Nicky Bird Question for Seller

I enjoyed looking at this work. I liked that it was so firmly rooted in the familiar and I liked that Nicky had simple rules that she worked to – she would only buy photographs where no-one else was bidding, and she asked the same question to every seller and included their replies in the work. I was impressed with how she followed the process through to the logical end and auctioned off some images starting at 99pence; and sold an album of others on Ebay (it went for £205, if anyone else has the same nagging curiosity that I did). For me, this is like returning a caught fish to the sea, or like tag and release of wildlife. It makes me think of a stream or sea of images, always full and always changing.

Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

Absolutely. One of the things I learned way back on the Foundation course, from Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures, was that if something is being shown in a gallery it’s “Art”. Regardless of what normal people think. If the curators/buyers show it, then it’s Art.

Where does their meaning derive from?

For me, their meaning derives from the fact that Bird has made a carefully selected archive of vernacular images from the common well that is Ebay. The answer that goes with each photograph adds a layer of meaning and context to each image. The work leads us to consider the wider vernacular archive and also the journeys that photographs take to reach us, and the journeys that they take when they leave us or when we leave them. These journeys might be related to sentiment or they might be accidental or purposeful transactions.

When they are sold again is their value increased?

I think the answer to this depends on where they are sold and who is selling them.  If a gallery sells them, then yes, if the work is perceived as strong enough to be shown in a gallery then I would expect the gallery to sell them at a higher price, as by then they are definitely Art. There’s a video with extracts of the auction that shows this in action – photographs that were bought for 99pence were sold for £6-£12 for example.

I’m not so sure on Ebay. My feeling is maybe, a bit. Nicky sold an album of images from the project on Ebay, for £205. This doesn’t feel like very much considering the number of images that it could potentially contain and the work that went into it. I think Ebay is about a different kind of perceived value. People expect to get a bargain on Ebay but they possibly don’t expect to get a bargain from a gallery and perhaps that changes the relative price expectations.

I looked at her website, at a PhotoParley interview with Sharon Boothroyd, a video about the auction of some of the work and at a couple of other websites. I was touched and intrigued by how she spoke about history disappearing because we have no link to the people who took these images or the people who knew about these photographs. In PhotoParlay we hear about her experience with a contact sheet showing Elvis and a group of well-dressed women, and the only selection marks on the sheet were around Elvis. These words, from the same interview, rang true for me too.

“There is a debt to feminism here – which is about looking out for the overlooked, questioning what’s valued (or not), creating new spaces to listen, reading against the grain and so on.”

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966 by Diane Arbus

The essay is by Liz Jobey and can be accessed via the OCA website here –

This essay gives me a feeling of discomfort which grows as I read through it. The first line gave me food for thought: “The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable”. I bear as much responsibility for my responses to work, if not more, as the intentions of the person who made the work.

An issue for me here is the series of removes from the original work. Arbus made the work, and wrote about it in a letter to the deputy editor of the Sunday Times. He reworded the letter slightly. Now we have Jobey’s essay layered over the top, and my reading of that on top of that, and now my writing about it too, a new shade of interpretation being introduced at each level. There is an undeniable difference between Arbus’ words “They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way” and the printed “…and the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way.” And there I was thinking that the finer details of semantics were restricted to the image. I think the change in text does move the “pain” of the situation from the family in the photograph to the viewer of the photograph.

I wonder if, in the transition from looking at Arbus’ photographs of “freaks” to her photographs of families, we perceive the families though the same expectation filter as the freaks, almost as if we know that if it’s an Arbus photograph there must be something out of the ordinary about it, and possibly not a happy out of the ordinary either. I’m slightly uncomfortable about the gaze in these images too. Arbus was from a white Jewish privileged background, and she chose to photograph “under the bar of success, celebrity and social ease”. This is probably more of a general comment rooted in curiosity, but were the only people with cameras white privileged ones? No, of course not. Or were they the only people to get their work shown? Or was Arbus the only one making this sort of work? Where are the Polaroids, the vernacular record made by the people themselves? What would the Daurias’ own family album show? Would the Arbus photograph be in there? This is a similar unease to that I felt when watching the Greatest Showman – all these “freaks” collected and merchandised as circus by a non-freaky white man and his non-freaky high-culture white male side-kick. I keep coming back to ideas of self, other and representation and perhaps the need to explore this further at Level 2.

