PHO704 Week 3: The Power of the Personal Project

On the strength of the suggestions in Week 3, I have started a modest personal project as a side-work to my FMP. I think this will help me work out some of the ideas in the coursework, as well as help to recapture some of the joie de vivre I felt in photography before I started this course.

My side project is called Entropias (but it is not a replacement for my main research project, Silent City). It is about the moments and the places where everything comes together, then falls apart. In other words it is about entropy which is also the cycle or mandala of life and the changing of the seasons. Something is born, arises, peaks, decays and eventually vanishes into the elements of something new, another turn of the wheel. Entropy can be expressed as energy but we probably understand it as time. Change through time is the only way we can really experience what is otherwise a law of physics.

Here are a few images.

To take this further, I have compared my ideas about Entropias with the excellent suggestions offered by Grant Scott in ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015), and in particular with his ten steps for creating a successful personal project whether intellectual or emotional (Scott distinguishes between the two):

How to Create a Successful Personal Project

  1. Find your story. Make sure that it is personal to you, that you have a unique voice to tell the story.

I have the story, of birth, change and decay. I can only tell it in my voice. For consistency I am shooting in colour and using a specific cinematic colour palette in post.

  1. 2. Do not be overly ambitious. Be realistic about what you can achieve on the basis of the time and financial commitment you are going to be able to devote to creating the project.

The project is something I can drop in and out of when I have a spare afternoon or come across a telling image (I will use an iPhone for those).

  1. Do your research. Find out if other photographers have tackled the subject you are planning to photograph. Look at how they did it, what the outcomes were, and how it was received. Then ensure that you do not repeat the same approach.

Yes, I will need to do some research for sure.

  1. Build your online community as you are working on the project and keep them informed of its progress with images and information about how you are creating the project and the process you are going through.

When I have enough decent images, I will start posting into an album on Flickr and likely on my portfolio website. I am dropping one or two images into Instagram, too.

  1. Be patient. A worthwhile personal project is not going to come together in a few days or weeks.

This project will likely be done when I realize that it is done. I am setting no deadlines.

  1. Consider using audio and moving images to add both context and additional narrative to your storytelling.

This is very tempting for my FMP but probably too ambitious for a small personal project. Music sparks ideas and associations, however, so this is not to be overlooked.

  1. Research appropriate self-publishing options for your project and engage with the photographers who are already involved with the photo book self-publishing community.

The most likely destination is an accordion-fold booklet or a Blurb-style publication, partly to keep down costs. If I make enough good images in one place (Rousham House and Gardens, for example, which is a very good venue for changing seasons) I could expand my options by approaching them with ideas for something more ambitious.

  1. Try and attend talks and workshops being given by fellow photographers working on personal projects.

Yes, absolutely, but none attended yet on this specific topic.

  1. Consider working with a journalist or writer at some point during the process of creating your project. Inevitably you will require text to accompany your images, or to include in your book, or on your website to provide context and information. This text needs to be as professional as your images, so get a professional to create it.

Not keen on this one. My project is not documentary and involving a writer would make it bigger than I currently want. What matters is to start with something I want to do and believe I can. We’ll see.

  1. Stay true to your vision but be open to your project evolving into unexpected areas. The excitement always lies in the choppy waters.

Yes! I might find telling images not from changing seasons in nature, for example, but from gritty events in a city centre or from quiet domestic moments at home. The important thing is to stay open to new ideas and rich moments, not close down.

(Adapted from Scott, 2015: 108-9)

References

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. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/falmouth-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1734212&amp [accessed 7 Oct 2020).

Figures

Figures 1-8. Mark CREAN. 2020. Entropias. Collection of the author.

PHO704 Week 3: Art and Commerce

Art and Commerce is a tricky subject for me, because I have no ambition to become a professional photographer (someone who earns a living from their craft). However, I would like to become someone who photographs more professionally. That is not quite the same thing but it is one of my goals in taking this degree.

