This post combines the week’s reflective task with my work in progress in order to avoid two posts which would largely repeat each other.
First, the reflective task is about the intent of my practice. My intent has changed since I started this course. My original intent was simply to portray a city at night. Then the intent became to portray a particular kind of city in a particular kind of way, which was the substance of my research proposal at the end of the first module. Since then my intent has changed again and I expect it will continue to change. I am deliberately experimenting at the moment, trying things I have never tried before, and I have also been obliged to modify my approach because exceptionally bad winter weather for a very long time has made night photography alone problematic – so I am now also experimenting with daytime photography in order to keep shooting.
My current intent is based on looking at the work of four photographers, mainly: William Eggleston, Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Stephen Shore. What has emerged is fairly simple:
They do not privilege any particular object or kind of image. Everything falls within their view because they are looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is Eggleston’s ‘democratic forest’.
They are interested in the colours and tones of the night and particularly those created by modern lighting such as neon signs. This can often produce quite soft, saturated fields of colour in their photographs.
They are very aware of space or emptiness and seem to compose very carefully with this in mind.
They are generally not trying to freight any one image with an obvious sense of place. An image may be taken in say Memphis or London but it is not saddled with the symbolic or indexical baggage of trying to say ‘this stands for the whole city’. These artists travel light and allow their images to float free.
What I am trying to discover is whether the second point – night-time colour and tones – when combined with the third point – space and emptiness – produces the quality of the uncanny.
So my current intent is whether I can combine points 1,2 and 3 to express the uncanny in my images of a city at night.
The ambiguous comes in at this point. The uncanny is ambiguous because one has an eerie sensation of not being at all sure what is really going on. I think that photography is inherently ambiguous anyway, which is the source of its power. This is the tension and interplay between the two sides in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth, and the myth that it doesn’t. It is the old debate about representation versus reality.
Do I think my attempts so far are successful? Sometimes, but generally not often. I tend to get in too close and my images would benefit from my stepping back and allowing more space. I have often used a 50mm equivalent lens, but I intend to switch to a 35mm equivalent lens because I think this would add more space again. In addition, digital is sharper and resolves more detail than the 35mm films of old. This can be an issue because detail and sharpness can produce an indexicality among objects one doesn’t necessarily want. I may need to alter my post production to introduce flatter colour planes and an uncertain, even dreamy air more conducive to the uncanny.
Finally I think I need to be more disciplined and more selective in what I choose to photograph. I need to make more effort to look for those empty and uncanny scenes and more effort to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Both come with practice and more shooting, I hope. In an appallingly wet February in England, this is not easy but I intend to keep going. I know that what results will change my intent again. This is an interactive process. The whole point of doing this course is discovery.
So, following after the references are some current works in progress, preceded by two ‘key’ images from Blees Luxemburg and Eggleston. They are the intent, what I tried to lodge in my mind before going out and making images.
BLEES LUXEMBURG, Rut. 2009. Commonsensual : The Works of Rut Blees Luxemburg. London: Black Dog.
EGGLESTON, William. 2002. Ancient and Modern. London: Jonathan Cape.
EGGLESTON, William. 1989. The Democratic Forest. London: Secker & Warburg
HIDO, Todd and Greg HALPERN. 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.
SHORE, Stephen, David CAMPANY, Marta Dahó, Sandra S. Phillips and Horacio Fernández. 2014. Stephen Shore: Survey. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.
SUSSMAN, Elisabeth, Thomas WESKI, Donna M. DE SALVO and William EGGLESTON. 2008. William Eggleston : Democratic Camera : Photographs and Video, 1961-2008. New York : Munich: Whitney Museum of American Art .
The brief this week is to ‘find an image that interests you regarding multiple interpretations of the world and a “constructed” approach’.
The image I have chosen is from Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is captioned ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002’.
Like all the portraits in this book, the photograph strikes me as substantially posed. An important reason for that is the use of an 8” x 10” field camera which necessitates ‘slow photography’ and a formal procedure.
Charles is shown wearing overalls, a balaclava, thick gloves and holding two model aeroplanes. He could be a modelling hobbyist emerging from his studio but given that he is holding model aeroplanes of a fairly vintage design he could also be acting the part of an early aviation pioneer and particularly in American terms Charles Lindbergh (this observation is not original to me), in the overalls, gloves and floppy leather headgear of the early aviators. The image therefore becomes iconic and carries a shot of American myth-making.
However, other elements in the image run counter to this. Charles looks a little eccentric (the round John Lennon glasses) and scruffy and down at heel (note the stained overalls, worn shoes and rough-cut hair). He is standing, possibly on a roof, in a rather dilapidated spot among pieces of building material such as a breeze-block. The weather looks like bleak midwinter, maybe by a house, maybe on a river boat. The image adds a touch of uncertainty and disorientation in this respect.
