Research point: Contemporary awareness 2

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary fine art photographers. As per the equivalent exercise on section 1 on documentary, I have found a few I really liked, a few I found interesting but not engaging and a few that I questioned the inclusion of for one reason or another.

José Ramón Ais

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 15.46.39
Semper Augustus, 2009 – José Ramó Ais

Just to look at them, his photographs are painterly, idealised landscapes, usually tightly composed and focusing on the flora in the foreground, and with an overall air of having been heavily post-processed.

He does however claim a conceptual underpinning – the notes from an exhibition read:

“The pictures are the result of elaborate conceptual, linguistic and aesthetic syntheses, for they conflate iconographic referentes taken from art history, mythology and beliefs with botanical eponyms derived from the scientific urge to classify.” (Martinez, date unknown)

Not really my cup of earl grey.

Zarina Bhimji

Bhimji specialises in photographing (and filming) places devoid of people, yet the resulting images always betray a prior human presence.

“Bhimji’s photographs capture human traces in landscape and architecture. Walls are a recurring motif, attracting her through their absorption of history as they become a record of those who built, lived within and ultimately abandoned them.” (Tate, 2007)

Cracked Earth, 2005 – Zarina Bhimji

Her work is the culmination of significant research about the places she photographs, yet none of this information makes it into the frame. It’s as though she absorbs the background context then throws it away, hoping that some of it will somehow inform how she takes the photographs. Narratives are very lightly implied but not explained or contextualised.

Adjectives that spring to mind: eerie, calm, absent, ghostlike. I was impressed. I’d like to see full size images in a gallery environment. One to watch.

Elina Brotherus

Previously researched here. Short version: some projects really connected with me and others did not – which is a risk with very autobiographical subject matter.

Calum Colvin

His own website describes his work best:

“A practitioner of painting, sculpture and photography, Colvin brings these disciplines together, utilizing the unique fixed-point perspective of the camera, in his unique style of ‘constructed photography’: assembled tableaux of objects, which are then painted and photographed.” (artist website, 2016)

Mute Swan, 1996 – Calum Colvin

There’s a lot going on in his pictures. They’re not photographs, they’re more paintings that use photographs. I get what he’s doing, but I find them a bit over-the-top myself.

Gregory Crewdson

Previously researched here. Short version: visionary, psychological, very cinematic. Good at implying a story but letting the viewer proved their own narrative. I like the end results but strangely am less impressed when I see how much work goes into them. I think he could make a good film director, or cinematographer.

Alexander Gronsky

Urban landscapes are his thing, more specifically the ‘edgelands’ as cities and their suburbs blend into countryside. The underlying conceptual basis for the work seems to be the expansion of humans beyond cities and how they impact the landscape, and vice versa. Humans are insignificant or absent in his large-scale works.

From Pastoral, 2008 – Alexander Gronsky

I’d like to see a full exhibition of his work, as I think it will work best large scale on white walls. Very still, contemplative, thought-provoking.

David Hockney

Like Colvin, Hockney is a (very great) painter who happens to sometimes use photographs. Not sure he deserves a place on this list.

Alfredo Jaar

A visual artist in a broad sense, and predominantly a filmmaker and architect. Another unusual choice for this list. Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist when it comes to photography as art…

James Nachtwey

On the face of it, this is a category error: Nachtwey is quite clearly a documentary photographer. However, his is – like Salgado and Delahaye – a form of documentary that crosses over into art, from both an aesthetic and presentational point of view. His skill for a striking composition belies an artist’s sensibility and eye.

Kosovo, 1999 – James Nachtwey

I found his images to be so beautifully composed that I marvelled at the photography skills over the content of the image. More traditional documentary photographers would have shot more straightforward images to emphasise the subject. I found Nachtwey’s images distractingly good-looking.

Jeff Wall

I previously researched Wall alongside Crewdson for Context & Narrative, and visited his last London exhibition. I found some of his earlier art-inspired work much more interesting than his recent output. In a comparison to Crewdson he comes off as second best in my opinion – there’s just something lacking that I can’t always put my finger on – it’s just a little underwhelming sometimes.

And finally, one (well, two) of my own favourites:

Broomberg & Chanarin

People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (Dots), 2011 – Broomberg & Chanarin

For me the most imaginative and exciting photographers (or maybe more accurately, photographic artists) working today are Oliver Broomberg and Adam Chanarin. The pair have worked together since 1997 and their output is wildly eclectic. They are conceptual photographic artists par excellence, finding fresh ways of incorporating photography into their projects.

