Week 2

Week 2 has turned out to be an interesting one. I’m challenged by how much I have to learn but also intrigued by a great deal of it. This is the start of bringing some attention, focus and critical understanding to my practice and to seeing it in a much wider context than hitherto. In addition, it’s been necessary to go back to first principles and work out what certain terms really mean. So, these things have caught my eye:

  • The difference between discipline and discourse.
  • “Interdisciplinary” is not just a casserole of ingredients. It means teasing out more precise relationships beyond the work and influences inside the work.
  • The particular qualities of the still image, discussed at length by Barthes and Sontag.
  • The importance of the moving image and understanding it in a world where video increasingly dominates.
  • The vital importance of context. This was discussed in some detail in the example of the zeppelin image by Sam Shere. News soon becomes social comment which soon becomes history which soon becomes art which soon becomes pop art on album covers et al. The image has a life far beyond itself.
  • Aspect, discussed by David Campany. I think this one may be really useful. Am I making a photograph of a state, a process or an event? Good questions.
  • Identity and what we really mean by this. In fact identity turns out to be extremely difficult to pin down, as experiments with police-type identikit imaging have shown.

I was surprised by the extent to which other disciplines are already present in my work even though I had not consciously thought much about it. And by the huge variety of influences which fellow students showed and talked about on the discussion board. Fascinating and full of energy.

I am also surprised by now much I warmed to Susan Sontag and did not warm at all to Roland Barthes. Maybe that will change. Need to persevere.

I offered three images in the discussion group trying to show interdisciplinary influences on my practice: one on the influence of Dharma Arts and Miksang (Good Eye), one on the question of wildlife and conservation in a planet in crisis, and one on history and its many interpretations.

Miksang, looking for a dot of red.
An Amur Leopard
An Amur leopard, unlikely to survive in the wild so how do we protect the species in captivity?
Interpretations of History
The many interpretations of history and culture.

How Far Is Distance?

In Week 1 we were asked to offer an image of “The View From Your Window”.

I offered a black-and-white image looking across an estate of houses in Oxfordshire on a wet and gloomy Sunday afternoon. And between the seer and the seen there is a veil – a suburban net curtain.

“How far is distance?” is a question his small son asked a friend of my wife the other day. Like many children’s questions it is so brilliantly simple and direct that it defies an easy answer, for what do people really mean when they say something is “in the distance” or “distant”? They may not even be referring to a physical object but to an anticipated future event or to an emotional state – to an abstraction, in fact. No wonder it can be hard to understand.

In my case it proved a good fit. I did feel emotionally distant that afternoon and I don’t actually know what goes on across the estate here. I am looking without much of a clue at other lives, other people, other states of being. So yes the view is veiled, because not fully understood. One of the points of this course is to start prodding and pulling at the veil so that eventually it will fall away.

Mark Crean (29 September 2019): The View From My Window


Week 1

Week 1 started late and whizzed by in a blur. Distant already. What did I learn?

First, that I lack systematic knowledge and a critical apparatus – vocabulary, grammar, syntax. Without those it is difficult to say something cogent and worthwhile about a body of work or even about just one image. I’ve been around photography for quite a while and I may know some of the words, but that’s not enough. An important part of doing this course is to learn both the language and the thinking behind it.

Second, that I haven’t appreciated the degree to which photography is a global phenomenon in all kinds of ways – and how those ways change all the time. It was global 70 years ago when pushed out as the face of Life magazine and the American century. Now it is global in a completely different way because of the internet.

Third, that a great deal of the optimism in one of the week’s set readings – Marvin Heiferman’s Photography Changes Everything of 2012 – is already looking rather misplaced. It reads like an Obama-era text, another page of what David Bate calls “the great humanist project” following on in spirit from Edward Steichen’s famous photography exhibition of 1955: The Family of Man. The global common ground of projects like this is always open to the charge that as David Bate puts it “Pluralism is reduced to a unity”, that real differences are glossed over in favour of a sickly uniformity, and all with a hefty dose of Western cultural assumptions that many will not warm to. Less than a decade after Heiferman wrote, “the great humanist project” is taking hits and we are being brutally exposed to real differences now.

I would agree that images have the power to bring about change – Vietnam 1972, Tiananmen Square 1989 – but that can depend on context and on how their power is used.  The tsunami of imaging unleashed by modern digital media and 24/7 news cycles can normalize injustice or atrocity by simple repetition and fatigue. “In these last decades, ‘concerned photography’ has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (Susan Sontag in On Photography).

In addition, it is alarmingly clear from social media scandals involving big data and political campaigns that the image’s power to change has been quickly suborned to some very undesirable and dangerous ends. There is nothing new in this, of course. Photography was being hitched to eugenics and social Darwinism well over a century ago. What is new today is the huge scale, speed and sophistication with which this happens – and the sophistication with which the manipulation is concealed. This is the power of the network. We have moved far beyond the stand-alone photographer with his tripod and lovingly crafted negative – beyond and into the world of the node, the device and the network. What they have in common isn’t humanity. It’s data.

So if Heiferman’s book were written today what might it be called? Perhaps it might be called The Network Changes Everything.

Bate, David (2016). Photography: the key concepts. 2nd edn. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Heiferman, Marvin (2012). Photography changes everything. New York: Aperture.

Sontag, Susan (1977). On photography. London: Penguin Books.


Ground Zero

Day One. Ground Zero. My MA Falmouth Photography course kicks off with a first entry in this journal. I am excited, curious and somewhat terrified all at once. What have I got myself into? Will I be up to the task? I guess the best antidote to such self-absorption is to go out and make some photographs, visit galleries, listen to lectures, take part in discussions and read some interesting books.

I am going to try to concentrate on new thinking, new ideas and experiments, new images in this journal. I do not want to include too much here that I’ve already done before. Dragging along the assumptions and habits of the past is a block to learning so it’s time to let them go, at least for now. I am sure some will manage to sneak back in again. This is about starting over and starting fresh, seeing fresh in fact. In one word: change.

I am going to ask a wise companion to come with me on the journey, however, at least in my imagination. I love animals of all kinds and I particularly love the much misunderstood wolf. So here we are: my partner on the road, a gentle giant called Massak (Labradoran Inuit for Soft Snow) I believe.

Mark Crean: An Arctic Wolf
Mark Crean (12 January 2018): An Arctic Wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust