PHO702 Week 7: Vision 2020

Vision 2020 at Falmouth was above all fun, informative and enjoyable. I really liked the theme of sustainability and climate change because the presentations showed me how much I don’t know about the world today and the outlook of those who in a few years will be running it.

Standouts: the workshops on studio lighting, medium format photography, speedlights and preparation for print. The first two were entirely new subjects for me and both were fascinating. I particularly liked the way medium format imposes its own slower and more considered approach to making photographs.

Zed Nelson’s film The Street was a definite high point (Nelson 2019). I have walked that street in Hoxton countless times and never noticed the half of it. This is a great example of the power of in-depth research and it also raises a point about hyper-realism: the extent to which stills and film show us what is really there but usually hidden by our own inattention and the flow of time. The Street is a fine example of visual storytelling with so many lives woven in and out of the film. And these lives raised so many ‘what if’ questions: what if the developers had left the street alone, where is he moving to, will the pie and mash shop survive, what if Colleen had married her beau all those years ago? An image is only a fleeting slice of time but as the film showed, in reality that time stretches back seven or eight decades in the memory of some. To them that time is real and in its many interviews with the street’s residents the film brought that time to life.

The Street is also a story about the often confusing and brutal realities of change in modern Britain with its unequal power dynamics. This has encouraged me to reflect on the degree to which I too am involved in a project which will tell a story whether I like it or not. Therefore it is up to me to identify the story I am in fact telling, analyse it and identify its key elements. So, a bitter-sweet and compelling work that is helpful for my practice.

I was deeply impressed by the quality of the work and enormous care that had gone into each of the FMJ presentations. And I really appreciated the longer presentations by Toby Smith on ‘Visualising Climate Change’ and also Jo Coombes’ work on the Adgreen agency. Both struck me as great examples of how to build a career (or photographic practice) ethically, intelligently and with purpose. The do’s and don’t of marketing one’s work effectively were helpful in both cases – something else I need to know a lot more about.

Penryn is a lovely campus. The welcome was warm. The thought and preparation that had gone into Vision 2020 were awesome. I am very grateful and hope to visit again next year. It’s too good to miss!

NELSON, Zed. 2019. The Street [Film]. London: Verve Pictures

PHO702 Week 6: Work in Progress

The topics in Week 6 have led me to think about the importance of context and decoding in my practice, the kind of power dynamics that may be going on in it, and how my work may be received by others – my audience.

Well, I could start by saying that I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class male – all true but also an invitation to self-castigation. All I can do is try to be as aware as possible of the influences that have formed me.

Context and decoding mean that I need to think carefully about what I am looking at before I press the shutter. I need to ask myself ‘What is really going on here?’ Otherwise, the danger is that I will end up photographing surfaces – shiny and alluring no doubt – but miss the dynamics of what lies beneath them.

Power dynamics lead straight to ethics. As a photographer I have a fair degree of control. I can choose when I press the shutter but my subjects cannot choose when or how they are photographed. I need to be aware of that and not objectify people or places.

The wider context of my work is that for the moment at least I am following in the footsteps of practitioners such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power. This is all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, expressing the uncanny, not glossing over difficult social realities and power imbalances, and not privileging any particular thing over another. Everything is potentially material for my lens. In the words of Stephen Shore, ‘To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photograph is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.’ (O’Hagan 2015)

This feeds into thoughts about the audience for my work. These are photographers known for their books and so my intent is for a book in same tradition. A question to resolve is how to tell a story in such a book because a book tells a story whether one wants it to or not. Story-teling is very much a work in progress for me.

There are, however, many different kinds of book. This week has helped me to think about that. I do plan a fairly conventional photography book but looking at the practice of Dyanita Singh has led me to think that in addition I could produce many variant ‘books’. (Singh 2020). A ‘book’ can also be a box, a frame or a concertina containing cards not pages. Dyanita Singh, for example, offers her images in sets of many different formats.

SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. Pothi Box.
Fig.1: Dyanita Singh 2018. ‘The Pothi Box, an unbound book of 30 image cards held together in a wooden structure. It is meant to be hung on a wall or placed as an object on a table. The structure has been built to allow the collector to change the front image as often as they like. The image cards, however, exist as a set of 30 and are not meant to be separated from each other or the box.’ (Singh 2020)

Now, my work in progress this week. The first two slides contain material from Richard Misrach and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, text and images. This is the intent I tried to keep in my mind as I went out to photograph.