Their take on the Northern Ireland photographic archive from the ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s-80s was the brilliant People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground, of which the (Dots) project was particularly interesting (more here).

They’ve played with photography in other projects, such as Holy Bible (2013), a replica King James bible with provocative, borderline blasphemous photographs juxtaposed with the original text.

Also of note is The Day Nobody Died (2008), the result of their being embedded in British Army units on the front line in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Instead of taking photos of… well, anything, they celebrated a day of non-fatality by unrolling a six-meter section of photographic paper and exposing it to the sun for 20 seconds. “The results seen here deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering.” (artist website, 2015)

The Day Nobody Died, 2008 – Broomberg & Chanarin

What I like about these two is that they are completely unafraid to experiment, yet photography is always at the heart of their work. They find extraordinarily innovative and tangential ways of incorporating photography into their projects, and for that alone I will always keep an eye out for their new work.

Sources (accessed 25/04/2016) (accessed 25/04/2016) (accessed 25/04/2016) (accessed 25/04/2016) (accessed 25/04/2016) (accessed 25/04/2016)


Exercise: There’s only one…


What are you about? Why are you ‘you’? What makes you different from other people? What makes you the same?

For this exercise, use either a mobile phone or a small but cheap digital compact. No DSLR or bridge cameras. You’ll also need a large lump of Blu-Tack or plasticine to put your camera on or stick the camera into. This is your tripod – it will stick into corners, on shelves, etc., where you would struggle to put a full-sized tripod.

Photograph yourself for three days. If you can, take roughly one photograph per hour.

If you miss an hour you can’t take two shots in the next. And you can’t repeat it if it goes wrong, if somebody moved, etc. Aim to show your feelings, your moods, your quirks, your belongings, your environment – the things that make you into you.

Produce eight images that, together, create a profile of you and explain what there is to know about you when read from left to right in a particular order.


I will do this exercise (in some form) but I have issues with it as written.

Why specify camera size and quality, and the mount method? Why ‘photograph yourself’? (could depict your identity by showing objects, places, other people, or even by getting other people to photograph you). Why no reshoots?

The concern I have is that this is an exercise about identity in the Fine Art section of the course. Such restrictive instructions are a straitjacket to individual creativity.

The irony is that if the subject was anything other than identity I’d have been fine with it. But the method of execution is not in line with my own identity (following instructions unquestioningly, shooting deliberately on low quality equipment and dogmatically accepting poor technical quality images aren’t parts of my identity!)

It might have been much more appropriate to have had something along the lines of “take photographs of and around yourself for three days” without the other Dogme 95-style constraints.

/ rant over

I did find a way of delivering this exercise to my satisfaction. It involved not depicting my face! I did try for a day to take pictures with a selfie stick but hated the results – they had the distinctive weird vantage point of selfie sticks and resembles a type of photography that I really don’t like and certainly doesn’t reflect my identity.

So I shot down onto my hands and body instead. I depicted a number of different aspects of my identity over the three days and in the end decided to use the shots that has a similar aesthetic – e.g. all portrait mode (classic smartphone style).

I decided to present them in the context of the iPhone for two reasons: to emphasise the personal method of capture, and because the unwritten 9th identity statement is that I am a smartphone addict!

Research point: Sam Taylor-Johnson


Read through the brief summaries below and choose two artists to explore in more depth. Make notes in your learning log or blog about how your chosen photographers use their art to comment on their own identity and the issue of female identity in general. Note down any similarities and differences between the two. Could any aspects of their work influence your own practice?

I chose Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (b.1967, formerly Sam Taylor-Wood).

Here I focus on Taylor-Johnson; the comparison between the two will be at the end of this post.

I’m not totally convinced that Taylor-Johnson has a claim to a place on a fairly short list of photographers who have “incorporated ideas of identity into their image-making” (course notes: 73), as I can think of many others with a much more apparent focus on identity (Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Gillian Wearing and Cindy Sherman among others). Not to say that identity doesn’t play a part of her work, it’s just not the major part in my opinion.

Early work

Some of her early self-portraiture work does fit into the ‘feminine identity’ genre, such as 1993’s Slut and Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank – but this is the rather blunt and unsubtle end of her work that she thankfully outgrew.

Men Crying

Her well-known Men Crying series (2002-04) raises issues of the male identity, although by her own admission its real impetus (retrospectively recognised) was her own response to her cancer – her inability to cry: “I think that’s why I made 28 men cry instead. I always say that my work is ahead of me three steps. With hindsight, I was sitting there with people who’d cry my tears for me.” (Guardian 2009).

