Megan Stevenson: Reflections on ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’

Audio Version

Text Version

 

The photograph of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is black and white. The artwork consists of 8 small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. The wall surrounding the mirrors is completely blank. We can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There is no reflection of the camera or photographer. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them.

‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, David Ward, Whitechapel Gallery (exhibited), London, England, 1991. Negative number: A92/657. The Courtauld Institute of Art. http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/25ceb873.html

In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.

The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.

The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.

By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?

In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.

By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.

However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.

Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.

For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.

Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.

The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.

To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.


Megan Stevenson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Isabella Lill: Catching the Photographer

Audio Version

Read by Anna Thompson

Text Version

Barthes writes “A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”, his point being that we don’t pay attention to the physicality of photographs. Because the photograph documents real life, when we look at a photograph we look past the paper or the screen on which we see it. We forget about the medium as we look at its subject matter because the medium seems so unremarkable. The Courtauld Institute’s Conway Library is a reminder of photography’s physicality. In the Conway there are thousands of boxes containing over a million photographs, each individually mounted onto a piece of brown cardboard. Most of the photographs in the archive are architectural, as the collection contains surveys of important buildings all over Europe and the Middle East taken throughout the 20th century, as well as a few boxes venturing further afield.

When leafing through this seemingly infinite collection, one photograph in particular catches the eye.

CON_B03740_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The photographs in the collection, because they are of stationary structures, seem so objective that you forget there was a photographer. It is as if the images of temple columns and ecclesiastical archways sprung into existence fully formed, as they bear no trace of the personal. The sheer number of photographs doesn’t help, as one Italian chiesa merges with the next.

The contents of the folder of the Colegiata de San Pedro in Soria, Spain, are no different: they methodically document its central cloister, right down to the ornamental details of the Corinthian columns. However, hidden in the bottom right-hand corner of the fifteenth photograph in the folder is a photographer, staring back at us. A refreshing reminder of humanity in a folder full of stone columns and arches.

As with many of the photographs in the collection, we know nothing about the photographer, apart from what he reveals to us in photo fifteen: he is a middle-aged man wearing a floppy hat and sandals. Perhaps some of the other unattributed photos in the folder are also taken by him, but we don’t know for certain. This photo is unique in the folder, and perhaps in the collection, with its purposeful inclusion of the camera. His presence is too obvious and calculated for this to be an accident, showing he is purposefully trying to document the process of taking the photograph as he is taking it. Photographs, no matter how objective they seem, are someone’s construct of reality. The photographer has chosen this subject at this angle, in these boundaries, in this lighting, and with this focus. The photographer sections off a part of reality that is worthy of documentation. In this photo we catch the photographer, or rather the photographer catches himself, in the middle of this decision process.

CON_B03075_F003_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03075_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03056_F002_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Other items in the collection call attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, but none as strikingly as the photographer’s reflection. The first two images shown above catch a different photograph’s shadow, but probably only as the result of unfortunate lighting or an inexperienced photographer.

The third photo contains a motion blur of someone walking across a church, again, probably due to unlucky timing. And yet, although none of these examples are as visually striking, they all reaffirm the same feeling that the photographer’s reflection invokes: a disconcerting reminder that the image’s in these photographs aren’t completely real. The structures that the photographers try to document don’t exist in perfectly still isolation, although most of the photos present them that way. For us to see them in a photograph requires human interaction and human subjectivity.

From the Witt Library: Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

From the Witt Library: Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Alongside the Conway Library is the Courtauld’s Witt Library, an archive of photos of the work of significant artists throughout time. The paintings above, namely Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, bear a resemblance to our original photograph. Velazquez’s painting clearly includes the painter mid-process. Van Eyck’s is subtler, as it includes the painter in a reflection in a small mirror right at the back of the painting, very reminiscent of our mystery photographer. However, although these paintings arguably show more skill that the photograph, the photograph is still more uncanny, and still more interesting, at least to me.

We know a painting isn’t real when we look at it, but we can easily forget that photographs aren’t. Susan Sontag says, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, but our surreptitious photograph reveals that the photographer both constructs and discloses.

 


Isabella Lill
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant