Alexandra Lethbridge

Other Ways of Knowing

Essay by Lisa Stein

In his introduction to Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Martin Jay observes that ‘we are often fooled by visual experience that turns out to be illusory, an inclination generated perhaps by our overwhelming, habitual belief in its apparent reliability’. Distinguishing between ‘the “natural” and the “cultural” component in what we call vision’, Jay maintains that it is not only our scientific understanding of the function of the eye – its superior capacity to process external data, and the rate at which this information is transferred to the brain via the optic nerve – that led to the privileging of vision over the other four senses. His opening paragraph testifies to what Jay refers to as the ‘ocular permeation of language’; containing numerous visual metaphors, it reveals that our ability to interpret, negotiate and make meaning from what we see is likely to have played an equally important role in locating vision at the top of the sensual hierarchy. However, Jay proceeds to demonstrate that the ‘permeability of the boundary between the “natural” and the “cultural”’ – take the word “image”, which can ‘signify graphic, optical, perceptual, mental, or verbal phenomena’ – would ultimately lead to the very premises of “ocularcentrism” being called into question. Still, it is not only the ambiguities inherent in any one language, but the ‘wealth of visually imbued cultural and social practices, which vary from culture to culture’ that Jay believes further complicate the idea that ‘knowledge is the state of having seen’.

Other Ways of Knowing, Alexandra Lethbridge’s ‘exploration into the illusion of magic and misdirection in comparison to ideas of hoax, deceit and trickery’, draws on the discrepancy between visual and cognitive perception, and examines the role of photography within that binary. The type of magic represented in the series, which combines found photographs, archival imagery and the artist’s own, ‘constructed’ photographs, is often referred to as “stage” or “street” magic to distinguish it from the paranormal or ritual kind, which aims to control supernatural forces. Using items such as playing cards, coins, cups or balls, the stage or street magician entertains an audience by performing tricks, effects or illusions; everyday objects are made to disappear, to defy gravity or to pass through other, solid objects. The magic performance disrupts and alters the relationship between our sensory and cognitive processes; by exploiting our belief in the infallibility of vision, the magician is able to perform seemingly supernatural feats that challenge the way we think. For instance, while we cannot actually “see” a coin passing through the wall of a glass because we know it is an illusion, we think we see it happening because we expect to, or indeed, because we want to. In that moment, our desire to believe that what we are seeing is possible leads to a reversal of visual literacy; we are no longer decoding, but encoding. In other words, our pre-existing knowledge influences what we see and how we choose to interpret this information or, in the case of the magic trick, to disregard it. For a brief moment, we do not want to know.

Like a magic performance, the photographs in Other Ways of Knowing ‘are designed to promote uncertainty in the viewer’s understanding in what they see’. Indeed, Lethbridge’s still-lifes, abstract compositions, portraits and sequenced photographs do not allow for a straightforward “reading”. By layering images, using multiple exposures and strategically placing graphic elements throughout her photographs, the artist controls our gaze; like the magician, Lethbridge instructs us where to look, what to see. Black arrows and bright colours direct our eyes and initially, consumed with wonder, we give into the performance. However, wonder at even the most thoroughly crafted magic trick soon gives way to scepticism, and as our eyes begin to move through her photographs more naturally we grow suspicious of Lethbridge’s visual interventions. Particularly upon revisiting a sequence of images depicting hands performing a magic trick, or a set of photographs revealing the construction of an impossible object, we ask ourselves whether these visual “clues” and “solutions” are being offered up too readily. Even Lethbridge’s censorship of elements one might consider fundamental to reading a photograph, like a face or a hand, seem like a deliberate distraction. However, if this is misdirection, which ‘deceives not only the eye of the spectator, but his mind as well’, it begs the question what exactly Lethbridge is trying to distract us from. What are we missing? Considering that the success of a magic trick lies in the extent to which it can challenge our cognitive processes, perhaps the question is not what we know about these photographs, but what we do not know.

Looking at the images in Other Ways of Knowing we might ask ourselves whether what is “true” about a magic trick resides in the performance of the magician or in the mind of the audience. We might ask ourselves where the “magic” happens. One could argue that what makes a trick “real”, what defines it as magic, is our wonder at what we (think we) can see, not what we know about how it is executed. By focusing on ‘aesthetic judgment rather than abstract reasoning’, Lethbridge forces us to reconsider our understanding of “truth” in relation to the photograph, which registers numerous ways of “seeing”. Indeed, while Jay’s notion that vision is informed by culture might not mean that a photograph cannot depict reality, it suggests that what is considered “real” might differ in the mind of the photographer versus that of (a) viewer(s), say. This leaves the question of what we can gain from what we do not know about a photograph. In Photography is Magic, a survey of artists that engage ‘with experimental approaches to photographic ideas’, Charlotte Cotton observes that a magic trick, like all performative art forms played well, creates the conditions for us to explore imaginative possibilities’. In other words it is the experience of not knowing that forces us to reflect upon ourselves and how we “see” the world. If a photograph that we do not understand is more likely to make us reconsider our (visual) culture, there is more truth to the manipulated images in Other Ways of Knowing than the most visually accurate of photographs.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Alexandra Lethbridge

Lisa Stein is a London-based writer and researcher specialising in photography. Managing Editor of the photo-literary platform Photocaptionist and Editorial Assistant at The Burlington Magazine, her writing has also appeared in The Philosophy of Photography.