I take Felicity McCabe’s point, that there is vastly more to professional photography than simply making a photograph even though that remains at the core: ‘turning up on the morning and actually shooting is like 10% of what you do, maybe 5-10%’ (McCabe 2020). The other 90 per cent, I think, involves five main things:

  • Running a business competently
  • Fully understanding and completing client briefs
  • Good organisation, planning and thinking on one’s feet
  • Marketing oneself with clarity to attract and retain clients
  • Keeping one’s creative skills juicy and well honed

This week’s coursework has been mainly about the last one, creativity through personal projects, and also about how to express one’s creativity and vision through the lenses of the first four items. That means how to stay true to one’s personal style and values while still delivering what the client requires.

I like Felicity McCabe’s stress of the interconnectedness of life, and therefore that nothing need be wasted because ideas or skills acquired in one area can be put to good use in another.

‘Also I think everything that comes from your own mind… If you think all of your projects are like strands, but if it comes from the same brain, it’s basically every single thing that I do is all one big project … it feels like it’s from the same brain … you should stick to your guns, follow your hunches and do what makes you feel happy. … if you are a landscape photographer you might be traipsing through some ex-Soviet area, wondering what you are doing there, but in two years’ time that might get you the job that you are going to love doing, because the ideal is to get commissions doing the things that you like doing, otherwise what’s the point?’ (McCabe 2020).

The photographers I most admire are those who manage to combine all of these elements while still retaining their distinctive style. Among those I would reference are Naheli Muholi and in particular her magnificent portraits such as Ntozakhe II, Parktown (Muholi 2016)  (see Fig. 1), images which derive directly from her work with South Africa’s persecuted gay and transgender communities. I would also reference Nadav Kander whose portraits – for example Tricky II (Kander 2019) in Fig. 2 – recognizably evidence a similar style, colour palette and tonality to his long-format works such as Yangtze, The Long River (Kander 2010) and Dust (Kander 2014).

Zanele-Muholi-Ntozakhe-II-Parktown-Johannesburg-2016
Fig. 1: Zaneli Muholi 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.
Nadav Kander 2019. Tricky 11.
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2019. Tricky 11.

There are many others. For example, Irving Penn (in particular), William Klein and Saul Leiter all photographed fashion, and successful film directors such as Ridley Scott are well-known for their advertising work at various times. Nick Knight is also known for his fashion work, but currently he is showing Roses from My Garden, an exhibition of flower photography inspired by the work of 16th and 17th century still life painters – and all made using only an iPhone (a double creative challenge, one artistic and the other technical) (Knight 2020).

I do not think I have yet reached a distinctive personal style, but I am working towards that, one of my aims on this course. And since I have almost no professional photography experience, I cannot say that I am a professional either. However, I am working towards that goal, too, at least in terms of going about my practice professionally.

As for personal projects, I can see that those are very important. Following the suggestions of Grant Scott in ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015), I have embarked on a small personal project called Entropias in addition to my main research project. I will go into that in more detail in the following post.

References

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

KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

KNIGHT, Nick. 2020. ‘Roses from My Garden’ [exhibition]. Waddesdon, Oxfordshire: Waddesdon House and Gardens. Exhibition from 4 July – 1 November 2020: Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden.

McCABE, Felicity. 2020. ‘Week 3: Lecture – Felicity McCabe: Sustainable Prospects PHO704’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/671/pages/week-3-lecture-felicity-mccabe?module_item_id=43375 [accessed 7 Oct 2020].

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. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/falmouth-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1734212&amp [accessed 7 Oct 2020).

Figures

Figure 1. Naheli MUHOLI. 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.
Figure 2. Nadav KANDER. 2019. Tricky II, London.

 

PHO704: The Weird and the Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie (Fisher 2016) is likely to become one of the key texts for my research project. I wish I had come across it before.

Fisher takes Freud’s ideas about the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud et al. 2003) and adapts and extends them much more widely into art, literature and the cinema than did Freud. This is not surprising. Freud was writing a short essay as a psychoanalyst and in keeping with that was content to rest his ideas on a hypothesis: that the uncanny derives its power from the anxiety of the castration complex and ultimately from a hidden fear of death. As Fisher demonstrates, however, this is only a small part of the whole story of these strange states of mind and, besides, resting them on a hypothesis is disappointing and incomplete.