Richard Misrach Georgui Pinkhassov
Fig. 2. Richard Misrach and Georgui Pinkhassov

Richard Misrach Georgui Pinkhassov
Fig. 3. Richard Misrach and Georgui Pinkhassov

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 9: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 12: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 13: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.



HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2015. ‘Shady Character: How Stephen Shore Taught America to See in Living Colour’. [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

PINKHASSOV, Gueorguy. 1998. Sightwalk. London: Phaidon.

PINKHASSOV, Gueorgui. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification – Magnum Photos’. [online]. Available at: [accessed 6 Mar 2020].

SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. ‘Dayanita Singh’. [online]. Available at [accessed 4 Mar 2020].


Figure 1. Dyanita SINGH. 2018. ‘The Pothi Box’. Dyanita Singh [online]. Available at: [accessed 9 Feb 2020].
Figure 2: Melissa HARRIS, 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020];  Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: [accessed 6 Mar 2020].
Figures 3. Richard MISRACH. 1975. Saguaro Cactus; Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2018. Blackpool illuminations.
Figures 4-13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.


PHO702 Week 6: A Sea of Images

Two things in particular stood out for me this week. First is the degree to which our images put out a view of the world – an ideology, in fact – whether we are aware of it or not. And second, that in a largely visual culture now almost drowning in images, it is easy to forget that what we may take to be real, solid, permanent very often isn’t at all. What is required here is what Andy Grundberg identified in his review of the 1988 exhibition ‘Odyssey: the Art of Photography at National Geographic’ (Grundberg 1998): ‘Rather than approach the Geographic archive as a resource that required decoding and a context, they apparently settled for connoisseurship. … what is required is a critical point of view’ (Grundberg 1998).

So what arises is the question of objectification in images, intentional or otherwise. While this was certainly the case in the long-gone glory days of National Geographic and its coverage of tribal cultures around the world, in fairness National Geographic never claimed to offer more than ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. Like Life magazine, National Geographic was a very successful piece of popular culture, and perhaps it still is though much of its output is now online. National Geographic offered a window on the world to many people who had no other and it also offered a host of science-based articles on animal behaviour, biology, archaeology and so on. It is easy to be overly critical of the National Geographic approach. In the magazine’s heyday, many of its readers would have been aware of a very different reality – war, famine and chaos – around the world offered to them nightly on TV news, so perhaps they saw through the dream too but enjoyed it all the same.

Nevertheless, the need for contextualization and decoding remains and is important. (They are, to begin with, a foundational approach to dealing with advertising.) Examples are the objects of popular culture decoded with striking insight by Roland Barthes in Mythologies (Barthes 2009). This approach has been wittily updated by Peter Conrad in his BBC Radio 4 series 21st Century Mythologies (Conrad 2014). The upshot is that is it easy to see the surface and miss the deeper picture, whether it is the story and power dynamics behind the Nando’s Chicken franchise or the Shard (Conrad) or behind wrestling spectacles or steak frites (Barthes). Many practitioners do try to contextualize their work, too. Stephen Shore has talked widely about his practice (Shaw 2018), as has Richard Misrach (Harris 2015). The essays and reviews of Robert Adams can all be read as contextualizations of his landscape practice (Adams 1981) which then emerges in bodies of work such as Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986).

However, the message of the week is that the sheer number of images in our world makes contextualization and decoding both harder and more important than it used to be. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 79). In Simulcra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggested that the modern world’s multiplication of signs, symbols and images leads us to take representations for reality, or even representations of representations for reality (Baudrillard 1994). Baudrillard went on to say that ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland … The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp’ (Baudrillard 1994: 12-13). – statements that have stuck because, I suspect, they are both absurd and strangely true at the same time.