The suggestion therefore is that Charles is quite possibly a bit of an outsider, perhaps a loner, a rather eccentric person on the margins, in a tough spot, someone who does not find life easy. On the other hand, the image’s uncertain aspects, muted colours, shallow depth of field and light contrast – all somewhat dreamy – undercut that a little. Yes, that may be true but one cannot be entirely sure. There is both fact and fiction in this gentle image.
Alec Soth’s book is full of similar characters. In my view they are portrayed with restraint, compassion and understanding although they are often posed or set up to plug into America’s native myths. No judgement is involved. (See also the superb portrait later in the book, ‘Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002’. I have admired a print but unfortunately it was £10,000.)
I am simply pointing out that many of the portraits in Sleeping by the Mississippi can be ‘read’ in more than one way and it looks to me as if Alec Soth set them up with that in mind. These are not just characters. They are American characters and part of the American foundation story.
Why do I read these portraits in the way I do? First because Alec Soth has said of making his images: ‘The process is a little bit like day dreaming. I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination.’ (Bubich 2015). This is exactly what I like to do. I do not like to stray too far into fiction even though I do feel that much of the power of a photograph happens when ‘the poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation’. (Wall and Galassi 2007: 337)
Second, because I too have an affinity for the marginal and the dispossessed. Somehow I just know. Perhaps I tend to notice them more or feel that way myself.
Third, because I am strongly opposed to the museum-gallery complex and its steam-rollering tendencies. Fashionable artists come ready-packaged like luxury products. It is almost impossible to approach their work fresh. One is told exactly what their work is about, what it references and what one should think of it. Sad to say, Jeff Wall is now one of them. I like and admire Wall very much, an unusually thoughtful and original artist. But add in the Gagosian connection, the multi-million sale prices and the forests of adoring comments, and my feeling is that he has simply disappeared beneath the waves of commerce.
I would position my own photographic practice much closer to Soth than to Wall or for example Crewdson, Hunter or Sherman. Without some kind of anchoring reality to the world and my fellow humans, I think the risk is of emotionally dead work trumpeted as intensely real but which is more likely to be intensely unreal and rather stilted. I have certainly felt that looking at the work of Crewsdon, Hunter and Sherman. I hugely admire their artistry and awesome technical and organizational skills but the results are too conceptual and they simply do not sing to me.
I do not feel that way with Wall: perhaps he is a finer artist or I am just more on his wavelength. I wanted to analyse his superb ‘Card Players’ of 2006 and its Cézanne connection for this CRJ entry but soon realized that it was impossible to approach it other than through reams of pre-existing comments and opinions, the packaging of the luxury good. There seemed no chance of a fresh view. A pity; it is a marvellous work with a witty touch.
BUBICH, Olga. 2015. ‘Alec Soth: “Photography Is a Unique Pursuit with Its Own Mix of Variables” | Bleek Magazine’. [online]. Available at: http://bleek-magazine.com/interviews/alec-soth/ [accessed 18 Feb 2020].
SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.
WALL, Jeff and Peter GALASSI. 2007. Jeff Wall: Selected Essays & Interviews. New York: MOMA
This post about my work in progress really follows on directly from my previous post about questions of authenticity, representation and reality in photography. I have been experimenting with the photograph’s essential ambiguity – that there is no one ‘truth’ it ever shows. There are many truths, or readings. Which ones come to the fore depend on the photographer’s selectivity, on the context in which the image is presented, and on the (often unconscious) cultural assumptions both photographer and viewer employ.
I will illustrate this with a rather Ruscha-esque approach which I will call ‘Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building’. The Blavatnik School of Government is one of Oxford University’s most prestigious new faculties, housed in a spectacular modern building designed by the top-drawer architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. The Faculty’s website describes it in glowing terms: ‘The building has been hailed as a stunning new addition to Oxford’s historic skyline, and most of all through its design represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that are key to the School’s overall mission of improving public policy.’ (Blavatnik 2020)
Inspection of the site, however, reveals that there are many different views of the Blavatnik Building and some are not very ‘stunning’ or prestigious at all. Nor is there necessarily much ‘openness’ about the design since from some angles the elite student body inside the building is completely shut off by thick plate glass from the regular citizens who live and work outside it. The building can variously be seen as a prison block, a rather sinister and remote research facility or an ungainly blob dropped into a landscape of security fencing and CCTV cameras – as well as, of course, a very fine piece of modern architecture.
