Photography, Truth and Empathy
In these activities and profiles, students learn how Edward Burtynsky, Sarah Anne Johnson, Althea Thauberger and other Canadian artists use photography to address different aspects of human activity, truth and empathy. Each of the artists takes a different approach to representing reality through the medium of the camera. The related art-making activities prompt students to consider the varied meanings behind images.
1. Are photographs more "real" than paintings or sculpture? How do artists profiled use fictional or non-fictional elements in their photographs? How do artists address the idea of photographic truth?
2. How do artists use photography to capture “human activity”? How do their photographs of “human activity” relate to empathy?
3. What are the differences between documentary or photojournalism and visual or fine art photography? What are the subjects of these different forms of photography?
In this video, five Canadian photographers talk about the ins and outs of careers in photography, and they also address salient issues of the medium. Edward Burtynsky creates beautiful fine-art photographs out of environmentally devastating phenomena. Sara Angelucci evokes emotion and the past by using and borrowing from vintage or archival images. Chris Buck works as a commercial photographer, shooting portraits of celebrities for magazines. Rita Leistner, a photojournalist, grapples with creating images in dangerous situations. Donald Weber, who travels the world to do both commercial and artistic work, addresses the idea of the photographer as witness.
Here are some links that might enrich a viewing of this video:
PBS American Photography: A Century of Images (an overview of developments in photography over the past 100 years)
ARTIST FOCUS 1: EDWARD BURTYNSKY
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has become famous worldwide for his documentation of large-scale human phenomena. As Sarah Milroy put it in a Fall 2010 feature for Canadian Art, "For 30 years, Burtynsky has made it his practice to record, in large colour prints, the human imprint on the natural world, photographing mines and quarries and railway cuts and, more recently, the impact of oil extraction and use around the world, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the shipbreaking deltas of Bangladesh and the oil fields of Alberta and Azerbaijan."
But as Burtynsky himself notes in the video embedded above, even large-scale projects like his—he documented the oil industry for 10 years, for instance—can only go so far. "There's no way you can create a comprehensive view of any human activity," he says in the video. "I've covered industry and mining and quarrying and recycling industries, and it's always like slicing a section of it out to represent a larger idea about human activity and how we engage."
Here are some links that may help students learn more about Edward Burtynsky's approach to photography:
Edward Burtynsky: Deepwater Blues by Sarah Milroy (a feature article on Burtynsky's 2010 trip to Texas to photograph the Gulf oil spill)
Edward Burtynsky: Ecological Footprints (a brief item about Burtynsky's "Oil" exhibition in Toronto and his receiving the 2011 MOCCA Award)
Edward Burtynsky: Oil Boom (a brief item about the debut of his "Oil" exhibition in Newfoundland in 2011)
The Hour: Edward Burtynsky (a 2007 item on CBC's The Hour about Burtynsky's "Manufactured Landscapes" exhibition)
Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes (video trailer for a 2006 documentary about Burtynsky's practice)
TED Talks Video: Edward Burtynsky (a 2005 video of Burtynsky talking about his art and how he hopes it ultimately will inspire people to make more sustainable choices)
ARTIST FOCUS 2: SARAH ANNE JOHNSON
Sarah Anne Johnson is a Winnipeg photographer who has gained international renown for the unique ways that she alters and plays with photographic conventions to convey narrative and memory.
Her first major project, Tree Planting, combined photographs of a group of tree planters with photographs of sculpted reproductions of related scenes. The result was a series of images that poetically evoked the constructed nature of memory—a nature that remains even when the "factual" medium of photography is used to document it. Her second major project, The Galapagos Project, used a similar technique, but looked at a group of environmental volunteers in the islands Darwin made famous.
A later project, House on Fire—created and exhibited in the wake of her winning the inaugural Grange Prize for Photography—involved altering images in a different way, namely by etching into and drawing on prints and photographs related to her grandmother, a victim of unethical psychological research. House on Fire also included small sculptures, rather than presenting just photographs of these types of sculptures. Finally, her most recent project, Arctic Wonderland, addresses a polar research trip made with a group of fellow artists. In this series, Johnson drew, painted and printed on sometimes-Photoshopped photographs to suggest a more critical view of (once again) photography, as well as well-meaning cultural forays.
As Nancy Tousley writes in a recent Canadian Art feature, "Among the hallmarks of Johnson's process as an artist: adventure, and a penchant for brief stays in isolated, close-knit societies faced with difficult conditions. She is an explorer as much as an adventurer, one who seeks utopian communities and the experience of the sublime in nature while simultaneously 'poking fun at all that.'"