Lisa Barnard

The Canary & The Hammer

Essay by Lisa Stein

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), which traces the evolution of inequality since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the French economist Thomas Piketty observes that before the gold standard was abandoned in Britain, France and finally, the United States, the power of central banks to create money was severely limited due to the existing stock of gold and silver. Commenting on the role financial institutions have assumed during economic crises, he goes on to explain that ‘once currency ceases to be convertible into precious metals, the power of central banks to create money is potentially unlimited’. Indeed, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, governments and central banks would create ‘the liquidity necessary’ to avoid a crash as serious as the Great Depression. In other words, currency was created out of thin air, currency with no intrinsic value. In fact, once the gold standard was abandoned in the early 1970s the value of currency became intangible, virtual; banknotes were no longer backed by a physical commodity, but by abstract concepts and speculative relationships. Particularly after the 2008 financial crisis the gap between what currency was and what it represented appeared wider than ever before.

Lisa Barnard’s highly-ambitious body of work The Canary & The Hammer is a response to both the events that followed the crash as well as gold’s status as a ‘barometer for the state of the economy, and is, most fundamentally, a potent symbol of ultimate value, beauty, purity, greed and political power.’ In so doing it raises a very interesting question about the medium it utilises: how can photography, which has eluded stable definition since its inception, a medium that inhabits both the tangible, real, and the virtual, respond to an event as abstract as the global financial crisis?

The evidentiary power of photography has always been a point of contention; the image, in simultaneously revealing and concealing what it depicts, only ever provides partial information. Still, early methods of manipulating images in the darkroom did little to destabilise photography’s claim to ‘truth’; the image, dodged or burned, was evidence of what had been. It was the digital-born image that would present a stronger challenge to what photography was in itself, and how it was consumed. In their introduction to On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation (2013), Daniel Rubinstein, Johnny Golding and Andy Fisher claim that the networked digital image has moved us beyond visual representation, but it has done so in important respects. For Rubinstein and Fisher, the digital image ‘has become a hinge between […] physical and digital modes of existence, combining as it does elements of familiar ocularcentric culture – with its trust and reliance on the true-to-life photograph – and algorithmic processes that problematise the presumption of an ontological connection between images and objects’.

In The Canary & The Hammer, a website that is now presented as a complex, interactive projection in the headline exhibition, Ahead lies our future as part of FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby, the digital image assumes precisely the role outlined in On The Verge of Photography: Barnard’s documentary approach to the various narratives of gold’s discovery and multivalent uses and the western world’s desire to accumulate wealth utilises the photographic image in ‘all its hybridised digital forms, that encapsulates the interlacing of physical and algorithmic attributes, aesthetic and political forms, which characterise the age of information capitalism’. Incorporating images, videos and sound the website, which is divided into six thematic sections, allows the ‘user’ to navigate their way through the history of gold; its discovery, extraction and various applications. The way in which Barnard has chosen to present her research invokes the manner in which we have come to consume information in the digital age. As we scroll, an activity naturalised by the mobile device, images and animated GIFs enter the screen from every direction; we can click on embedded videos and access additional information by hovering over colour-coded icons. The soundtracks that accompany each page recall early social networking websites, which allowed users to encode personal music into their profiles. Finally, the website incorporates a broad range of photographic styles and techniques. Barnard’s combination of traditional landscapes, portraits and still life with images that are less formal, unconventionally lit or otherwise highly-stylised foregrounds the many uses of photography. Since its popularisation in the 1850s the medium has influenced various fields, infiltrated various spheres such as the scientific, the commercial and, most notably, the social.

It might seem counterintuitive to explore a concept as abstract as the global financial crisis with a medium that has not only assumed various ‘identities’ throughout history, but one whose very materiality and consequently its ability to represent the real world, has been called into question. However, this is precisely what makes The Canary & The Hammer so relevant. According to Rubinstein, Golding and Fisher the technical qualities of the digital image have altered the temporal condition of photography: no longer merely a record of past events the digital image, due to its instantaneity and simultaneity, ‘is active, it has an agency that relates to and has an effect on embodied existence. It comes before and has effects on the real’. In other words, photography’s ability to shape an event has become equally, if not more important than its ability to record it. Indeed, that the digital image, used in conjunction with social media, has played a fundamental role in the unfolding of political events such as the Arab Spring, the rising civil unrest in the United States following numerous cases of police violence against African American citizens and, most recently, the 2016 presidential elections, is undeniable.

Equally, while The Canary & The Hammer is Barnard’s response to past events, the decision to include the work in FORMAT, which explored the impact of human civilisation on planet earth, signalled a belief in the force and agency of photography. The images that illustrate Barnard’s investigation into a natural, non-renewable resource are not merely reactive; part of a vast digital network, they are being circulated, shared. They are active, drawing attention to the human desire to consume, not only large quantities of images but also our natural world, itself on the verge of disappearing.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lisa Barnard

Lisa Stein is a London-based writer and researcher specialising in photography. Managing Editor of the photo-literary platform Photocaptionist and Editorial Assistant at The Burlington Magazine, her writing has also appeared in The Philosophy of Photography.