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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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Cookery: my first attempt at pita bread

When I was a student in south-east London, I had a variety of part-time jobs. It was a really hard life being a student, having to pay for all those light-and-bitters, copies of the Racing Post and packets of pork scratchings.

I suppose the best job I had was working in an off licence, which had distinct advantages in certain respects which I won’t dwell on here. But definitely the worst was working at a bakery in Lewisham, a 20 minute bus ride away from Blackheath, where I shared a flat with three other blokes.

I really needed the dough (what made me put that?), otherwise I’d have packed it in after the first week. Most of the time I was working right next to the ovens, loading the freshly baked loaves into the slicing machine. It was incredibly hot. I think I lost about three stone over the couple of months I worked there. So I can’t say my early memories of baking are that great; other than the baking done by dear old Mum, of course – her jam tarts were the stuff of dreams, especially when you got an actual strawberry …

But ok, I saw this programme with the guy from Masterchef (my least favourite programme on TV) – Paul Hollywood? – and his recipe for pita bread caught my eye. I know what you’re thinking, it’s actually “pitta” bread. Well, try googling it and I’m afraid majority opinion drops the second “t” (but I’m with you – pitta, surely?).

You will need:

250g/9ozs of strong white flour, plus extra for dusting
1 x 7 grams sachet of instant yeast (actually I read that as instant Yeats at first; I wonder if he did any baking?)
20 grams of nigella seeds or black onion seeds (I went for the onion seeds; I did ask in Tesco‘s whether Ms Lawson was putting in an appearance but apparently not that particular day hohoho)
1 teaspoon of salt (of which more later; or actually, less)
160 ml/5 1/2 fluid ozs of water
2 teaspoons of olive oil, plus extra for kneading

So, following instructions, I mixed the flour, Yeats and onion seeds together in a bowl. (I should have added the salt at this point, but I was so busy taking the photo that I forgot – oops. Don’t tell anyone).

pita1

Then add 4 fluid ounces (make sure they’re fluid ones – you can tell because it’ll be quite runny) of the water and 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil (aah, named after my Mum, no doubt).

pita1

After getting my hands incredibly sticky and gunged up, I was then asked to “gradually add the remaining water and oil” – sticky dough mix all over the water jug handle, I don’t know. Anyway, did that and then having kneaded the whole lot together on my lightly oiled worktop – knead, knead, knead – I ended up with this unlikely looking object …

pita3

The next step, as per the instructions, was to cover up the dough to allow it to “prove”. I half-expected it to grasp its lapels and walk up and down inside the bowl addressing the members of the jury. It didn’t do that but in any case with my fingerprints all over it it was an open and shut case really.

Time passed so slowly. I put the kettle on. I examined my gumboil in the mirror. The jury was still out. I went on an overland expedition to the Serengeti.

serengeti

At long last I came to the conclusion that the proving process was finally over, though comparing the “Before” and “After” shots I think I was probably kidding myself … I daresay every budding cordon bleu chef has these moments of huge disappointment, where the anticipation of a momentous baking triumph is followed by worry, panic, despair and ultimately catastrophe. When the history books of pita bread baking come to be written, etc., etc.

Before                                                     After (I think)

before  after

I then “knocked back” the dough. In this phase, I was largely motivated by the unfolding disaster I could already see in front of my eyes, as I pummelled the dough with all the strength I could muster, no doubt bringing the Yeats to within an inch of its life.

The stage was now set for the final moves in this intriguing culinary game of chess …

chess

I began with a King’s pawn opening, but this was immediately answered by a Sicilian Defence. Finding myself increasingly drawn in by a Boden-Kieseritzky Gambit, I decided to use the only route open to me and flattened all the bits of dough into sort of ovally shapes, before popping them into the oven.

ovals

oven

So ok, what have we learned today? First this recipe is great if you prefer your pita bread to taste like crusty, biscuity cardboard with just a soupçon of onion seeds.

Err … that’s about it, really.

basket

roll

I think I’ll try putting some salt in next time. And maybe forget the photos.

 

Serengeti picture by Gary (Jeep circus) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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