Stories: Narrative Photography

Zsolt Bátori

The photographs of this exhibition require a certain amount of effort from the viewer. For it is never evident how still images narrate, how they develop a story. Although they play a crucial initial role in prompting the process of interpretation, it is the viewer who needs to complete the work of unfolding the narrative.

The curator’s choice in the exhibition is Kuang-Chun Lo’s Chicken. The straightforward description of the image is that it depicts the neck and the head of a dead chicken, having been already cleaned and prepared for cooking. Initially it might seem that the story behind the photograph has been sufficiently exhausted by this description. Yet one of the most striking features of Lo’s image is that it is aesthetically beautiful. The parts of the chicken’s neck, head, and beak (almost as if it is still breathing, but with closed, dead eyes) gracefully continue the angle of the edge of the dish, in which most likely further portions of chicken flesh serve as an almost picturesque compositional background. The upper part of the image also provides a soft, out of focus, subdued background, emphasizing the main curve in the composition of the image. It is against this visually pleasing literal and conceptual background that the death of this creature has to be understood and interpreted. Would we start to think about the fleeting nature of all life and how, despite it all, we might nevertheless find consolation in the beauty of death? Or should we start to reflect on the value of life and our often assumed rights to take it when it belongs to animals? What is the evolving narrative of our conscience when confronted with the visually beautified death of our everyday meal?

The first honourable mention image is On Changes No. 1 by Elena Nassati. The tile of the photograph orients the interpretation, but only in a general direction. The retro impression of the surroundings might indicate social changes, but the look of the woman’s face also suggests a troubled personal narrative, all amid the heavy emptiness of the Covid era. Domonkos Varga’s Cat’s Cradle shows a moment in time that is both a complicated result of the past of the game leading up to this point and also the anticipation of the next step. The unpredictability of the evolving physical and visual narrative has strong symbolic connotations about the unpredictable nature of the individual and collective human narrative. The third honourable mention, Zen at sea by Eddy Verloes brings together seemingly distant narratives. The title refers to Buddhist thought while depicting orthodox Jewish people in an overly contrasty, almost unearthly photograph. The silhouettes against the washed-out background seem to be there without a purpose, and imagining their possible purpose signals only the beginning of our interpretive process.

Andrea Abonyi’s staged works are creative blends of staged and composite photography with a unique surreal aspect. After they left by Juliane Batthyány presents a dreamy landscape with an abandoned swimming pool and its untold story. Rachel Betts’ Ragazzi is a complicated puzzle of five elderly man, a small child, and a dog. Thomas Brasch challenges our imaginative interpretation with the story of an ornamental mandala. Ash Cheatham presents images with complex symbolism, opening up different paths of understanding. Lisa Cutler and Whitney Dafoe concentrate on the interactions between the edges of the built and the natural environment. Diane Fenster reflects on the Covid experience with dark-toned and distorted portraits. Danielle L Goldstein’s ‘From my Window’ series tells the story of the neighbours by peeking into their everday life. Edwardian lady by Jane Ross creates a fictional story of a long-gone person whose real story is lost forever. Věra Trávníčková’s Concert No. 2 prompts us to imagine the concertgoers’ predicament by their absence from the image of the makeshift concert hall.

There are countless stories to explore in the images of this exhibition. One might wonder how it is possible that still photographic images fare so well in telling narratives. The secret lies in the cooperative interaction between the creative artist prompting and her audience developing the stories.