Week-1-Coursework: THE SHAPESHIFTER.


Photography:  The Shapeshifter. This week we dealt with the opinions of Shore, Szarkowski and Squires. I am in agreement with Szarkowski who says that narrative in photography has never been successful.

It is in agreement with my own views, because I find it rather difficult to explain concept by image alone.

This module I will consider some of the advice of my peers. Using image titles.  A carefully selected  project title. I am considering starting off the series with a haiku poem. A haiku, is a 3 line Japanese poem with 17 syllables 5/7/5.  Firstly  in homage to Fukase, Masahisa, Whose work has influenced me in terms of technique. (Grain, high speed film, contrast)  and at the same time being able to give my viewing audience a thread to follow out of the maze.

For example. Haiku Poem for:  ‘Fences’

On this fence a barb.

Appears alone to the eye, but is.

Surrounded with others and many.

© Pierre Chemaly


After watching the this week’s video about imagery being able to shapeshift in relation to context, it re-affirmed what has been used by the television, film and newspaper among modes of consumption since Plato’s Cave.

Benetton, was a nice addition to the mix for me, and how they go about shapeshifting the image in such a blatant and open way, as they continue to sell scarves and sweaters.  However, they seem to be ethical in one respect, they approached the photographer and the family to get their permission to use the image. Which was granted. No mention how much the family was paid, however they felt that were not being taken advantage of.

David Kirby’s father Bill stated, “Benetton is not using us, we’re using Benetton…If that photograph helps someone…then it’s worth whatever pressure we have to go through.”

As a photographer one has to be very careful how images are used and in what context.  I think that it is a good idea to have a clause in contracts that states images may not be used in a degrading or offensive way. (limited context clause) It may be in the photographers favor to have a clause like this, even if  a job is lost because of it. If a client is on the level, they will sign it, if they are not on the up and up, they will not, and this should be a red flag.

Hitchcock shows us in this example, how a series of 3 images can change a viewpoint.


Shot 1: A man looks outward. Shot 2 : A woman cuddles her baby.  Shot 3: Cut back to the man, who begins to smile. We presume: A kindly old man.

If the middle shot is replaced with a girl in a bikini and re-edited to gather with the same Shot 1 and Shot 3, what is he now: A dirty old man.

Here the man is judged to be be a kindly, or a dirty old man based on the context of the middle shot, and of course there will be many other interpretations of the sequence, depending on the audience.

The same thing applies to a still image. Or as Mary Price says: “The use of a photograph, determines its meaning.”  This is why one has to be very careful how images are used. A few words or two here and there can change the meaning of an image completely.  I am sure that if Malevich’s painting:  Black Square, had a label attached to it naming it: White Square, there is a small sector of the audience who would believe it.


Where am I now. (In my practice)

I am presently working on my series ‘Fences’ using it as a metaphor for difficulties and challenges in life. I will be using it specifically to deal with my own ‘creative’ challenges and difficulties experienced in my practice.

The fence has a few distinct characteristics that act as a signifier that difficulties are in fact surmountable. For example: one can see through them, they can be scaled or cut, or fall down. So the fence is a barrier with a solution if one is perceptive and intuitive, or to put it another way: the answer is in the question. This is what I am attempting to communicate. In other words all problems can be overcome. No, let me re-phrase: Most problems can be solved.  And the rest, can be dealt with.

I once read/heard (don’ know where)  that in mathematics, 2+2  does not equal 4; it approaches 4. In other words nothing is an absolute. An artist who’s philosophy I just love, deals with this another way – Jonas Mekas. He said: “My small decisions are wrong because I make them. My big decisions are right, because I don’t make them.” In others words, there is a lot that happens that is out of our control. And, surprisingly helpful in the scheme of the bigger picture. I like to play with that in my work. Approach, not the absolute, is my aim.

I enjoy “Art” photography that leans in the direction of abstraction.  At the same time, also appreciate the objective world and I source it as a wellspring for my inspiration. With that said, another challenge, is finding a way to blend the objective with the abstract in a cohesive series. Much like the work of painter Paul Klee, who’s art I enjoy and appreciate for that reason.  He is the best at it. Constantin Brancusi is another genius.  They use forms from nature and abstract it. I learned more about form in photography from Brancusi than I did from Ansel.

Painting: Paul Klee. Children and Dog. Image courtesy of: www.allpainter.com
La Muse Endormie, 1923–2010. Photo: Harald Gottschalk, © Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris, and courtesy of the Brancusi Estate and Paul Kasmin Gallery

I love philosophy, spirituality and art, so it creeps into my work one way or another, directly or in directly.  Small quotes like the one above are my stabilizers. I have many of them, that keep me creatively afloat or anchored what ever is required in that moment.  I rarely make an image where I’m not considering and thinking about what is beyond the the place, the moment or the veil.  Images of this nature are difficult to realize, because one has to transform the abstract into the concrete, and it doesn’t always work.  I’m always looking for cracks in the door, lights at the end of the tunnel, things like that.