Exercise – advertising image

This image fell into my lap really, it’s part of a diptych inside the back cover of British Vogue March 2018.


Taken at it’s most basic, it shows a man dressed in bright green trunks, snakeprint loafers, a cream leather jacket and some gold jewellery. He’s seated on a stack of white china plates, a couple of which also feature in the other image of the pair. The location is a room with a wooden floor that’s covered with plain grey flooring with one corner cut out, and he’s against a breezeblock wall, with no windows, painted white. It’s a portrait image and the man takes up most of the frame with a bit of space around him. There’s a vertical margin to the left in which the models and photographer are credited.

The image is an advert for Palace – a UK skate brand. It’s interesting for a start that Vogue, a women’s fashion and beauty magazine, is carrying a double page ad for a brand that caters to its customers sons (and dads). Although women can obviously wear the Palace designs, there’s nothing cut for the female skate population. The brand name is on his pants and also in the lower right hand corner of the advert.

To me, this image speaks of a skater’s dad, especially because it’s paired with a photograph of the model’s real life son. Perhaps he skated when he was younger, but right now he is all grown up, an adult, a dad, and rather richer than before and possibly far less of a regular skater. There’s an “Only Fools and Horses” vibe to it that I can’t quite shake. He’s knowingly taking the piss, on one hand, with his signet rings and finger-sucking, and on the other there’s an ostentatiousness in his presentation. Snakeskin print loafers with monogrammed trim, the brightest of trunks with the brand writ large on the outside (it was always dads that complained about visible underwear in my youth). His leather jacket looks butter soft and immaculately stitched and lined. It denotes extravagance – a jacket that colour will spend half its life at the dry cleaner. The shoes, jewellery (signet rings and necklace) and the “designer” underwear all denote extravagance, a touch of the flash. The brand name “Palace” denotes wealth, royalty, opulence. The lack of other clothes denotes a sense of performance, of not being afraid to “let it all hang out”, of a sense of fun, possibly? He has tan lines from his socks (lots of time outdoors, or sunshine holidays?) and marks from his sock elastic on his ankles. In many ways it’s an endearingly “dad” picture. I have no idea why he is seated on a stack of plates.

He’s in a “man-spreading” position, spreading out to fill and claim the space. Legs spread wide, one arm spread wide, and his little finger in his mouth as his eyes look directly into the camera. The verb “twinkle” comes to mind but I’m not sure if that has a place in a critical vocabulary. Maybe a rakish glint. The pinkie sucking is slightly disturbing – I’m not sure if it’s playing on sexualised female imagery or on the clichéd movie villains with cats in their laps and fingers in their mouths. I’m intrigued by what is either a single varnished nail or a bruise. We don’t quite see his nipples.


Image of Mike Myers as Dr Evil via Wikipedia.


So far so good. What really intrigues me though is that this is a photograph of Juergen Teller, a regular fashion photographer for Vogue, and the other image of the pair shows his son, both images were taken by Juergen Teller. This opens up a vast range of further meaning. Clearly, he is wearing the clothes to show them to best advantage, to sell them. Normally in Vogue his job is to sell clothes to women via his photographs. He is selling the illusion that women could look a bit like the women he photographs. If these same women put their husbands and sons into Palace clothing, will their menfolk thus also be acquiring a little bit of that Juergen Teller twinkle, that fashion photographer glamour?

He’s normally behind the camera, we see his work but we don’t see him. In this work he’s in front of the camera, in his pants, and he doesn’t care. He’s there with his wrinkles, his belly, his sock marks, in Vogue depicted in a way that we would never see a female model, or a female photographer. He’s subverting something right there. Somehow, it’s different, as Liz Hoggard wrote in the Observer As a woman, I find it very refreshing to find someone else’s body on the slab.”  That was back in 2003, he has form for stripping off in self portraits. You can almost hear the reproachful chorus of “daaaaad” from his children, one of whom is shown in more typical skate garb in a more grunge, urban and less affluent setting on the page opposite. The piss-take now becomes not just about himself, but also about years of fashion photography – about open jackets and tops that barely cover nipples and breasts, about women in expensive coats, shoes and underwear but nothing else, about the model, and the brand, flirting with and seducing the viewer. It also tells us something about father and son though, that shared love of skateboarding even though we don’t see a board in either image.

