My current research project is called Hometown Nights and is an exploration of my home city, Oxford in England, and its environs after dark. I have kept with the same project since the start of this degree course last September.
To quote from my Critical Review of Practice for PHO702: ‘I am locating my practice in a long tradition of urban night photography. The genre goes back to practitioners such as Steichen and Stieglitz, but my primary interest here is twofold: first, the tradition of photographers of urban American culture such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power; and second, with contemporary practitioners who have often concentrated on night photography such as Rut Blees Luxemburg, Todd Hido, Nick Turpin, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, David George and Awoiska van der Molen.’
This is very much a work in progress because I haven’t yet found which particular approach and style of photography after dark is my own and the one to zero in on. But … I hope I am getting there.
My most recent Work in Progress Portfolio- submitted for PHO702 – can be found here:
This is my preparation task for the new module, PHO703: Surfaces and Strategies.
I have got to grips with Adobe In Design and used it to prepare a simple photobook called Short Waits. A subtitle for it might be Bus Stop Magic in 26 Signs.
True, it is inspired by Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (Ruscha 2020) and his similar books. My images also show largely unpeopled, workaday way stations we don’t normally think much about. And like Ruscha, ‘I was after that kind of blank reality that the subject matter would present’ (Ruscha 2006). However, if I am honest I would say that my book also owes a lot to the peculiar psycho-social conditions of Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. Isolation and emptiness have become the new normal, another kind of ‘blank reality’.
My book is larger, a little less barebones and apparently artless, and it is in colour. I could easily have made the book with monochrome images but part of my intent with this course is learning to use colour much more effectively, and so I have forsworn black and white for almost all my coursework. Ruscha said that he used his camera as a simple recording machine – ‘I just pick it up like an axe when I’ve got to chop down a tree’ (Coleman 2002: 53) – but I am not as hard-hearted as that.
I offer a pdf of the book online here for anyone who is interested. I have sent the original material off to be printed (by Blurb) and expect to receive a finished copy on about 05 June.
What have I taken from this work? An appreciation of Ed Ruscha, the satisfaction of starting and completing a project, the pleasure of creating a book, and learning how to use Adobe In Design. Making a start on using this software effectively is a great step forward for me.
I imagine the point of this week’s coursework is to encourage one to think about what a photograph actually is, what it might mean and try to express, and how all that might change completely depending on the context in which the photograph is presented. In the words of Allan Sekula, ‘The photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning’ (Sekula 1982: 91).
If one doesn’t do that, then trying to curate one’s photographs and assemble them into a portfolio that says something is going to be very hit and miss, not much more than ‘Well, this one doesn’t look too bad.’ Good curation strikes me as a learned skill that comes with practice.
Part of the process is opening oneself to the connections, patterns, suggestions that arise when a group of photographs is assembled together on a table, perhaps in no particular order. The task is to order them by finding those connections. Another part of the process is considering, carefully, what one is trying to say across a portfolio (or exhibition or book). It may be a story, and perhaps there are words with the images that help to form one. Or it may be an anti-story, a story that refuses a narrative, obliging us to concentrate only on the image before us, as with Cramer or Barth: ‘Images shot through with story and place, but which demand we ignore both place and story. This is what we are, they say, but what are we?’ (Darwent 2007 on Daniel Gustav Cramer). Either way, whether one believes that photographs are good at storytelling or not, behind it all there does sit ‘what are we?’. Paul Strand said that ‘Your photography is a record of your living’ (Adams and Byrne 1994: 119) and today, we might add, of your unconscious mind too.
I am locating my own practice in a long tradition of Fine Arts photographers who have either concentrated on the modern urban world, particularly in North America, or who have often concentrated on photography at night – there is plenty of overlap. Thus as influences I would cite among others William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power in the first group and Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and David George in the second group. But either group, of course, can be traced all the way back to practitioners like Stieglitz or Steichen.
My project is an exploration of my hometown – Oxford and its environs – after dark. My intent has three aspects. To express the uncanny, to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and the mundane (sometimes a part of the uncanny, in fact), and to show our modern urban world as I see it today, which means power relations and inequality. All of these aspects are found in one degree or another in the practitioners mentioned above. My challenge is to take this and distil it so that it becomes my own personal vision and not merely channelling or, worse, copying what others have done. That is a challenge every time I press the shutter and equally a challenge of curation too. It takes time and practice and is not the work of a moment.
Finally, the most original book I have read over this module is Hans Belting’s An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting sees the photograph (and possibly all of art) as primarily an exchange of gazes, the gaze of the photographer or artist and our own gaze. Belting calls this encounter ‘a symbolic perception’ (Belting 2014: 154) because he believes that images are distinct from the medium in which they appear. They float free and migrate across history from one medium to another, but they are always found in the present moment. I find this both comforting and very exciting. Every time we make an image of any kind, we are also returning to the caves at Lascaux. Uncanny.
ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.
BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Two things stood out for me this week. First, the huge variety of approach and subject matter among my own MA cohort and of course more widely in photography generally. There is very little people aren’t interested in or which photography cannot cover. And second, the sheer energy fizzing away in both my cohort’s projects and presentations and in the work of practitioners elsewhere.
I picked up several things from the readings, background material and forum posts, particularly the really good presentation by Mandy Jandrell on how she researched and created ‘The Blue Hour’ (Jandrell 2018). All three of Peter Fraser, Uta Barth and Mandy Jandrell emphasize how important it is to ‘see fresh’ by dropping assumptions and stripping things down to their essentials. As Uta Barth says, ‘ … the process of making photographs forced me to learn how to truly see, to see the light, to study how things in an image relate to the edge, how to crop and frame the most mundane and incidental subject matter into a compelling image. I remember a teacher talking about the difference of making an engaging photograph of an ordinary thing versus making an ordinary photograph of an engaging thing’ (Mirlesse 2012).
So if we begin by asking ourselves how does human vision actually work, then what do we go on to photograph? I really liked Peter Fraser’s statement in his Tate Shots video, that it is about ‘ … seeing situations I’ve never ever seen before. And it’s in that moment that a certain kind of intensity, a flash of recognition … takes place. It’s got everything to do with the fact that I’ve never ever seen that scene before’ (Tate Shots 2013). For me this ties in closely with Uta Barth noting that Zen ‘asks us to engage deeply in every moment’ and, in the case of Barth’s own practice, that we are asked to absorb ourselves in the moment but are given ‘no central subject that will distract you’ (Mirlesse 2012). The result is very effective.
So the power of intent, concentration and solid research are very important. The other thing this week has helped me to appreciate is to be much more aware of how others might react to my work. Again, Fraser, Barth and Jandrell all talk about it. As Fraser said of his exhibition, ‘I am confronted with a physical expression of my own unconscious mind, and the mysteriousness and scope and range of the unconscious’ (Tate Shots 2013).
I am wary of conventional exhibitions, largely for the reasons covered by critics like Emma Barker in Week 9: that galleries and museums are ‘cultures of display’ where everything becomes Art with a capital A and one has to deal with slippery and perhaps rather superior curators (Barker 1999). These places can distance us, patronize us, perhaps even bore us and take us further away from why we are there: an intimate 1:1 encounter between artist and viewer. ‘The strange power of the experience of looking, the experience of being absorbed [by it]’ (Hodgson 2011 on an encounter with the practice of Thomas Struth).
In this respect Mandy Jandrell’s multimedia work, and how she creates it, were a massive tonic and really interested me. It opens up the possibilities of making an exhibition of my own work, but this does not have to be the conventional pictures on a long wall. I have no idea what may transpire but the point is that I do feel it has lit a spark and I can feel open to more to possibilities than I thought. This is particularly the case with regard to collaboration with other artists, whether words, sound or images.
This connects a little to another point Barth makes: ‘I think serious artists repeatedly engage the same central questions, but this should not be confused with a consistent style. I am always excited when a change of signature style opens new doors for exploring a core idea’ (Mirlesse 2012). This is both freeing and intimidating at the same time. For now, I will take the point: do not get stuck in a rut and do not be afraid to experiment. Creativity is experiment.
At the moment, I would define my own work by saying that I am practising in a long tradition of Fine Arts photography, in the genre of night photography. But this sounds terribly terribly dull put like that. The question therefore is how to open it all up, stretch oneself, be creative, make things more exciting. You don’t invite an audience to be bored. My impression from the forum this week is that everyone felt like that. We have all got to where we are right now. The question is where we would love to be and how to get there in a year’s time.
BARKER, Emma. 1999. ‘Introduction’. In Emma BARKER and Open UNIVERSITY (eds.). Contemporary Cultures of Display. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 8–21.
Well, the fashion photographer Nick Knight thinks photography is dead. What interests me in why. In his own words:
I think photography is dead. I think photography stopped years ago and we shouldn’t try and hold back a new medium by defining it with old terms. … For 150 years they did the same thing. Then something else comes along at the end of the 1980s and you could do things you could never do before. … I call it image-making … because that’s what I do. Because that can take in sound and movement and 3D, which I think are really part of this new art form. So it’s based on image. That gets away from the thing of truth. … It’s a totally new medium and that’s what I think I do (Blanks 2016).
