Category Archives: Conceptual artists and their work

Part 2 Narrative: Conceptual artists: Sophie Calle, Sophy Rickett, Kaylynn Deveney, Karen Knorr and NYT One in 8 Million

Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.
Look these pieces up online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Write down your own responses in your learning log.
• How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?
• Another way to incorporate text into an image-based project is to include interviews or audio.

Both of these women are conceptual artists. It is their ideas which are important. Their work is often created from the input or actual work of others. In Rickett’s  Objects in the Field, it was with the full co-operaton of the originator of the images, Professor Willstrop, that the final work was created..  Rickett took his scientific images, the result of twelve years of careful research using a triple mirror camera on a telescope, and developed these images to hang on gallery walls. Along with the developed images she created a text which was as much about her own life experiences as it was about the ajoining images.

Rickett’s work was created during her residency as Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge. It was carried out to demonstrate how light and darkness influence our observations of space. In the interview with Sharon Boothroyd (1) she explains how she got to know Professor Rodrick Willstrop who was a retired institute astronomer.  Their relationship seems to have been a little fraught. The professor did not seem to understand why she wanted to turn his scientific images into works of art. For him they contained, already outdated, scientific information and this was the purpose for which he had recorded them. For Rickett they seemed to have a separate life which could be developed as works of art to be hung on a gallery wall. She did try to grasp the scientific content of the images but the professor did not seem to invest much effort in understanding Rickett’s project. For Rickett the meaning of any image can be fluid. Her work with these images extends their meaning and intertwines it with her own life experiences.

Calle’s Take care of Yourself  is based on a private  email, from her then partner, ending their relationship. She used this correspondence, without the cooperation of her ex-partner, to illicit the opinions or reactions of 107 women professionals to its contents.

Calle is a Parisian from a  middle class family. She is not trained in the arts. She was able, because of her comfortable status, to spend her late teens and early twenties traveling around the world. On her return to Paris she was at a loose end and spent her time trailing around Paris stalking strangers and inventing life stories around them. This was the beginning of her work based on her own and friends and strangers personal lives. (2). An article in the Independent says of her work (3)

As an artist, Sophie Calle does not make work, as such. Photographs appear in her work but she is no photographer – sometimes she pays a professional to take the pictures.

For Take care of Yourself she carefully selected those whose opinions she sought. They were all professionals from dancers Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 15.07.12to, bizarrely, a parrot. Their input was then carefully choreographed into an exhibition which demanded the full participation of the viewer, to be appreciated. Those viewing it had to sit, look up or down, listen to the views of the participants and view the creations of others. (4). In another interview, this time in french where she is much more relaxed, she describes how she developed her various projects. The text she added to the final images was normally something the participant in the image had said. In this way the works evolves and we are expected to ‘participate’ in the final presentation, it is a two way process. (5). In this interview (6) the entire interview with a mediator for which the scene is set up with on empty chair on which the ex-lovers email is placed, is recorded and I assume used in the final exhibition. Since I have never seen the exhibition I cannot say this for sure. The mediator asks questions about the relationship and its ultimate ending with this email.  I am at one and the same time fascinated and repulsed with Sophie Calle’s exploitation of something which she had entered into voluntarily and which had not, for many reasons, it seems, worked out. She gives the distinct impression of being a very self centered and spoiled person.

Calle’s work is original and often fascinating. She has been compared to Tracey Emin. For one project she invited strangers to sleep in her bed and photographed them, for another she found an address book, photocopied it before returning anonymously to its owner, She then set about contacting some of the people named in the book asking about the owner of the book. She wanted to create a portrait of the owner without meeting him. She documented her encounters with the people daily and these were published in Liberation under the title L’homme au carnet” (1983).

Both of these artists’ work can be described as postmodern. They take a concept and turn it into something they can exhibit in a gallery. Notice I avoid saying “create a work of art” as I am not convinced that their work is art. I think it is extremely interesting but I feel we need to construct a new word to describe it.

The New York Times has a simple but effective project online called One in 8 Million (7) about the inhabitants of New York. It includes images of people from different walks of life and professions with audio clips overlaid to give a voice to the subject. It is a clever way of celebrating the richness and diversity of a city with such cultural and social diversity.

This work I do feel is true art. The images are stunning, the stories fascinating and the idea amazing. No one is trying to use (or in some cases abuse) others to create their own work. It is of course also postmodern with its use of video and images to tell the stories of these New Yorkers.