A final point. Images can also show us what we cannot normally see, often because something happens too quickly for our ordinary vision. In this regard images can heighten our reality – the hyper-real. This is a problem in the Baudrillardian sense because we can only actually see a representation of what happened – for example, a bullet passing through an object in a millisecond. However, this is also a source of art and freedom. At their best, images which catch these things freeze a moment from the flow of time and offer it to us as something that was there – a fleeting combination of elements – but which normally we simply would not notice. An example is this tableau by Alex Webb, a moment when everything came together, then fell apart (Webb 2020).

WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti
Fig. 1: Alex Webb 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti.

I shall be covering my work in progress and how this week’s idea impact it in a following post.


ADAMS, Robert. 1981. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Millertown, N.Y. : New York: Aperture .

ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

CONRAD, Peter. 2014. 21st Century Mythologies. [radio broadcast]. BBC Radio 4, 2014.

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1998. ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. New York Times 18 Sep [online]. Available at: [accessed 04 Mar 2020]

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. MOMA video [online]. Available at: [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

WEBB, Alex. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Mar 2020].


Figure 1. Alex WEBB. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti. From: Alex WEBB. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Mar 2020].

PHO702: Mark Power

I have been much enjoying the work of Mark Power, particularly his long-running and ongoing series Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Power is working here within a long tradition of American documentary photographers, and photographers of the man-made landscape, going back to Walker Evans and then Robert Frank and through photographers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, among many.

From some angles this now substantial body of work can be seen as the Great American Road Trip (O’Hagan 2014) – both Power and Sternfeld have crisscrossed the United States – but in some ways that is to trivialize their work. What really interests me here at the moment is the degree of social comment and engagement among photographers as the American Dream soured and then became the grim landscape of dereliction and inequality that we can see today (and see too in many other countries including Britain). It is this unfolding historical process that connects my own practice to their work because in photographing my home town I am confronted with some of the same social questions that have confronted others in the United States.

To my eye there has been a noticeable move away from the more aesthetically based practice of Eggleston and Shore, what has been call the ‘beautiful mysterious’. It is possible to find social comment in Eggleston but that never seems much of an intent. For example, Eggleston’s Unititled (Memphis) of 1970 in Figure 1 may well contain social comment, in its utter banality and with the contrast between the poised and coiffured woman and the heavy metal chain suggesting perhaps the limited and confined role of women a patriarchal society. However, these points if there at all are never overtly stated.

Fig. 1: William Eggleston 1970. Untitled (Memphis).

When we move forward and consider Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects of 1987, however, we can find some real bite and anger, images that sometimes suggest nothing much has changed since the Great Depression (Sternfeld 2003). See Figure 2, for example. Sternfeld is also good on immigration, portraying poor Latin American workers long before this floated up to near the top of the political agenda.

Fig. 2: Joel Sternfeld 1983. Family in a car in Tent City outside Houston, Texas.

Mark Power’s work in Good Morning, America strikes me as showing the same engagement and bite as Sternfeld, but Power tempers this with an acute, distanced and almost cerebral approach to what he has actually chosen to photograph. His are considered works, in part a consequence of using a tripod and a plate camera (now substituted for a digital back). In his own words:

‘My pictures are all about layers of information as well as detail. I make pictures which are in sharp focus right across the picture plain, so beyond the framing I impose I’m not dictating what the viewer should look at. Therefore, one can come to the pictures carrying the baggage of one’s own prejudices or, indeed, personal interests. You might call them democratic photographs. All I’m trying to do is to show what is happening in front of me as factually as I possibly can’ (Cannell 2018).

There is (I presume) a nod to Eggleston here in Power’s ‘democratic photographs’. However, it is really helpful to learn how these masterful photographers approach their own work. A phrase attributed to Power sums it up: think, shoot, think. The message here is that I need to spend time on the streets, enough time to allow the images to come to me, and that nothing is gained by rushing around trying to create social engagement where in truth none exists. Another view of Power’s practice from a critic:

He approaches the American landscape omnivorously, pulling in countless details so that a single picture takes on several interlocking issues. His frame is rational and studied, lending a sense of order to the chaos of highway overpasses, street signs, and power lines that litter the built environment. By shooting with a degree of physical distance and assuring each plane is in sharp focus, Power’s photographs maintain a seemingly objective point of view that leaves ample room for the viewer to wrestle with their own biases and proclivities as they work their way through the layers of information vividly presented to them (Harris 2019).

