For the past couple of weeks I have continued with my work in progress, making several visits to the Cowley and Florence Park areas of East Oxford. I have tried to do a little more about searching for telling details, an aspect of my practice I have not devoted enough attention to. The search for nuance and suggestion continues …
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Silent City. Collection of the author.
In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.
What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:
First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.
Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:
‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).
Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.
‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).
This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.
Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).
‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).
Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:
‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).
This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.
I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.
Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
One of the tasks of this module has been to prepare a workshop or similar event connected with one’s research project. My contribution takes the form of a group photowalk in Oxford after dark on the evening of day one followed the next day by a round-table discussion and presentation of work on a platform like Zoom. I would market this on places like Meetup, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Daily Info (Oxford’s popular listings site). Ticketing could be taken care of on Eventbrite.
I have prepared a pdf with descriptions and details of the kind I would give to participants here: Crean-Oxford-Photowalk
Lockdown means this is not going to happen for a few months. However, it has been a useful and enjoyable lesson. The points that have emerged are these:
Know your audience
Become familiar the technology you will need for the job
Research and thorough planning are key to a smooth event
Understand and control your costs
It is important to have an audience in mind and to have a good idea of what that audience wants and is capable of. In my case I have done photowalks a few times before, so I know that many participants will want the opportunity to photograph some of Oxford’s historic university buildings, receive a little instruction, and network around conversation with other participants in a good pub. Some will be knowledgeable photographers with good cameras but a fair number won’t be and may come with only their smartphones.
So my proposed route is tailored to what my audience wants, not to what I may want. In that sense it is commercial and a little touristic, but if I want the business I must know my audience. I might want to slip off to remoter or more edgy areas in search of tourism-free images, but most of my audience are not there for that – and there is nothing wrong with their preferences.
Second, it is important to be familiar with current technology. My route can be plotted in surprising detail on Google Maps and the URL for a fully annotated map can be given to every participant. The URL for the Google map I have prepared is here. They will have the route, the points of interest and the walking directions all on their smartphone. The next day, the round-table discussion, calls for knowledge of conferencing software like Zoom. We are now entering an era where online learning and discussion will become much more predominant, and if I want to serve an audience I cannot afford not to know about these things.
Third, and almost always, it is important to plan carefully and think things through. On any photowalk and especially after dark there are many things to consider. Safety is paramount and needs to be flagged up to everyone. Participant contact details are essential if people are late or get lost and there are plenty of items of kit to remind people to bring with them, if only a rainproof coat, spare batteries and a torch.
Fourth is cost. Does this idea make sense financially? A photowalk and online discussion of the kind I have planned does incur costs and if these are not passed on it must be run at a loss. And in any case, what will the market bear and what do I think my time is worth (always a challenging question)? In this case I think I would price a ‘ticket’ at £15-20 per head, on the basis of a maximum of 8-10 participants (too many participants is a turn-off). There may always be others who offer similar ideas for free, but my plan is to offer something in exchange for something. I am a knowledge worker offering expertise. Besides, the basic psychology is that if someone buys a ticket, they then think it is an event worth going to and they are much more likely to turn up.
Falmouth University’s annual Landings exhibition is now running (27 July to 03 August) and can be accessed here: http://landings.space/
My own contribution is called ‘Silent City’ and is a curation of my work in progress, mostly this module and a few images from the last module. This is on my Adobe portfolio website and can be accessed here: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/landings-2020
I have enjoyed putting this together. It is good practice for a mini-exhibition and forces me to address my intent and clarity of concept. It has also brought out the fact that Oxford (any city, in fact) presents so many different faces over so many historical eras that it is probably better to divide my work into sub-themes or chapters which is what I have done with my Landings work.
Other lessons here are the importance of collaboration, planning and marketing. Landings is a ‘we’ project, not a ‘me’ project. No one could possibly have done it all on their own and the result is immeasurably stronger for being a collaboration. I have also admired and enjoyed taking part in the marketing on Instagram, Twitter and so forth. I know from comments from followers not connected with Falmouth that this material found an audience.
After some thought, I have decided to rename my project Silent City and to concentrate solely on black and white photography. I think this is a better fit for me and for the whole project, for the reasons I gave in a previous post.
This somewhat simplifies my agenda. I will need to educate myself about black and white photography and to learn how to see in black and white. I will also need to learn about post-processing for black and white, since all my images emerge in colour to begin with because I have a digital camera. I would also like to learn about silver gelatin emulation, if this is possible on digital. The quality of a good silver gelatin film print is simply wonderful. Black and white needs that careful attention to tonality. I have noticed that Metro Labs in London offer a service for silver gelatin from digital files, so we will see.
Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.
Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.
Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.
Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,
‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:
‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,
‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open. … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need? Clarity. What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? To tell a truth as simply as possible.
Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.
This week I have really enjoyed two video presentations on making photobooks published on Vimeo by Self Publish, Be Happy.
The first is How To Design a Photobook by a designer and publisher, Brian Paul Lamotte (Lamotte 2020). The second is How To Edit and Sequence a Photobook by an editor and publisher, Bruno Ceschel (Ceschel 2020).
