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Leon Anselmann In Flux 475487

Rutherford: how to see the world differently

The academic and image-maker has immersed himself in the search for new ways to create photography. He tells us why

‘Leon Anselmann in Flux 505519 (detail)’ from the series Technical Images of Flux (2017-ongoing) by Rutherford

As a commercial photographer during the 1990s, Rutherford created advertising and public relations campaigns – often at the whim of an art director.

Now leading the MA Advertising programme at Bournemouth University, he has for years been in search of a different way of seeing photography. Influenced by the ideas of Diane Arbus and Roland Barthes, his work raises public awareness about the power of visual communication to shape our social narratives.

Here, he explains why it’s important to question assumptions about photography – and shares images from his series Technical Images of Flux.

How would you describe yourself as a photographer?

Since its invention by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, photography has provided us with widely different views of the worlds around and within us.

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Scientific and medical photographs give us a window onto a previously invisible world. News and documentary photographs describe the world as others see it. Advertising photographs tempt us with the sugar plum world of the sponsor’s product trademark. Family snapshots record the world as we will subsequently remember it. And, in art galleries, photographs of moments-of-the-world-as-art confront us with scenes made special by the photographer’s attention.

After giving up commercial practice in Toronto, Canada, where from 1982-1993 I had made photographs for magazines and for advertising, charitable and public education campaigns, I wanted to produce photographs that would enable the viewer to transcend his or her usual frame of reference and be able to imagine the subject from a different perspective.

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In numerous projects since 1982 I have attempted to test some of the common assumptions about what photography ‘is’ and what it ‘does’ – assumptions I believe limit our ability to conceive of alternative ways of thinking about and working with the medium.

I reasoned that if I wanted to use photography for a different end it would require using and seeing photography from a different end of the metaphorical telescope. I believed it would be necessary to restrain the influence of the central assumptions about photography I had internalised during my undergraduate studies – and which had been reinforced by numerous art directors.

The two main assumptions which had shaped the way I thought of and practised photography were my concept of what constitutes a ‘good’ photograph (what it is, what it is for, what it has, what it does), and the decisions involved in planning and producing these ‘good’ photographs.

I refer to these assumptions as our ‘compositional reflexes’, whose influence on our ideas and practice is the result of our exposure to everything from popular films to famous paintings to professionally produced advertisements. And what I term ‘the rule of the tool’ – that our access to and our proficiency in the use of certain tools or techniques encourages their use.

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I was intrigued by the ideas of these writers and photographers:

Roland Barthes, who introduced the notion of the punctum – the unintended or unexpected element, often unnoticed when the photograph was made.

Minor White, who claimed, “Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.”

Diane Arbus, who stated, “I have never taken a picture I’ve intended. The camera is ‘recalcitrant’. You may want to do one thing and it’s determined to do something else.”

Garry Winogrand, who claimed, “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”

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I wanted to explore whether it would be possible to collaborate with the camera, to create photographs of scenes and events that did not exist ‘out there’ in the world but were instead created by the act of photographing them.

What first inspired you to pick up a camera and what type of camera was it?

I first picked up a camera when I finally, grudgingly, accepted I couldn’t draw. My first camera was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex. After a few years I traded this for a twin-lens Rolleiflex. Switching from a 35mm ‘golden section’ to a square format was initially confounding, because at the beginning I was trying to force rectangular pegs into square holes. Figuring out how to see the world in squares changed everything.

Describe the series Technical Images of Flux.

In Technical Images of Flux I explore the widely accepted notion that photographs are an “accurate and objective record” (Genoni, 2002) and “a truthful account” (Fosdick and Fahmy, 2007) of things “as they really were” (Ross, 1982). To do this, I wanted to challenge the idea of photographs as the result of:

The appearance and/or behaviour of the things in front of the lens (I use this term because I believe it is important not to confuse or conflate ‘the things in front of the lens’ with the subject of the photograph – what the photograph is ‘about’).

The photographer’s intention (what we want to show you).

The photographer’s expertise in using the camera and technology in pursuit of this intended result.

This project, then, challenges the idea that photographs are ‘taken’ (purloined, confiscated, appropriated or stolen) from the world ‘out there’ and explores the possibility that photographs can be the result of an active (or an act of) collaboration with the medium in recording scenes created (‘made’) by photographing them.

What challenges did you face while creating this series?

In Submarines, all the people I photographed had agreed to undergo the ordeal of posing for me. In subsequent phases however, most of the people ‘rendered’ were strangers who – as these experiments only produce interesting results when I am within a metre or two – I have to approach surreptitiously to disguise what I am doing.

What next for you?

I am about to retire and relocate to Nice where – after years of teaching, marking and interminable meetings – I will finally have more time to make photographs, write and exhibit.

All images from the series Technical Images of Flux (2017-ongoing) by Rutherford.

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