Here are two examples of Power’s work. Figure 3 shows a mysterious reddish building in Victoria, Texas. Its gaudy neon embellishments could be straight out of the practice of Eggleston three decades ago. In fact, however, this building is a bail bond office, not a bar or nightclub. The bail bond industry and the whole notion of this imposition on the poor  – in some ways the public face of the penal system for many – are a hugely divisive issue in America today. This isn’t something I can imagine Eggleston or Shore covering, but today it seems to me that one cannot not cover it.

Mark Power 2018. Victoria, Texas.
Fig. 3: Mark Power 2018. Victoria, Texas.

The second image in Figure 4 is a wonderful example of studium and punctum: a sad and derelict building photographed straight-on – no creative angles or touches here – until you notice the sign.

Mark Power 2017. Selma, Alabama.
Fig. 4: Mark Power 2017. Selma, Alabama.2017.


BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2017. ‘Joel Sternfeld on His Classic American Prospects – and His New Work’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

CANNELL, Stevie. 2018. ‘Magnum Photographer Mark Power on Capturing the America of His Childhood’. HERO Magazine 4 Dec [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

CHANDLER, David. 2018. ‘Photographer Mark Power Documents the Collapse of the American Dream’. Financial Times 2 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

HAMITON, Peter. 2019. ‘On the Road with Mark Power’. British Journal of Photography 31 May [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

HARRIS, Gregory. 2019. ‘Cracks in the Façade of the American Dream – Mark Power’. Magnum Photos 17 Jul [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Mark Power – Photographer Profile’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2017. ‘The Drifter: Joel Sternfeld on His Sly Glimpses of Wild America – Seen from the Endless Highway’. The Guardian 11 Jan [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2014. ‘The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip Review – a Survey of Photographers’ Journeys’. The Guardian 30 Nov [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

STERNFELD, Joel, Katy SIEGEL, Kerry BROUGHER, Andy GRUNDBERG and Anne TUCKER. 2003. American Prospects. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl; London: Thames & Hudson.


Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970. Untitled (Memphis).
Figure 2. Joel STERNFELD. 1983. Family in a car in Tent City outside Houston, Texas.
Figure 3. Mark POWER. 2018. Victoria, Texas. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
Figure 4. Mark POWER. 2017. Selma, Alabama 2017. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

PHO702 Week 5: Work in Progress

The topic this week was the Gaze. I went out with the gaze of William Eggleston as my intent, or at least that of the ‘Beautiful Mysterious’ which is the title of a recent book on his practice (Adabie 2019).

First, here are four images by Eggleston that I tried to keep in mind as my intent, followed by some of my own work in progress. The idea is that nothing before my lens is favoured, but nothing is rejected either. I am looking for the special in the ordinary.

EGGLESTON, William. 1970-5. 'The Beautiful Mysterious'.
Fig. 1: William Eggleston 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’ (after Abadie 2019).

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 12: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.


ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.


Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’ (after Abadie 2019).
Figures 2-12. Mark CREAN, 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze and My Practice

In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:

… all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal (Harris 2015).

Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.

To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.

I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.

First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig,1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.

For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.

CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2019. Oxford at Night.

Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:

First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.

I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.

There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.


ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 February 2020].


Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze

The gaze – how we look at and in turn are looked at – is a wide and complex subject. I am not sure how much I have taken in after barely a week’s acquaintance so I have divided this topic into two parts. Here, I will say what I understand so far about the gaze and in the next post I will try to explain how I think it impacts my photographic practice.

The consensus is that the gaze is about power. It is the expression of a society’s power relations and the degree to which we objectify others. Photography itself is also an expression of power.

The best definition I have found so far is from Sturken and Cartwright: ‘To gaze is to enter into a relational activity of looking. … The gaze, whether institutional or individual, thus helps to establish relationships of power. The act of looking is commonly regarded as awarding more power to the person who is the object of the look. The traditional of institutional photography, in which prisoners, mental patients, and people of various types were photographed and catalogued … function to varying degrees to represent codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness’ (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 94, 111).

