The next annual conference of the International Visual Sociology Association will be held in Pittsburgh in June 2014, on the theme ‘visual dialogues in post-industrial societies: transforming the gaze’. The call for panels has just been issued. Details are on the IVSA website here.
Looks like an interesting exhibition opening next week at Milton Keynes Gallery, called Future City, which looks “at the utopian origins of Milton Keynes in order to consider aspects of its future”.
The newspapers here in the UK carried a story last weekend about a new bridge across the Thames in London. It’s been designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studios, and the news stories all carried various images of what the bridge would look like when it was built. The most commonly used was this one:
Apart from the fact that it looks uncannily like the planet inhabited by the rich and privileged in Neill Blomkamp’s recent film Elysium, this image was both taken entirely for granted in the press coverage and caused some small difficulty. None of the newspapers I read raised any questions about what it shows or how it shows it, despite it being bathed in a un-London light – oddly blue, cold and artificial, which is why it reminded me of Elysium - and it also having a very odd London skyline behind it (surely St Paul’s wouldn’t look that big – and where are all the very tall buildings now scattered throughout the City and beyond?).
At the same time, none of the newspapers seemed to agree on what kind of image this picture actually was. It was called variously a “photograph”, which is patently isn’t, although some photographs were probably involved in its making; an “artist’s impression”, which is probably more like it; and an “image”, which is definitely playing it definitionally safe. This uncertainty about what this – well, image, is, is interesting. It suggests that for all their increasing visibility, digital visualisations of things that don’t exist – whether that’s orbiting space stations or bridges – are still puzzling objects. We don’t yet know how to label them. Which might be to the good; because if we don’t know quite what they are yet, we might be able to question the glossy smoothness with which so many of them present urban futures to us.
I’ve just been browsing through the book Visible Mending: Everyday Repairs in the South West by Steven Bond, Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan. It was published by Uniformbooks earlier this year and is the result of a research project exploring workplaces in the south west of England where people repair things.
The book is beautifully designed and produced and full of Steven Bond’s fantastic photographs, which linger on the objects and spaces and light of the workplaces the research team visited. As Caitlin and James say in their essay that concludes the book, the photographs really do focus attention on the richly textured materialities of these places, and suggest the intimate relations between them and the people who work there, even though very few of the photographs picture people.
That concluding essay is also ponders nicely on the use of photographs in the research project: how they were taken and what was done with them. I particularly like the reflection on the materiality of the photographs in the exhibitions that Steven, Caitlin and James curated. They note that the photos seemed to sort themselves into thematic groups, and the researchers went with that clustering, and also decided to print the photos on small metal sheets that could be picked up from the tiny shelves on which they rested in the gallery and held and explored (how does a photo get printed on to aluminium?); the essay also explores the different forms of text that accompany the photographs, in the book, in the guide to the exhibitions and on the project’s blog. There’s a strong sense of the academic craft in all this, of methods as labour and work. Lovely.
For the first time in what feels like a long while, I have a new paper out. It’s called “On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture”, and it’s available on The Sociological Review‘s Early View page here. This is the abstract:
One of the most striking developments across the social sciences in the past decade has been the growth of research methods using visual materials. It is often suggested that this growth is somehow related to the increasing importance of visual images in contemporary social and cultural practice. However, the form of the relationship between ‘visual research methods’ and ‘contemporary visual culture’ has not yet been interrogated. This paper conducts such an interrogation, exploring the relation between ‘visual research methods’ – as they are constituted in quite particular ways by a growing number of handbooks, reviews, conference and journals – and contemporary visual culture – as characterised by discussions of ‘convergence culture’. The paper adopts a performative approach to ‘visual research methods’. It suggests that when they are used, ‘visual research methods’ create neither a ‘social’ articulated through culturally-mediated images, nor a ‘research participant’ competency in using such images. Instead, the paper argues that the intersection of visual culture and ‘visual research methods’ should be located in their shared way of using images, since in both, images tend to be deployed much more as communicational tools than as representational texts. The paper concludes by placing this argument in the context of recent discussions about the production of sociological knowledge in the wider social field.
I submitted the first version of this paper to the Review in June 2011. Yep, two years and four months ago. The delay was caused by the slowest refereeing process I have ever experienced. You know who you are.
There’s a great exhibition on at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum in London at the moment – it runs til 5 January. It’s called Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity, and it “aims to challenge long held stereotypes and sentimental views about motherhood”.