Which views are valid? All? Or none? And does presenting these views as a grid in a single image alter one’s perception over viewing the images one by one? Anyway, these are the ideas I am experimenting with in my work in progress at the moment.
The second question for discussion this week was about further questions of artifice and representation, and whether ‘photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation’. This takes one back to the well-known article of 1975 ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ by Allen and Snyder asking whether there is anything peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography. (Allen and Snyder 1975)
Allen and Snyder’s article is written by two sparky people who give the impression they enjoyed writing it. However, it is quite hard to work out what the take-away is. Once you have discounted the visual model, then the mechanical mode, then deconstructed Dennis Stock’s image of James Dean, what is left? Perhaps only: ‘We can also ask what it [a photograph] means, who made it, for whom was it made, and why it was made in the way it was made.’ (Allen and Snyder 1975: 169) That, and acknowledging that looking at a photograph is an experience, not an intellectual exercise.
The pitch that photography is special and different, and that it requires unique evaluative tools, strikes me as yesterday’s argument. Does it matter? Photography is now long established as a contemporary artistic practice and various forms of it almost swamp our daily life. Photography’s field is far wider than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, encompassing video and multi-media, it is considered much more ephemeral and a huge proportion of it today (on social media) is much more casual. And since Allen and Snyder wrote, photography has also embraced fiction (typified by the work of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson), something that began in the experiments of conceptual art in the 1960s. In fact, you could say that today fiction in photography has long been normalized and the photograph freed from being chained to truth by representation.
I can think of only two things that may – only may – distinguish the photograph. The first is that all photographs are and always will be deeply and essentially ambiguous. That is the source of their power and it derives from the tension between representation and reality. We know we are seeing a representation, but a part of us still sees it as real. We can never be sure how much is a representation we have made up ourselves and how much is ‘real’, meaning a direct indexical trace of what was there. We can never be sure we are reading the photograph accurately, and yet a part of us always thinks we are. It is neatly phrased in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth and the myth that it doesn’t.
This was one of the points of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of portraits from 1999 using wax models created by Madame Tussaud’s. They challenged the notion that we can understand a person’s inner character merely by looking at a photographic representation of them. As Sugimoto has himself said of these works, ‘If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.’ (Sugimoto 2020) We are not our photographs.
The second aspect is that whatever is seen is altered by the act of being photographed and presented as art. This is an often-made point that, for me, is related to the selectivity the photographer has employed and the context in which the image is presented. This is also expressed in Stephen Shore’s remark that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it.’ (Shore 2007: 97) The classic example here is William Eggleston’s 1970 image of a child’s tricycle, Untitled (Memphis). Just a rather battered child’s trike? No. Anything but. The same is true of Shore’s 1975 image of an LA gas station. Both images changed the way we look at the world by depicting things in a way they had not been seen before.
A third aspect, possibly, is suggested by Hans Belting: ‘photography reproduces the gaze that we cast upon the world.’ (Belting 2011: 154) Viewing a photograph is an exchange of gazes – ours and the photographer’s (and, depending on the image, that which gazes back at us). Photography for Belting is a medium between two gazes; ‘We see the world with the gaze of another, a past gaze, but we trust that it could also be our present gaze.’ (Belting 2011: 154) The argument, in essence, is that all images are symbols and therefore it’s all in the mind.
So, two criteria possibly unique to photography and a third for consideration. How does this relate to my practice? The honest answer is that I don’t yet know. I am certainly aware of ambiguity and consider it very important. Changing how we think of something through the way it is represented photographically sounds rather like magic and I would like to explore this idea a lot more. Hans Belting’s notion of rooting photography in an exchange of gazes is intriguing, not least because it neatly sidesteps the whole of the reality-representation debate, but I have not yet worked out whether the idea really stands up and can have a practical expression.
The question in the main discussion forum this week was what Roland Barthes may have meant when he said in Camera Lucida: “In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (Barthes 1980: 89) – and how this might affect both my own practice and that of others.
I think Roland Barthes may be saying that the evidential force of a photograph is often taken to be greater than whatever it depicts. Thus the fact of being shown a photograph of himself at an event he had forgotten all about is more forceful than the fact that he was there: ‘And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).’ (Barthes 2000: 85) But, crucially, Barthes qualifies this by saying that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not in fact about the object depicted but about time. (Barthes 2000: 89)
We can and do make common-sense assumptions about photographs being directly representational, but even so the reality-appearance debate is on very shaky ground. It has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted in people by showing them doctored photographs of them doing things they have never in fact done. (Wade 2002) And the apparent ‘reality’ of a photograph might be a simulacrum: how real is Disneyland? Perhaps reality is only a shifting mental construction. Probably we should bear in mind that an ambiguous experience can become solidified into certainty when our belief system kicks in. We believe what we want to believe.