To me they are very much about identity in a particular respect – rather than gender identity (the broad message of seeing men in a stereotypical ‘feminine’ emotional state), they are concerned with the interplay of the personal identity of the individual (what did they have to think of to cry?) and their public persona, which is a distinct identity in its own right.

The use of famous actors means that as a viewer there is a real temptation to project onto the sitters what you already ‘know’ about them: the portraits of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams have you scanning for foreshadows of their deaths (the furrowing of Williams’ eyebrows does me in – there’s the punctum, right there), while Ray Winston looks incapable of crying and Ben Stiller is just goofing around.

Rather than identity, the driving force behind Taylor-Johnson’s work seems to be more about the expression of internal emotions. The key phrase in the course notes that helped me understand her was this: “Much of Taylor-Wood’s [-Johnson’s] work explores feelings and emotion” (course notes: 77).

Autobiographical work

For me then her best, most beautiful work is that which has its source in the examination of emotions or states of mind. Much of her output in the 2000s was, in one way or another, a reaction to her two bouts of cancer in 1997 and 2000. Self-Portrait in a Single-Breasted Suit with Hare (2001) is the most overt example, and “acts as a response to the constant questioning about what work she would produce after the [cancer] experience” (Bright 2010: 38)

Self-Portrait in a Single-Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001 – Sam Taylor-Johnson

She combines wordplay with reference to art history: she ‘held on to her hair’ whilst undergoing treatment, and the single-breasted suit refers to her mastectomy. Taylor-Johnson explains the art reference: “The hare symbolises lust and passion [in Renaissance and Baroque art], so here I am with a head of hair, in a single-breasted suit, holding on to lust and passion.” (Taylor-Johnson, in Higgins 2013: 195)

Taylor-Johnson has used the concept of floating in some of her work; and the fact that she practices transcendental meditation may help to illuminate this. In Self Portrait Suspended (2004), Bram Stoker’s Chair (2005), and Escape Artist (2008) she used bondage ropes, subsequently digitally removed, to suspend herself in mid-air in elaborate poses.

Though visually related, the effect of the works are different: in Self Portrait Suspended she looks weightless, ethereal, dreamlike – she said of this work that it was the freedom of a new start, post-illness (Higgins 2013: 192) – whereas the later Escape Artist is both visually and conceptually darker, as it looks more helpless than weightless, like she’s falling, about to hit the floor but just about held up by the balloons. In between the two is Bram Stoker’s Chair, where Taylor-Johnson “finds a way to show the fragile interior supports of exterior grace” (artist website).

Though personally-driven, all of these are in some way evocative of more universal emotions. Bram Stoker’s Chair in particular, may strike a chord with other women with regards to the tension between internal and external identity issues. I don’t however believe that Taylor-Johnson is intentionally looking to make statements about identity, I think this is a by-product from quite introspective work.

Taylor-Johnson hides her face in all these images, which could be interpreted as an intention to help the viewer identify – but the reason Taylor-Johnson gives is more prosaic: it’s about “hiding the grimacing pain – because I think that destroys the photograph” (Higgins 2013: 192).

Bound, 2007 – Sam Taylor-Johnson
Bound, 2007 – Sam Taylor-Johnson

I found it fascinating that Taylor-Johnson made an artwork out of a behind-the-scenes shot from Bram Stoker’s Chair, depicting her in the uncomfortable bondage harness before it was digitally removed, and called it Bound (2007). To me this implies that she felt the need to show the painful reality behind the faked graceful poses – adding a layer of ‘truth’ to the fairy tale aesthetic of the originals.

The course notes talk about the feminist criticism she received for some of her photography; I feel this was a little unfair and focused on what I’d consider to be atypical of her work. In the ‘floating’ projects she appears in vest and knickers, but the effect is not sexual but rather dreamlike – it’s nightwear rather than underwear in this context I think (though feminist criticism for directing Fifty Shades of Grey may have been more justified…).

To answer the questions in the research brief: yes, I can definitely see Taylor-Johnson’s work being an influence on my own. I find projects that allow me to depict internal states of mind, thought processes, emotions and sensations are the most interesting ones. On Context & Narrative the assignments I found most satisfying were about exploring creative block, dislocation and the tension between my work life and my studies. Taylor-Wood’s best work is subtle but really thought-provoking, something I aspire to.