Agree with it or not, but I think the upshot is really exciting and something I need to be aware of in my own practice. Digital means the coming together of both still and moving images, sound, installations, sculpture, people and much besides. Fashion is not documentary and therefore the intent and need for truthfulness may be very different from other genres but what this means is that as a photographer I do not have to feel confined by a traditional Fine Arts world. I do not have to think that the only outcome of a project is a traditional gallery exhibition. In fact thinking so is likely to be a mistake that limits my audience, my creativity and my opportunities for work. Similar ideas have been expressed by Stuart Franklin:
Photography is a hugely valuable career, especially now. We are starting to live in a post-television era. In a way it’s like being back in the 1950s before TV became dominant in news or documentary. On the Internet and in print there is an important role for photography, but it must step up to challenge. There are sites of opportunity and there is always a market for quality. Today quality in photography is not so much about craft (as it once was), but about strong narrative, visual eloquence and affective communication. … Photographers must find spaces where important stories can be told and then use social media to build an audience. It’s a challenge, but like any challenge the more prepared one is the easier the task; and that involves learning (Aesthetica 2015).
I know very little about multimedia and the world beyond the still image, but I am glad to have come across these ideas. They emphasize the importance of looking at wider ways of reaching an audience. And – this is not to be underestimated – the value of experimenting with new ideas, making mistakes and simply having fun.
I have revised my project a little. I am now calling it Hometown Nights instead of Oxford at Night and I am extending its scope to include not only the city of Oxford but its immediate environs. This therefore now includes Kidlington, a large and directly adjoining village of some 14,000 people which in practice has become an Oxford suburb.
This has turned out to be an interesting addition because suburbs and old city centres are very different places. A suburb has different architecture, a different treatment of space, a different purpose (residential, not commercial) and much else. In other words, this is a challenge not only of photography and interpretation but of psychogeography.
If the world situation changes and I revise my project back strictly to Oxford, what I learn here will be put to good use in the closer-in city suburbs within the Oxford ring-road.
Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author.
The reflective task for this week is to Identify and research a real-life group exhibition that my work might fit into, establish its intent and discuss it.
I will choose the ‘London Nights’ exhibition held by the Museum of London in 2018 as an exhibition that my own work would fit well into – though clearly I would have to travel down and make some photographs of London first! I have been doing just that for many years anyway, in fact, though not for my degree course. My project is on urban night photography and that was the subject of this successful and wide-ranging exhibition which surveyed the field from Paul Martin to Bill Brandt to contemporary practitioners like Rut Blees Luxemburg (Sparham 2017).
In the book of the exhibition Anna Sparham, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of London, makes several points relevant both to the exhibition and to my practice (Sparham 2018). I would say that the intent of the exhibition was to show not only the history of night photography but also to show what is distinct about it, how it reflects changing times and cultures, and also how night photography is well suited to portraying the restless energy, rush, mysteriousness and alienating strangeness of any great modern city though in this case specifically London. Sparham writes:
The notion of the night is, after all, where the imagination has always run wild. (Introduction)
The concept of night photography is best explored through images that stand distinct in appearance to daylight. (Introduction)
The unsettling sense of change or loss can be intensified at night, when limited light adds to the drama and tension. (78)
Fear, threat and suspicion often lead the imagination to blend with reality. (86)
Sparham goes on to note that ‘voyeurism, privacy and surveillance’ are all issues with urban night photography and are becoming more so.
To unpack these remarks a little (the images that follow are not from the exhibition):
Night photograph has to be approached as something quite distinct. It is not simply photography without daylight and won’t produce successful images if treated as such. Brassaï’s spooky deserted streets are highly atmospheric at night but during the day are just another bland boulevard. See Figure 1.
Sparham points out that images made at night need to capture ‘an aesthetic and characteristic distinct from the diurnal’ (Sparham 2018: 125). Blees Luxembourg always comes to mind as a practitioner successful in this aspect and she is certainly an influence. However, so is David George. Blees Luxemburg is adept at photographing the city at night, but to my eye George has the surer sense of place and is more clearly photographing London at night (George 2020). See Figure 2. A sense of place is an issue here. I am photographing Oxford at night, not Leamington Spa.
Night jumbles up our senses and primal instincts come to the fore. We are more alert to danger. This sense of disorientation is an essential ingredient of night photography and, when allied to the uncertain and the deserted, produces a sensation of the uncanny. Almost all the practitioners I am mentioning – Brassaï, Brandt, Hido, Blees Luxemburg, George – are accomplished at this. It is one of the most important things I need to learn.