So when we look at a photograph perhaps we first check whether it conforms to our sense of reality. If it does we may think the image shows something real, authentic, even if it actually doesn’t (like the venerable Loch Ness hoax). And if the image doesn’t conform to our sense of reality we may say that it is fictional. It doesn’t ‘authenticate’ our ideas about either reality or ourselves – like the fantastically brilliant ‘centaur’ image by Joel-Peter Witkin below.
Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town
However, a child would probably think quite differently about the centaur image and why should their reaction be invalid? Magical realism is central to myths and human creativity of every kind.
This leads on to Roger Scruton’s insistence that a photograph is a photograph because it is involved in a causal chain of direct representation that can only be broken at the price of the image no longer being a photograph at all: ‘The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance’. (Scruton 1981: 594-5) Scruton maintains this is what painters do but his argument privileges figurative art above all else. I presume Scruton would have said that Joel-Peter Witkin’s work was really a painting pretending to be a photograph. But it manifestly is a photograph. Oh well.
It’s been suggested that Barthes may have said that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not about the object depicted but about time because he could not account for the sheer emotional impact certain photographs had on him. This makes what Barthes says more personal than general, and throws his original statement into doubt, but at least it allows him to present the photograph not as Scruton’s cold objective form but as felt experience. It’s not about theory, and not particularly about representation per se. A photograph is where the what-has-been hits the here-and-now. Maybe our ideas about authenticity arise from that clash.
In this, Barthes and Sontag agree: “All photographs are momento mori. … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ (Sontag 2008: 15)
To be honest I don’t really know where this leaves my practice. One can riff on these ideas all day but they seem completely detached from my daily life. The danger here, apart from insanity by theory, is paralysis by analysis. What I need to do is drop the generic – the photographs anyone else could have taken – and concentrate on the images only I could have taken, good or bad – but at least they may be reasonably authentic in a personal sense and from a consistent point of view.
In this light, here is an image I made over the assessment period. Yes it is a bit forlorn but it’s an authentic assessment of how I was feeling at the time. By that stage, in late December, I had had enough of Christmas.
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.
WADE, Kimberley A., Maryanne GARRY, J. Don READ and D. Stephen LINDSAY. 2002. ‘A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(3), 597–603.
Week 1 has posed a lot of different questions, too many to address in a single entry in a research journal. Some of the questions are complex and lack any one answer. In fact they may not have any answer at all.
To cut to the chase, my understanding is that the current focus of the module is the intention of my practice, but in order to get a fuller idea of that I need to have a better idea of the nature of the photographic image itself.
John Szarkowski’s five characteristics of the photographic image strike me as practical and helpful though Frame, Detail and even the Thing Itself are not necessarily exclusive to photography. (Szarkowski 1980)
Stephen Shore’s interpretation of similar ideas – his three levels of the physical, depictive and mental and his four tools – are equally practical and helpful, but again not all of them are exclusive to photography. (Shore 2007) Both Shore and Szarkowski reference framing techniques in Japanese painting and printing, for example.
To this one might add two things. First there is Ming Thein’s proposal of the four things that make an image work effectively, something not to be overlooked by a working photographer. (Thein 2014) Second, there is Mary Price’s observation that “The use of a photograph determines its meaning.” (Price 1994) In other words, context is all.
While all of these ideas contribute to an understanding of the characteristics of a photographic image, however, none of them tell us what a photograph actually is and in my view all of them struggle not only with the ontology but with distinctly separating the photograph from other media in which images are presented.
It seems to me that if detail, framing and ‘the Thing Itself’ are only questionably exclusive to photography, we are left with only two distinct qualities of the photographic image: time, and indexicality (photography as a trace of reality ‘out there’). Neither is straightforward.
Time in the sense Barthes uses it as ‘not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing … but an awareness of its having-been-there’ is in constant conflict with the present and the context in which the photograph is viewed. (Barthes 1977: 44) It is problematic, too, because we cannot be sure what was really there to begin with. What is time anyway? Like water, it cannot be grasped.
Reality ‘out there’ is not something the modern world is any longer comfortable with. Reality is taken to be a mental construction and post-modernism has blown up the notion that there is any one ‘true’ reality to which to appeal. In fact some artists like Wall and Crewdson have gone so far as to construct entirely artificial ‘realities’ for their photographic practice. ‘The world must be staged so that it will deliver images that explain it.’ (Belting 2014: 164)
A third category might be the photographic print itself to which Shore pays attention. (Shore 2007) However, images taken with a camera can be presented in many media now and photography is not limited to the print alone as once perhaps it was, so the print is a very shaky category these days.