Comparison between Barbara Kruger and Sam Taylor-Johnson: they are very, very different. Kruger is very bold, strident, unsubtle and has a singularly distinctive style. Taylor-Johnson is much more nuanced, subtle (that word again), intelligent and creative. Kruger is unashamedly feminist and addresses issues of gender identity; Taylor-Johnson addresses such issues in a tangential or maybe even unconscious way.


Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Higgins, J (2013). 21st Century Portraits. London: NPG. (accessed 11/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016)

Research point: Barbara Kruger


Read through the brief summaries below and choose two artists to explore in more depth. Make notes in your learning log or blog about how your chosen photographers use their art to comment on their own identity and the issue of female identity in general. Note down any similarities and differences between the two. Could any aspects of their work influence your own practice?

I chose Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (b.1967, aka Sam Taylor-Wood).

Here I focus on Kruger; the comparison between the two will be at the end of the Taylor-Johnson post.

Graphic style

Kruger’s work has a distinctive style, resembling inter-war Constructivist propaganda: montages of found black-and-white images with bold type slogans overlaid (usually in  Futura Bold Oblique, font fans). The only colour used is red, usually as a backdrop to the text, which also lends a pseudo-communist air to the artworks.

Her early career as a graphic designer for magazines comes very much to the fore – she uses mass media imagery as the basis for her work. The concise and strident slogans and simple images, usually a detail from a larger piece, make for very direct and clear communication of message. Subtlety is largely absent, in comparison to the work of her contemporary Cindy Sherman.

Her use of personal pronouns in the slogans makes the artworks about identity. She often makes bold, declarative statements attributable to, or about, a wider set of people (usually women), such as Your body is a battleground, I shop therefore I am, Your gaze hits the side of my face.

Feminist identity

Feminism and feminine identity comes through as major themes. As previously noted there is a running theme in much feminist art regarding the male gaze – Kruger addresses this in the most direct way possible with Your gaze hits the side of my face (1981) – simultaneously acknowledging the gaze and rejecting it by turning away. And yet an alternative reading is to focus on the word ‘hit’ – the violence of the gaze and allusions to domestic abuse? Either way, the use of a statue as the basis for the image signifies the lengthy history of the gaze and the gazed-upon.

I was amused to see that Kruger recently collaborated with a sunglasses manufacturer using this slogan.


I was less amused to see that Kruger’s more recent work seems to be a little more problematic with regards to her feminist credentials. In 2010 she returned to her magazine design roots with a cover for W magazine:

W Magazine cover variants, 2010 – Barbara Kruger

It references the classic agitprop Kruger style and is replete with personal pronouns – yet this is not a found photograph, it’s a highly stylised photoshoot of a blatantly narcissistic and self-serving celebrity. And for someone who in 1981 was all about subverting the male gaze to end up delivering nude Kardashian shot – sorry, but I cried ‘sellout!’ at this…

Although… there are two versions of the cover, one with Kardashian in a strident hands-on-hip pose and the other with a more neutral, open pose. Maybe Kruger did have a feminist message, though it may be too well hidden for me. Kruger’s own take? “I thought it was a funny comment on the need to show and tell constantly” (W Magazine 2010).

Did Kruger’s strident messages change the world? From Mary Warner Marien:

“Future historians may be tempted to date the conclusive demise of Postmodern photographic practice to a particular place and time: New York City, Monday evening, November 8, 2004, when Barbara Kruger’s iconic photograph Untitled (I shop therefore I am), a once heretical and divisive indictment of consumer culture, was sold at auction for $601,600.” (Marien 2014: 491)

Could any aspects of Kruger’s work influence my practice? I don’t think so, certainly not the visual style or the text/image montage approach; it’s all a bit shouty and bold and that’s not really my preferred mode of communication.


Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing. (accessed 08/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016)

Research point: Identity

The question of identity is central to the practice of portrait photography. Who am I looking at?” (Roswell 2007: 79)

I’ve looked at the use of identity as a photographic subject in previous courses (notably the self-portraiture action in Context & Narrative) and will summarise some of my earlier conclusions here, alongside my findings from more recent reading.

Structure and agency

Kath Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, 2004) does an excellent job of explaining the ingredients of identity:

  • Structures
    • external: what the course notes calls ‘social identity’
    • socially recognised positions, constraints, expectations
    • can tend towards stereotypes
  • Agency
    • internal: what the course notes calls ‘personal identity’
    • personality, self-definition, individual control
    • to some degree, operates within the accepted parameters of structures

(Woodward 2004: 6-8)

As previously noted, artists like Cindy Sherman work within the sphere of structures, which lead to stereotypes – pointing out that if societal roles (in this case gender roles) are constructed externally, then they can be rejected – or subverted, mocked, redirected (Marien 2014: 451).

