This is an outline of where I am now with my research project and where I intend to go over the next few months.
My research project began a year ago as a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark, when the uncanny world of the night comes out to play. It was a largely documentary exercise, almost classic street photography. Researching it has taken me from Steichen, Brandt, Brassaï and classic noir and into the work of William Klein and Robert Frank, and then on to some equally classic work from the 1960s to the 1980s by William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Robert Adams. More recently I have researched contemporary voices such as Thomas Struth, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Todd Hido, Gregory Halpern, Alex Soth, Gerry Johansson, Krass Clement and Ken Schles, with a very important detour into film (Tarkovsky, Lynch). I have looked at such topics as surrealism, the sublime, the uncanny, the eerie and the weird.
Over this module, however, the project has morphed into something completely different. My project is ostensibly still a walk through my hometown, but now it is really a journey into my own unconscious through the portals of where I happen to live. So what I am showing is no longer a famous place called Oxford but a Tarkovskian ‘zone’ of my own imagining. As Calvino’s postmodern novel Invisible Cities made clear, there is no fixed, objective Venice, Oxford, London or Paris out there (Calvino 1997). We each make our own, and we make them anew each time we visit them. Roland Barthes pointed out in The Death of the Author that the idea of an all-powerful creator imposing a canonical version of anything is a fantasy (Barthes 1977). We write our own book, tell our own story, out of the ingredients we find before us.
I intend to continue with this research project. I think its foundations are strong enough and I am finding my own visual language. It has stood up under research, resisted lockdowns and is in a long tradition of photography after dark. I have assembled a reasonable number of images and over winter and spring 2021 I plan to continue photographing this ‘zone’. I will also re-photograph some locations I visited in earlier modules.
My aim is to have 50-70 good, cohesive images to present as a body of work. I will offer these as a conventional photobook, but in addition I will look at other ways of presenting my body of work such as in exhibitions, on websites, through sales of prints and zines and on Instagram. In the longer term combining my work with an audio score, and therefore creating an audio-visual experience, is something I would love to do but that may well lie outside the scope of this degree.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142-148.
My aim is not to become full-time commercial photographer. However, I would like to become a more professional photographer who can improve his practice using the skills and marketing disciplines of the commercial photography business. I would enjoy doing that and it might also allow me to take on some part-time work (whether paid or not) from time to time.
Instagram I have covered Instagram already in this CRJ – see here and here.
Website I need to continue to improve my portfolio site (Crean 2020 A) and boil it down to essentials, as a mini-portfolio that is always up to date. The assumption is that most viewers will pick up my work on Instagram first and only then consider my website.
Marketing I have had some business cards printed, which is a small start, but I need to present myself as a brand with the focus, consistency and tight control of communications that entails. I need to approach things as if I were running my own business (Barnett 2020, Pritchard 2011).
Photobooks I would like to become good at producing photobooks. There are several I could produce outside of this degree course. I have just taken one weekend workshop on creating and marketing photobooks with the Self Publish Be Happy group (Self Publish Be Happy 2020) and in a few days I am taking a second one with them that will concentrate more on the internal graphic design and layout of the photobook. The first weekend was very informative (and enjoyable) and has improved my confidence a lot.
Portfolios It is clear that I need to assemble a proper printed portfolio. For this I need to assemble a bank of printed images that can be sequenced and changed depending on whom one is showing the portfolio to. Ensuring that a portfolio is relevant to the intended purpose is important.
To help with this, I need to apply for some portfolio reviews. The Association of Photographers (I am now a member) and the Photographers’ Gallery in London both offer this service, among others, and over the next few months I will book some slots.
Personal Projects I have a personal project, Entropias (Crean 2020 B). The purpose of the project is to help me stay fresh and creative, but it is also something I could present as a zine, small book or other venture, either commercially or for charity.
Web Shop I will be using White Bridge Arts as the brand name of a webshop on an art sales website called society6.com. I have already mentioned this in my CRJ here. It should be fun.
Others I usually participate in a joint local photography exhibition each year with ArtWeeks. If there is a proper ArtWeeks in 2021 (unknown at present because of the pandemic) then I will take part.
There are also magazines to approach, other new personal projects to consider, local newspapers, competitions, social media take-overs and so forth. However, I would prefer not to give the impression that I can take a degree and do all that at the same time, because my priorities in life are not those. Becoming a 24/7 photography bore is likely to kill not enhance my creativity.
