PHO703: Where to Now?

I am looking forward to finding out about the next module, but in the meantime I have a few little jobs to keep me busy during the holidays …

A Book Dummy

Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have covered my progress so far in a previous post.

Black and White

I will continue to look for accomplished photographers who use black and white and with whose approach I ‘click’. Learning how to ‘see’ or visualise a potential image in black and white before pressing the shutter of my camera will take time to master.

My Project

I plan to continue with some photography walks through the holidays. I need to keep up the connection and nurture the threads of my thinking, and to take advantage of a still relatively quiet city especially at night. That may well change (or not) if the two universities here restart full student and academic activities in late September and October.

PHO703: A Book Dummy

Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have started mapping this out in Adobe In Design but I am very aware of my own inexperience. The Self Publish, Be Happy company’s instructional videos on Vimeo are going to be helpful here and I have noticed that one of their designer-publishers, Brian Paul Lamotte, offers one-to-one tutorials so I may well be taking that up (Self Publish Be Happy 2020). Another look at the curation and sequencing sections of Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks would be a good idea, too (Colberg 2017). I will likely use either Saal Digital or Blurb for the printing, at least for now, because it is easy and reasonably affordable.

I have drafted a few spreads to give myself an idea of what is possible. Of course, the immediate result is that all kinds of new story lines and points of comparison have arisen. For example, is this going to be a walk driven by enough of an internal narrative so that the sequencing flows through to the end without interruption? Or, are there going to be pauses and diversions, a stop along the way, for example, to examine a Becher-style grid of windows or street lights? At this stage I have no idea. I only know that these ideas are possible and arising.

Here (Figures 1-12 below) is a brief gallery view of some sample spreads. Click for a lightbox view with captions.

References

COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.

SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY. 2020. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://selfpublishbehappy.com/ [accessed 14 Aug 2020].

Figures

Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Sample spreads for a book dummy. From: Mark Crean. 2020. From Silent City. Collection of the author.

PHO703: Adams and Curation

The photographer Robert Adams has some very good words about curation and editing. These are important, partly because I am coming up to submitting my portfolio of work for the module and partly because I am embarking on the preparation of a proper book dummy for my project which will require really careful curation.

First:

‘But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule.

‘And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard.

‘It’s the same struggle that Flannery O’Connor said a writer faces: “The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny”’ (Wolf 2019).

And second:

‘I think photography is editing, start to finish, editing life, selecting part of it to stand for the whole. The process starts, obviously, with what you choose to include in the finder when you make the exposure. It continues as you study the contact sheets or thumbnails in order to decide which to enlarge. It goes on, sometimes for years, as you try to determine which enlargements are successful. Dorothea Lange, one of my heroes, used to ask herself, sotto voce, “Is it a picture? Is it a picture?” Most photographers are like that, confident one day and unsure the next. And then there is the long search for which pictures may strengthen each other, and in what relationships. That final step usually involves for us laying out all the conceivably appropriate pictures for a book in a line, in a roughly plausible sequence, after which we make a stack of the pictures in that order and go through it to see how they might work as singles or doubles on a spread. Those two steps are then repeated over and over again’ (Chang 2009).

I like the idea that good curation is ‘editing life’ and that the photographer (or artist) must stand back and judge their work ‘with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny’. These are important reminders.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

WOLF, Sasha. 2019. ‘From Robert Adams to Rinko Kawauchi: How Photographers Work’. Financial Times, 04 Oct [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/4f15e162-e4a5-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc [accessed 02 Aug 2020].

PHO703 Weeks 8-10: Work in Progress

For the past couple of weeks I have continued with my work in progress, making several visits to the Cowley and Florence Park areas of East Oxford. I have tried to do a little more about searching for telling details, an aspect of my practice I have not devoted enough attention to. The search for nuance and suggestion continues … . Click below for a lightbox view.

Figures

Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Silent City. Collection of the author.

PHO703: Robert Adams and James Nachtwey

Two other points arise from a look at Robert Adams – see my earlier post. The first is his attention to framing and composition.

‘The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. … But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit – so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. … But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last’ (ART21 2020).

Involved in this is careful attention to detail, but for a purpose and not simply because something happens to catch the photographer’s eye in a meretricious way: ‘By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it is conveyed by artists is through attention to form’ (ART21 2020).

Careful framing is a constant battle in my experience and is often more difficult at night when one often cannot really see everything in the viewfinder.

The second point is that problematic word, beauty. Adams is very open about being in pursuit of it: ‘Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty’ (ART21 2020).

However, I think it is more productive for me to consider this not in terms only of ‘beauty’, whatever that may be, but in terms of the tension between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion. Many if not all artists must struggle with this. It has been very well expressed by the documentary photographer James Nachtwey: ‘I don’t think that in my pictures the beauty overcomes the tragedy. It sometimes envelopes it and makes it more poignant. It makes it more accessible. The paradox of the co-existence of beauty and tragedy has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages. Photography is no exception’ (Caponigro 2000).