As for the ontology of the photograph, perhaps this cannot be ascertained. Geoffrey Batchen looks at the question and then slides away from it, citing Derrida that the search for essences means ‘the establishment of an origin as the basis of a hierarchy that always wants to privilege the first or purest terms over all subsequent ones’ – though ruefully admitting that origin stories are ‘a historical necessity’ because, presumably, we cannot help but look for them. (Batchen 2013: 58-9) And in the search for the El Dorado of ultimate meaning in the practice of Cindy Sherman, for example, many critics have been braving the jungles of theory for several decades now and are no nearer their goal.
The best approach to these questions I have found is that of Hans Belting in his fascinating book An Anthropology of Images. (Belting 2014) Belting reminds us that images are first created in the mind. The form in which the image may appear is secondary and is heavily influenced by culture and technology. In fact in Belting’s view, ‘Photography constitutes a short episode in the old history of representation. But even so, the world changed in our eyes when it began to be photographed. “The world after photography,” as the American conceptual artist Robert Smithson calls it, turns into a kind of museum of itself.’ (Belting 2014: 147)
Belting’s long view from the Palaeolithic to today connects the photographic image to all the images and all the arts in human history. There is no need for exceptionalism – that photography is somehow special and different – and no need to become gloomy and think photography is ‘over’. What was photography in the first place? Photography changes all the time and the technology changes too. The analogue print was, perhaps, a passing phase but the images taken with cameras will continue to come even if perhaps they are closer to the reality-distrusting conceptual art on display in What is a Photograph? (Squiers 2013) than to the landscapes of, say, Adams or O’Sullivan. Belting again:
When an image finds its way into this technological medium, it is a symbolic product of the imagination that has already come a long distance. To force the issue, one might say that what is at issue is the journey of the image to the photograph. From this perspective, photography, the quintessential modern medium, operates like a mirror in which images of the world appear. Human perception has repeatedly accommodated itself to new pictorial technologies, but in keeping with its nature it transcends such medial boundaries. Like perception, images too are inherently intermedial. (Belting 2014: 145)
This has been a long post on some very complex topics (for me, at least) that I barely understand. It will take a long time for me to work out how these ideas influence my practice. I have no instant answers, though Belting is very close to answers that works for me.
I will end it by saying that I am open to offering my work in any medium – images being in Belting’s view ‘inherently intermedial’ – but I am most at home with classic photography because at present that is all I know. And I do not want to lose the emotional connection with my practice that much conceptual art seems to lack. It strikes me as emotionally sterile.
I am also aware that culture has changed a great deal since many of the writers cited here were at work. Notions of ‘the real’ may have had far more force 30-50 years ago than they do today, in our world of digital simulacra. Television news has replaced stills photography as the index of the now and may have pushed stills photography towards the after-event, Late Photography addressed by David Campany (Campany 2003).
The rise of digital imaging is likely to change everything over again. For example, it seems fairly clearly that traditional photography as an art form has largely retreated to museums and art galleries. And it could be argued that most (but crucially not all) of the photography on social media – by far the bulk of all the world’s images now – is not really photography at all. The photograph on social media is not there for itself but simply as carrier for other information that can be summarized as ‘I have a human need to communicate’ or ‘I would like to sell you something’. Once that message has been received, the photograph can be discarded. It was always ephemeral and was never the point.
However, I said ‘most’ – but not all. My impression is that there is also a flourishing, semi-underground and highly creative practice among young people online. See, for example, the zine scene on Instagram. In time their work will perhaps become mainstream, and it will invigorate us all.
BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.
BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2013. ‘Photography: An Art of the Real’. In Carol SQUIERS. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico. 47-62.
BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’ in David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. [accessed 19 Jan 2020]
PRICE, Mary. 1994. The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.
SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.
SQUIERS, Carol. 2013. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1980. ‘Introduction’. In John SZARKOWSKI (ed.). The Photographer’s Eye. London: Secker and Warburg, 6–11.
John Berger’s statement about ‘human choices’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292) – ‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen’ – is qualified later in the same essay by another and potentially more interesting statement about the message of a photograph: ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it.’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 294)
My practice – and so my current project Oxford at Night – is now quite heavily concerned with that second statement in the light of studying three photographers in particular over the assessment period. I can probably explain this best with an image from my work-in-progress portfolio submitted in PHO701 (Crean 2019) and comparing it to some of the ideas in the work of Thomas Struth.