This week’s coursework about the different digital media channels has been difficult, largely because although I use some of them I have little to no experience of using all of them. In addition, discussions tend to become dominated by Instagram but that is not the only channel available and for some people it may not be an appropriate one.
There are two different subjects here. First, there are the new digital media platforms available to artists in order to offer a new and often mixed media experience. And second there are the new digital media channels available on which to market one’s work – not the same thing at all.
I am very interested in what Anna-Maria Pfab said in her lecture about new digital platforms, in particular the New York Times virtual reality app launched in 2015, NYT VR (New York Times 2020, Pfab 2020). Although an app demands a great deal of time and investment capital, it is clear that, first, one can offer viewers a new experience combining both images and sound in many different ways, and second one can engage with an audience on smartphones massively larger than the audience on conventional PCs or photography websites. I am already looking at sound in my research project. Video takes it one stage further.
As for marketing one’s work using digital media, my feeling is that before one embarks on a digital media strategy it is important to have a very clear idea of what one wants to do, having already identified ways of measuring results and overall having already set some goals. Otherwise, one is exposing oneself to one of the dangers of digital media: investing a lot of time in something that is essentially fruitless and which is simply not paying its way.
So over the next six or so months may own ‘strategy’, if such it is, is likely to be this:
Instagram: I will continue to use my main account (it is a business account) but tweak it to give a better idea of whom I am, what I get up to and what I enjoy. I will only post work I would be happy to show my peers (i.e. not family snaps) but the overall intent will be to be interesting, relaxed and creative. A good example of how to do this is Tom Hunter’s Instagram feed (Hunter 2020).
Facebook, Twitter, TikTok. Facebook is strictly for family use in my case. I won’t use Twitter because I have serious concerns about the platform’s sanity and ethics. TikTok is up and coming but I am the wrong generation for its demographic.
Websites: I will maintain and keep current and tidy my portfolio website. However, it is clear that the focus for photographers has shifted to Instagram. A portfolio website may be needed as a showcase but the action is now elsewhere.
I have registered a new domain name for a brand I am devising called White Bridge Arts. This is for avowedly commercial material, in colour, quite distinct from my fine arts practice. My aim is to open a webshop on an Etsy-like sales site where I will offer images printed on mugs, T-shirts, cushion covers, duvets and other household items, as well as prints. Since all printing is on-demand by the owners of the site, the initial investment required is minimal (though the site’s commission on sales is quite high).
I will use this as a testbed and learning experience, and simply for some fun. Marketing will all be done under the White Bridge Arts brand, so if I decide to promote the shop on Instagram or elsewhere then I will open a new account under the brand name and use it purely for business. After six months I will take stock. One tool I will use is Google Trends (Google 2020). As a free tool, it can be a very helpful way of noticing what is catching the public eye and what is fading from it.
And overall? I think my approach overall is a fair reflection of who I am. I love fine arts photography. However, I can’t stand snobbery or in-group thinking and I have a strong commercial streak. I do not want to become stuck and stale by hiding away in a single field.
This module’s Live Brief Challenges, which were presented yesterday, have turned out to be very worthwhile. I teamed up with Tim, Mark, Marcel, Stephen and John for what turned out to be an exercise in studying a new arts enterprise and then proposing a new branding for the enterprise together with a brand strategy and matching visual language going forward.
There was a lot to learn and these are the things that emerged for me:
Collaboration and teamwork are central to a successful creative endeavour. It is important to treat differences of opinion not as points of conflict but as indications of a rich range of options. The challenge is to blend those different views into the best offer one can make.
Research is vital. My research included taking two video courses in brands and marketing (Boyd 2020, Pederson 2017), looking at case studies of rebranding exercises by a commercial marketing agency (Summa 2020) and researching the likely market for the new arts enterprise we were pitching to. This led me to look not only at all kinds of arts enterprises, from the Frieze media and events company (Frieze 2020) to the Gagosian Gallery (Gagosian 2020) but also to look at what turned out to be a goldmine of data arising from the Burning Man festival in America and the Nowhere festival in Spain (Burning Man Journal 2019, Nowhere 2019). Both festivals assemble and make public full statistical data year-on-year about their audience and its demographics. By looking at hard data covering why people attend arts festivals, we were able to come much closer to answering a key question: what is your audience?
A consistent visual language is an important part of branding. It can be deployed in different scenarios but if done well the language always tells your audience who you are. However, getting it right is very hard. We came up with an idea – using circles and spheres as a language (and eventually a logo) – but I think we all found it much more difficult than we thought to produce first-class work.