I’ve only grazed the surface of my notes here – I am very tempted to use this image (and its pair) for my A4 essay.


Elliott Erwitt dog exercise

This is one of those exercises that got me thinking more about the process than the actual image.

The image is all about threes and thirds. The image is spilt into 3 from top to bottom, side to side and front to back. We have three subjects – a large dog, of which we only see the front legs, a woman (I think) from the bottom of her tailored coat down through her knee high leather boots, and a tiny dog, with the only eyes that we see, dressed in a coat and hat. Foreground, in front of them, is wet ground, the mid ground is still distinguishable as ground though slightly blown out from light on the wet ground, and the background, still blown (at least in this reproduction) has trees and some kind of structure (bus stop? phone box?) The only face that we as viewers get to engage with is the little dog’s, and that makes me wonder about the faces of the woman and the larger dog, are they cocked to one side with jaunty hats too? Are they interacting with Elliott or are they just waiting while he interacts with the smallest dog? I like how we see the woman’s coat tails and boots, and the dog’s hat and coat, does she take as much pride in her dog’s appearance and care for his comfort as much as she does for her own?

Then of course I read the next paragraph in the course notes and saw how much I’d missed. So questions that I could be asking myself are:

  • What can I see? Main subject? other subjects?
  • Where are the subjects within the frame?
  • How is the image composed?
  • Is it cropped?
  • What can we tell about the subjects?
  • What can we tell about the photographer from how they’ve chosen to make the image?
  • How do I feel when I look at the image?
  • What do I think when I look at the image?

Doing this exercise prompted me to return to “Reading Photographs” by Richard Salkeld.

Some rough notes on semiotics

These notes are from Reading Photographs by Richard Salkeld in the Basics Creative Photography Series, Fairchild Books, 2014.

The relationship of signifier to signified determines the type of sign it is.

Arbitrary or symbolic sign – there’s no natural connection between signifier (the sign) and signified (the mental concept triggered by the signifier). eg verbal and written language and traffic light colours.

Indexical signifiers are produced by what they signify. eg smoke, a footprint. Photographs are indexical signifiers because “the image in a photograph has a direct causal link with the scene that existed in front of the camera at the moment of exposure”. (p52)

Iconic signifiers resemble what they signify. My favourite of these is the fire hose sign in a Greek hotel we stayed at. Not only does it look like a fire hose, it looks like a Greek fire hose. We can see that it also contains text in two languages (arbitrary signs) and it’s in a photograph which is itself an indexical signifier.


Photographs can contain some or all of these signs.

Denotation – the literal meaning of a photograph, what everybody sees (eg a middle aged man dressed in trunks and loafers and jewellery, with his little finger in his mouth, looking directly at the camera, seated on a stack of white plates on a bare floor in front of a breezeblock wall.

Connotation – “the associated ideas that are suggested by the image but which are not explicitly denoted”. These meanings really depend on the individual viewing the image “Individual and subjective experience, knowledge, taste and emotion will all contribute to the particular associations”. Connotation is most of my pencilled comments on the ad above.

Referent – the thing that is indicated by the sign but that is not itself there.


Part 4 – photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication

I couldn’t think of any. Perhaps those that we take by accident with an unlocked phone, or when our film camera is loaded and primed and loose in a bag.

The thing about the meaning of photographs though is that it’s not just the meaning that we as photographers intend for them, but also the meaning that viewers take away from looking at our work. We can’t do anything about this, even if we didn’t mean to take the photograph. So even if a photograph wasn’t intended to express or communicate anything, a viewer will probably construct some meaning, even if the meaning was that the photograph was probably taken by accident.