Steve Gough’s new photographs – signs of the times?

Like Shakespeare‘s Autolycus, Steve Gough is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. But his snaps pose a very interesting question: what do we see when we look at a photograph?

He seems to be asking us that question via both his collections, which can be found here on Flickr.

face  
Steve Gough is a BAFTA– winning film director, writer of numerous TV and radio plays, author (two published novels to date) and playwright. His most recent theatrical work was The Crock, which ran at the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, London, between October 28th and November 14th, 2014. He has been a good friend since our schooldays at which time we were in the folk/rock group Zounds. Some of Steve’s many artistic productions and achievements are listed on his agent’s website here.

 

Photos 2012 comprises what at first appear to be completely random shots: scenes of flotsam and jetsam made by Man and nature, or both, close-ups of “unconsidered trifles” of various kinds. But, having been found, composed, photographed and exhibited, the situations have been injected with significance, transformed into miniature worlds. Far from being unconsidered, each photograph is the product of careful selection.

In any photograph, we see what we see. We may immediately read our own meaning into the image. But add a label and the photograph can become a more complex entity.

At their most simplistic, Gough’s labels make us see that there can be more to his images than meets the eye. What’s the visual equivalent of a double entendre? A visual pun? Whatever the correct term, we find examples here, in, for instance, WRITTEN, where a feather has come to rest on tyre tracks impressed into the sand.

WRITTEN

In Image-Music-Text, written in 1961, Roland Barthes explored this interplay between images and captions. The chapter headed The Photographic Message focused primarily on the use of photography in the press. In areas such as politics and advertising, said Barthes, journalists could impose a connotation – a significance – on an otherwise neutral photographic message which acted as a powerful signpost capable of influencing attitudes amongst the masses.

Gough’s labels are certainly signposts; but often they point us in many possible directions. So, in WRITTEN we can see an environmental message; or we can wonder at the events which caused the feather to arrive at this position (a bird’s death written in the sand?); or we can ponder the limitless ways in which information can be conveyed, via anything from quills to a vehicle’s tyres leaving tell-tale tracks. What kind of bird? What kind of vehicle? Which, if any, of these meanings is Gough suggesting?

His labels are much less prescriptive and politically-charged than those found in the kind of photography Barthes wrote about, of course. The messages, ie the photos, in Gough’s collections are laid out for us to see. The ‘connotations’ are suggested in the pop-up captions. The actual images are not the reality, Barthes would have said; but they are a close ‘analagon’. Gough was there. And the photographs began to assume significance once he made his selection and provided a label.

Perhaps the labels are unnecessary? I think not. For me they act as fuse which sets alight a bonfire of meanings for each image.

HERE LIETH

The body (or ‘Bod’) of Jane, wife of John Knight, referred to on the tombstone in HERE LIETH, has been there for hundreds of years. But in fact this little scenario is one of life – the various shades of lichen growing on the carved lettering; the uncut grass reaching happily around the stone. And the carved leaves to each side are no less dead now than they were when the stone was first put in place. So, here lieth more than a simple inscription, more than a simple signpost: it is indeed a scene of death, but also one of constancy and regeneration.

Man-made signs play a more central role in the second collection, Summer In The City, a medley of very unusual photographs taken in an urban setting. I say “very unusual” because the scenes are so mundane that the idea of photographing them seems quite strange. The scenes are all too familiar, all too typical.

duo

But by tempting us to dwell on them through his images, Gough makes them unfamiliar. It was Russian art theorist Viktor Shklovsky who famously wrote (in his 1917 work Art as Technique), “… art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”. His concept of ostranenie, or ‘defamiliarisation’, sought to undermine our habit of disregarding the things in life which we perceive in an ‘automatic’ way, such that our apprehension is dimmed by habitual ways of interpreting sensory input.

Personally I find the NO WAITING series particularly special.

NO-WAITING

Gough asks us to take a second look at what might otherwise be fleeting images, perhaps caught by our visual sense on an average working day. Who are these people? What important missions are they on? The ‘double yellow’ environment is one in which there is little time to ponder. But, caught by the lens, they’ve been frozen in an instant of activity. The images are at once utterly impersonal and highly personal. These are busy individuals, intent on getting to their destination or achieving their goals. But like the bricks in the herringbone pattern of the walkway, we would normally see such people as no more than building blocks in the city’s system.

And as we are increasingly bombarded by messages and images intended to homogenise our perceptions, opinions and actions, the role of artists – in pointing out alternative ways of interpreting the world around us – becomes more crucial than ever.

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