The interplay between the social and personal identities is important; some aspects of social identity are given – e.g. gender, class, ethnicity, nationality – whilst others are self-selected – e.g. sporting allegiances, political opinion, musical tastes (religion is an interesting one: it’s either mandated or chosen, depending on the culture in question…)

This latter type, self-selected identity, offers less scope for human agency than might first appear; one is always selecting from available sets defined by the structures. Such structures are often oppositional in nature, so identity is a matter of both similarity and difference: Catholic/Protestant, Tory/Labour, United/City, etc (Woodward 2004: 33-39).

It’s interesting to note that a sub-genre of documentary photography has emerged, the pseudo-anthropoligical approach of photographing members of a particular social group or ‘tribe’ (e.g. wrestling fans, nudists, battle re-enactors, gamers, goths, cosplay enthusiasts… the list is endless). This kind of project de-emphasises the individual and focuses on the shared identity of the group – the structure, not the human agency.

The self and the projected personality

One aspect that interests me is the dichotomy between one’s own personal identity and the ‘masks’ that one has to wear in order to navigate (occasional or everyday) situations. How one projects oneself to others can be markedly different to how one actually feels inside, and this masquerade can get incredibly tiring.

Through the prism of social and personal identity / structure and agency, this issue is about the social structures being mis-aligned with individual preferences, and the tension this causes for the individual – the group thinks you are ‘one of them’ but you don’t. This is different from people outside the group having a ‘wrong’ view of you (stereotyping); this is more about lacking the self-confidence to ‘be yourself’ and changing yourself to ‘fit in’.

My personal experience of years of having to be a confident, self-assured, ambitious management consultant when I mostly felt the exact opposite of those things was the trigger for taking a career break to study full-time. Maybe this is something I will explore in future assignments.

Identity and female artists

Most of the photographers we looked at in the self-portraiture part of C&N were female. I concluded that women are inherently more curious about the notions of identity, particularly in the context of social structures.

Nikki S Lee’s Projects are about social group identities, while Trish Morrissey’s Front and Dita Pepe’s similar Self-Portraits with Men are concerned with female family roles. In all three examples the artists insert themselves into existing groups to make their statements about identity.

A quote from an interview with Lee:

“In Buddhism there’s a saying that goes something like ‘I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.’ Thoughts like this one—thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes—were my main focus, so the people play a significant role.” (Creators’ Project 2010)

Gillian Wearing’s Album pictures are concerned with familial identities in a different way: the pictures where she masquerades as family members make the viewer consider how character traits of others may have affected one’s own identity (both adopting and reacting against other people’s traits). The examples where she masquerades as earlier versions of herself are, to me, about the mutability and multiplicity of identity; it is not a fixed entity, not even at a particular point in time.

It’s possible that women express their identities via photography more than men do as they work to redress the balance of centuries of patriarchy; women may contemplate issues of identity more than men do because they are asserting identity – as representing their gender and as individuals – in a way that men have never really had to.


Angier, R. (2007). Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing.

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University. (accessed 01/08/2015)

Exercise: Everyday icons


Now that you’ve reached the end of this project on photography and feminism, try and produce an image that illustrates your feelings or approach to feminism using the technique of photomontage. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an active feminist or feel ambivalent or even hostile towards feminism in terms of producing this piece. Show your view!

Choose a range of items that represent feminism as you see it and make a collage from photographs of your chosen items. Play with scale, perspective and colour. Black and white – spot colour – it’s your choice.

Feel free to use text to illustrate, i.e. as image rather than text. You can use parts of found images as long as the concept and major images are your own.

Produce one photo collage digitally. Produce a second photo collage in a different, more tactile and responsive manner. Re-photograph the result. Your collages should be 2:1 ratio, i.e. twice as long as wide.

Write up the experience in your learning log or blog and comment on how well the two production methods worked.


Part 1: digital collage

Appropriately for the digital collage I worked with the subject of recent online ‘feminist’ (or rather anti-feminist) scandals. I’m continually dismayed at what insecure men take offence at. There are some ludicrous examples of things that have sparked a vicious anti-women response:

  • Video gaming (‘#Gamergate’)
  • Jane Austen being on the back of the forthcoming £10 note
  • A cupcake sale in Australia with gender-differential pricing to highlight the pay gap

The rise in aggressive anti-feminism is in no small part due to the anonymity afforded by the internet – the so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ who work out their insecurities from the comfort of home, mocking or in some cases threatening others (usually women) for offending their delicate grasp on the patriarchy. I chose to satirise this with a piece I’ve called What Men Fear.