In the first place, this image is taken (unadventurously) straight-on, a framing that Struth began with perhaps under the influence of the Bechers but then moved beyond with beneficial results. More importantly there is this statement from Struth: ‘I always enjoy and pay a lot of attention to the context and atmosphere which certain groups of buildings create … architecture and the space it creates have to read in relationship to the human body and mental condition.’ (Struth 2012:51)
In other words, buildings are something we relate to and live among. They influence how we think and feel (or thought and felt in the case of old buildings) and therefore as assemblages they become social and political statements. Struth again: ‘Just as it is not possible to take photographs “objectively”, and any approach is innately subjective, it is also innately political. Unpolitical practicality doesn’t exist.’ (Struth 2010: 151)
So for my practice I need to dial down the ‘pretty picture’ effect or a straining for the sublime and start looking much more carefully at the kind of statements – political, social, psychological – that groups of buildings make. A large part of that is looking at different framing choices and focal lengths. This is not simply for effect or variety. Richard Sennett has pointed out that as Struth has progressed in his work, he has used off-centre framing and choice of subject to introduce an awareness of the past, present and future. (Struth 2012: 60) This can be seen by contrasting the formal and straight-on approach of his early monochrome images from Germany or New York with, for example, this image:
In Figure 2 there is the past (a street market), the present (current buildings, what the camera recorded) and a possible future (new development).
Finally, Struth’s images are never what they seem. That is their power. This has been well expressed by James Lingwood: ‘ … there is a double subject in Struth’s work: the specific places and the people pictured but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them. Beneath or beyond the immediate subject of the photograph … there is always an underlying enquiry.’ (Struth 2010: 169)
The enquiry, I suspect, is that what ties together much of Struth’s various projects – architecture, the ‘Paradise’ series on vegetation, the museum series, the family portraits and more recently his images of science laboratories – is the power of the human network, whether latent or overt, and its resilience (or not) in the face of the overwhelming power of science and technology. These are all points well made by reviewers or in documentary interviews with Struth (Hodgson 2011, Bloomberg TV 2017). Cities are networks, of course. Perhaps I should try harder to see Oxford as one and start to express that in my own practice.
The second photographer who is causing me to re-evaluate my practice is Stephen Shore. Shore has spoken widely of several things that resonate with me. There is ‘conscious attention’, ‘attentionality’, ‘the presence of attention’. (Shore 2018) This heightened awareness and conscious seeing is the difference between the way we naturally see and the perhaps more formal and distanced way we may choose to make photographs, a distinction which Shore likens to the difference between speaking and writing. (Shore 2018)
In other words, no matter how monumental or sublime a photograph may be, it will still need to be filled with the kind of detail and conscious attention Shore is talking about. This is something I need to pay much more attention to.
These ideas are taken further in Shore’s excellent book The Nature of Photographs (Shore 2007). He outlines the photographer’s four tools: flatness (i.e. depth of field effects), frame, time and focus. But the tools lead to the same place: the mental level of an image and the relationship between this and the depictive level.
The mental level begins with the photographer: ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organization of the photograph.’ (Shore 2007: 117) However, this is not going to be communicated fully unless the photographer is also aware of how we ‘read’ an image visually and construct a 3D illusion from a 2D original: ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.’ (Shore 2007: 97)
So, using these ideas, here is an image from my work in progress portfolio which I think works quite well:
I had a mental image immediately I saw this: the 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper. My ‘mental map’ helped me to frame the image as long diner windows, crop it slightly to give a more noir cinematic look, ensure there was enough detail of the building and street to convey the impression of being outside at night and looking in – and then quite simply wait until the customers inside the diner had moved into what struck me as an appropriate position. This, I hope, goes some way towards meeting Shore’s criteria for conscious attention and the relationship between mental and depictive levels.
Even so, I need to hold the mental and the depictive levels in my mind more forcefully in future before pressing the shutter.
The third photographer I have been paying a lot of attention to is Todd Hido, a specialist in night photography. During PHO701 I often tried to channel his look and failed. This image, for example, doesn’t come off at all, but having spent more time with Hido I think I can see why.
First, Hido is interested in narrative and is carefully selective about what starts off a story: ‘Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window – that’s what catches my attention. … I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there. … I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. … I recognized that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships.’ (Hido 2014: 19) Hido is careful with angles, framing and leading lines. He does not often shoot straight-on and is no slave to the rule of thirds. These are all things my own photograph has failed to accommodate but which Figure 5 below has accommodated.
Second, Hido (like Stephen Shore) brings ‘attentionality’ to the details. The image in Figure 5 is not any old house but in John Berger’s terms a human choice being exercised: ‘The way people present themselves to the world says a lot about what’s happening inside their home. … These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible, the subtle psychology of the space. … I find myself drawn to places that reveal more of a story.’ (Hido 2014: 25) The viewer is asked to pay attention and the image itself offers the details that will allow a story to form. This is where I need to be going.