Fisher’s basic premise is that the duality of all existence is an insoluble fact of the human condition: the duality between subject and object, inside and outside, known and unknown, part and whole, ‘reality’ as we understand it and dreams and fantasies. Uncanny, weird and eerie are states of mind and feelings that arise when the edges of these worlds rub against one another:

‘Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar … Psychoanalysis itself is an umheimlich genre; it is haunted by an outside which it circles around but can never fully acknowledge or affirm. …The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside’ (Fisher 2016: 10).

The weird is the intrusion from outside our field of view of something which does not belong there. The outside breaks through into the inside, sometimes forcibly so:

‘The weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together. Hence the predilection within surrealism for the weird …’ (Fisher 2016: 10-11).

‘ … the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate’ (Fisher 2016: 15).

The eerie, in contrast, is about a failure or an incompleteness of presence or of absence, of outside or of inside.

‘As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong. … The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something’ (Fisher 2016: 61).

As Fisher goes on to explain, however, the most intriguing aspect of the eerie concerns agency: what is going on, and what or who is doing it? The point is that, as with the presumed motives of the builders of pre-historic ruins, we do not know and probably we will never know. All we are left with are traces of something unexplained apparently exerting an influence we do not fully understand. We are left with traces of the past in the present moment, but spookily this can be looked at from another angle, namely that what we think of as the present is only the traces of the past. There is no ‘real’, only traces of something that vanishes as soon as you try to grasp it. Reality can be experienced, but never contained.

‘Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at is core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agency as such. Is there a deliberate agent there at all? Are we being watched by an agent that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. … what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown’ (Fisher 2016: 63-4).

I think these ideas will have a strong and rich impact on my practice. Fisher looks at the work of great cinema directors like Kubrick, Lynch and Tarkovsky and in fact I have just watched Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) and Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). Both are fascinating in their use of framing and angles, of time looping around itself, and of a soundscape that is equally as important as the visual landscape. In Stalker, in particular, so many scenes are framed through doors, windows, archways or holes, or along corridors or other thresholds.

These thresholds are all portals, the places where we sense another world or another reality. They are the edges where inner and outer meet, and so they are where all the tension is. All great images need tension and the tension derives from a photographer’s understanding of the symbolic power of these elements.

I have already incorporated some of these ideas into my practice without realizing it, in particular doors and curtains. But now that I have a good idea from Fisher’s research of what is really going on, I can return and concentrate my intent in a fresh way. I can also use these ideas to frame a narrative as we move between the inner and outer of different words. Exciting! I am looking forward to my next few photowalks.

References

FISHER, Mark. 2016. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater.

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

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1972 Solaris. [Film].

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. [Film].

PHO704 Weeks 1-2: Work in Progress

For this module I am continuing with my research project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark. And as with the last module I am presenting my images in black and white rather than in colour.

It normally takes me a few weeks to settle into a new module. A theme for the module will emerge and when it does I have a much better idea of what I need to do and where I am coming from each time I go out to make photographs. In other words, I have formed a clear intent.

At the moment I am trying out a few things. Last module I used a 35mm lens for almost every image. This time I am varying that from wider to closer. I am also bringing in a wider choice of subject matter such as signs, symbols, shop fronts – the daily clutter of where we all live. Showing where we don’t live is easy – and often very dull. It is the typical, picture-perfect postcard view. Showing where we live but presenting something new about it is far more interesting and, overall, this is currently my intent. It is an experiment and the next couple of weeks will show whether it works and sits comfortably with me.

Click on an image below for a larger, lightbox view:

PHO704 Week 2: Other Careers in Photography

Choices

This has been an interesting week because I had not realized that there are so many different career paths within the overall field of photography.

This is very freeing in a way because it means that one doesn’t have to feel shoehorned into a particular box. Instead we are free to find something that truly satisfies our talents. In a way I have already done this with an earlier career. Upon graduating, I could have been a writer or a journalist but instead I settled on book publishing. It seemed a good blend of art and commerce with a great deal of variety and the chance to meet lots of interesting people. And so it proved.

In terms of photography, however, one element links all paths: visual culture and visual language. It is this one must pay close attention to. We live in a visual culture and proficiency in its language applies to many different industries today, whether fashion, architecture or industrial design. The same is true for what photographers today are also expected to bring to the table: adaptability, creative thinking, collaborative experience, and business and presentation skills.

