I enjoyed this photo immediately; although I then struggled to understand the indigenous/Polish immigrant connection, it doesn’t interest me very much playing the game of brief-fitting, yes/no. Yes, it can be difficult to achieve that, it needs consideration and is the basis for these exercises but it’s considerably different – easier, contextualised and realistic – if you are actually working with someone and getting feedback on what they want.

Pleasing candy-colours, which are neither nondescript pastel nor
over-saturated glare. And a great composition. I’m not sure they are evidently foreign, although I would probably agree their faces are perhaps slightly unusual. This, together with their unusual environment and their slightly false demeanour makes it vaguely surreal for me (as Sontag notes, photography is inherently surreal). Not a direct comparison, and
several octaves lower in terms of overall impact, but it reminds me a little of the aesthetics of David Lynch. He took deliberately banal situations and dramatised them with over-saturated colour and an emphatic use of the camera, creating an unsettling sense of hyper-reality. I’m not suggesting these innocuous and smiling ladies are carrying a Lynchian psychological load, but rather that for me, there’s a similar effect in terms of visual grammar. In one sense the image looks ordinary and banal but in another sense it’s delicately unusual, achieved by the use of clever composition in an unusual environment. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a greenhouse such as this, with an industrial roof and industry-scale
horticulture.

Art critic John Berger noted that affect precedes intellect, both as a developmental stage and a background reality to common perception. We feel things before we cognise them, suggesting an undercurrent whereby we evaluate the world in non-rational terms. Extrapolating further, much of the ‘consciousness’ and the ‘opinion’ generated by the media concerns this vague but pervasive affect, rather than clear thinking. In politics for
example the mood of an entire country can change, and thus the future trajectory of a political party or the career of a Number 10 denizen, on the basis of gossipy and superficial impressions rather than considered political thinking. Thus, the shock! horror! headlines of the Sun have an impact on politics in just the same way as the in-depth editorials in the Times, Guardian or Independent: they change affect, which in turn changes
opinion and then voting behavior.

I refer to this, to amplify my point about ‘affect’ and thought – and, further, how the former is frequently overlooked and overriden by the latter. We live in a world when ‘conceptual’ art is elevated into possibly the dominant form; where the rewards of perception and feeling are usurped by arbitrary and self-referential thought. Quite often, ideas create art and not the reverse; when we see domestic ephemera within hallowed
white-space walls, it becomes “art” – supposedly – merely as a result of its transposition and remediation, and the artistic process becomes cognitive and abstract, and removed from mass public sentiment: ‘I don’t know about art, but I know what I like’, becomes ‘I don’t know about art, and I don’t care for this nonsensical Turner Prize rhetoric’.

So no doubt, certain kinds of politics and local/indigenous/whatever readings can be made about an image such as this. And further, that mode of discourse dominates the media and the photographic industry. I maintain though that there’s also another layer of perceptual meaning, which
although not fashionable, or easily described or evaluated, is nonetheless a pervasive and integral part of our sociological living. I look at Agnieszka and Isabella and enjoy their slightly artificial but overtly co-operative pose, as part of an overall scenario reminding me vaguely of Barmaids At The Folie-Bergeres: women selling their labour, being overtly
‘available’ because of the capitalist context in which they are situated (in this case, their ‘availability’ further signified by their
photographic co-operation), and yet simultanously distant and removed: their smiles are pleasant, but also false – which, if you go down the conventional socio-political route, leads you to a further consideration of capitalism and the topical, sometimes problematic nature of immigration.

I was drawn to this, because I liked the look of it. And there’s a
substantial sub-text to liking what you see that sometimes gets lost in our intellectualised society, albeit that it is deliberately and skilfully manipulated by advertising gurus. The right kind of smile, the right kind of face, the suggested and emphatic visual components like cinematic mise en scene all contribute to a deliberate strategy of affective manipulation, with proven commercial benefit. Which, while it isn’t an inherent part of this brief, is certainly a core aspect of photographic culture.

 

Polish Greenhouse

Saturday March 25, 2006