Photography: Joan Fontcuberta Workshop

Yesterday I got myself up to Bristol, to the Martin Parr Foundation, for a workshop with Joan Fontcuberta. For some reason I wasn’t expecting to walk through the door and have Martin Parr standing there; that was a bit of a shock if I’m honest. By lunchtime he was buying pasties and making everyone tea and coffee. People who’d visited the Martin Parr Foundation before were clearly unfazed by this so I suspect it’s not unusual.

Joan Fontcuberta is becoming a bit of a hero of mine – I suppose I’ve really appreciated his work since finding The Nature of Photography and The Photography of Nature in the library at Bournemouth Arts University. I also like Miracles. I love the humour of it, but also I think that it makes a serious point about religion that resonates with me along with a point about the truthfulness of photography and film.

The workshop began with Joan Fontcuberta talking us through some of his work. I saw a lot more of ‘Miracles’ – I hadn’t realised there was also a film element to it. Again, it was really interesting to watch it with him there; he clearly has a really great sense of humour about the whole thing and is a really warm person. He said that his work is about analysing the intimate nature of the photographic document and a parody of how photography is used in different contexts; he clearly doesn’t mind which of those two views people come at it from. I’ve written up the notes from the morning session at the end of this post so scroll down if you want to see those.

My work in the afternoon

At lunch we were each given a separate image from the book Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. This was mine:


The task to complete was to come up with five possible meanings for the image and then to produce a narrative in which this image sits in the middle by using found images or taking new images.

I must admit, at the time I couldn’t get to five meanings. I saw a Hamsa or Hand of Fatima. Then I saw what looked like craters on the surface of the image and the shape on the right that looks like a ruler placed for scale. That got me thinking about a sort of Lunar Ozymandias, and that in this narrative the picture of the person on the left hand side could be life sized to provide a human scale.

So I went for a very short wander outside and tried to find something to take photos of that would back up a sense of scale or that would look weird and other-worldly or would have a lunar flavour. Thankfully the Royal Photographic Society was opposite and had some images I could use in the window.

An eye to show a sense of scale for the giant moon-people civilisation.
A small bug could almost swallow you whole
Lunar surface texture
Lunar foliage

When I thought about lunar foliage I thought about how to add that to the narrative and so I thought about an exercise I’d done a few weeks back that I called ‘Mini-cats live among us’.

Mini-cats live among us


I just liked this because it looked weird

And I turned it into…

A giant hair found in the newly discovered ecosystem from an unknown but extremely large creature

So for me it was about an ancient lunar civilisation of giants and gradually turned into a narrative in which a colony of astronauts go to live on the moon to research this ancient civilisation, lose their cat and eventually find him amongst a living ecosystem of giant plants (a bit ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ I suppose).

I’m not sure that my original image sits in the middle of this set, but I think it works and I  had a basic idea which I was relieved about but I explained it abysmally at the time; I don’t think anyone understood what I was getting at because I’m much better at sitting in my living room writing this than I am explaining it in person to a group of people with Joan Fontcuberta sitting in front of me looking slightly bemused and asking me if I hadn’t thought of religion when I’d seen it. I had, but not catholicism which I suspect is what he was thinking about. I suppose that is a cultural difference.

After that we got into pairs and used the photos we had originally been given together – we had to link them with another photo or photos and come up with another narrative, something a bit more fantastical, the more fanciful and outrageous the better because no-one had been odd enough was the message I got; when he said that I realised that neither he, nor anyone else, had got what I’d said at all. I clearly need to work on my communication skills, but in my defence it is difficult to show images to 14 people at once on an iPhone. Anyway, I have to admit to mainly leaving the second exercise to my partner in it, Malc, because I spent a lot of the time eating my lunch and showing some of my images to Joan.

Showing my images

I’ve not shown my images to someone like Joan Fontcuberta before, and I’d only been told the day before that I should bring current work along with me so I didn’t have time to prepare anything. However, I thought I’d ask him to have a look at the portfolio page I produced on my previous Open College of the Arts course just to get some feedback. He was interested in some of the work, but he was mainly interested in the plant / pornography images I’d produced and said he really liked them (towards the bottom of the portfolio page). I think part of that could have been because he could see what they were about immediately. The whole experience of having to sit down and explain to him what my images were about, what they meant, and why and how I’d done what I had, was different for me. It has really made me think about how I present work and the narrative I build around it – that it needs one for a start. So it was hard for me to show the beginnings of my work to someone like him, but very useful and I learnt a lot from doing it.

