12th December 2012
At Lacock Abbey, former home of William Henry Fox-Talbot, the inventor of the negative-positive photographic process, there was an exhibition of Jo Whaley’s ‘Theatre of Insects’ which ten students and Jesse Alexander visited, and later held a tutorial, on 7th December 2012. A very good gathering for this infant series of tutorials but there was a competitive study visit on the same day in London and so perhaps there weren’t as many attendees to our meeting as there might have been; in some ways perhaps no bad thing as there never appears to be enough time for everything that we’d like to achieve.
The meeting started at 11-00 am with a visit to the museum and art gallery, something I never tire of as there always appears to be something I missed on the previous visit. However, the main reason for a start here was to review the work on display by Jo Whaley in the upstairs gallery.
Visually stunning the images will stand out in my memory for a very long time to come.
Although visually stunning, the object of any study visit is to examine the images and decide what they mean and where do they fit within the art of photography, and that’s a very different proposition to just looking at photographs that are very pleasing to the eye. Do these pictures have anything to give beyond their obvious beauty? I think they do, although several of the other students and Jesse had some reservations.
The counter argument to mine is that they don’t have ‘a tight thematic hang’, a problem for the curator, and ‘The work also seemed to emphasise the flatness of the photographic surface: The highly produced three-dimensional sets, so carefully constructed by Whaley, somehow aren’t really done justice by the photographic process.’, to me an unimportant aspect of what Jo has achieved with the beauty of the arrangements. I think that the sets themselves don’t necessarily have to seem to be 3D to impart the feeling of texture that I think they were there to achieve. Jo Whaley has been making these sorts of dioramas for over a decade and in that time if what she wanted to portray hadn’t appeared to her, then I’m sure she’d have changed her style to achieve it. I also think that for an image to have artistic merit it doesn’t necessarily have to have a meaning beyond its obvious beauty.
As students we’re continually exhorted to find meaning and narrative in images, but what if there wasn’t meant to be one? Does the artist always have to include a meaning? In the majority of cases I’m sure there is meaning, either deliberately introduced or found, but I don’t agree that there always has to be one, and some images, these principally, don’t need meaning to offer artistic stimulation, beauty alone for me is sufficient in and of itself.
Having said that, I do believe that these pictures have a purpose beyond their beauty alone. I proposed that if the exhibition had simply been about taxonomic images of different insects, would we, as photographic students, been prepared to travel to Lacock Abbey to view them? I think not. The way that Jo Whaley has photographed these insects, in their dioramas, it made me want to look and see them all in a different way. They’re not just 6 legged beasties that fly or crawl, they’re beautifully constructed, highly colourful and specially environmentally developed creatures that I’d spend a lot of time looking at, and more importantly, remembering; can anyone say that they’d do the same of a case full of slightly varied examples in the normal way they’re displayed?
I’m sure that there is also a materialistic purpose to photographing insects in this way, my guess is that Jo makes a very nice living from the sale of prints, I know I’d love to have a few to hang somewhere in our tiny flat.
Anyway, moot point, make your own mind up from the images below. ENJOY