Measuring success: work that challenges, changes, transforms ?

Reading a nice article : “ping pong” chat over on Conscientious

Key  questions /issues:

  • How to engage work that challenges, changes and transforms?
  • What is a  measure of success?
  • Can photography effect change – really?
  • Can a photograph serve as a model for “what to do”  instead of “what not to do?”
  • What evidence of change are we seeking?

Perhaps there is collection of projects that celebrates the actions taken to postively change – perhaps creating a model by which the viewer / audience might actually believe that a change in simple behaviors might lead to a bigger change in a positive and meaningful way…. wouldn’t it be great to see more work celebrated in a way that begins to address the questions above?

It reminded me about something I’d written previously, a question really – wondering if Jordan’s work is going only  “half way”  into the problem (written back  Jan 2008)


Crushed cars #2, Tacoma 2004 – Chris Jordan

The images are there – a lot of them – some flirt with an aesthetic that is almost “beautiful” albeit ultimately destructive.  Most of the photographs, that I’m aware of (please, I’d like to become better informed), seem bleak in outlook, or so about destructive imagery that I for one, can’t imagine myself ”transfering” seeing into doing,  taking an action about the situation…  It’s novel to be able to view a million, billion sheets of paper and realize that we use up that much resource.. by the minute… or something along those lines… but it leaves me feeling dismayed and disconnected – I feel like ”throwing up my hands” with a helpless feeling overwhelming me – I can’t not use paper after all… maybe more wisely, but… source

Specifically,  the notion of promoting  what work strikes you as meaningful (which lets be honest –  is after all what these blogs are all about right ?) that potentially challenges, changes, and transforms the viewer audience – in some yet undefined /  immeasurable way…  is what matters.

Work that produces a measurable outcome – a positive change – takes time to evolve to achieve… to be recognized as such.

Photograph: Chris Jordan – Midway; Message from the Gyre

This is one aspect of what I might call a “new success” – by this I mean success which is gauged not by the amount of money earned by the author – (this is still extremely important and necessary), but instead, a success measured by the amount of change and kind of change that work provokes

Perhaps if over time these sorts of projects get more into the “mainstream”  the effect will be one of challenging us the viewer into seriously making a change in the way we live our lives.

For example – why not take a small step in our own consuming lifestyles for example – resolve to never again buy bottled water…

If there were only a way to objectively measure the change effect on a larger scale – actions for example do speak louder than words (or pictures) for that matter…

“Storybook wolf” a depiction of a “mental model” and a real thing.

Some considerations regarding the “model wolf” image … over on Conscientious (and I would agree the specifics surrounding the photographer and the resultant image / award / “unaward”  in the specifics of that situation isn’t that controversial itself)…  but I thought that this is something worth thinking over some more!

I saw this “staged” image story earlier this week and initially I thought “that’s too good to be true”…. also… but what I was thinking about, specifically what I imagined was a lot of prep work on behalf of the photographer (the actual planning was alluded to in the related article before the image was in question…(infrared / motion trap / trigger rig)… To me this is a first rate example of a “staged” photo – that is “setting it up”.  This supposes a mental model already exists about what the picture will depict. Seems to me like it might be akin to the press photo opportunities public officials so carefully orchestrate and too this is the skepticism with which many approach the photographic image these days (in certain contexts).  I don’t care and it doesn’t matter if the image was “set up”.  It is just a picture of a wolf leaping over the fence…  but…

I’ve written my own thoughts previously wondering about the “mental model” and photographers who seem to put the photograph into service as a way to create the image of that “mental model” . But in this case two very different kinds of “models” comparing examples by Paul Shambroom and his work in the Security series...  which are depictions representing simulation that of “First responders and law enforcement officers training in large-scale simulated environments…” or “real” simulated events, compared with the work of Paolo Ventura and  “War Souvenirs” – Ventura’s work as pure image invention, simulation and authorship – it reveals itself as such…

The important thing is that the Storybook Wolf picture did make me wonder… would there be any difference between a “real wild wolf”  trapped in the photographer’s image and say a trained / captive “performing” wolf? A zoo specimen perhaps in a good diorama set up might have produced the same photographic object and result…   Maybe a “real wild wolf” would tend to look a little more scuffy?  Who knows?  But it remains that the picture clearly was made to be viewed in the context (and with that all of the expectations)  of it depicting a wild creature in a real situation… this was my expectation…

The idea of what we “expect” of photographs is a great topic… the Morris articles in the Times a while ago regarding Walker Evan’s “documentary” work and the role of “captions” elaborated on this while interpreting photographic objects viewed in the context of documentary work do come to mind…

My first gut response to the storybook wolf is that it is a case of context trumping the photograph especially considering how that object may be interpreted specifically in the context of the competition rules – the photo probably shouldn’t be presented as a representation of anything more than a wolf jumping over a fence.

