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The camera as catalyst, the photograph as conduit: an exploration of the performative role of photography.

Bonnell, Sian (2013) The camera as catalyst, the photograph as conduit: an exploration of the performative role of photography. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis is a retrospective examination of practice based research as constituted by eight published outputs spanning a period of twenty years. The field in which the research began was British feminist photography of the 1980s and 1990s, part of the postmodern response to modernism/formalism. The analytical text that forms part of the thesis argues that the key contribution being made to this field is ‘Wilful Amateurism’, a term I have coined to describe an aesthetic which can be compared, and possibly contrasted with the aesthetic of play and boundary transgression found in artists of the avant-garde such as Duchamp and Hannah Höch. My application of Wilful Amateurism is a fusing of sculpture and performance understood as photography. The experiential origins are feminist, inhabiting the domestic, absurdism and motherhood. In addition to traversing boundaries between mediums, Wilful Amateurism ignores distinctions between the genres of landscape, still life and self-staging and I cite this as my original contribution to knowledge. The research is discussed within the prevailing attitudes in photography in the 1990s as a defiant attempt to bring a lived, feminine/domestic experience into the professionalized photographic domain that was categorised by either genre or gender. The research question and the driving force behind the work constituted within the submission is presented in the text as a desire to subvert the technical and professionalized aspects of photography so that my images are ‘entered’ and for the space between reality and fantasy to be experienced and understood. Other key artists who I identify as Wilful Amateurs include John Cage, Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman and Helen Chadwick. The enquiry is underpinned by my research into the theories of DW Winnicott, Jean Rouch, Vilém Flusser and Bruno Latour. As the study will demonstrate, my methodology encompasses bricolage, defined as an ad hoc synthesis of space/place, object, performance and absurdity aimed at creating fictions. As I will show, I use the camera as an agent of my will and imagination to act on its subject/object. The resulting photographs enable the viewer to ‘willingly suspend disbelief’ and become a performer. Finally the point is made that the aesthetic category of Wilful Amateurism that I have identified, is tentative, requiring further research to become a possible tool for continuing study of this field.

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