Third, Hido is interesting on how he processes and prints his images: ‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter … the interpretation comes in making the print.’ (Hido 2014: 53) Colour casts may be added or subtracted. More or less use is made of flare, reflections, smudges from ice or rain on windscreens. By contrast, I have so far processed my images straight, with few changes and nothing major by way of re-interpretation. Perhaps I should start experimenting.
Hido reiterates all these points in his YouTube videos (Christie’s 2017, Van Vliet 2018) so they must be important to him.
Finally, here is an image from my work-in-progress portfolio that I think works quite well, but not well enough:
In the light of all the foregoing what I would say here is this: The image shows a strong and apposite contrast but it would be more expressive if it were not straight-on, used a wider angle for more context, if the lighting to the rear of the image was reduced in post to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and if there were people in the image. I might have had to wait to a while, but the right people in this image would have added both dynamism and (the point of the image) social comment. The Devil is always in the many small decisions that make or break an image.
To sum up what these three photographers have inspired in me:
The psychology of space, which leads to the politics, social conditions and aesthetics of the space. This is the double subject: the contrast and mingling of the mental and the depictive.
‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
Post-processing and printing are really important, painterly approach or not. The photographer in post influences how the viewer reads the image and creates the illusion of a 3D image and story in the mind.
So, my hopes for the coming term.
The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
I am considering revising my project and may change it to Oxford in daytime as well as at night. Months of unusually wet weather and consequent flooding and damage/disruption in the Thames Valley now are seriously limiting opportunities for night photography.
People may be present by their absence in much of the foregoing work but I would prefer it if people were more central and present by their presence in mine. Better people skills in my practice will remain a goal and a challenge. In fact I keep thinking about Daido Moriyama … If I could blend Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido and Daido Moriyama into one then I think I might be on to something.
The question asked is ‘Outline your plans for further development within the module PHO702 – where are you going next?’ I would like a much sharper and more nuanced understanding of modern photographic practice. I would like to know – because I am practising it – where I fit in to this wide river. And I would like to incorporate the ideas discussed above in order to become a ‘better’ photographer. Or, as Stephen Shaw puts it, ‘To make all my decisions conscious, I started filling the pictures with attention.’ (Shore, 2018)
Figure 1: CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.
Figure 2: STRUTH, T. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3: CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.
Figure 4: CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford.
Figure 5: HIDO, T. 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From HIDO, Todd. 2016. Todd Hido – Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture, 78-9.
Figure 6: CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.
A large part of taking this course, apart from the challenge and the excitement, is in order to come to a clearer idea of what I don’t know, which is the most of it. That is the only place to start from. My impressions of the first term may therefore seem a little baffled, but they are these:
There is no such thing as an innocent or disingenuous photograph, not even a holiday snap. All photographs (all images, in fact, of which photographs are only a subset) reveal far more about both photographer and subject than either may realize.
Independent and well-reasoned criteria exist for assessing a photograph (or image) and placing it in a context. Without those one is at the crude level of ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. A key text in this regard has been Paul Martin Lester’s lesson in ‘Visual Analysis’ (Lester 2011: 115-132).
There is no such thing as a single, stand-alone photograph. A photograph is always part of a much larger whole. It will have arisen in stream of images and so will have been curated, just as it will have arisen in a steam of time and human experience of which it is only a slice. The photograph will have arisen in a particular era and culture and will have been framed and made by a particular personality. The photograph is like a leaf on a river of ideas that change all the time (Instagram is barely a decade old, for example). A photograph can be de-embedded, of course, and perhaps placed without attribution in an archive on a far-away continent. But in that case its original meanings will have changed completely and the photograph may need to be regarded as, now, a completely different document. Indexicality is both plain and surprisingly slippery.
The photographer is not stand-alone. Far from being a lonely auteur, he or she is embedded in a web of activity – social, professional, artistic, familial. One of the most interesting parts of the first term has been the cooperative assignments and those, like the oral presentation, that involved placing oneself in a web of others.
If the photographer is not stand-alone, then two more words come to the fore: gaze and ethics. The photographer needs to be aware that he or she is embedded in a society that looks at things in particular ways (not all of them desirable) and which organizes itself according to particular ethical and legal codes. Forget all that and one could be in trouble, literally.
And if the photograph is not stand-alone then another word comes to the fore: narrative. A photograph can tell or suggest a story within itself but it is also part of a much larger story which the photographer may choose to tell or to withhold. One of the pleasures of the first term has been discovering the excitement and complexities of stories and narratives – or projects. Two key texts in this regard have been Grant Scott’s ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015: 82-109) and Alec Soth’s marvellous visual essay Sleeping by the Mississippi (Soth 2017). Both have helped me to appreciate that there is so much more to photography than I once thought.
