Interdisciplinary Approaches to Photography:
Ramblings on Interpretation and Self-Reflexive Practices
by Ragan Cole-Cunnigham
We might say that Photography is unclassifiable.
Then I wondered what the source of this disorder might be.'
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
What is an interdisciplinary approach and how were these approaches visible and viable as to raise new issues in the realm of photography, specifically? In contemporary works we find photographs that emulate paintings, albeit historic or modern, and hyper-realistic paintings depicted from photographs that are entirely intended to look like photographs, as a way of creating a trop l'oiel effect for the viewer. Certainly in the new millennium there are many combinations that employ Internet-based media and video technology, as well as performative and documentary means. I looked up interdisciplinary online and found numerous definitions which only provided more food for thought.
In Mansilla and Gardner's Assessing Interdisciplinary Work at the Frontier. An Empirical Exploration of 'Symptoms of Quality', the authors define interdisciplinary study as, "Work that integrates knowledge and modes of thinking from two or more disciplines. Such work embraces the goal of advancing understanding (e.g., explain phenomena, craft solutions, raise new questions) in ways that would have not been possible through single disciplinary means." 2
This broad understanding in conjunction with photography brought me to think of a lecture provided by author Francette Pacteau where she discussed an image of Sigmund Freud in his study. The easily recognizable photograph of Freud was compositionally beautiful and while the photographer who took the picture was a coined "documentary photographer" and not "artist," Pacteau discussed the image in correlation to Roland Barthes' concepts of the studium and punctum from his notable work Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. As Pacteau brought light to various attributes of psychoanalytic theory, Barthes and the formalities of the photo itself the image, while fascinating, found various layers of meaning through her interpretation and the questions developed through the groups dynamic in relation to the photograph. Does this voiced collective denote an interdisciplinary approach strictly through Pacteau's presentation and participatory viewership versus the photographer's process or intent? Was the intersection of photography, psychoanalysis and operative semiotics not an interdisciplinary approach to photography, though solely based on the analysis and conversation around the topic, and not necessarily provided by the photograph itself? I am sure that is not what the editors of SPOT had in mind, though interpretation undoubtedly becomes the most integral and free-based interdisciplinary approach to art in general.
I digress; rather, I believe I am supposed to write on contemporary artists who are using Avant Garde techniques as interdisciplinary approaches to photography. That is, those who use new practices and concepts that push the boundaries of photographic material to reveal cunning and baffling surprises for a novice viewer while impressing those photographers and worldly art folks who have tracked changes in the medium for decades.
While flipping through pages of Art in America, Art Papers and Art Forum, one notices a particular bent on more self-reflexive and documented performance-based photography as interdisciplinary trope. As the topic of "interdisciplinary approaches," especially in contemporary art making, becomes a huge subject to tackle, I will focus on self-reflexive properties amongst photographers of more recent renown and how these reflexive identities are revealed through interdisciplinary technique.
Suntek Chung, an artist out of Richmond, Virginia, lends interesting dialog to the idea of interdisciplinary approach, not only through technical prowess, but conceptual thought. An interdisciplinarian, if you will, Chung began his career as a sculptor, securing degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University, Yale and participating in the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. While initially intrigued by power tools and metal, Chung turned to making performative pieces as the sculptural attributes lent a theatrical vibe. From here the artist investigated photography as a way of documenting his happenings in conjunction with his sculptures, and today he interweaves all of these disciplines within his art-making process.
In his work Suburban Fury, Chung creates a staged set complete with a glimpse of vinyl-sided house, a lawn with gridded plugs of grass, and features himself as a Rambo-type lawn man prepared to do battle. Commando-style positioning of the main male character, who hoists lawn mower, rakes, leaf blower and weed whacker above his head, provides an absurdist portrayal to those who both relish and loathe the responsibility of homeownership. Through the depiction of an everyday occurrence and heightened by theatrical positioning and sculptural arrangement, Chung provides a humorous spin on the idea of Man versus Nature.
