The Conversation: Buhler-Rose

25th October 2019

Michael Buhler-Rose, The conversation, from Constructing the Exotic. Image from

(1) Write a visual description of the photograph above using short phrases and descriptive words. the four key elements you should describe are:

* facial expression

* posture and gesture

* clothing

* character of location

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The photograph has two groups of women within it so the key elements are different because of the differing groups dynamics. It is like they are all on a tea break and have gathered outside for a while to re-group. The first group (1) is in conversation and the second group (2) are individuals in close proximity of each other. Therefore my analysis will refer to them as (1) and (2). The title of the photograph is ‘The conversation’ which lets the viewer know the group of women on the left is the focus subject.

Facial expression:

(1) Focus point is the ‘story teller’: Interest, intrigue, concentration, engaged, focused, interacting, (2) The focus point is the photographer who could be, in a story context, another women/ man looking at the two groups: (lady in green) intrigue, curious, (lady in pink) mis-trust, annoyed, (lady 3) indifferent with back turned against the viewer, doesn’t want to welcome us in, focused on the lady in blue.

Posture and gesture

(1) (arms crossed lady) intense, defensive, annoyed, confrontational, disagrees with what is being said. Perhaps she is feeling satisfied that her manipulation is being spoken out loud for other people to hear = slyness – her facial expressions differ from her body language with the cross arm barrier. Her face looks pleasured as though what is being said is gleeful to her but not the others. She is standing over the others perhaps she feels dominant like this. (pink story-teller) uses arm to engage one listener more than the others by laying it on her arm, speaking to her specifically about something that involves her? (pink lady listener) body is leaning away from the story-teller, dislikes what she is hearing, but trusts the story-teller as her arms are relaxed. (yellow sitting lady) resting her arms backwards to support her body, uncomfortable sitting on the floor.

(2) (standing tall lady) confident, look at me stance with arms resting on bannister relaxed, hip tilted to the side and upwards, (pink lady) relaxed but slouched on one elbow. one arm across her stomach forming a protective barrier, (standing yellow lady) hands on hips means she is feeling assertive, perhaps she is feeling irritated by the gossiping group? Especially as she is standing to the side and looking up at the relaxed lady as if saying to her ‘I am not happy with this.’ Her leg is also forward and bent suggesting she is interested in what is going on and ready to move if need be to intervene.


The Saris are cut and fashioned in the traditional Indian fashion, however because of the colours used, the materials and the gold I would presume these are Bollywood Saris or for a specific event due to the fact they are quite lavish and flamboyant in colours. Also the women are wearing similar colours but in different combinations with one women in blue which suggests a uniform for a specific accurance.

Their hair is also uniformed as it is tied up in a bun and they wear make-up and jewellery to attract. Again this leads to the visual clues as to entertainers or women who take pride in their appearance.

Character of location

The setting is an old unkept mobile home in an equally unkempt woodland surrounding. Perhaps it is their changing room. The women are the opposite to their surroundings, they are bright and lavish while the background has overgrown bushes and trees which are even obscuring some pot plants which are partially hidden from sight on the window sill. On the ground there are broken pieces of wood and brick (left) and scattered boulders which would have once been a proud rockery. The worn grass also shows that this is a place that sees quite a lot of human traffic as it is showing patches of soil where feet have trodden the grass down.

(2) What do you associate the women’s dress with? Are you making any other associations?

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I personally associate the women’s sari designs with performers. I had thought perhaps they may have been prostitutes and the mobile home is where they were working from. But the saris are far too ‘glitzy’ for that profession, I looked it up and had a look at the clothes the prostitutes wore and they were not like these.

Due to the fact there is a significant colour scheme going on with the saris I would say they were a dance troop with the young lady in blue standing by the door of the mobile home being the lead due to the fact her sari is the odd combination out.

(3) You may be confused by this photograph because it throws up visual signs that appear to be ‘in the wrong place’. Can you pare down this photograph to a series of signs?

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  • Western women dressed in Asian clothes.
  • Western landscape and mobile home with non-Asian women in Asian clothing. Juxtaposition.
  • Bright, cold harsh studio lighting instead of daylight which casts shadows at different angles which suggest high lighting and to the left of the sitters.

Does this photo seem posed to you? Perhaps it is reminiscent of images by nineteenth-century photographers like Henry Peach Robinson or of painters like Raphael.