Ironically, the gaze is easiest to see when furthest away. It is very hard to see in oneself. Thus is it not hard to recognize the colonial gaze fixed upon unruly natives, the cold gaze of the penal system (‘mugshots’), the dehumanizing forensic stare of the medical gaze at least in the nineteenth century or the bizarre humiliations arising from the gaze of crackpot theories like eugenics. There are also the gazes of class and privilege – think Eton or Harrow, household servants, miners or today migrants and refugees. See Figure 1.

Jimmy Syme-toughs-v-toffs-1937
Fig. 1.: Jimmy Syme 1937. Toffs and Toughs. This classic image was taken outside the Grace Gates at Lord’s Cricket Ground during the Eton v Harrow cricket match. However, it is important to remember that the class (power) relations it shows are mediated by both the photographer’s choices and the context in which the image was shown (a newspaper).

But all that, one might argue, is ancient history. In recent years critics and practitioners have turned their attention to the gazes that define the power relations of the contemporary. Thus the male gaze and patriarchy in general have become a key element of feminist discourse (Mulvey 1975) and extend into subjects not immediately obvious, such as landscape photography (Bright 1985). This in turn has spawned an interest in the female gaze (Jansen 2017). I suppose I should bring in voyeurism and scopophilia here but I will try to cover those in my next post.

These things are important because they define the fault lines that run through our societies now. For example, our attitudes towards disability, race, ethnicity and gender have changed greatly in the past half century. How we look – our gaze – reflects those changes. Unless we are aware of these things, we will understand neither current social issues nor artists and practitioners creatively involved with them. Another example is the many expressions of the gaze and of social issues in portrait photography (Angier 2015).

However, in each case it is important to remember that the gaze is mediated by the photographer. How the photographer chooses to make the image is also a form of gaze and will have a influence on how we read the result. This matters because visual experience is not nearly so straightforward as we may think.

Vision is a reciprocal process and reality is largely a mental construct. That what we see is created inside our heads – a blend of vision, personal experience and learned behaviour – is in the opening verses of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). James Elkins has the modern take on this: ‘My principal argument has been that vision is forever incomplete and uncontrollable because it is used to shape our sense of what we are. Objects molt and alter in accord with what we need them to be, and we change ourselves by the mere acting of seeing’ (Elkins 1997: 237).

Looking as a culturally determined and learned behaviour has a long history. Larry Friedlander has an interesting essay on this considering among other things Rembrandt’s portraits, particularly his self-portraits, and ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez (Friedlander 2011). Of course both Rembrandt and Velázquez were expressing their own conditioning and the cultural assumptions of their time, but the point is that their paintings suggest they were well aware that a complex and reciprocal process of ‘looking at’ was involved.

The object does indeed stare back and each time we look at it both we and the object have changed. By the time one gets to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863), the process has become much clearer and both the nature of the gaze and our ability to understand what is going on are far more overt. ‘Olympia’ caused a stir we can very easily understand today, given that it depicts a courtesan who is defiantly not submissive: ‘the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position’ ( Butler 1990: vii). See Figure 2.

Fig. 2: Edouard Manet 1863. Olympia. The ‘Odalisque’ stares back.

The study of painting makes clear that the gaze is not binary. We look at and are looked at, but we also look into a painting (or text) and the objects inside it may look back at us and/or at each other, or they simply look outside the frame altogether. And in photographic terms, the lens adds a kind of meta-gaze across the whole field. This is a cat’s cradle of reciprocity and is not at all easy to unpick.

Two final points have arisen from this for me. First, in none of the week’s readings has there been much mention of wonder, curiosity, lyricism, even joy, or the calm and neutral meditative gaze encouraged by for example Zen Buddhism and which has in turn inspired a whole movement in contemplative and dharma arts including photography. One might argue that these are hardly pressing social issues but it is wearisome to live in a world of politics alone, one that has no time for the extraordinary talents of a Lartigue.

Second, I wonder whether it is possible to flip the gaze. The key ingredient here is trust. This is a subject well touched on by Teju Cole discussing the work of African photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Zanele Muholi in the post-colonial and post-apartheid eras (Cole 2017: 121-5). Once there was fear and distrust but after independence people were able to meet as equals and therefore as themselves. Keïta’s famous ‘Odalisque’ (‘Reclining Woman’ from the 1950s–1960s) offers a proud, free, independent woman. And as Cole says of Muholi, ‘ … she shows people as they wish to be seen. … Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence – they are independent – but she makes their independence visible’ (Cole 2017: 124). See Figure 3.