Good images require tension. Aesthetics alone, in the sense of beauty, colour, light, are not enough. The search for tension is perhaps why Brandt used his wife as a stand-in for a pedestrian or even a lonely streetwalker in some of his night photography, and of course Brassaï went for the real thing. In addition, tension creates a story. The moment there is tension we start to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘What happened?’ This is clearly an important ingredient for some practitioners. For example, it could be argued that the only difference between an arranged tableau by Gregory Crewdson and an image by Todd Hido is that Crewdson has introduced a character and set up a story. The other qualities – the low light, the dodgy suburban buildings, the feeling of alienation – are very similar. See figure 3.
Night photography reflects the time, culture, ethics and so on of where it is made. Thus surveillance, for example, has become a pressing contemporary issue. It has become so partly from a climate of fear, and partly from the increasing encroachment of private capital in public spaces. What used to be open or merely neglected is often now fenced off, surveyed by CCTV and patrolled by private security companies. Unless one wishes to live in a bubble, these things are now part of the night and should therefore be noted. This marks a move away from the more aesthetic ‘beautiful mysterious’ of Eggleston or Shore forty or so years ago. A comparison here would be with Mark Power’s ongoing study Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Many of the images in that have very sharp social edges.
How would my work fit into the above and what might a reviewer say? I hope a reviewer would say that my work portrays Oxford in the way that David George portrays East London or Todd Hido portrays suburban America, though in my case sometimes with a sharper social bite. Perhaps they would also say that while my practice is clearly in this tradition, it is not unique enough to be truly distinctive.
So, finding my own voice within this long tradition emerges as my number one priority.
FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George Photography [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].
SPARHAM, Anna and Inua ELLAMS. 2018. London Nights. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
Figure 1. BRASSAÏ. 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire.
Figure 2. David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. From: Karen Falconer and David George. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
Figure 3. Gregory CREWDSON. 2001. Untitled.
I am very much enjoying the work of the photographer David George (George 2020). Much of his practice is in urban areas (particularly London) after dark and it really strikes a chord with me. It is not only that the urban landscapes of parts of Hackney or Peckham are similar to parts of Oxford but that I like George’s whole approach. He is not afraid of darkness and extensive shadows if the composition is there. He uses only natural light and, so far as I can tell, an ordinary digital camera. He has a gentle, unfussy approach and concentrates on what he sees on his night-time forays rather than on trying to send a portentous State of the Nation message. This is all the kind of territory in which I feel at ease. See Figure 1.
There is plenty for me to learn here.
First, George brings clarity to his practice in the form of short but direct statements of his intent for each of his projects (George 2020). There is the uncanny (The Gingerbread House), the Pastoral tradition (Backwater, Hackney by Night), the Sublime (Enclosures, Badlands and Borders), the Romantic tradition (Albedo) or childhood (Shadows of Doubt). Each project is informed by the artistic and literary traditions behind the theme, and by the work of other photographers in the field. It is impressively simple and clear, but also researched.
Second, George is very aware of time and change, that he is often photographing old industrial landscapes on the cusp of change in an increasingly post-industrial West. There is affection but no judgement in this understanding, just observation of a never-ending process: ‘These new landscapes have their own charm and nuances, replacing the old pastoral vistas; all created by man’s intervention in the environment for eons, with new interventions and the creation of a new era in English Landscape’ (George 2020). George cites New Topographics, the Bechers and Joel Sternfeld among others as influences – all influences I need to know more about. I suspect that the idea of change, in the way George describes it, needs to inform my own practice.
Third, George is not afraid of creating atmosphere, an air of mystery, perhaps introducing the poetic. I much appreciate finding this in his images because it is very easy to be cowed by the strictures of postmodernism – which can often seem too cerebral and basically joyless – and forget that both photographer and viewer respond emotionally to the image. There is something visceral in a really effective image, and if one is not enjoying the making then what is the point. For me, this particularly applies to dealing with dark areas using only available light. In George’s words: ‘ … the shadow offers the viewer imaginative access to the image and therefore ownership of the narrative within the photograph, the viewer becoming an active storyteller rather than a passive observer, which is a much more interesting way to interact with the photographic image’ (Keller-Privat 2018). This is so refreshing to hear.
Finally, I like George’s approach to curation and storytelling. He is open to collaboration in more than one medium and there is no fixation with the Barthesian author-as-controller. In Hackney at Night George collaborated with the writer Karen Falconer: her short story, his images. ‘What I wanted was to take the reader on a gentle meander through the night, to feel like they’d have a bit of a dream … I want the reader to make up their own relationship between text and image. This isn’t a shouty book: we’re all grownups, so make up your own stories, it’s much more fun’ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
So, overall, a lovely find.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘David George: Hackney At Night’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/12/hackney-at-night/ [accessed 4 Apr 2020].
FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].
Figure 1. David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. From: Karen Falconer and David George. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
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