Some photographers use interviews and diaries to incorporate text with their images. Have a look at these examples: Kaylyn Deveney – The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings [accessed 24/02/14] Karen Knorr – Gentlemen [accessed 24/02/14]

Deveney’s little book is beautifully presented in this YouTube video (8). The work is another example of conceptual art. It is the story of Alfred Hasting’s last years. The images, often blurred, of Hastings himself or his surroundings are sensitively presented. Deveney invites Alfred to add his own captions to the images. His infectious sense of humour comes across in these captions. His life is simple but the overall impression is one of contentment. The co-operative nature of the project renders it completely acceptable for me.

Gentlemen, by Karen Korr, is an altogether less personal work albeit fitting perfectly into the conceptual genre. The images are beautifully presented and the captions beneath are often thought provoking but also amusing as demonstrated below. This is displayed below the image of a man in a gentleman’s club.

Newspapers are no longer ironed,

Coins no longer boiled,

So far have



Duane Michals is an influential American photographer who places text on top of, or close by, the photographs. The text is often hand written, giving a personal and intimate quality to the work. Look up Michal’s work online. In particular, look carefully at the image entitled This Photograph is My Proof (1974).

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 13.46.54A wonderful source of information (9) Dr Marcus Bunyan discusses Michals work and ‘raison d’etre’. The blog shows many of Michals images, printed here with permission from the various museum owners of the works. In introducing Michals …. descibes the cyclical nature of some if the series Michals made. One in particular was the series of the bathroom Things are Queer.  The walk through these images leads us back to the begining.


There is also an hour long talk by Michals on his career. He is funny, informative and at eighty one a shining hope to those of us pushing up behind him.

Given the extent and the variety of Michals work I am wondering why we have been invited to look ‘in particular‘ at the image The Photograph is my Proof.This is indeed a very poignant image but very much in Michals style. For poignancy I would have chosen his image A Letter from my Father which shows a young Michals and behind him his father. Beneath the image we read the following text:

As long as I can remember, my father always said that one day he would write me a very special letter. But he never told me what the letter might be about. I used to try to guess what intimacy the two of us would at last share, what family secret would at last be revealed. I know what I had hoped to read in the letter. I wanted him to tell me where he had hidden his affection. But then he died, and the letter never did arrive, and I never found that place where he had hidden his love. Duane Michals 1960/1975.

We are also told

Michals pairs image and text so that they build upon one other to create a fuller reading for the viewer.

This is certainly the case. With his set of images of Grandpa goes to heaven the child is beside his grandfather’s bed and in the sequence the body of the man becomes more faintly superimposed on the image as it leaves the room through the window. The final image has the child leaning out the window looking towards the heavens. This is only one of the very many sequences he has made.

He also refers to the medium of photography in his texts to challenge notions of what a photograph is; this self-reference is another technique characteristic of postmodernism.

For Michals the actual person in the image is unimportant it is the overall story created by the one or the sequence of images which is important.

  1. Sophy Rickett interview with Sharon Boothroyd, OCA – Appendix. Open College of the Arts, Photography 1 Context and Narrative Photoparley, Nov 2013
  2. Interview: Sophie Calle | World news | The Guardian. 2016. Interview: Sophie Calle | World news | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 January 2016].
  3. Up close and (too) personal: A Sophie Calle retrospective | Features | Culture | The Independent. 2016. Up close and (too) personal: A Sophie Calle retrospective | Features | Culture | The Independent. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 January 2016].
  4. Sophie Calle interview with Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick – YouTube. 2016. Sophie Calle interview with Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 January 2016].
  5. Sophie Calle – entretien – YouTube. 2016. Sophie Calle – entretien – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 January 2016].
  6. Sophie Calle – Prenez soin de vous (Médiatrice) – YouTube. 2016. Sophie Calle – Prenez soin de vous (Médiatrice) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 January 2016].
  7. One in 8 Million – New York Characters in Sound and Images – The New York Times. 2016. One in 8 Million – New York Characters in Sound and Images – The New York Times. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 January 2016].
  8. Presenting The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney – YouTube. 2016. Presenting The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 January 2016].
  9. Duane Michals This Photograph Is My Proof | Art Blart. 2016. Duane Michals This Photograph Is My Proof | Art Blart. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 January 2016].