I found both absolutely fascinating and, running to a couple of hours each, full of very useful information. So far, they are the find of the module. Lamotte covered all kinds of photobook design, often highly experimental and creative. I simply had not realized how much variety there is and how much is now possible working with printers, binders and designers. He offered a clear breakdown of the steps involved at the start of any book project:
Who is this book for?
What does this book consist of?
Where does this book need to thrive?
When will this book be produced and published?
Why does this book need to be made?
How will this book be made?
Lamotte also said that successful books were designed for the smallest number of people (primarily, the artist, designer and editor). Surprising, perhaps, but I think correct: one has to have a particular kind of audience in mind. Designing a book to satisfy every audience will dilute the final outcome. After that, he divided the planning into three distinct stages: reference, collaboration and process/production.
Ceschel covered the curation and editing of images. I liked his comparison of sequencing to following the arrangement of a piece of music (he illustrated this by breaking down the blocks of a pop song) or the techniques used in cinema narration. He also went into sequencing by using the tones in an image. Both Lamotte and Ceschel emphasized the importance of pulling in the reader right from the very first page and then keeping them entranced deep inside the world of the book with astute shifts of mood and approach. ‘The world of the book’ as something to be created in itself is emerging as a key concept here.
These videos are causing me to rethink what a photobook can be and how to approach it from the ground up. I am very glad I have found them. Not long ago, Ceschel wrote Self Publish, Be Happy : A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto (Ceschel 2015) and I will try to find a copy.
These videos are a helpful counterpoint to Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks (Colberg 2017) which I read a week or two ago. That is really helpful too but in a different way. It is more formal and is more concerned than are Ceschel and Lamotte with clarity of concept, identifying an audience, marketing the work and selling it, the other and equally important side of the coin to the editing and design process.
CESCHEL, Bruno. 2015. Self Publish, Be Happy : A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto. New York: Aperture.
Figure 1: Nick SETHI. 2018. From his book Khichdi Kitchari (Dashwood Books, New York), designed by Brian Paul Lamotte. The idea, here, is to convey the chaos and life of the Indian streets – the world of this book, a world created by close collaboration between artist, designer and printer. It was nominated for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Photobook Prize. From: Brian Paul Lamotte. 2020. How To Design a Photobook [Film]. Self Publish, Be Happy video. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/howtodesignaphotobook/434056549 [accessed 21 Jul 2020].
I have now moved on from photographing the Thames as it flows through Oxford. Instead I am covering the Cowley area of East Oxford which is a mixture of retail, residential and light industry with some pockets of dispiriting deprivation. However, it is all part of the same urban world: a city after dark.
I am also experimenting with black and white in my practice. At least for this module I will be submitting my work in progress in black and white rather than in colour. I think it is more suited to the gritty nature of what I am currently photographing, and also more expressive of the uncanny. In this I am following earlier photographers such as Bassaï and Brandt. But … this is only an experiment, so we will see.
I may also change the title of my project from Hometown Nights to Silent City. Although I quite like it as a title and it does carry an echo of Summer Nights, Walking by Robert Adams, Hometown Nights has a jolly air to it that is not really in accord with the sobering reality of disadvantaged urban areas in the midst of a pandemic.
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. From Silent City. Collection of the author.
This week I have nearly completed my work for Landings 2020. This will take the form of an online exhibition at my Adobe Portfolio website, with a parallel one at my account on Flickr.
The form I have chosen is to take this module’s work in progress, together with a handful of images from the last module, and divide an edited selection into three sections: Water, Earth and Fire. Water means the River Thames as it runs through Oxford. Earth is the modern world of what is made from earth, namely concrete and steel. Fire is what is fired from the earth, namely brick and the old age of coal and the nineteenth century – the age of fire. Thus Fire covers Oxford’s Victorian, brick-built areas and a few remaining old iron structures.
I have converted all the images to black and white, my current mode of expression. I am calling the exhibition Silent City. Photographs are silent, and our cities during lockdown have been unusually quiet. At night they are very quiet indeed. So in a way I have been photographing silence, perhaps even stillness, though still permeated with indications of human presence. The interplay is between presence and absence.
I will post links in a separate journal entry once the Landings 2020 exhibition has started.
The other subject I have looked at this week concerns photobooks and the history of the genre. This is a huge subject but after reading Gerry Badger (Badger 2014 A, Badger 2014 B) three key things have stood out for me.
First, there is the move away from the very formal photography book, which takes the form of a presentation of fine art, often landscape presented as art, and, in many cases, documentary too. Works by many practitioners still take this form. Some photography books by William Eggleston, Sebastião Salgado, Mark Power and Richard Misrach come to mind beyond old favourites like Ansel Adams or the documentarists of the 1930s and 1940s.
Second there is the more recent rise of the diarist model and of questions of identity. These are probably the dominant forms today, especially if one extends identity to include race, gender and equality issues. It summarized by Badger:
‘So two distinct trends emerged in photography. Firstly, there was the diaristic mode – photographers using the medium to make a “diary” of their lives and experiences, not simply to make autobiographical images but utilizing personal photography to reflect society’s experiences through their own. Secondly, the question of identity – both individual and collective – became an important subject for photographers and the photobook (Badger 2014 B, 214).