As Scott Grant has explained in The United Nations of Photography:

‘I believe that the study of photography should not be solely focused on the practice of being a photographer or working within the creative arts. Instead it should be seen as a gateway subject to career paths outside of the expected and established. Just as the humanities are to Law.

In a time when flexibility, problem solving, creativity and visual communication are becoming increasingly valuable employment requirements I suggest that photography may well be one of the most important subjects to study in the 21st Century’ (Grant 2020).

Business Basics

The suggestions given in the coursework this week are an extremely useful cheat sheet. I know this from my own experience, having helped to found one publishing company and helped to grow another one from its modest beginnings. It is hard work and you have to be completely adaptable and willing to turn your hand to whatever is required. It is also vital to become financially literate because otherwise you won’t know whether a job is actually worth doing. Running a business is not about doing something just because ‘It sounded like a good idea’. The fastest way for things to end in tears is to lose control of the finances and watch your ‘cash burn’ spiral until nothing is left of the start-up funding – or your savings.

Professionalism

What it means to be a ‘professional’ photographer is much-debated question, but perhaps Scott Grant sums it up:

‘All professionals need to have the ability to create consistently strong images … as well as the ability to create a narrative within a series. … This is what sets them apart from a general member of the public with a camera’ (Pfab 2020).

However, this is only a part of the story. Photographic and narrative skills go hand in hand with business skills, experience and the wider range of other skills a professional photographer must master such as presentation and marketing. None of this can be acquired overnight. Becoming professional – in anything – is as process and it can take a long time. One must learn how things work in practice and how business is typically conducted. There is the right way to deliver what a client requires, for example, as Tom Seymour recently showed in his Falmouth presentation Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published (Seymour 2020). Failing to give a client the information they need on which to base a decision is what amateurs do. In my experience, the only real way to acquire this knowledge is by learning from those who are already professionals. Nothing beats experience and training at work.

As a professional press photographer has pointed out, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional can and will complete the client’s exact brief, whereas an amateur usually will not be able to because they lack the skills, equipment and experience (Terakopian 2020).

Vision

What has often been repeated by different voices both this week and last week is the importance of personal vision: ‘It is absolutely vital to find your own voice and signature visual language’ (Pfab 2020). Emma Bowkett emphasized this in her Falmouth presentation this week FT Weekend Magazine (Bowkett 2020), as did both Lydia Pang in her recent podcast On Commissioning (Pang 2020) and recent graduates on It’s Nice That (It’s Nice That 2017).

Personal vision comes down to offering a point of view on the world that no one else could have photographed, which in turn means authenticity and integrity. This is the only way to attract attention and stand out among the tide of images that floods across the desk of editors every day. Faking it – adopting someone else’s style – does not work. One’s work must be original. Both Bowkett and Pang are successful commissioning editors, and they should know.

How far am I along this path? Perhaps a little further than I was when I began this degree course. One of my goals in this course is to get as far along the path of finding an authentic voice as I can.

References

BOWKETT, Emma. 2020. ‘FT Weekend Magazine’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/b5139beb38edd9a5a5b4d655de1c8ea7c2e5e6f9-1601488194811/capture/ [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

IT’S NICE THAT. 2017. ‘How to Go Freelance: Need-to-Know Advice from Creatives Who Made It’. It’s Nice That [online]. Available at: http://www.itsnicethat.com/features/the-graduates-2017-advice-how-to-go-freelance-170517 [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

PANG, Lydia. 2020. ‘On Commissioning’. The Messy Truth [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/lydia-pang-on-commissioning/id1459128692?i=1000442904984 [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PFAB, Anna-Maria. 2020. ‘What Is the DNA of the Twenty First Century Professional Photographer?’. Falmouth University [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/671/pages/week-2-presentation-dna-of-a-21st-century-photographer?module_item_id=43366 [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Grant. 2020. ‘Is It Moral to Teach Photography?’ United Nations of Photography [online]. Available at: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2020/07/07/is-it-moral-to-teach-photography/ [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

SEYMOUR, Tom. 2020. ‘Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/44e40a05380d0df14d38c59bed78489db86b1e49-1600865116374/capture/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020. ‘Shooting an International Campaign’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].