What Men Fear.jpg
What Men Fear

Part 2: physical collage

After the bruising negativity of the digital collage, I took a different approach to the physical one. I wanted to celebrate the positive aspects of feminism, and after much consideration I decided that the two things I think of when I think of contemporary feminism are:

  • Positive, non-radical, inclusive role models in the media
  • How women are inherently more inclined to look out for each other, and identify/empathise with their gender much more than men do (understandable, as the subservient gender for most of human history)

The concept that came to mind was the notion of seeing through the eyes of others:

Revolution Eyes.jpg
Revolution Eyes

By the way, I thought the 2:1 ratio requirement was so arbitrary and restrictive as to be ignorable. My execution needed a square canvas.

What I’ve learned

My aversion to collage / photomontage remains. I appreciate the work of people who are very good it, but a lot of montage work – especially politically-based work – comes across as a bit ‘sixth form art student’. Mine isn’t even that good.

Having said that, despite not thinking much of the quality of the end result, I found the process strangely enjoyable! In both cases it felt like I was methodically constructing an image piece by piece instead of capturing a moment. In that sense there’s a greater sense of authorial control, even if some of the component parts were found rather than taken by me.

Of the two, I found the second one more enjoyable. I think this was a combination of the more positive subject matter and the sheer physicality of cutting out and moving around bits of paper. I found it strangely therapeutic.

Exercise: Stereotypes


Use the same person to model different roles, as Cindy Sherman has done in some of her photo-series. You’ll decide what they will be but one of them must be genuine.

Produce a set of three images, two false, one true. Show them to as many people as you can and keep a track on the results. Can people spot the genuine image? Look for a pattern. Do people want the person to be something other than what they actually are?

Write around 250 words in your learning log or blog reflecting on what you’ve found out about stereotypes and our need to ascribe characteristics to particular roles.


Part 1: the pictures

  • Art shop assistant: totally fake (it’s actually a gym wall and the pictures are Photoshopped)
  • Farm hand: a real photo but it’s not her job; her boyfriend is a farmer and she can drive a tractor
  • Personal trainer: the genuine article

I chose the two fake occupations with one eye on gender expectations: whilst I consider Gemma’s actual job to be gender-neutral, the farm hand I presumed would come with a male bias attached and the shop assistant with a female bias.

Part 2: the reactions

In terms of exploring reactions to stereotypes I would say it was partly successful. Of the 13 people polled:

  • 4 incorrectly guessed shop assistant
  • 3 incorrectly guessed farm hand
  • 6 correctly guessed personal trainer

I asked for comments on what was behind people’s answers: most were down to whether the model ‘looked comfortable’, so maybe the success of the Sherman stereotypes is partly down to her acting ability!


With regard to stereotypes: only 23% of the respondents thought that the farm hand (the most obviously ‘masculine’ role) was true, whilst 77% went for the more neutral or female-biased roles.

Interestingly, no-one made any comments on gender expectations until prompted. All bar one claimed that gender hadn’t influenced their answer; the most honest response was from the person who said “not consciously…”, acknowledging that unconscious bias is a possibility.

The results may have been skewed as my respondents were all reasonably well educated and (to my knowledge) socially liberal-leaning, and so maybe more enlightened than the average citizen? Part of me thinks that the ones who plumped for farm hand may have done so suspecting a ‘trick’ and in a sense inverting the traditional bias? To answer the question in the brief “Do people want the person to be something other than what they actually are?”, it seems at least three people (one female, two male) wanted her to be a farm hand.

The response that made me smile the most was from a man who didn’t vote for personal trainer and remarked on how she was demonstrating the exercise wrong! My initial reaction was to label this as ‘mansplaining’ :-) but to give him the benefit of the doubt it’s likely someone with a keen interest in fitness may have made the same comment about a male personal trainer…

And finally – to show that I am prone to gender bias as much as anyone – I will confess that while compiling the results I was mentally dividing the respondents into male and female. One respondent called Lee (who I only know online and has a non-specific profile picture) correctly guessed personal trainer and commented on Gemma’s muscle tone on various parts of her body. I read this comment imagining a slightly lecherous, laddish tone to the words. Then Lee pointed out that she is a female Lee…! Which made me re-read her words in a different way. So in some respects I am as systemically gender-biased as anyone else…!