I think the key is to try and discern as carefully as possible the context with-in which the photograph will be received / interpreted as a visual representation – this is what colors our expectations of what it is we’re viewing.  This becomes problematic when you can’t predict the context. Perhaps this is why we find all these vintage photographs from anonymous sources so fascinating… we can finally look at them for what they are…without the baggage of context.

Olaf Otto Becker at Blue Sky Gallery

Ilulissat Icefjord 09 07/2003 by Olaf Otto Becker

Ilulissat Icefjord 09, 07/2003 by Olaf Otto Becker

I’ve enjoyed viewing the work of Olaf Otto Becker albeit previously through online web work and so I jumped at the opportunity to visit the current (January 2010) hanging at Blue Sky Gallery here in Portland, Oregon.  As always, it is good to see the work in person and it was time well spent.  The work from his series “Broken Line,” is shot in Greenland with 8″ x 10″ camera and the results are as expected loaded with fine crisp detail and a rich pallet of colors.  The prints hanging are “modest” in size at 25″ x 30″ and with the fine detail I found myself practically nose up to the prints in an attempt to take it all in.

579 Oquaatsut, 07/2003 69°20’23’’ N, 51°00’15’’ W by Olaf Otto Becker

579 Oquaatsut, 07/2003
69°20’23’’ N, 51°00’15’’ W by Olaf Otto Becker

705 Nuussuag 07/2006 by Olaf Otto Becker

705 Nuussuag 07/2006 by Olaf Otto Becker

What I found most interesting in terms of viewing the pictures is with a personal question about the problem of describing “a place” through photographs. In this case what sort of impression does Becker’s characterization through pictures of “place” in Greenland leave behind?

Becker’s photographs as assembled in the show reveal a balance between what I would call “natural beauty” as pictured in the more decorative photographs of icebergs and sculpted bays with the images of resident cabins, outbuildings and associated detritus of human inhabitation.  I recall about a 2/3 to 1/3 distribution with natural beauty leading the way…

The pictures of human habitation at first seem to me to keep to a neutral presentation – meaning my assumptions are that the images are simply “what can be found”.  The pictures seperately do not seem to convey an explicit indictment but when coupled together with overtly beautiful images of a potentially devastating environmental situation to me alludes to a larger question of how we choose to live in our surroundings. The human places pictured indicate to me a pretty ugly disregard and disordered inhabitation.  Of course this is completely my own conjecture, but the pictures of local inhabitation chosen to be pictured are what I would call beautiful pictures of ugly things and by transference, I begin to recognize how the “Broken Line” may be much more revealing in general about how we inhabit places and is therefor much more than simply pretty pictures of icebergs. Of course it’s a pretty big jump and a lot of transference to allow the inhabited pictures to speak about “human disregard” of the landscape… but I think it’s there none-the-less.

Thinking about the problem of keeping a body of work together in order to convey (potentially) an intent held within a group of pictures is a problem probably best solved by the photo book – the book containing these pictures The Broken Line by Becker presumably may hold some more answers.  I have not yet had a chance to see the book – but am curious to see if my intuition and assumptions might play out in the book…

Talerua Bay, 07/2005 by Olaf Otto Becker

Talerua Bay, 07/2005 by Olaf Otto Becker

This relates to a couple of posts as well on the potential value of a photobook as a reference item for collectors and is blog and post worth visiting as it is quite nicely elaborated upon by DLK collectors offering another point of view.  The photobook posts might explain a bit more regarding Becker’s work from the same DLK collectors on the new series “Above Zero”….  All of this make me wonder more about the question of “decorative” work as a hook to bring a larger audience towards work that ultimately wants to be more than just beautiful…