different remembered whole. The result is two different perceived versions of the same conversation and one true version: the recording.
How does this relate to constructed photography? I’m reminded of a photograph by William Eggleston (b. 1939) entitled ‘Near the River at Greenville, Mississippi, (Red Axe)’ (see fig.1.). This image has lots of ‘implied narrative’ with a large degree of suppressed menace and violence. However, no two people would take the same message from the picture and in this sense it resembles the two different remembered versions of the same conversation (above).
Staying with the example above of the remembered conversation, if one of us had resorted to rhetoric i.e. ‘the art of effective or persuasive speaking’ , then this would likely have reduced the disparity between each of the individually remembered conversations, and also between the remembered and recoded versions. But rhetoric is most effective in a one-sided discourse (that wishes to convey a single viewpoint) rather than in a conversation – the idea being to make the listener like-minded to that of the speaker. Because it is a one-sided dialogue the latter situation translates more easily to constructed photography than the conversation model. In this scheme the photograph of Eggleston (above) for example uses rhetorical flourishes (the axe itself, the red colour on the blade and the streaks of red on the barbecue) to persuade the viewer that this is a scene of menace and perhaps dread. The presence of the axe rules out other associations, for example, summer days in the back garden enjoying a barbecue with friends. Therefore though Eggleston’s image contains ambiguity it is only such that the viewer is lead down one broadly defined interpretative pathway, others being effectively blocked. Thus to continue the parallel with Eggleston’s photograph and my conversation with a friend, the photograph is equivalent to a one-sided conversation using rhetorical devices to ensure like-mindedness between photographer and viewer, or in other words the photographer uses method ‘whereby the interpretative latitude of an image may be contained’ (Wells, 2008:279) .
Constructed or staged photography takes this idea of interpretative latitude to the point where a single image may contain a narrative. Emerging in the 1990s (Bright, 2005:78) artists:
incorporated elements of fantasy, artifice and make-believe into their work. By scrupulously staging events and working with their subject matter in a similar way to that of a film director, artists created often sumptuous and seductive fictitious tableaux in which narrative elements came to the fore (Bright, 2005:78).
Susan Bright (2005) explains that:
The term ‘narrative’ suggests a story, and therefore movement. … but ‘staged’ photography distils stories into one-off images, packed full of multi-layered information. Such images function densely rather than chronologically, as experienced in a photo story (Bright, 2005:78).
There is a parallel here with how a conversation is remembered (above) in that what each person says in the back-and-forth flow of conversation is not remembered chronologically or in individual segments but rather instead each segment is amalgamated and remembered as an integrated whole. Similarly each component of a constructed image is not noted separately by the viewer but integrated into a single whole ‘experience’, which, if the image is dense enough can amount to a story or narrative.
Bright, Susan (2005) Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson
Wells, Liz (2008) ‘On and beyond the white walls. Photography as art.’ In: Wells (ed.) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Third edition. London: Routledge pp. 247-294
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Eggleston, William (1985) Near the River at Greenville, Mississippi, (Red Axe) [Photograph] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/william-eggleston/near-the-river-at-greenville-mississippi-red-axe-VTfIAduhrmLndjaCgZYd-Q2 (Accessed on: 27.05.15)