Research point: Cindy Sherman

In advance of doing the Stereotypes exercise I worked through the resources in the course notes to research into Cindy Sherman’s work.

Feminism and postmodernism

My understanding of Sherman’s work was helped by Mary Warner Marien’s summary of an earlier article by Craig Owens, The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism (1983), where “Owens pointed out a convergence of ‘the postmodern critique of representation’ and ‘the feminist critique of patriarchy’” (Marien 2014: 450)

Owens used Sherman as an example of the convergence: “Owens was one of the first to fix on the notion that, if gender is not innate but culturally acquired, it can also be culturally rejected and redirected.” (ibid: 451)

This built on my reading of Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2004: 6-8) and its explanation of identity being a combination of structure (external: socially recognised positions, constraints) and agency (internal: personality, individual control) – and to what extent gender roles are constructed and maintained in societies, often unknowingly and from a surprisingly early age (ibid: 55-60).

With that as a backdrop, Sherman’s work makes more sense: she is, in a lot of her work, revealing the gender stereotypes formed by societal structures that are so pervasive as to be almost invisible. She does this by embodying these stereotypes, solidifying them into characters that she plays and photographs. She questions and challenges gender expectations.

Example works

For me some of her projects work better than others. The Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) that became her calling card are subtly beguiling when seen together but over-exposure of some images in photography circles has dulled some of the impact of individual photos.

Untitled Film Still #3 (1977) – Cindy Sherman

Sherman said of Untitled Film Stills “These are pictures of emotions personified, entirely of themselves, with their own presence. I’m trying to make people recognize something of themselves, rather than me.” (Grundberg 1999)

The Centrefolds or Horizontals (1981) collection is, I think, more interesting and underrated. She mimicked the format and pose of girlie magazines but presented herself as (clothed) vulnerable young women – deliberately making the viewer feel uneasy. This is the only set where she acknowledges that the male gaze was a deliberate consideration (Sherman 1994).

Untitled #96 (1981) – Cindy Sherman

Later works are more variable. Some projects moved beyond stereotypes into caricature, and these are less successful in my view. There’s a mocking undertone to, for example, the images of the rich and famous of LA that make me think of the similar accusations levelled at some of Martin Parr’s work. Other projects, such as the Clowns pictures and the fashion work with Balenziaga for Vogue, seem very contrived and less meaningful than her best work.

One set that is atypical in her output but impressively so is Sex Pictures (1989-92). In it she eschews the self-portraiture to use medical dolls and artificial body parts to recreate sexual scenes, to build a brutal critique of pornography. It reminded me of Jake & Dino Chapman’s work.

Untitled #250 (1992) – Cindy Sherman

Outlook and approach

Interviews with Sherman provided an insight into her working methods. She was interested in issues of identity at an early age, documenting herself in an ongoing project she called The Cindy Book from about 10 years old.

Not a stereotypical (of course not!) ‘angry radical feminist’ by any means, Sherman concedes that while a certain feminism comes out in her work, the impetus is mostly subconscious. From the 1994 BBC documentary Nobody’s Here But Me:

“It’s hard to describe the way I work, cos I work so intuitively… I often times don’t know what I’m going after until it’s shot, or after I’ve done several shots. And sometimes I don’t know about what I’ve done until I read what someone has written about it.” (Sherman 1994)

The way in which she works can be read as a statement in itself, and Charlotte Cotton makes an interesting observation on the dual role as model and photographer, calling her work: “a perfect condensation of postmodernist photographic practice: she is both observer and observed. (Cotton 2009: 193).


Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing.

Sherman, C. (1997) Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. 2nd edn. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University. (accessed 06/04/2016) watch?v=mZekNrhRWek (accessed 06/04/2016) watch?v=tiszC33puc0 (accessed 06/04/2016) (accessed 06/04/2016) (accessed 06/04/2016) (accessed 06/04/2016) (accessed 06/04/2016)

Research point: Frida Kahlo

The course notes ask us to:

Do some research into the work of three important women artists of the twentieth century: Hannah Höch (1889–1978), Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980) and Frida Kahlo (1907–54).

These artists produced some of the underpinning imagery for the feminist art movement and this is reflected in some of the art work produced today. Write brief notes in your learning log about the social and political conditions that made these artists communicate in the ways they did. How is this demonstrated in their work? How did these artists establish their own artistic identity?