Fig. 3: Zaneli. Muholi 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

In other words, the gaze and its politicising tendencies are a form of imprisonment. We impose our values on something and thereby objectify it. But when people trust that they are meeting as independent equals, there is no need for such power plays. The gaze falls away, leaving what it was always trying to deny or to destroy: freedom.


ANGIER, Roswell. 2015. Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. 2nd edn. London: Fairchild Books/Bloomsbury.

BRIGHT, Deborah. 1985. ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’. Exposure 23(1), Winter [online]. Available at [accessed 25 February 2020].

BUTLER, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, vii

COLE, Teju. 2017. Known and Strange Things : Essays. London: Faber & Faber.

ELKINS, James. 1997. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

FRIEDLANDER, Larry. 2011. ‘Friending the Virgin’. SAGE Open 1(2), 215824401141542 [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Feb 2020].

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

JANSEN, Charlotte. 2017. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. British Journal of Photography (Issue 7859. Vol. 164. May 2017). London: British Journal of Photography.

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 February 2020].

STURKEN, Marita and Lisa CARTWRIGHT. 2009. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press.


Figure 1. Jimmy SYME. 1937. Toffs and Toughs.
Figure 2. Edouard MANET. 1863. ‘Olympia’. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Figure 3. Muholi ZANELI. 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

PHO702: The Uncanny

The uncanny has a chequered history. According to the OED it was not until at least the late eighteenth century that the word acquired something of its modern meaning; ‘Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c1850.)’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2020). Perhaps that is also true of other cultures and is why Freud devoted so much of his essay on The Uncanny to investigating the term’s meaning and origins (Freud 2003), although Freud was of course investigating the German term unheimlich.

‘Uncanny’ at one time seems to have been a rather vague put-down. An example is Alfred Horsley Hinton, editor of Amateur Photographer, criticizing some of  Steichen’s work in 1904 (for example, Steichen’s images of New York’s Flatiron Building): ’I admire Steichen’s work for myself but it is the admiration one feels for something strange and uncanny – I can’t think that such work is healthy or would in this country have a beneficial influence’ (Rahmlow 2016). Horsley couldn’t understand the symbolic, impressionistic, subjective nature of Steichen’s work and clearly yearned for something bracingly noble and simple to understand, a statue of Prince Albert perhaps.

Thus Freud’s essay of 1919, which has set the tone for our modern understanding of the uncanny, was also a much-needed housecleaning and forensic examination. Freud called the uncanny ‘that species of frightening which goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud 2003: 124) and he tried to locate this in the unconscious and repression, at first in the infantile castration complex and then later and especially in the repression of death. Freud also located the uncanny in the repression of what he called ‘insurmountable primitive beliefs’ that he believed modern man still carried deep in the psyche. This is not an expression that would find favour today. We might now refer to traditional belief systems (for example the myths and beliefs of the San people or of indigenous cultures in Australia). More generically, we might even refer to primal instincts, and there is no doubt that in darkness our sense do change, become more prickly and alert to danger.

Interestingly, Freud invoked Otto Rank’s idea of the double or doppelgänger in this process: ‘The double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, “an energetic denial of the power of death”’ (Freud 2003: 141).

Photographs are of course doubles (and Freud’s essay is full of eyes and seeing as symbols of the castration complex). The indexicality of photographs makes them ghostly doubles of reality but their subjective representational aspects always produce uncertainty. In addition, photographs disturb our sense of time. They show us the past in the present moment, both dead and strangely alive. This is Barthes’ ‘noeme (that-has-been’)’ and he spent a great deal of Camera Lucida exploring it (Barthes 2000). In discussing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne, for example, Barthes writes: ‘But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake’ (Barthes 2000: 96). Both Barthes and Sontag saw the photograph as a species of memento mori and in Camera Lucida Barthes wrote of how society tends to repress the threatening unruliness of art: ‘Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.’ (Barthes 2000: 117). In sum, as Nicholas Middleton writes in his study of the uncanny and photography, ‘Death is the ultimate incarnation of the abstract that is the uncanny’ (Middleton 2020).