The principles involved here are really worthwhile. They are a lesson in thinking clearly about a project and identifying its key requirements. They are also a lesson in consistency and professional execution, things that are important not only for a commercial photographer but in many other walks of life. A part of what I will take away from the Live Challenge is ‘The Branding Process in Eight Steps’ (Chiaravalle and Findlay Schenck 2020), but in many ways this checklist should really be called ‘How to Think Clearly and Analyse a Problem in Eight Steps’.
Determine exactly what you are branding
Research everything about the product and its market
Position a brand by defining what makes it unique
Define a brand by stating what unique benefits it offers, what it stands for, what value it promises to deliver, and the brand image that will permeate all communications
Develop a brand identity including a logo and other signature elements and a brand ‘voice’ and use consistently in all communications
Launch using publicity, social media, promotions and presentations
Manage a brand by ensuring that it continues to deliver its brand promises fully and consistently
Monitor, evaluate and update a brand against changes in the market and in your own business
I have been looking at the practice of several photographers in connection with techniques of storytelling and narration. Some work in black and white exclusively while others do so for at least a part of the time.
The first on my list is Gerry Johansson. Mark Power has described Johansson’s images as ‘non-judgemental, deceptively simple celebrations of the ordinary’ (Power 2013) and it is certainly the case that Johansson’s images are typically rather melancholic, often appear to be empty of detail and are without a doubt carefully considered and composed. As Powell points out, however, closer inspection reveals that all the necessary detail is in the frame but it is just not the kind of detail one (perhaps lazily) expects to find.
Johansson himself appears to repudiate the idea that he Is telling stories at all: ‘“For me it is important not to create a story with the pictures,” says Gerry Johansson. “Normally when you edit you try to sequence the photographs. But for me it is important that each picture is considered as a single, individual image”’ (Warner 2019). However, the same interview then goes on to point out that ‘Johansson’s photography is largely driven by intuition, but when it comes to making a book, logic and order triumph. Almost all of his 31 photobooks are defined by their geography, if not the subject matter, and their equally-sized photographs are generally organised either alphabetically or chronologically, a bid to encourage readers to interpret them individually’ (Warner 2019).
In reality I think that Johansson most definitely has a story, or stories, and this shines through in his many photobooks. What is being talked about by Warner is more a matter of narration. The story in Johansson is often about feelings – of emptiness, wandering, strangeness and deracination. There are usually no people in his images, but the traces of them are everywhere. The images can be bleak and sometimes beautiful but in each case the story points the same way: this is what it feels like to visit the environment these people have created for themselves.
One can see this in, for example, Deutschland (Johansson 2012) and American Winter (Johansson 2018). And if the narration of a story is chronological or even alphabetical, then one can invoke narrative techniques – by time, by psychogeography, or even by taking the postmodernist approach suggested by Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977): the viewer or reader constructs their own narrative from the various parts laid out before them street-map style.
The difference between story and narrative is best expressed in what is for me Johansson’s strongest project, Pontiac (Johansson 2011). It is a real town after the famous automobile brand, but it is also a place that embodies the American Rust Belt malaise and the country’s increasing inequality and divisions. All is shown with Johansson’s trademark simplicity and understatement, on the basis of taking the viewer on a walk through the town. Each image is captioned only with a street name.
Without realizing it, I have been following a similar approach in my own research project. So what can I learn from a master of the technique? First, that no matter how much Johansson eschews formal storytelling, the images are in fact linked by signs and clues. Pontiac is a book of traces. It would be easy to say these traces add up to the pervasive malaise of the Rust Belt, but the impact of the book entirely derives from the fact that they don’t. What they add up to are communities doing the best they can in spite of the Rust Belt.
The second point is well expressed in a review of Pontiac by Joerg Colberg:
‘Unlike many other books about these kinds of town, Pontiac doesn’t seem to focus on one aspect at all. You get to see everything, from the inner city to the old and new suburbs, the churches, parking garages. It’s all there. There is a very clear and smart artistic agenda, but there is no obvious political agenda. The more often you look at the book, the more things you discover. It makes you think, but before it does that it makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012).
I think Colberg is saying is that Pontiac is as much about an interior journey as an exterior one. This is a book in the poetic mode of documentary (Nichols 2017). If there is no political agenda then the mode of address cannot be expository, and although each image could be assessed as observational, the clues and traces that link the images are clearly poetic in intent.
