Looking at photographs

Photograph: Liz Ham

Of all the photographs I have seen this week, this is the most memorable.

The picture shows a mature woman and a boy. It would be a reasonable assumption that they are mother and son. They are knee deep in water. The background suggests they are wading in a lake or river. This is perhaps a special place for them or they are on holiday. The direction of light suggests that the picture was taken as the sun is low in the sky.

So is this a holiday snap? The sombre facial expressions suggest otherwise.

The photographer explains the photograph thus:

“On the eve of having surgery to remove my womb, my first-born child and I made this self-portrait together. It is a conclusive image in a very private and intimate body of work made over the last decade. In the series Pre Partum Post I explored my feelings around childbearing, mental health and the self. Recurring themes around transformation and surrender have emerged”

I found this quite extraordinary. There is no hint of this backstory in the picture, but it completely illuminates the meaning. Marking the end of fertility by standing next to the first fruits of fertility.


Response to Francis Hodgson.

Hodgson’s suggestions are obviously heart-felt and made with the utmost articulation, but sadly doomed to failure on his own terms.

Were Hodgson talking solely about an academic or critical approach to photography, he might make some progress. Academia, or at least some culturally aligned institutions within academia, might indeed be able to develop a common language to describe and analyse photographs. But such niche bodies, attempting to pronounce on the broad church of photography, would instantly attract the charges of elitism of which Hodgson himself is wary.

The problem is surely collapsing all photography into this proverbial broad church. Fine art photography, conducted by highly skilled practitioners, has nothing in common with family snapshots or mementoes of boozy nights out. I would suggest that whilst these activities are conducted with a camera and produce photographs, the attempt to collapse all these camera based activities into a body of work that can be analysed in a standard way is completely misconceived.

If Hodgson’s concern is to adjudge quality and meaningfulness, these judgements should only be applied to work which seeks to be adjudged in this way.

Hodgson seems to be saying that all photographs sit somewhere on a long scale from trivial to meaningful. Implicit in that analysis is the higher value placed on the meaningful photograph. But what is wrong with triviality? Pictures of new-born babies, first days at school, birthday celebrations, holidays and weddings were never intended for scoring by academics. They are celebrations and mementos of special days in the life of individuals and families.

By all means, examine the social significance of family pictures, but don’t place them on a scale at which they will always be at the bottom. That is pointless and elitist.

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