I had not realized just how long and complex the story of art and the uncanny actually is. There is already Gothic horror in the eighteenth century and a plethora of dark imaginings in the nineteenth century as the strangeness of an increasingly urban world began to take hold. Ideas of the uncanny were incorporated by the Surrealists, because the yoking together of two completely unexpected elements can provoke that unsettling sensation of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context, after Freud. Examples are Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’ of 1921 and some of Lee Miller’s marvellously original photographs. See Figures 1 and 2.

Fig. 1: Man Ray 1921. Cadeau.

Fig. 2: Lee Miller 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.

Today the uncanny is perennially popular. It can be experienced in the alien but still recognizable suburban world of many of J.G Ballard’s novels and it is a staple of the cinema (one thinks of the unsettling creepiness of many Hitchcock films). The same is true of science fiction’s replicants and cyborgs. They take us back to the robotic Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman which Freud analysed in his original essay and forwards to a contemporary interest in cutting-edge robotics and automata (Tronstad 2008).

The uncanny also takes us to a rich history in photography. I was very interested to see that an entire exhibition was recently devoted to it, ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ (Tique Magazine 2016).

The most useful survey of the modern uncanny I have found so far is by Caterina Albano in Esse Arts (Albano 2008). I particularly like the way she links the uncanny to a contemporary visual culture in which death is airbrushed away and meaning dissipates amid a bewildering display of Baudrillardian signs and simulacra: ‘Both psychoanalytically and culturally, the notion of the uncanny is increasingly inscribed within a discourse that invests estrangement, alienation and the other. Julia Kristeva poignantly underlines the experience of strangeness and depersonalisation as integral to the construction of contemporary subjectivity’ (Albano 2008). This is a very postmodern condition.

How does all this affect my practice? Since this is a large and complex subject, that will take time. I can begin, however, by realizing two things. First, that the estrangement and alienation of modern urban life are fertile ground for the uncanny. And second, that the uncanny works by combination to produce cognitive dissonance: the familiar with the unfamiliar, the expected with the unexpected and the presence of one thing with the absence of another. Like photography itself, these are all doubles.


ALBANO, Caterina. 2008. ‘Uncanny: A Dimension in Contemporary Art’. Esse Arts + Opinions [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

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

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin.

MIDDLETON, Nicholas. 2005. ‘Photography & The Uncanny’.  Photography & The Uncanny [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY. 2020. ‘Uncanny, Adj. : Oxford English Dictionary’. Oxford English Dictionary [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

RAHMLOW, Kurt E. 2016. ‘The Admiration One Feels for Something Strange and Uncanny: Impressionism, Symbolism, and Edward Steichen’s Submissions to the 1905 London Photographic Salon’. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 15 (1), Spring 2016 [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.

TIQUE MAGAZINE. 2016. ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’. Tique [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].

TRONSTAD, Ragnhild. 2008. ‘The Uncanny in New Media Art’. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16(2-3), Feb-Mar 2008 [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].


Figure 1. Man RAY. 1921. Cadeau. From: TATE. 2020. ‘The Uncanny – Art Term’. TATE [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Lee MILLER. 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.

PHO702 Week 4: Advertising

My understanding is that the point of the week’s overall topic – advertising – is to learn how to study and ‘read’ an image very carefully in order to tease out the intent(s) the image expresses. This is particularly clear in the case of advertising because by its very nature the advertisement is highly likely to be full of manipulative or hidden intents in order to persuade us to do something not necessarily in our best interests – following on from Barthes’ classic exposition of the (Panzani) advertisement in his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes 1977).

Such a study can then be put to very good use when we focus on the intent in the images we make ourselves. And it is also true that the images we make ourselves may contain hidden messages – that is, unconscious assumptions or biases we have not yet revealed to ourselves but which others can see.

So overall, I found this a very useful lesson. However, not an easy lesson to learn because in the case of advertising I am simply an oppositional person to all forms of it because I am looking at an advert. I am not really a fully signed-up member of the status quo and I try quite hard to keep advertising and other intrusive things (like ‘news’ which isn’t and lots of TV) out of my life. This means that dominant and negotiated readings (to bring in the full trifecta) don’t come into my view of advertising whereas they do very much with, for examples, the practice of other photographers or with cinema.