These may be subtle distinctions but they are very important. They allow for a complex narrative technique, or a double narrative. On the surface, Pontiac is the story of a typical MidWest American town narrated by street name or by psychogeography. Beneath that, however, there is another and poetic narrative quietly arranged by clues and traces within the images. It is telling a different story. Nothing is quite what one thinks it is, until one realizes what is going on, and that careful narrative technique is precisely what ‘makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012) – a very valuable lesson.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142-148.
Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols (Nichols 2017) is about the history and narrative techniques of documentary filmmaking and the most important issues now facing the field.
My interest lies in what Nichols has to say about story and narrative in documentaries. Story and narrative are two different things and are not interchangeable. Put simply, a narrative is how a story is told or demonstrated. The story is all the events, characters and other elements that make up a narrative. (If there is a plot, then the plot will suggest some kind of relationship between the story’s various elements.)
Nichols’ approach is highly schematic. In particular, he identifies seven different documentary modes (Nichols 2017: 22-3):
Much of the book is concerned with elucidating the differences between these modes. Each mode tends to have typical uses, for example, together with particular goals and ethical issues (Nichols 2017: 156-7). Each mode treats time and space differently, is distinct epistemologically, usually employs a different ‘voice’ and treatment of sound and has a rough equivalent in other media (Nichols 2017: 108-9). The modes may also make use of well-established models such as the investigative report, the travel piece, the poetic, the autobiographical, the history or the testimonial (Nichols 2017: 106-7).
Nichols pays particular attention to ‘voice’ in documentary filmmaking, by which he does not mean the literal spoken word. He explains:
‘The voice of documentary is each film’s specific way of expressing its way of seeing the world. The same topic and perspective on it can be expressed in different ways. … Voice, then, is a question of how the reasoning, analysis, feelings, and values in a documentary become conveyed to us. … Documentary voice is clearly akin to film style’ (Nichols 2017: 50).
This is important, because as Nichols points out, ‘Each voice is unique. This uniqueness stems from the concrete utilization of conventions and models, from techniques and modes, and from the specific pattern of encounter that takes place between filmmaker and subject’ (Nichols 2017: 53).
This sophisticated analysis matters because it is so close to how story and narrative may arise from a portfolio of still images. The techniques are similar – framing, composition, editing, jump cuts, mixed modes of expression and so forth. If a portfolio of images is accompanied by a soundtrack then its treatment would also be similar to the use of sound in various modes of documentary, as would captions. Captions are in fact an important element of ‘voice’ and require careful treatment. They may enhance an image, but equally they may subvert it, change the mode of expression, or spoil a poetic moment.
Where does my research project stand in relation to this? I think it is firmly in Nichols’ poetic mode. Qualities Nichols associates with the poetic mode include ‘Formal abstractions … see the familiar in a fresh way … Expressive … Discontinuous … images that build mood or pattern without full regard for their original proximity … may distort or exaggerate for aesthetic effect … Expressive desire to give new forms and fresh perspectives’ (Nichols 2017: 108).
These qualities do identify my work over this module. However, things are rarely clear cut. Just as documentary filmmakers mix modes in their work, so my research project occasionally strays into other territory. Some images, particularly of deprivation, are observational in their intent. Images of graffiti or signage with an apparent message could be considered expository. And, overall, a strongly personal work could be considered performative because such a work ‘seeks to move its audience into subjective alignment or affinity with its specific perspective on the world’ (Nichols 2017: 152). Whether or not I decide to change this, at least I am now more aware of what I am doing.
I am glad to have found such a detailed analysis. It leaves me with a better idea of where my research project fits in as well as with goals and techniques to concentrate on in the poetic mode. Nothing beats a clear intent. In addition, the work has given me a better understanding of the role of text and captions. These are not afterthought. I am building a ‘voice’ from many components and any one of them can change it.
NICHOLS, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Much of this module has been about learning to take a professional and consistent approach to one’s practice, without which it would be difficult to succeed as a commercial photographer. A crucial part of that is professional and consistent marketing and client relations. While I have no wish to become a commercial photographer, professionalism and consistency are valuable and useful disciplines that can be applied to many situations in life, so I am taking these lessons on board.
In connection with that, I have been looking at my Instagram account. At stake is changing it from a typical personal account into a business account and then applying ‘strictly business’ principles to running it. After all, Instagram is thought to have more than 1 billion members, more than 500 million active daily users and a repository of more than 50 billion images (increasing by nearly 1000 each second), and not to mention more than 500,000 active influencers and 75.3 per cent of US businesses with an account on the platform (Omnicore 2020).