At the end of the workshop the group asked him questions and he told us a lot about his current projects, the way he thinks and the way he works which again, I found personally useful. I took away a lot of ideas for generating projects and reassurance about the way I think and connect disparate elements.

At the beginning of the day I’d taken notes and written down some quotes so I’m going to add those here, just so I have a record but also for anyone who is interested. It is in note form and so a bit out of context – just something to be aware of!

My Notes

Photography used to be linked to memory as a support for human experience. Photography was writing – now it is a language. Now everyone can use photography in a spontaneous, natural way.

We are in a post-photographic era. Sometimes we are dealing with photography, sometimes with post-photography. There was an idea about characteristics of post-photography that came up later in the day – that in post-photography the image is loosing its body.

Photographs have a life – birth, growth, reproduction, dying. It happens in different homes – gallery, computer, billboard, phone. It takes a different role in each place. The exact same photograph in different context has different meaning. The context the image lives in is the most important thing. The image is only meaningful when you show it in a different place. There is no such thing as a bad image.

Joan likes failure though – he is interested in the failures because they are the proof of something exciting and interesting.

Joan lived in a dictatorship and realised that photography could be a strong weapon – it was being used as a weapon in propaganda for example. In the eyes of the audience, the photograph was evidence, but as someone using photography he knew that the idea of the photograph as evidence was not right. Photographs are not truthful. They’re not a photocopy of reality.

Later he talked about the difference between fraud and fake using football as an example. A newspaper had published a photo of a football match and had edited out one of the players to try and prove something about a match (some football rule which I know nothing about like someone being offside). The newspaper were found out and they claimed it was a mistake – if you’ve ever used Photoshop you know it was purposeful. The point was that this was fraud – it was never meant to be found out. But a fake is meant to be found out. It reveals its value when it’s known to be fake. So he showed us part of a football match which was Mexico vs Brazil. It was shown at the time of a live match but in place of it. I think Mexico ended up scoring about 20 goals and Brazil got none. At first, people were taken in by it, but of course by the end they realised it was a fake match because it was very exaggerated. So the fake became obvious, and that’s how it works, it’s the whole point – the audience responds critically, they are forced to ask questions about something they usually don’t question at all.

A seemingly live football match can be fake because of the authority we place in the apparatus surrounding it – tv, presenters etc. In Fauna, the photos get more and more extreme – the idea being that you are, at first, taken in by it but then you have to start asking yourself questions as you go along and things get more and more unlikely. I suppose it’s like measuring your own gullibility, or perhaps your tolerance for authority maybe? You see a photograph of a plant in a book or a museum and you have been taught not to question it, so how far can Fontcuberta push it before you think the unthinkable? He said that when they asked people who found out after seeing his work that is was a fake, about 25% of them responded with anger. I suppose it is unsettling for some people that the authority they cling to might not be as truthful as they think it is. (Having moved away from a religious upbringing myself I can understand the trauma of that, as well as the anger and threats you face when you start asking questions).

The surroundings in which he places his work are important, and he changes the work based on who is going to view it. So if he knows that families will be coming to see a certain body of work he’ll take that into consideration, if he knows that photographic experts will be looking at that work then it will be presented differently. He was talking about how his work is received; he said that sometimes the context of putting the Fauna work in a museum is so strong that people ignore their own feelings and believe it – he related a time when he watched a family viewing his work and that the children spotted it as fake while the adults, conditioned to think a certain way about museums, thought it was true; they were willing to believe in the existence of these strange creatures rather than question the authority of the context. 28% of people educated to degree level believed that Fauna was true when they saw it in the context of a museum.

Because I know how he works, when he started to tell us about the Andre expedition I didn’t know if it was true; I’ve just looked it up and found it on Wikipedia so I’m assuming it is, unless he has put it there as some elaborate hoax (which I wouldn’t put past him). He showed some of the photos from it – like this from the Wikipedia page about the expedition.

Photo from the Andrée polar expedition of 1897 from Wikipedia

There are versions of this which have been cleaned up digitally. But Joan said he prefers the original versions. It’s about trauma. The expedition ended up in the death of the explorers, but he’s talking about the trauma experienced by the images themselves (they were not discovered until 1930  when ‘a tin box containing Strindberg’s photographic film, his logbook, and maps,’ was discovered). The trauma unveils the life of the photograph which leads to ideas about memory – that with photography humans were arrogant enough to think we were going to capture time. These images show time taking over.

(Originally published on Context and Narrative, 10/4/19)

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