However, looking is a reciprocal process. Looking at an advert can change the way I think, and knowing more about its background can change how I think about it too. For example, I did not know when I wrote below about a Nespresso advert that George Clooney had used some of his endorsement fees to support the people of the Sudan (Nguyen 2013). Or that Clooney recently expressed support for a report which revealed the user of child labour on coffee plantations in Guatemala (Guardian 2020). Good man. It’s just a job and it is only an advert.

Anyway, this is an abbreviated version of what I wrote about advertising in the weekly discussion forum:

This is a Nestlé Nespresso advertisement featuring George Clooney who is or was the face of the brand.

Fig. 1: An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

As with all advertisements, I think it pays to look first at what the parent corporation says about its brand values:

‘Nespresso is not just a coffee. It is a sensorial experience. It is a lifestyle that is simple yet refined, offering timeless elegance … We continually infuse our brand with original ideas, flavours and innovations … Nespresso enhances the consumer experience with creative offerings at every touchpoint. This includes our presence at exclusive events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Le Bocuse d’Or. Our association with some of the most celebrated talents in design and gastronomy brings to life the perfect coffee moments enjoyed by consumers worldwide. … Nespresso has fostered a passionate global community with some of the most discerning coffee connoisseurs. Our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit and dedication to quality, style and service. They have made Nespresso a part of their lifestyle’ (Nestlé Nespresso 2020).

I am sure this advert has multiple meanings appealing to different people. Clooney is himself a brand, of course, so to begin with we have a double encoding, a brand within a brand.

Clooney’s brand values include elegance, discernment, unruffled success and sexual appeal. He is shown here in a dark, deeply lit, somewhat devilish light which I presume ties in with the brand’s stress on the exclusive, the passionate, the refined and the elegant. But – since the brand cannot speak of this openly – the advert’s unstated intended meaning suggests that behind these socially acceptable qualities lie dark, saturnine powers of caffeinated sexual potency that only Nespresso can elicit (hence the black expresso in Clooney’s hand). Another, similar advert shows Clooney with a finger on a gold Nespresso capsule in an obviously suggestive way so not much is left to the imagination here.

I interpret the strap line ‘What else?’ as saying two things at once. The stated meaning is that Nespresso is the default choice for the discerning connoisseur. The unstated meaning is buy this or else – there is no other choice. What else … nothing else. A slight sweetener is provided by the line in Portuguese ‘Café com corpo e alma’. This implies one might be taking part in something authentically ethnic (Brazilian) but in reality Nestlé is a Swiss-based multinational and the  more pressing  Brazilian connection – poverty and slavery – was revealed by the Guardian newspaper in 2016 (see below).

It is also important to note the presence of a Nespresso machine in this and almost all the other adverts I have seen. Nespresso works by trying to lock people in to buying coffee capsules from the manufacturer. This rather crude though successful and widespread retail model is here presented as membership of an exclusive club (‘our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit …’). So by purchasing a packet of Nespresso capsules or opening an online account you too can make a lifestyle choice, roll with George and become a sophisticated multi-millionaire sex bomb.

However, I do worry that decoding advertising in this way is also potentially missing the point. The real issue for our societies is not what the advert ‘really’ means but what it says about the power relations of major brands and their sometimes unwholesome effects on our lives. So the story with Nespresso is not really about Clooney. It is about sustainability, environmental damage and headlines like ‘Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations’ (Guardian 2016). These are what matter, I would argue.


BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

GUARDIAN. 2016. ‘Nestlé Admits Slave Labour Risk on Brazil Coffee Plantations’. The Guardian 2 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

GUARDIAN. 2020. ‘Children as Young as Eight Picked Coffee Beans on Farms Supplying Starbucks’. The Guardian 1 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

NESTLÉ Nespresso. 2020. ‘Nestlé Nespresso: Brand Essence’. ‘Nestlé Nespresso [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

NGUYEN, Vi-An. 2013. ‘George Clooney Uses Nespresso Money for Satellite to Spy on Sudan Dictator’. Parade [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].


Figure 1. Undated. An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.