In a 2011 interview with the National Post, Johnson discussed her misgivings about the photographic medium: "I feel great frustration with representing ideas through photography. Because photography can show you what something looks like, but I’m interested in using it to illustrate a whole experience. And the whole experience isn’t just what it looked like, it’s what you learned from it, it’s how it changed you. And a lot of that stuff happens after you take the pictures. When I got home, I didn’t look at these Arctic pictures for five months so I could distance myself and just see the photograph for what it is — this rectangular, two-dimensional flat thing on the wall — and then go, 'OK, this is my blank canvas. Now how do I get in there and express all the stuff I learned?' That’s when I started painting them."
Here are some links that may help students learn more about Sarah Anne Johnson's approach to photography:
Sarah Anne Johnson (artist page at Stephen Bulger Gallery)
Northern Splendour by Nancy Tousley (a 2011 feature on Johnson's Arctic Wonderland series)
Sarah Anne Johnson: Arctic Wonderland (a 2011 slideshow of her Arctic Wonderland series)
Gallery Hop 2011 Panel (a video of Johnson appearing on a Canadian Art Foundation panel about artists and their relationship to place and location)
Breaking the Ice: Sarah Anne Johnson by Leah Sandals (a 2011 National Post interview about the Arctic Wonderland series)
Sarah Anne Johnson: Going Live (a 2010 review of a performance Johnson directed in Winnipeg)
Sarah Anne Johnson wins inaugural $50,000 Grange Prize (news item about Johnson's 2008 win)
ARTIST FOCUS 3: ALTHEA THAUBERGER
Vancouver artist Althea Thauberger is known for photo and video projects in which she collaborates with her subjects to create the final product. This approach often raises questions about the power of the artist and the power of the viewer versus the power of the subject of an artwork, and it also prompts uncertainty about determining the idea of a single "truth" in any given image or situation.
One of Thauberger's first well-known projects, Songstress, featured young (though not always talented) female singer/songwriters found through an ad in a Victoria magazine. A later project, Murphy Canyon Choir, featured a choral performance by US military wives in San Diego. And her 2009 project on female Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan shows these soldiers in various situations—ones that are often playful, or more playful than expected—throughout the Kandahar compound.
In a 2010 feature in Canadian Art, Vancouver curator Reid Shier spoke about the way that Thauberger focuses on "blind spots" in popular culture: "We can easily avoid looking at what our soldiers are doing in Afghanistan, and we are more familiar with watching 17-year-old girls perform when they are fantastically talented. Althea finds ways to investigate those erasures and put them in a visual form."
In that same feature article, Thauberger spoke about the fact that her interest in isolated communities may be rooted in her own experience growing up in a Jehovah's Witness family, a faith she broke with at the age of 17: "I understand what it is like to be inside a rigid belief structure... In fact the art world can be quite isolated, ideological and rigid, though we pretend not to be. I have strong views about Canadian foreign policy and the occupation of Afghanistan, but so do many in the military. When I spend time with them I have ways to relate. I don't see their experience as being much different from my own."
Here are some links that may help students learn more about Althea Thauberger's approach to photography:
2011 Grange Prize Portfolio (a slideshow of Thauberger images made available to the public in relation to the 2011 Grange Prize competition)
War Artist by Deborah Campbell (a 2010 Canadian Art feature article focusing mainly on Thauberger's Afghanistan project)
Althea Thauberger: In Theatre (a slideshow of other images from her Afghanistan work)
Althea Thauberger: Warhol Redux (a brief item on Thauberger's 2008 project collaborating with residents of the Chelsea Apartments in Victoria)
Althea Thauberger: The Witness by Rosemary Heather (a 2007 Canadian Art feature article about Thauberger's practice, including collaborations with young people in Germany)
Rewind: Althea Thauberger by Marina Roy (a 2003 review of Thauberger's Songstress)
Using a found snapshot of an common event (such as a photo of your friends or a birthday party), analyze the photography, including its composition, its subject matter and other important elements, then recreate that snapshot by restaging it as closely as possible to the original source photo. Consider how the idea of photographic reality changes when you restage the scene.
Tell a narrative story using only one photograph and the same narrative story by using at least 5 photographs. Consider how your experience of photography changes through the use of a single picture versus multiple pictures.
As a class, discuss how photographs of warfare, conflict or disasters affect you. Consider how visual art photographs or conceptual photographic practices affect you. Also, consider how photography and portraiture of celebrities or fashion photographs affect you. How do your reactions differ depending on the use of the medium?
When discussing photography, this term can have a number of significant meanings. A subject can be an object, person, scene, incident, etc., chosen by an artist for representation, or as represented in art, such as a photograph. A subject is a being that is subjected to something: one can be subjected to the power of authority, the law or others. The term “subject” is also used in philosophy to describe the human mind or thinking part as distinguished from the object of thought.
This term can have multiple meanings and definitions. Narrative study is a large field of philosophical inquiry addressed through the examination of various disciplines, including literary, historical or aesthetic theory. Generally, narrative is described as a story that is created in a specific format, such as speech, literature or art, that describes a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events.
The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.