Week 8: Research Project Development

I’ve been out shooting a few times this week for my Oxford at Night project but torrential rain, gales and the rest has spoiled at lot of it so there are not many images I am all that happy with. Contact sheets are appended below.

I have, however, worked out a provisional framework for how to take my project further over the next few months. Details will follow in a Week 9 post because they are also involved with preparing my portfolio of project work in progress.

In addition to the set coursework this week, I have also looked at some books from the library as background material for the project. By far the most impressive has been Magnum Contact Sheets. It is all about curation and curation is exactly what I need to do. Without curation, I am likely to amass hundreds of digital images which are not coherent and which fail to pick out the stories I am trying (or hoping) to tell. So, taking curation seriously will help me to think more carefully. And the book offers plenty of memorable quotations to ponder from some of the world’s great photographers and, even better, they don’t all agree.

“I don’t always like to look at contact sheets because it’s work and you can make mistakes, but it’s part of the process. You have to do it … because very often you don’t see things the first time and you do see them the second or third time.” – Elliott Erwitt, p.70

“You can’t be hung up on what you think your ‘real’ destination is. The journey is just as important.” – Steve McCurry, p. 297

“A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down – whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in flight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes and image that is sheer jubilation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson, p. 18

I have also looked at a collection of Werner Bischof’s images. It is so sad that he died at a young age. Something he is quoted as saying in the Introduction resonates with me:

“What are regarded as ‘fine photographs’ are often static, and when you concentrate on composing perfect pictures you are likely to fall into the trap of losing touching with life, with its colour and movement […] Yet why not tell a positive ‘human story’ through beautiful pictures?” – Werner Bischof, quoted in Introduction by Claude Roy

Finally, I have started working through Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography by Jesse Alexander. It’s worthwhile anyway but I’ll admit that a fair part of the reason for my interest comes from a tip in Grant Writing for Dummies, namely do some research and get to know the work of those you will be applying to.

ALEXANDER, J.A.P. 2015. Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Fairchild Books.

BISCHOF, Werner. 1989. Werner Bischof. London: Thames and Hudson.

BROWNING, Beverly A. 2014. Grant Writing for Dummies. Fifth edit. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

LUBBEN, Kristen. 2017. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2

Week 8: Reflections

I am a little puzzled by this week’s topic, that of Context or in the case of one of the weekly readings “Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning”. It seems unremarkable that the meaning of something will change according to how and where it is presented, how and by whom it is made, and how and by whom it is seen. I wonder if there is any need to make a big deal out of this or to ensnare it in a thicket of intellectual sophistry.

It’s always been known. The first words of the most classic of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, are

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.

In other words, reality is a mental construct. The only reality we really have access to is mind. We see the world we want to see, according to the Buddha (and to his contemporaries in India too no doubt). So to a greater or lesser extent we create our own contexts. Many might think it unlikely that there is a fixed context or reality “out there” which trumps all else.

There are 1001 variations on these ideas. One is “Go, litel boke, go, litel myn tragedye”, Chaucer’s envoi to his poem Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer was paying modest homage to a literary tradition that had been going strong since classical times, an acknowledgement that once a work is created and released, the world makes of it what the world will. The work’s creator may have fierce hopes that the right eyes will see it in the right context, but ultimately world and time will decide what becomes of any creation and the result is beyond the creator’s control. As with children, we never really own our creations. They never did belong to us. We just look after them for a while, and perhaps that context is privilege enough.

So while context cannot be avoided, and while it is very important to be aware of context and of the audience for a work, trying to make context “sticky” and to control it strikes me as an exercise in futility. Much better, I think, to accept that reality is contingent and fluid and to accept that any work will be experienced in a potentially unlimited number of ways. From this arises the habit – or need – of many artists to reinvent themselves. Much of their work lies in eluding the trap of “sticky” contexts and thus evading the circumscribed and pigeon-holed.

