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The Willingness to Engage Strangers

Wednesday January 5th, 2011

Jessie Morgan-Owens of Singapore-based photography team Morgan & Owens can offer you an interesting two-for-one deal. Not only is she able to provide you with excellent travel photography, she can also give you an extended theoretical reflection on her images.

Jessie supplements her photography work as an academic, working in the Department of English at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She was also a 2008-2009 Humanities Initiative Fellow at NYU, and NYU recently invited her to deliver a presentation at their conference Ambience in the Humanities, as part of a roundtable called “Cinematic Vistas.”

You can see excerpts of the talk, and view the accompanying slideshow, at the Morgan & Owens blog; they’re well worth the read. I’ve spent some time studying the theory side of things, and I was impressed with the way Jessie connected her thoughts to her own photography.

Jessie discusses the ways in which photographic subjects participate in the construction of images, pointing to her work in Laos and Shanghai. She refers to a phrase of the great German critic Walter Benjamin, from his “Little History of Photography,” which describes a photo by painter David Octavius Hill called Newhaven Fishwife. In the spirit of Walter Benjamin, what follows is a montage: a juxtaposition of the passage from the “Little History” and a Morgan & Owens photo from Laos.

Where the painting remained in the possession of a particular family, now and then someone would ask about the person portrayed. But after two or three generations this interest fades; the pictures, if they last, do so only as testimony to the art of the painter. With photography, however, we encounter something new and strange: in Hill’s Newhaven fishwife, her eyes cast down in such indolent, seductive modesty, there remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in “art.”

-Asad

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