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The image definitely looks posed even though the subjects are all taking different stances with different body language and facial expressions. the reason that it comes across as staged is due to the lack of relaxed muscles in the bodies. They are still quite stiff and look awkward, fake and statue like. I believe this to be true because there is a lack of movement and the clothes are very stiff as well.

As you can see from the 19th Century photographs below, the subjects have been arranged and posed and look awkward and stiff as a group. Although they both have a story to tell the viewers I find the facial expressions lacking.

Seven young women eating bananas – A cabinet card portrait of women eating bananas and pouring beer. Photographed by Sedwick’s of Ohio, 1889.
From the website:
Unidentified sitters – Photographer and location unidentified.
From the website:

In the 19th Century, photographs were produced to a formula. These principles were expression, pose, background and lighting. The first and most important thing however to the 19th century photographer was to romanticise the sitter in some way. Due to the fact that photography is quite an exact art form, all defects were to be hidden and only beauty and perfection was to shine out from the images. This concept was influenced by 19th century painters who had learnt a specific form which was excepted to be portrayed as a matter of perfection so they would modify their sitters form to fit in with that idealised body.

The difficulties came for photographers when the sitters ‘essence,’ their inner being and soul was to be shown within their photographic image. Painters were able to paint expressions on faces to convey meaning, thought or feeling. This then developed further into showing attributes such as femininity, masculinity, grace, refinement, Chasity etc… It was because of this concept and new portrait portrayal, that portrait painting made its way back into the ‘A’ list of work to have. Where as before, religious, historical and mythical works were highly regarded.

Photographers were therefore influenced by the new portraits that were being produced. However they focused more on modesty, simplicity and chastity for women; dignity, strength and nobleness for men. In 1891 Henry Peach Robinson, one of the leading figures in nineteenth-century British photography, advised fellow photographers to represent their sitters as ‘moderately calm ladies and gentlemen; or, if they are not entitled to the courtesy title, then as decent men and women.’

Henry Peach Robinson, 1860. A Holiday in the Wood

Below is a description that accompanies this photograph from the website

A critically acclaimed composite photograph inspired by the Victorian Realist genre paintings of Sir David Wilkie and circle. Over the course of two sunny days in April 1860, Robinson exposed six separate negatives of ten models frolicking in his backyard studio, where he had constructed a fake riverbank from a mound of earth scattered with a few ferns and wild flowers. The ‘river’ is a ditch filled with waste water from his print-washing machine. Exhibited in The Photographic Society (of London) exhibition of 1861 at the Gallery of The Society of Painting in Water Colours, 5A Pall Mall East, London.

The laying down poses resemble many of the poses found in the High Renaissance paintings of Raphael. If you look at many of Raphael’s paintings he has groups of people all who are engaged in various activities. You also find that the subjects within his paintings are not all facing the viewer but are distracted by their background or ‘something’ off the picture plane which intrigues the viewer – what are they looking at? What is happening ‘out there?’

If we look at the painting below we can see the resemblance, not of composition as such as Robinson has a small group of people, but with the way the subjects are portrayed within their own activity. We can see the person in the foreground who is looking down as is the women the photograph above, subjects laying down with legs stretched out and arms held high etc… The viewer works his way around the subject matter as the composition is busy and there are various stories going on.

Raphael. The School of Athens, 1509-1511

So if we consider the work of Raphael and Henry Peach Robinson there is definitely a connection with how their works all set a scene and tell multiple stories of groups of people or individuals within one composition. However, although each image has the obvious posed elements the painting looks more alive and portrays movement much easier.

The photograph is from a series called Constructing the Exotic. how does this title resonate with the photograph?

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Buhler-Rose’s title is plain and to the point. It is telling the viewer what the intention is of the series of work. If you look up the words meaning in the dictionary they are telling us that he has put together ‘various conceptual elements,’ women who themselves are alien to the clothes, the clothes themselves and a Western back drop. The women and the background are also the opposite – glitz, glamour and feminine against a drab, unattractive and rugged background.

  • Constructing – form (an idea or theory) by bringing together various conceptual elements.
  • assemble, establish, fabricate, make, create, contrive
  • Exotic – originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.
  • foreign, non-native, alien, unnaturalised, unfamiliar

Have a look at the whole series at and make some notes in your learning log.

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