The arrival of the digital world in photography has thrown all traditional contexts up in the air. Digital is a greatly democratising influence. What might once have taken a crew of 70 and a million-dollar budget can now be done with a handful of people for a modest outlay, if any. An increasing amount can simply be done with a smartphone, almost for free – not only stills but video, mixed media, micro-sites, ezines and more. So, in a way, context has centralized round the app. That’s good because it is so democratically available, but also not good because the risk is handing agency and ownership to the large international brands behind the app whose only interest is profit. More traditional contexts like the fine-art print and the upscale gallery are still there but my impression is that they are now a specialty and not mainstream. How could they be, when the second most popular website in the world is YouTube.

Is it possible to identify an audience but to forget about context? Or, at least, to avoid being taken prisoner by it? Possibly. The life and work of David Bowie was a ferment of invention and reinvention, for example. Or there is the earlier work of Picasso who experimented endlessly and made his way through -isms and periods until he found his true vision, that which only he could express. History is surely full of artists who were misunderstood at the time because their audience remained stuck in contexts the artist had long surpassed.

So there is the shock of the new, but perhaps there is also the shock of the old, the point at which time has erased all context and left us only the work. Take Palaeolithic hand stencils – hands outlined in blown ochre. The cultural contexts of Palaeolithic cave art have vanished, leaving us only with the physical: pigment on rock, now many thousands of years old. But this context serves only as a beginning. The power of these works is not in their physical context, one might argue, but in the mysterious and sometimes thrilling message they send out across time, in fact defying time. But the message is not fixed. It is what every generation chooses to receive, and perhaps every generation chooses to receive a different message. For Antony Gormley on seeing a Palaeolithic image reaching out to us across ten thousand years, for example, the message is “What does it feel like to be alive now?” So I suppose the question here is whether in the end there is only one context, and one we don’t really understand anyway: time.

In a way context is a paradox. It cannot be avoided, and it may be a necessary starting point, but perhaps to create something fresh one has to try to avoid it as much as one possibly can.

‘BBC Two – Antony Gormley: How Art Began’. 2019. [online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0c1ngds [accessed 18 Nov 2019].

CHAUCER, Geoffrey and B. A WINDEATT. 1984. Troilus & Criseyde : A New Edition of ‘The Book of Troilus’. London: Longman.

FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.

WALKER, John A. 1997. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’. In Jessica EVANS (ed.). The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography. London: Rivers Oram, 52–63.

Weeks 6 and 7: Research Project Development

My research project development in Weeks 6 and 7 has mainly consisted of study rather than going out and shooting, which I’ve only managed once.

However, I have been able to sit down with some large-format photography books and study how a successful project is put together. Learning how a successful project works is important for me because I have almost no experience of it.

Among several I’ve looked at, the stand-out is Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is a wonderful body of work anyway, but what has become clear to me – apart from the need for impeccable production values – are these items:

  1. A strong idea. The Mississippi river is just that, providing a natural linking and flow to the images.
  2. Keep an open mind and be alert to possibility. It is clear from reading around that some of the many characters in Soth’s story are the result of chance encounters. But these were seen as opportunities and taken.
  3. Everyone meets as an equal. The portraits are the strongest feature of the work, for me. To a degree they are posed because with a large plate camera they have to be. But Soth is never less than on the level with his subjects. He shows them as they are, in all their uniqueness and humanity. There is no judgement. There is compassion in these portraits, in fact. This is very important.
  4. Find sub-themes and interests or allow them to emerge naturally. Beds are famously one for Soth, but when they are present in images they are treated with subtlety. They always signify something else – a beginning, an ending, a conception, a fall from grace, human presence, an absence, and so on. There are other themes in this story: mementos and graffiti, textures, Christian symbols, snapshots on a bedroom wall – all adding up to something more.
  5. Tap into myths and archetypes. Soth is fortunate, because America’s foundation myths are still so strong. The pioneer, the explorer, the homesteader – they are all here. So too are the preacher man, the outlaw and the narrowly ex-slave. The capstone image of the essay – Johnny Cash’s birthplace, a humble weatherboard cabin – is a story out of the lives of Washington or Thoreau. And overall there is in the insistent melancholy of another American myth: that America’s settlers came to an Eden, but their ungodly ways have turned it into a hell. Robert Adams in Los Angeles Spring uses the same approach.