The artist and the brush, the writer and the pen,  the photographer and camera, Yo yo Ma and his cello is the way I like it best. Direct communication with the instrument to realize the idea.  I don’t have to tell a fence what to do, it never talks back, I love that! It’s silent communication between us. We know what’s really going on out there.  No sales, no convincing and persuading, none of that commercial tripe. (Leave that to the dealer, but keep it out the process.) There is a lot going on between the fence and myself, one can’t hear or see it, but it’s there, it’s happening.  As Arron Siskind says:  “One has to look carefully and intently” That’s the kind of communication I like. Quiet and beautiful like a country road, may that is why I like HWY 138 and Gorman Post RD?

The Nature and Intent of my Practice:

In the nature of things, especially my practice, is very important. One often misses cues that are so blatantly natural that ones land up fighting or barking up the wrong tree as far as work in the field goes. When I was younger, I was very happy just to go out and work anything photographic, however as the years move along, I have come to realize the importance of my own voice, and I have come to the sad conclusion that any commercial image making process, and especially if there is more than one person involved in the decision making process, own voice is very difficult to achieve. One can maybe make a bad wax copy of one own voice, or an echo,  but that would be about it.

I work in the film business as my profession (indie films, so it’s a little more free on the “creative” side) but still, the movie business is a collaborative art. I have worked as both director and cinematographer and sometimes as both on a film. Even then, one does not have the freedom to be completely creative. One is still under the constraints of the money person, the producer, and the list goes on. With this said, I am concentrating on art photography, because it’s me and the instrument.  I do not use the word ‘fine-art’ that is too much of the ‘Adams/ Weston’ clan for me. I love both their works, and grew up learning from and meeting Ansel. However, I am more interested in artists like Fukase Masahisa, Arron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Maholy Nagy,  and Andreas Gursky that create images in the camera, use/d film, and make prints of their work. I do much the same thing. Siskind taught me to be vigilant, Callahan that it’s okay to get tired of a genre and change to something else, Nagy how to think creatively, Fukase that grain, contrast, and soft focus is okay as art. Gursky, idea art and financial success.

I get my ‘nature’ cues from creative visuals I see in other artist’s works. Works that ‘resonate’ with me, and understand without having to be sold a bill of goods, either in the artist statement, or in a long thesis about their work, convincing and persuading me why their art is good.  In other words, I am attracted to their art naturally, I trust my senses.

I have always been attracted to the avant-garde and the abstract, I do like the works of artists like Paul Klee who in my opinion is the master of mixing abstract with the objective world. Painters are the best at “isms” and have learned a lot from them. is this regard, which I apply to my photography.  At one time I loved the work of Malevich. – Black Square –  However, when I read a quote by an artist film-maker I like, by the name of Jonas Mehkas, I reevaluated my amorous art inclination for that amount of abstraction.  He said: “I’m not an abstract artist; I leave that to others. To me, abstract art ended with Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square.’ To continue it is senseless.”   And, I agree with Mehkas. Malevich had abstracted as far as it can go, there is nothing beyond blackness, or the absence of light, as far as I know. In other words creativity comes out of the darkness, not moving into it. There is nothing on the ‘material’ plane, that can be extruded from that quality.  So, it’s done, and do not want to repeat it, by doing something similar. Blacker square??  So I moved on to Kandinsky, and expanded outward from black to color, and finally Paul Klee, who used every abstraction to it’s fullest, and danced over the fence of the real and the abstract world, as easily as a bird takes to the air.  He has a nice balance and harmonious way of making images right at the brink of the impossible. And, this is exactly what I intend to achieve as a photo-artist. That fine, slightly off kilter balance, between the real and the unreal so to speak, leaning heavily to-wards the latter. Just the way I like my Arnold Palmers, heavy on the lemonade side. The sweeter side of art.

Successes + Weaknesses

Reflecting back on my work to date, the successes are:  I have managed to complete a series this module past. The series is based on a concept, and was able to keep nicely within the boundaries of objective/abstract image making (albeit too much on the objective side) making images in 35mm B+W with a few digital B+W images slipped in.  I developed and scanned the negatives in my home dark room, and managed to get the grain and and imperfections in the images I like, as well as achieving the film look of the Japanese photographers for the 60’s. and of that period in general.  I have always loved imperfections, grain and contrast in images  (I love to force the form beyond it recommended limits) Critically studying  the works of Fukase Masahisa, and Moriyama Daido, solidified that ‘look’ I like (grainy, contrasty, soft focus, etc.) It is accepted, applauded and even revered, in the photo community, so I feel good and solid with that. The greatest success of my series so far, is it brings my weaknesses into the light, and really forces me look at them: which is editing and narrative structure.

In context of other visual practices I find photography my most “go to” medium. I do paint, and I love the domain, it is a more ‘artistic’ medium for sure, and there are reasons why a Klee sells for 60M and a Gursky sells for a mere 4.5, because money paid for something is a measure of its value. Value in terms of: it’s rarely, ideas, content, brand etc.  However, my ‘natural’ way is photography,  and to paint and create with ideas.  I love the camera, and my hands feel empty when I don’t have the instrument in my hand, I try to photograph every day and find myself using film more and more. I like analogue, I am at peace with my practice as art, I consider it both. Art when it needs be.

Photographers and their apologists who think that photography ‘deserves to be called fine art” as John Berger states in Understanding the Photograph, has a problem right off the bat. Nothing is deserved, everything has to be earned. Has photography earned it’s position as art? In my opinion, yes it has. Is every photographer an artist, no. For me the problem is not whether photography is an art or not. The real problem is, these deserving photographers and their advocates do not even know what defines or constitutes art!

Herein lies the problem. If you don’t know what art is, how can you demand anything of it?   I have often asked people, what they consider the single main attribute of art is?  In a phrase, a few words, or less. Then it happens. . .  They turn primate! Out comes the grunts and groans, with the odd few head scratchings, plus the hand wringing, blank stares, fluttering eyelids, gazes upwards, open mouths, lolling tongues, and the seeming loss for words.  Gaping and waiting . . as if the answer will fall magically from the sky.  99% of people cannot give an answer. Everyone reading books, meandering along museum and gallery walls, crowding university halls, is searching for the answer.

Learn what art is (for you) before making demands! Figure out it’s function and purpose. Words in the hands of an artist, creates a poem. Words in the hands of a mechanic, turns out a dictionary.  All, depends on mind, spirit, and hands the medium is in.  Pen, paintbrush, camera, chisel or cello.

As far as critical mind opinions of photography as art are?  Is so unimportant and distant to me, I stopped thinking about that one when I was six. For me photography ‘approaches’ art.  Critics take one side or the other.  I believe in the unification of opposites, therefore a one-sided opinion on either side is only half the story.  I will argue critically, for the fun of it, but do not get emotionally involved, in pushing for an ‘absolute’ outcome. Everything is in degree. Where does coldness stop and hotness start? Where does day end and night begin? Maybe Sontag or Berger can answer that first.

The weaknesses: To expound on this discovery of weaknesses above, let me list a few. Insecurities about my work. Fears to go through with it. In addition, to these, I need to figure a way to better edit the images. Have to find a way to communicate to the viewing audience what the series is about without giving too much information away, and at the same time not holding too much back. There is a fine line there that cannot be crossed, in other words, one has to leave the audience a bit hungry, with a question or two remaining. Something for them to figure out  for themselves. I feel I was not able to achieve this, in my last module, and need to figure out a way, (maybe a short Haiku poem would be suffice?) Or maybe an artist statement?

Haiku Poem for:  ‘Fences’

On this fence a barb.

Appears alone to the eye, but is.

Surrounded with others and many.

© Pierre Chemaly

Future Plans:

‘Fences’ has to be nourished and watered. I am thinking about introducing color into the mix, as well as punctuating the images with completely abstract images, much like Fukase punctuated his work “Ravens” with images that had no ravens in them. It gives pause and breathing room to the series, but instead of having images that have no fences, I am considering having abstract images in between.

What gave me the idea was: in between drives or walks to the next ‘Fence’ shot, I would find beautiful abstract images in the sky, on the ground,  or within the photograph I was creating.  Arron Siskind, who’s work I love, was a master at this, his abstracts are like paintings, and he also worked along the roadway.

During this module, I plan to keep on photographing fences, and will extend the radius out into the California desert and small towns. I will also return to the boot of the fencepost, the tied up bottle and the California numberplate, and re-photoograph them, and look at them with a more critical eye the next time, and also what surround them in context.

Aesthetically  I have begun to experience more and more beauty of fences and what they signify.  I want to explore this more. Maybe it’s the aesthetic signifier that, in the midst of difficulties and challenges,  gives moments of reprieve,  It seems that this beauty can be the climax, with doubt and failure of the ordinary life, the initiating incident.  Almost paralleling my journey through this MA.

Technically I will be working mainly with 35mm and 6×6/7cm film cameras and some digital formats like my 7D and 5D I will be processing the negatives myself and printing them in both analogue and on my canon printer. I am considering really forcing the form in many ways, maybe using mixed media, (ie including paint and pencil), maybe collaging the images.

Conceptually, I will be figuring out ways to present series of images in a more co-hesive way in order to get my message or story across by means of theme, rather than plot or story. This way it leaves something for the viewing audience to contemplate and meditate upon, and hopefully myself as a practitioner as well. So I will be looking at visual strategies, a form a creative branding in order to be able to to this effectively. In terms of subject matter,I would like to continue with the metaphor of fences. I think that it is a universal concept that can be understood by my audience. I would like to culminate the series with a suggestion or maybe a few ideas that can possible solve the problem of human struggle.  This is the difficult part, for a number of reasons. Firstly I don’t want to turn it into a self help book. Secondly, I don’t want to be didactic. All I want to do is relay my experience and leave it open for artists and individuals to figure and make their own paths is life. The ideal would be: if he can do it, so can I.


Price, Mary (1994) The Photograph, A Strange Confined Space California, Stanford University Press.

Benettons advertising: https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/benettons-best-advertising-campaigns



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