Badger cites a key photobook here to be Nan Golding’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency of 1986 and its ‘snapshot aesethetic’ (Badger 2014 B, 214). The honesty and lack of pretension of Golding’s work were and remain a hugely freeing gesture.
Third, there is the increasing exploration of the photography book as a physical, tactile object, in the form of all kinds of shapes and sizes, designs, papers, bindings and covers, tip-ins and so forth. This is all part of looking at the image as an object in space, not only through it (in the traditional reading of the image), and it is also all part of seeing the photobook as its own, self-sufficient world and not merely as an adjunct of something else.
Badger cites the influence of postmodernism here, breaking up traditional categories, making art more democratic and moving firmly towards ‘decentring’ and away from the author-centred model and ghastly good taste of a previous era.
When one adds in the enormous amount of experimentation in Japanese photobook culture (Vartanian 2009), the whole subject becomes fascinating and very exciting. These texts have certainly changed my view and understanding of what a photobook is and the possibilities of the genre.
In practical terms, my approach is this: I have ordered a large number of work-in-progress prints from a lab. When they arrive I will attach them to A4 sheets and start on a process of editing and sequencing. Likely everything will be laid out on the floor rather than a wall. I will then fold the result into an Adobe In Design document. This will form the basis of a sample or dummy which I intend to have printed by Saal Digital (Saal Digital 2020). I will try to use good boards and cover material and paper of good quality too. This should provide a reasonably accurate dummy of what a final submission could be like if an online printer is used, the only difference being that the dummy will be about 40 pages instead of 100 or more. This is really a decision on cost grounds because using online printers like Blurb or Saal can quickly prove expensive. I do not plan to rush this. I would prefer to give it my best shot. This I am aiming for a good dummy by the start of the next module but not, say, by the end of next week. There is an awful lot I need to learn in the meantime.
PARR, Martin and Gerry BADGER. 2014 B. ‘Chapter 7 Looking at Ourselves’. In Martin PARR and Gerry BADGER (eds.). The Photobook: A History, Volume III. London: Phaidon, 212–41.
SAAL DIGITAL. 2020. ‘Professional Photo Products in High-End Quality’. Saal Digital Fotoservice GmbH [online]. Available at: https://www.saal-digital.co.uk/ [accessed 07 Jul 2020].
VARTANIAN, Ivan. 2009. ‘Chapter 2. The Japanese Photobook: Toward an Immediate Media’. In Ryuichi KANEKO, Ivan VARTANIAN, Lesley A MARTIN, and Kyoko WADA (eds.). Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s. New York: Aperture, 11–23.
Figure 1: Mark CREAN. 2020. Splash page for my Landings 2020 exhibition at my Adobe Portfolio website. From: Mark Crean [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/ [accessed 15 Jul 2020].
On 10 July I took part in an online seminar come workshop with Edmond Terakopian (Terakopian 2020 A), part of a series that can be referenced on his blog (Terakopian 2020 B). Edmond is a veteran press photographer, photo-journalist and teacher. The occasion was largely to celebrate 31 years in his profession. Several things emerged for me about the skills required in professional photography today.
In order to put people at their ease and stop them ‘posing’ for the image, one needs to learn how to relax with people in all kinds of situations and walks of life.
One has to be super adaptable but still know how to produce images clients will want. Edmond’s round can take in fashion and events, music and arts, disasters and news stories, portraits, advertising photography and his own longer-term projects.
One has to be creative enough to think on one’s feet. A client might say they like your style, then ask you to come up with a photographic proposal for a marketing pitch for a new product, all of which has to be done to a very high standard in about two weeks. It is all down to you and your creative ideas.
One has to be canny enough to know the difference between a good image and an image that will make the front page of a newspaper or magazine. Many photographers might arrive at an event and then make quite similar and perfectly acceptable images, but the image that makes the front page will almost always have a telling detail or nuance the others do not have. It might be a gesture, an expression, an angle of view, a small child intruding into the frame, etc. A talented photographer needs to be alert to these perhaps small, fleeting gestures that in the end make all the difference.
One needs to be a ruthless curator of one’s own work, particularly under tight deadlines. That can only be done if one has a clear idea of what makes a powerful image and a clear idea of one’s intent in making the image throughout the whole process.
I realize these ideas are perhaps not what art photographers are looking for but they do appeal to me as an amateur flâneur and street photographer. The seminar with Edmond has rekindled my interest in photography and reminded me of some important points it is easy to forget.
TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020 A. ‘Edmond Terakopian: Photojournalist’. Edmond Terakopian [online]. Available at: http://www.terakopian.com/ [accessed 14 Jul 2020].
Figure 1. Edmond TERAKOPIAN. 2018. ‘A child runs around whilst bathed in rays of sunlight in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, during a heat wave Bank Holiday. Bankside, London, UK.’ This image was shortlisted for the British Photography Awards. From: Flickr [online]. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/terakopian/40305778310/in/dateposted/ [accessed 05 Jul 2020].
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