So I am very glad to have got close to Sleeping by the Mississippi. This is the way I should be heading.

Two other essays I have much enjoyed are Hidden by Paul Seawright and Dust by Nadav Kander, both very different from Alec Soth. I looked at them mainly because of their treatment of colour – delicate (Kander) and bleached (Seawright). Finding a colour palette is something else I need to do. I liked a similar approach in both books – tiny humans, vast landscapes, vast events, but presented with very careful and sophisticated composition and framing. The result immediately puts a question mark over time and human significance. Kander’s collapsed concrete structures at former Soviet nuclear sites already look as old, and as irrelevant, as anything left by the Kings of Assyria two or three thousand years ago.

Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers has some very interesting ideas. This observation by the book’s editors is fascinating:

“The Japanese have a unique understanding of landscape. The term of ‘landscape’ in Japanese is fukei, which combines the notion of ‘flow’ or ‘wind’ (fu), and ‘view’ or ‘-scape’ (kei) – hence ‘flowing view’. Landscape is thus not considered static, but transient, ephemeral, never stopping.

“The flow of time is a vital part of this understanding: in the Japanese arts, time’s passage in nature, and the changing seasons, are central motifs. …

“Fukei photography is by no means restricted to natural subjects: it can be about cities, people and architecture. Whatever its subject, the fukei photograph is a paradox: a fixed view of something that is understood to be by definition in flux.” (p. 42)

Below are the books I’ve looked at and following are two contact sheets from my one project development walk in Weeks 6 and 7.

Earth. 2009. Prix Pictet. Kempen: TeNeues.

EVANS, Harold. 1997. Pictures on a Page : Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. Rev. London: Pimlico.

GRUYAERT, Harry. 2015. Harry Gruyaert. London: Thames & Hudson.

KANDER, Nadav and Will SELF. 2014. Nadav Kander : Dust. Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

SOTH, Alec and Hanya YANAGIHARA. 2019. I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating. London: MACK.

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.

TUCKER, Anne, Ivan VARTANIAN, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KANBAYASHI. 2005. Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers. New York : London: Aperture.

Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development


Weeks 6 and 7: Reflections

Weeks 6 and 7 have flown by largely because my time was taken up with preparing the oral presentation and that has left me quite tired.

The coursework introduced some big subjects – chance, surrealism, psychogeography, subjective versus arbitrary, creative strategies – which will take a long time to digest.

Psychogeography is something I have probably done without realizing it. For example, in 2017 and 2018 I made regular trips to London in order to photograph the Regent’s Canal section by section. Typically, I would choose a nearby walk from an excellent series of guidebooks, London’s Hidden Walks, and concentrate on that and the nearby section of canal. So, London and the canal explored neighbourhood by neighbourhood, fitted into an afternoon stroll with a camera. It would not be hard to make a more formal extension of that into full-on psychogeography. It’s also something I have in mind to redo, this time as a proper project.

Chance, serendipity, surrealism and photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson are close to my heart so I warmed to that part of the coursework. However, I suspect there are a couple of potential traps here.

The first trap is that one cannot copy someone else’s sense of the surreal; it is unique to them. Attempts to emulate Cartier-Bresson will fail, in my view; he was completely sui generis. We each have to find our own path on that journey or we risk ending up like Robert Doisneau with too many sugary and faked (because set up and posed) images in the catalogue.