I visited The Photographers’ Gallery at the weekend to see the photographs there. I’ve blogged before about the way that this gallery erases any discussion of the production of photography by hanging photographic prints with minimal commentary on its white walls; on this occasion though, for me at least, the photographs seemed to hold their own against that abstracted context and were for the most part very powerful. Most spoke to me about the complexities of mothering, and how being a mother is also in part an erasure of the person you were before you gave birth.
I also went to a talk with three of the photographers in the show: Elinor Carucci, Ana Casas Broda and Katie Murray. They were all very articulate about the difficulties of being a photographer and a mother – not least the practical difficulties of taking the kind of photographs they wanted to make of themselves with their children. Both Elinor and Ana said that of course they used digital cameras for this work, analogue cameras just took too much time to set up and with kids you had to take the shot as fast as you could. The talk, then, focussed very much on what the exhibition studiously ignored: the labour of making images.
One thing that did strike me about the exhibition was that all the work was very far from the kind of traditional ‘family photography’ that I’ve written about elsewhere. The work was in very large format, or in rigorous series, or shown in vitrines, or way too explicit for the family album. One of the arguments of my book, though, is that even the much less aesthetically impressive family snaps that so many women take of their kids might also be seen as expressing certain forms of ambivalence: in mothers’ insistence on taking them; in the way they are gathered together and narrated by the mother; the way they are looked at and then put away by the mother. Perhaps not in what they show, but rather in what is done with them, family photos also are less sentimental than is often imagined.
Albena Yaneva has developed an interesting tool for mapping – literally, visually – controversies surrounding proposals for specific building designs. It’s available on the Mapping Controversies website, together with some examples of student projects that have used it. The tool shows links between different actors in a controversy, and how those links develop over time.
It’s interesting to me because I’m working on a talk about Actor Network Theory and aesthetics – more specifically, the limits of ANT when it comes to thinking about creative practices like design, art and architecture. One limit, it seems to me, is that ANT isn’t very good at differentiating between different kinds of links. It can do stronger and weaker links, but is maybe less effective at thinking about the difference between, say, a link between two actors created by a legally binding contract, and a link between two actors driven by an affective ties.
The Mapping Controversies tool exemplifies this aspect of ANT. It visualises lots of different actors – human and non-human – and a net-work of actions done between them, very effectively. But it visualises all those links with the same straight line that just gets thicker with more links. So, a really interesting tool, but one that also displays its ANT-ness in its design: a link is a link is a link.
And here’s what helped me think about this: a great chapter by Sianne Ngai called ‘Network aesthetics: Julian Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social‘, in Cindy Weinstein’s and Christopher Looby’s edited collection American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
My OU colleagues Melissa Butcher and Luke Dickens have been working on a funded research project called ‘Creating Hackney as Home‘ for the past six months, working with five young people from the London borough of Hackney as their co-researchers. Michael, Matthew, Monet, Shekeila and Tyrell have been making films to explore their sense of Hackney as home, and the first film by Michael, has just gone up on the project’s website here. Four more films will follow over the next few weeks, with commentary by each filmmaker. Looks a great project, both in terms of the quality and diversity of the films, but also because the filmmakers are allowed space to reflect on their own different ways of making each film.
The International Association of Visual Urbanists is holding a day conference at the British Library in London on 7 October, called ‘Visual Urbanism: Perceptions of the Material Landscape’. You can book here.
I came across this website in my travels over the summer: Photomediations Machine. It’s a “curated online space” that hosts reflections on photography and other media as forms of mediation, reflections which are mostly heavily visual (though, quite rightly I think, every submission has to include “a short description or a contextualisation piece”). It’s very nicely put together, easy to navigate and robust; all the links worked fine, all the videos played. Nice.
And it’s robust in another sense: submissions are peer-reviewed by the editor, Joanna Zylinska, and a member of the site’s Advisory Board. It would be interesting to know what sort of criteria they use when they evaluate pieces for publication on the site. Apart from a skills deficit, I think one reason social scientists are so wary of creating visual pieces of research is the uncertainty about how they will be evaluated. Well-curated sites like this could inform a fuller discussion than is currently happening about how images can create social science. On the evidence of this site, for example, they clearly do a lot of things other than ‘evoke the affective’ or ‘display the real’, which are the two reasons most commonly given for creating images as part of a research project, I think.