In practice structuring a business account is not difficult. There are a lot of online tutorials and advice sheets out there. The best I have found so far is ‘How to Use Instagram for Business: A Practical 6-Step Guide’ by Hootsuite, a company that makes management software for social media accounts (Newberry 2020). There is also a video tutorial from the ever-reliable Sean Tucker (Tucker 2020). To this I can add ‘Basics of Business on Instagram’ (Timehin 2020), an excellent video by Ron Timehin who is now a successful commercial photographer having made his reputation on Instagram. Timehin concentrates more on nuts and bolts such as best-practice hashtagging, the grid of previously posted images, and engagement with others (an often overlooked but crucial factor).
All the advice in the world comes with two key provisos, however. The first is that to succeed on any social media platform one must have a clear focus in a distinct genre or subject area. No one becomes known for being a generalist and commissioning editors will pass you by, since there is no obvious message they can pick up. The second is that one does have to have talent. Put simply, people want great photos, ones with a wow factor in their chosen field.
Very few people have either the discipline or the talent to succeed which is why Instagram and other social media platforms can easily become an unproductive lottery. The statistics alone are overwhelming. I do plan to take a more business-like approach to Instagram but at the same time I do not intend to take it all that seriously. I am not sure that in my case the work required would produce sufficient results.
Besides, there are increasingly serious questions about social media generally as a vehicle for addiction and exploitation – see for example The Social Dilemma (Orlowski 2020) or John Naughton’s newspaper column (Naughton 2020). From a business perspective, it is also possible or even probable that Instagram will start to squeeze business accounts in order to extract more revenue from them – see ‘Will Instagram Business Profile Reach Follow the Same Path as Facebook Pages?’ (Hutchinson 2019). As the article puts it,
‘But really, overall, the main tip is to manage your expectations, and understand that such shifts can, and most likely will be coming. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use Instagram – you definitely should where it’s of benefit. But it’s important to do so in the understanding that any results you see may well be temporary. And as such, you need to establish other avenues, rather than building your foundations on rented land’ (Hutchinson 2019).
And that is the crux of the matter. Building on ‘rented land’ is generally a mug’s game, especially when the landlord is known to be rapacious. I have noticed that some really established fine arts photographers do not participate much on Instagram. Instead, they are known from hashtags and fan accounts, via their agents or galleries, or they run a general studio account. Among examples are Richard Misrach, Tim Walker and Jeff Wall. There is a strong case for saying that Instagram is best treated as a game, and a potentially dangerous game, and that in the long run it may well be better to plant one’s flag well away from ‘rented land’ and the appalling sharks that own it.
I like the practice of Krass Clement. I like the dark, brooding, rough-edged nature of his practice. It comes, he says, from ‘Scandinavian melancholy on the one hand and the “flaneur” tradition from the Parisian school on the other’ (Clement 2020). As someone who used to do a lot of street photography in gloomy London weather, I can understand that.
What particularly appeals to me about Clement’s practice is that he owns his work. Whether he is in Germany, Paris or Dublin, or his native Denmark, there is no mistaking that this is his experience of those places. That is why Clement’s images seem so authentic.
‘“All photography is, in a sense, a kind of self-portrait,” he continues. “To me, it is also deeply personal. Different moods, circumstances and environments affect what you perceive – so the similarities and differences [between those two books] relate to where you find yourself. If you ask Rudi, my publisher, he will say that it was the excellent Irish porridge that was the determining factor”’ (British Journal of Photography 2017).
(Please click on an image above for a Lightbox view and captions)
Clement is ‘more concerned with capturing a state of mind than with situations’ (Clement 2020), and on looking through his portfolios and what I can find online of his many photobooks one can see that he employs stream-of-consciousness techniques and sudden narrative jumps and switches. This is an essentially poetic way of approaching the world, and photography, and it resonates with me. As Alec Soth observed:
‘It’s true that I find poetry to be the medium most analogous to photography. Originally, this annoyed me, because I thought poetry was pretentious. But over time I’ve come to love it. … Like photography, poetry is about suggestion—it’s about leaving a place for the reader/viewer to fill in the gaps’ (Strecker 2020).
These are all important concerns for me. My project is moving from documentary into something much more subjective. It probably shares a certain brooding, low-light darkness with Clement but the real lesson here is that I need to own my practice, which means staying true to my experience and dropping emulation and ‘That image by X looked good so I will make something like it’. This does not work. Another lesson here is in forming and sequencing a story. Plodding along from A to B to C as if following a street map does not work either, at least not when one is approaching photography more as poetry than as documentary.
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