The second trap is thinking that it’s all about becoming some super-strength auteur with an eye so unerring it is almost snap and go. Notwithstanding William Eggleston saying “I only ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two”, it’s clear that many other photographers do not work in this way. One can see it instantly in, for example, Magnum Contact Sheets where one can watch the photographer taking frame after frame, circling round, trying this and that, zeroing in on the image that eventually defines the set when curated later. So for many of us (and certainly for me) getting those 50 images I am happy with probably means making around 5000 images, 4950 of which will hit the bit bucket. Even in the days of film this would still have meant a couple of rolls not a couple of frames.

I liked the reading about John Baldessari but I am unsure about how much arbitrariness I really want in my practice. It’s very important to stay open and open-minded, but it strikes me that imposing arbitrariness, which is what Baldessari often did, is no less an act of control freakery than manipulating the finest detail. It’s a mirror image but not radically different. And there was something quite cold and unemotional about the results which didn’t attract me.

I enjoyed the micro-project which in my case was the brief “Upside Down”. There is almost too much subject matter in this town. The frustration – I suppose my perfectionism – is that it was tough to fit it into a couple of hours give or take. I append the results at the end of this post.

I have done some study for my development project in the past two weeks but that will follow in a separate post.

LUBBEN, Kristen. 2017. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson.

MILLAR, Stephen. 2014. London’s Hidden Walks. 3 vols. London: Metro Publications.

TUCKER, Marcia. 2010. ‘John Baldessari: Pursuing the Unpredictable’. In Margaret IVERSEN and Whitechapel Art GALLERY (eds.). Chance. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 137–9.

Micro-project: Upside Down
Mark Crean (2019): Results of the Weeks 6-7 micro-project to the brief of Upside Down.

PHO701: Oral Presentation

This my oral presentation for the MA Photography course at Falmouth –  PHO701: Positions and Practice:

I am reprinting the video’s bibliography below, if anyone wants to consult it. This is largely for my own use because I will be returning to the sources later and need to add them to my Mendeley system.


Bischof, W. (2019). Werner Bischof [Online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/werner-bischof/ (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Brouws, J. (2019). Jeff Brouws [Online]. Available at: http://www.jeffbrouws.com/ (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Burri, R. (2019). René Burri [Online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/rene-burri/ (Accessed 27 October 2019).

Gruyaert, H. (2015). Harry Gruyaert. London: Thames & Hudson.

Gruyaert, H. (2019). Harry Gruyaert [Online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/harry-gruyaert (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Hido, T. (2016). Todd Hido – intimate distance : twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album. In Intimate distance. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.

Marlow, P. (2019). Peter Marlow [Online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/peter-marlow (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Mirzoeff, N. (2015). How to see the world. London: Pelican.

Moriyama, D., & Maggia, F. (2010). Daido Moriyama : the world through my eyes. Milan : London: Skira.

Nottsartshistory (2014). And now it’s dark: the American dream and suburban cultural landscapes in Jeff Brouws’ photography [Online]. Nottsarthistory. Available at: https://nottsarthistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/and-now-its-dark-the-american-dream-and-suburban-cultural-landscapes-in-jeff-brouws-photography/ (Accessed: 17 October 2019)

Oxford City Council (2019). Statistics [Online]. Oxford City Council. Available at: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20122/statistics (Accessed: 26 October 2019).

Rothko, Mark. Mark Rothko [Online]. MoMA. Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/5047 (Accessed: 26 October 2019).

Sontag, S. (2008). On photography. London: Penguin

Sugimoto, H. (2019). Hiroshi Sugimoto [Online]. Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/ (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Tanizaki, J., Harper, T. J. and Seidensticker, E. (2001). In praise of shadows. London: Vintage.

Victoria and Albert Museum (2019). Diane Arbus [Online]. V&A. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/diane-arbus/ (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Webb, Alex (2019). Alex Webb [Online]. Facebook. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/91403435348/posts/the-art-of-failurestreet-photography-is-999-percent-about-failure-so-often-i-fee/10156982821845349/ (Accessed: 28 October 2019).