PHO701: First Term Reflections

A large part of taking this course, apart from the challenge and the excitement, is in order to come to a clearer idea of what I don’t know, which is the most of it. That is the only place to start from. My impressions of the first term may therefore seem a little baffled, but they are these:

There is no such thing as an innocent or disingenuous photograph, not even a holiday snap. All photographs (all images, in fact, of which photographs are only a subset) reveal far more about both photographer and subject than either may realize.

Independent and well-reasoned criteria exist for assessing a photograph (or image) and placing it in a context. Without those one is at the crude level of ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. A key text in this regard has been Paul Martin Lester’s lesson in ‘Visual Analysis’ (Lester 2011: 115-132).

There is no such thing as a single, stand-alone photograph. A photograph is always part of a much larger whole. It will have arisen in stream of images and so will have been curated, just as it will have arisen in a steam of time and human experience of which it is only a slice. The photograph will have arisen in a particular era and culture and will have been framed and made by a particular personality. The photograph is like a leaf on a river of ideas that change all the time (Instagram is barely a decade old, for example). A photograph can be de-embedded, of course, and perhaps placed without attribution in an archive on a far-away continent. But in that case its original meanings will have changed completely and the photograph may need to be regarded as, now, a completely different document. Indexicality is both plain and surprisingly slippery.

The photographer is not stand-alone. Far from being a lonely auteur, he or she is embedded in a web of activity – social, professional, artistic, familial. One of the most interesting parts of the first term has been the cooperative assignments and those, like the oral presentation, that involved placing oneself in a web of others.

If the photographer is not stand-alone, then two more words come to the fore: gaze and ethics. The photographer needs to be aware that he or she is embedded in a society that looks at things in particular ways (not all of them desirable) and which organizes itself according to particular ethical and legal codes. Forget all that and one could be in trouble, literally.

And if the photograph is not stand-alone then another word comes to the fore: narrative. A photograph can tell or suggest a story within itself but it is also part of a much larger story which the photographer may choose to tell or to withhold. One of the pleasures of the first term has been discovering the excitement and complexities of stories and narratives – or projects. Two key texts in this regard have been Grant Scott’s ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015: 82-109) and Alec Soth’s marvellous visual essay Sleeping by the Mississippi (Soth 2017). Both have helped me to appreciate that there is so much more to photography than I once thought.

Finally, this term has shown me that making and viewing photographs is also an experience which, like all experiences, language cannot fully describe. Photographs are all about time and what we may take for reality, but time and reality are very challenging ideas for almost everyone, except perhaps for a great philosopher. We do not really understand them, and perhaps that is why photography has always hovered at the edges of art, news, culture, family, social relations. It is difficult to pin down.

Photography is essentially mysterious. No one can ever ‘capture reality’. We make a mental image of a tiny part of something and communicate the result to a viewer who in turn forms a mental image of what they see. Reality in this regard is a mental construct. It is our mind that turns a 2D print into a 3D world and again our mind that draws feelings and inferences from an illusion on a piece of paper or a screen.

This is the understanding that informs the most interesting book of the term for me, Camera Lucida (Barthes 2000). By withholding the key image of the text – the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his mother, if in fact there ever was one – Barthes obliges every reader to create their own Winter Garden, turn it over in the mind, ruminate on it, analyse it, respect it, and by so doing perhaps learn a little more about what photography is, and perhaps about who we are, than simply by reading yet another narrative history of the medium that lays out the story like cold plates upon a table.

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

LESTER, Paul Martin. 2011. ‘Visual Analysis’, in Paul Martin LESTER. (ed.) Visual Communication: Images With Messages. 5th. ed. Boston, MA.: Wadsworth, 115–132.

SCOTT, Grant. 2015. ‘The Power of the Personal Project’, in Grant SCOTT (ed.) Professional Photography: the New Global Landscape Explained. New York: Focal Press, 82–109. Available at: [accessed 19 January 2020].

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