How does this relate to my practice? First, it has made me appreciate that I have not been paying enough attention to detail and particularly not to the extent that a carefully selected detail can reveal much more about an overall story than one may think.

Second, that the interplay between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion, creates tension and is particularly relevant when photographing at night. One can choose almost any pair of opposites and the tension between them will be there. Good images require tension. So in my walks along the Thames this summer, the tranquil and the uncanny and sometimes the quite menacing have all arisen. And they have arisen, too, in the contrast between quiet suburban streets or peaceful old houses and brash and anonymous new shopping centres or run-down, inner city deprivation. So the tension between these elements is also something I need to pay more attention to, both in individual images and in the sequencing of an overall portfolio.

Finally, Adams and Nachtwey agree at one point: much of photography is all about collaboration, and to the extent that we carry all that has gone before us we are also all re-photographers.

Adams: ‘Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community’ (Adams and Byrne 1994).

Nachtwey: ‘I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I’m photographing – not the other way around. I’m not trying to make statements about photography. I’m trying to use photography to make statements about what’s happening in the world’ (Caponigro 2000).

So it’s not all about me, and it never was. Thank heavens. What a release.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture, 13.

ART21. 2020. ‘Photography, Life, and Beauty: Robert Adams’. Art21 [online]. Available at: https://art21.org/read/robert-adams-photography-life-and-beauty/ [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2000. ‘An Interview with James Nachtwey’. John Paul Caponigro [online]. Available at: https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/james-nachtwey/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].

PHO703: Robert Adams

I looked at the work of Robert Adams in the first module but that was only briefly, in connection with the New Topographics movement, and in any case I did not yet have the understanding to appreciate what he was trying to do.

A second, more careful look suggests that Robert Adams is a considerable influence on my work, even if I haven’t fully appreciated it. I well remember studying Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986) ten months ago, and something about those images has undoubtedly remained with me. I would guess this is the quality for which Adams has often been praised: the deceptive simplicity of his images – they are far deeper than they first appear to be. They do not just show the American landscape. They show the story of what has happened to it, but in a way that encourages the viewer to discover it for themselves. There is no striving here for the shock and awe of the American sublime (which the New Topographics movement was a reaction against anyway). Adams is nuanced and never insistent.

Robert Adams Summer Nights Walking
Fig.1: Robert Adams 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking.

The work I have been looking at recently is mostly from Summer Nights, Walking (Adams 2009). The apparent intent was lyrical: ‘My original goal was mainly to document some of the evening peace and mystery that I remember as a child, those dusks when the lightning bugs came out’ (Chang 2009). But Adams then quickly adds, ‘I should have been suspicious … .’ In reality Adams found only glimpses of his childhood. In the interim, the streets of his childhood had become so unsafe that he was obliged to hire a bodyguard to accompany him on his photography walks (Chang 2009), and the fireflies and wildlife had disappeared under new suburban sprawl.

The upshot is that the deceptive simplicity of clapperboard houses from 50 years ago is often accompanied by a sense of menace. The shadows and the beauty combine with the sinister. Doug Rickard expressed it well in a review of Summer Nights, Walking: ‘Robert Adams refers to a William Blake prayer that deftly describes this paradox …  “The splendor of the Creation but also the reality of the Wolf and the Lion.”’ (Rickard 2010). Another reviewer found similar qualities: ‘There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson’ (Bareman 2014).

And, I suppose, by me. I am also photographing change stalked by the wolf and the lion. Everything about the streets here changed during the pandemic, even if only for a while. Oxford is all about change. The old city centre of 1001 tourist images is quickly changing as new modern buildings go up to house the university students of the future. The city limits are changing under a wave of new building. The suburbs are changing as inequality continues its relentless march and more and more people are pushed into the margins, into degraded housing or into homelessness. I first saw Oxford as a child, but like Adams in Summer Nights, Walking those far-off childhood memories are not the current reality. The point, however, is not to mourn this but to use it as a source of tension in my images, while remembering that nuance works and insistent doesn’t.

There are a couple of other points about Robert Adams that interest me, but for the sake of brevity I will cover them in separate posts.

References

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

ADAMS, Robert. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

BAREMAN, Karen. 2014. ‘Summer Nights, Walking – A Personal Understanding of Robert Adams’ Seminal Work’. Visual Resonances [online]. Available at: https://www.visualresonances.com/book-reviews/summer-nights-walking-a-personal-understanding-of-robert-adams-seminal-work/ [accessed 1 Aug 2020].

RICKARD, Doug. 2010. ‘Robert Adams – “Summer Nights Walking” (2009)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/04/robert-adams-summer-nights-walking-2009.html [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Robert ADAMS. 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking. From: Robert Adams. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.