Finally, this term has shown me that making and viewing photographs is also an experience which, like all experiences, language cannot fully describe. Photographs are all about time and what we may take for reality, but time and reality are very challenging ideas for almost everyone, except perhaps for a great philosopher. We do not really understand them, and perhaps that is why photography has always hovered at the edges of art, news, culture, family, social relations. It is difficult to pin down.
Photography is essentially mysterious. No one can ever ‘capture reality’. We make a mental image of a tiny part of something and communicate the result to a viewer who in turn forms a mental image of what they see. Reality in this regard is a mental construct. It is our mind that turns a 2D print into a 3D world and again our mind that draws feelings and inferences from an illusion on a piece of paper or a screen.
This is the understanding that informs the most interesting book of the term for me, Camera Lucida (Barthes 2000). By withholding the key image of the text – the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his mother, if in fact there ever was one – Barthes obliges every reader to create their own Winter Garden, turn it over in the mind, ruminate on it, analyse it, respect it, and by so doing perhaps learn a little more about what photography is, and perhaps about who we are, than simply by reading yet another narrative history of the medium that lays out the story like cold plates upon a table.
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
LESTER, Paul Martin. 2011. ‘Visual Analysis’, in Paul Martin LESTER. (ed.) Visual Communication: Images With Messages. 5th. ed. Boston, MA.: Wadsworth, 115–132.
Weeks 10 and 11 shot by and were much taken up with preparing my portfolio of work in progress and my research project proposal. The result is that I have not been able to spend as much time on an introduction to critical theory as I would like.
I liked the Preface by Mark Durden to Fifty Key Writers on Photography (Durden 2013: xviii-xxii) in the week’s readings. It has given me a good place to start, a book to read and the beginnings of a map to guide me. I also warmed to his awareness of the issues and ideas now thrown up by the digital age: “there is the sense of a growing new body of writing attentive to the ways in which photography becomes integral to the global flow of digital information” (Durden 2013: xxi). This sounds much more interesting to me than having to plough through what I suspect may be but hope won’t be the rather turgid writings of dry and dusty academics. It is where we are today and may be going tomorrow that fire me up even though, of course, we also need to understand how we got here.
The articles on Tierney Gearon (Gearon, 2001) and Sally Mann (Mann, 2015) were sad, in a word. The issue seems the same in both cases: consent. They were making their children the centre of a very public photographic practice, but children cannot give informed consent. This is bound to run into difficult ethical issues which remain whether one likes or dislikes the images and subject-matter. More interesting to me were the dates – this was something from the 1990s mostly. I wonder whether society had got slightly ahead of many artists at that time. The artists were still embedded in a traditional fine arts world, but in society at large there was a general but semi-conscious awareness that huge changes were coming as the result of the internet and, now with hindsight, the social media tsunami that rolled in less than a decade later. New and much more careful ethical considerations were going to be needed.
The last of the week’s readings, the interview with Laura Letinsky, is full of ideas and connections (Farstad, 2004). I found it fascinating and l hope I’ll re-read it a few times. What emerges for me is the importance of a healthy interest in lots of different things, not just in a single pursuit – lateral thinking needs variety, and in fact that can come from a plate of leftover food (in Letinsky’s own example) just as much as from a Caravaggio. And also that like others, Letinsky found using a 4×5 field camera changed her practice by forcing her to slow down and take a different approach. I have never used such a camera but I am noticing more and more references to large-format film photography in my reading at the moment. Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something …
DURDEN, M. (2013) Fifty key writers on photography. London: Routledge (Routledge key guides).
I was able to get out and shoot at night a couple of times this week. The weather cleared a bit allowing me to make some time-lapse and longer-exposure images which I had been waiting to do. Contact sheet attached.
I think I have worked out a reasonable way of progressing the project. Oxford can be disassembled, if you will, into four distinct parts: the old university city, the Victorian expansion, the interwar expansion and 1930s estates, and the newer postwar areas including the 15-mile Oxford ring road.
I will need to study these areas and work my way through them systematically, keeping in mind three key themes: the impact of the university and the new global elitism of the city centre, the neon and general commercial blare of the modern city at night, and the impact of the first two on those who live among them but who are often marginalised or prevented by lack of opportunity or wealth from full participation.
It is clear that I am going to need more skills to make a proper job of this. These include a knowledge of psychogeography and of transient and liminal contexts, and better portrait skills for any candid documentary work. So there are some items to add to an agenda.
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