Weeks 10 and 11: Reflections

Weeks 10 and 11 shot by and were much taken up with preparing my portfolio of work in progress and my research project proposal. The result is that I have not been able to spend as much time on an introduction to critical theory as I would like.

I liked the Preface by Mark Durden to Fifty Key Writers on Photography (Durden 2013: xviii-xxii) in the week’s readings. It has given me a good place to start, a book to read and the beginnings of a map to guide me. I also warmed to his awareness of the issues and ideas now thrown up by the digital age: “there is the sense of a growing new body of writing attentive to the ways in which photography becomes integral to the global flow of digital information” (Durden 2013: xxi). This sounds much more interesting to me than having to plough through what I suspect may be but hope won’t be the rather turgid writings of dry and dusty academics. It is where we are today and may be going tomorrow that fire me up even though, of course, we also need to understand how we got here.

The articles on Tierney Gearon (Gearon, 2001) and Sally Mann (Mann, 2015) were sad, in a word. The issue seems the same in both cases: consent. They were making their children the centre of a very public photographic practice, but children cannot give informed consent. This is bound to run into difficult ethical issues which remain whether one likes or dislikes the images and subject-matter. More interesting to me were the dates – this was something from the 1990s mostly. I wonder whether society had got slightly ahead of many artists at that time. The artists were still embedded in a traditional fine arts world, but in society at large there was a general but semi-conscious awareness that huge changes were coming as the result of the internet and, now with hindsight, the social media tsunami that rolled in less than a decade later. New and much more careful ethical considerations were going to be needed.

The last of the week’s readings, the interview with Laura Letinsky, is full of ideas and connections (Farstad, 2004). I found it fascinating and l hope I’ll re-read it a few times. What emerges for me is the importance of a healthy interest in lots of different things, not just in a single pursuit – lateral thinking needs variety, and in fact that can come from a plate of leftover food (in Letinsky’s own example) just as much as from a Caravaggio. And also that like others, Letinsky found using a 4×5 field camera changed her practice by forcing her to slow down and take a different approach. I have never used such a camera but I am noticing more and more references to large-format film photography in my reading at the moment. Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something …

DURDEN, M. (2013) Fifty key writers on photography. London: Routledge (Routledge key guides).

FARSTAD, J. (2004) ‘Interview with Laura Letinsky’ in Mouth to Mouth. Available at: http://www.mouthtomouthmag.com/letinsky.html (Accessed: 1 December 2019).

GEARON, T. (2001) ‘Where is the sex?’ Available at: https://www.theguardian.com… (Accessed: 1 December 2019).

MANN, S. (2015) ‘Sally Mann’s Exposure in The New York Times’. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com… (Accessed: 2 December 2019).

Week 9: Research Project Development

I was able to get out and shoot at night a couple of times this week. The weather cleared a bit allowing me to make some time-lapse and longer-exposure images which I had been waiting to do. Contact sheet attached.

I think I have worked out a reasonable way of progressing the project. Oxford can be disassembled, if you will, into four distinct parts: the old university city, the Victorian expansion, the interwar expansion and 1930s estates, and the newer postwar areas including the 15-mile Oxford ring road.

I will need to study these areas and work my way through them systematically, keeping in mind three key themes: the impact of the university and the new global elitism of the city centre, the neon and general commercial blare of the modern city at night, and the impact of the first two on those who live among them but who are often marginalised or prevented by lack of opportunity or wealth from full participation.

It is clear that I am going to need more skills to make a proper job of this. These include a knowledge of psychogeography and of transient and liminal contexts, and better portrait skills for any candid documentary work. So there are some items to add to an agenda.

Mark Crean (2019): Week9-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Time-lapse photographs in central Oxford.

Week 9: Reflections

The week shot past much taken up with my portfolio of work in progress. However, the coursework involved two of the most helpful readings so far.

The first was Hans Obrist’s “The Kitchen”, his account of mounting an exhibition in his own home. (Obrist, 2015: 81-87) There was a lovely chain of circumstances. First, an unlikely but very convincing connection made by an economics professor between medieval alchemy and paper money. Then an idea for an exhibition which wasn’t conceived by Obrist himself but suggested to him by his friends. And then an exhibition which by this stage was a group exhibition too.

Each link in the chain made something more of the original idea and a combination of artists made the whole greater than its parts. Besides, as Obrist pointed out, citing the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, there is a long and successful tradition of the home as a theatre for the arts. It happens here in Oxford every year when scores of artists open their homes for the ArtWeeks festival in May.

The second reading was Grant Scott’s “The Power of the Personal Project”, full of grounded, knowledgeable, practical suggestions. (Scott, 2015: 82-109) He set out not only why personal projects are very important – because they nurture creativity which feeds back into professional work – but how to approach, conceive and execute one. I value his distinction between emotional projects and intellectual ones. I liked being introduced to the work of Jim Mortram, a great example of what can be achieved even within a short radius of one’s own home.

Two things emerge here for me. The first is the importance of lateral thinking. New ideas can come from the most unexpected directions so it is important to nurture a range of different interests and activities. Nothing should be ruled out and an obsessive interest in just one thing is likely to dull you.

The second is the power of the network and especially in both these cases the human network. The internet can be hugely helpful but is not enough and as we all realize by now it can become a trap. Nothing beats the richness of human contact. Neither Obrist nor Mortram would have been able to do what they did without other people. There would have been no exhibition in Obrist’s case because the idea came not from him but from his friends. In Mortram’s case there would have been no subjects and no human interest – and it is the human interest in his story that has made his project such a success.

So, overall, very productive readings which will help my practice a lot, I hope.

OBRIST, H. U. (2015) ‘The Kitchen’, in Obrist, H. U. and Raz̤ā, A. (eds) Ways of curating. London: Penguin, pp. 81–87.

SCOTT, G. (2015) ‘The Power of the Personal Project’, in Scott, G. (ed.) Professional photography: the new global landscape explained. New York: Focal Press, pp. 82–109.