The photo itself looks as if it jumped out of the pages of a Lowe's© lawn and garden brochure. Slick, pop colors attract the eye while the costume worn by Chung brings us back to some sort of bizarre 1950s scene. Black tube socks secured by garters, long cigarette filter, fishing cap and high-belted waistline might remind us of a grandfather out tackling the yard, but Chung confuses this by constructing a character and scene all too contemporary. The shiftiness of time becomes an interesting point of reflection along with the serious Samurai-like positioning of the character in combination with the mundane occurrence of something such as a dandelion.
Artist Robin Rhode develops self-reflexive interdisciplinary approaches through performance, drawing, film and photography. The artist, a South African who spends time at home and in Berlin, and who is getting a lot of attention recently, uses photography to document various wall-drawn happenings. In Monument to the Chairman, 2008, the artist provides 25 photographs which document a chess game taking shape. Initially two pawns, black and white respectively, flank the ends of a table drawn directly on the wall with charcoal. Rhode stages the moves of the players until the table is stacked with drawn pawns, leaving us with a kind of architectural cityscape. Each player wears either a black or white top hat and we imagine a vagabond-type meandering from one side of the table to the next plotting their course of action.
Rhode's conceptual score is one that reveals power, structure and mimesis. The shape of the pawn mimics Russian architecture, more specifically churches from the early 1900's which point to Rhode's interest in Russian Constructivism in relation to social discourse and the Supremacists in terms of geometry and mathematics.
Described by some as one of the most prolific photographers in the UK, Julia Fullerton-Batten creates small-scale model environments where life-size female, teenage models hover and interact. Fullerton-Batten essentially has two careers -one as a fashion and advertising photographer and the other as fine artist. She began her career as an assistant for Vogue and in 2000 started her professional career by shooting for big ad agencies.
In her "Teenage Stories" series from 2005 the artist showcases various scenes depicting teenage girls in dreamlike scenarios constructed with miniature buildings, cars, people, etc. This series raises issues of adolescent anxiety of feeling simultaneously in and out of place. Some of her skinny teens are comfortable in their spot, while others are met with catastrophe.
More recent work such as Cafeteria Girls (standing), 2007 and Mirror, 2008 leave the miniature models behind, opting rather for cold, sterile, "real" spaces. Cafeteria Girls depicts a series of young girls standing at cafeteria lunch tables. Approximately 15 characters adorned in the same outfit, holding the same handbag and all coifed with blonde wigs, look up to paintings of white men, which may possibly be former Deans or Presidents of a proverbial school. The image certainly raises ideas of male patriarchal structures, conformity and control. Highly organized and sharp, there is no warmth in the photo and one suspects the wrath of bureaucratic school leaders who churn out robots.
In Mirror, Fullerton-Batten toys with minimalist composition and space as her main female figure, situated in a hallway, jumps in the air with her head down. A mirror is placed at an angle on the ground reflecting another interior area across the hall. The curved hallway, body positioning of the subject and stark environment are perplexing. The image is crisp and clear with very few shadows. One imagines this space an area for a photo shoot or an emptied space of wealth and prestige, but what about the woman? She confuses us by being the only living thing in the space. What about the mirror? It merely reflects back what we might already perceive as existing on the other side. These problematized areas of Fullerton-Batten's works are what make them interesting. The lighting is artificial as if from a stage set, not a true space and her characters are, despite their physical activities, lifeless.
These self-reflexive approaches to photography become just one example of interdisciplinary approach. Photographers use an array of devices and combinations to alter their objects, from toying with a character's costume or a staged set design, to utilizing Photoshop and Quark software programs, to painting directly on the photograph or printing on various surfaces. Contemporary photographers continually experiment to find ways to alter images and present something new and fresh. We can cite many examples of these interdisciplinary approaches to photography dependent on how we define the term and either based on technique or process, or how the viewer or critic, interprets or projects on to the object.
Regardless of approach, nowadays photographers seem to find dialogic interest in and through indexical analysis and creative scenario. This juxtaposed questioning plays similarly to realistic and abstract applications within painting and linear and abstract thought in regard to art in general. One hopes, as with most artists, that photographers investigate a subject and determine the best conclusions as to how to specify an idea or set of ideas for a viewer. The approach taken is simply a means to an end.
1 Barthes, Roland, trans. Richard Howard, 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York, Hill and Wang.
2 Harvey, L., 2004-5, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/glossary/.