Frida Kahlo

To me Kahlo is perhaps the least obviously ‘feminist’ of the three artists in terms of her work, as in it doesn’t overtly seek to move forward or even comment upon issues of gender inequality – and yet the combination of her female-centric subject matter and her radical political outlook in life generally combined to make her something of a feminist icon.

While Höch and de Lempicka used their respective societies as the basis (or at least inspiration) for their work, Kahlo’s work is intensely personal. Over a third of her output is self-portraiture. She used painting to express (exorcise?) the pain that she endured in her life. While some of this pain was physical (childhood illness, horrific car accident) and gender-neutral, much was inherently feminine in nature: her tempestuous relationship with her two-time/two-timing husband Diego Rivera, her reproductive health issues that led to several miscarriages.

So some of the subject matter was feminist (or at least feminine) in nature, but it was other factors that led to Kahlo becoming a feminist icon. Firstly, her strength in the face of the unrelenting pain that life threw at her – she was no shrinking violet, she stood up to the pain, she stared it down. Secondly, and in common with Höch and de Lempicka, she played with gender roles, blurring the boundaries between male and female, having affairs with both sexes. One of the most distinctive visual characteristics in the self-portraits is the facial hair – the mono-brow and sometimes the faint moustache. She is entirely unapologetic about these supposedly ‘unfeminine’ aspects of her appearance.

As with many self-portraitists, much of her work is simultaneously highly personal and exploring wider issues around identity. One of her most famous images is The Two Fridas (1939), a reaction to her divorce from Rivera and her torn sense of identity. It is rich with symbolism – the stormy clouds depicting the divorce, the modern vs rustic dress dilemma (looking backwards / looking forwards), the ‘broken heart’ signifying suffering, the hand-holding signifying that these are both equal parts of her character.

The Two Fridas, 1939 – Frida Kahlo

What was revolutionary about Kahlo’s work was how intensely personal it was – raw, emotional, sometimes surreal, often disturbing. Female artists hadn’t poured out their pain onto the canvas in such depth and detail before Kahlo, and in that sense she opened the door for a more autobiographical, expressive approach to art that particularly influenced women and gave them the inspiration to make their (often gender-specific) suffering the subject of their art.

Sources (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016)

Research point: Tamara de Lempicka

The course notes ask us to:

Do some research into the work of three important women artists of the twentieth century: Hannah Höch (1889–1978), Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980) and Frida Kahlo (1907–54).

These artists produced some of the underpinning imagery for the feminist art movement and this is reflected in some of the art work produced today. Write brief notes in your learning log about the social and political conditions that made these artists communicate in the ways they did. How is this demonstrated in their work? How did these artists establish their own artistic identity?

Tamara de Lempicka

De Lempicka was a successful painter whose style is most closely associated with the Art Deco movement of the 1920s – the geometric, bold and celebratory art style that extended beyond painting and into architecture, interior design, jewellery and fashion. Whilst it drew visual inspiration from art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Bauhaus, and coincided with more politically-motivated movements such as Dadaism and Constructivism in other parts of Europe, Art Deco was an unashamedly exuberant, glamorous design style – think of the Roaring Twenties, Great Gatsby-style.

De Lempicka was high-born and well-educated, and fitted well into the society that she depicted. Alongside her self-evident artistic skill she is noted for her assertive feminine confidence, refusing to let ingrained sexism hold her back and embracing the opportunities that the inter-war years offered in affluent parts of western Europe.

Her portraits of women depict them as strong and formidable, even (especially) when nude. She is an early example of the female artist addressing and subverting the male gaze; her subjects often stare directly back to the viewer. By many accounts she had a voracious libido, and like Höch she was bisexual; the sexual energy in her work is one of her hallmarks.

One of her most famous works is the self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti (1925), which depicts her in the driving seat of a powerful automobile, staring at the viewer – a potent symbol of her refusal to live by feminine stereotypes.

Tamara in the Green Bugatti, 1925 – Tamara de Lempicka

It’s unclear whether she considered herself overtly feminist in the same way as Höch appeared to, but her contribution to feminism is clear: she was a highly successful female artist in a traditionally male-dominated world, and she depicted strong, sexually confident women in her paintings. The modern era her work most resembles is very much the 1980s – optimistic, ambitious, strident; it’s little surprise that Madonna is one of the biggest collectors of her work.

Sources (accessed 31/03/2015) (accessed 31/03/2015) (accessed 31/03/2015)