What emerged is that I need to divide my project into its various sub-themes, concentrate on a typology of each one, and see what emerges. This will be my focus for the next month.
It was suggested that I look at the work of several photographers, including Keith Arnatt and Susan Hiller (in her work ‘Judenstrasse’). I have now secured a copy of Arnatt’s book I’m a Real Photographer (Arnatt et al 2007), so that will be added to the coming month’s tasks.
The two important elements that remain to be decided are the question of colour versus black and white and the storyline I will follow. I think I may have found my story, but that will require some research and I will cover it another time. I am not so sure about colour versus black and white. I think I will use both together for a while and then see which one works best after I have assembled a few more credible images.
ARNATT, Keith, David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
Contemporary Photography and the Environment is a talk by the curator Kim Knoppers in Self Publish, Be Happy’s Contemporary Photography series on Vimeo (Knoppers 2021). I found the talk useful because it is something of a survey of contemporary practice in this subject – and it offered several useful ideas.
The first point is that it is important for the photographer to overcome public image fatigue. This affects almost all subjects today but especially those covering global warming and the environment. The days when an image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe could capture attention are long gone.
A second point is that we need to think carefully about what we mean by ‘nature’. This is largely a culturally determined and, today, a contested term. In some ways we live in a nostalgic version of what nature is, evidenced by 1001 wildlife documentaries that show the spectacle but often not the reality. We tend to see nature and culture as opposites, but this is a false binary, and we tend to under-appreciate the relationships involved. These are not only the sometimes very complex relationships between things in the natural world itself but the relationships involved in depicting it and changing our perceptions of it. So the photographer today needs to consider the role of activism and environmental law, for example, and the role of video and sound in producing a work of art.
This is a really helpful message to encourage the photographer to move beyond the static single image. It suggests that compelling works today are likely to be stories based on collaboration between many different interests and artistic techniques.
Knoppers cited several photographers whose work it might pay to study, not least since some of them used mixed media. These include Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, with whom I am already familiar, but also Melanie Bonajo, Mark Dorf, Douglas Mandry, Almudena Romero, Lucas Foglia and Fabio Barile. I have already looked at the work of Foglia and Barile and it resonates very strongly with me, particularly Foglia whose career began as a student of Gregory Crewdson.
The overall message of this talk is that essentially we and the planet are all one organism. This is the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1979) and the emphasis is therefore on wholeness. In a world awash with competing theories and a surfeit of images, the challenge for the photographer is that ‘imagination and the camera give us the opportunity to re-enchant a disenchanted world’ (Knoppers 2021).
Many of these ideas bear directly on my current project, particularly the emphasis on moving beyond the static image and into the realm of story-telling and collaboration. The emphasis on examining the culturally determined aspects of what we call ‘nature’ is important too. However, throughout her talk Knoppers emphasized the importance of intimacy. Intimacy builds relationships. Something that is overly conceptual can seem cold and aloof. What the artist needs to aim for is, in her words, ‘clear, detailed and visually seductive’ (Knoppers 2021).
John Duncan, who reviewed my portfolio in Week 6, suggested that I look at the practice of Jem Southam, particularly The Red River which Southam published in 1989 (Southam et al 1989, Southam 2019). In it, he followed the Red River in Cornwall from source to sea, although in reality the ‘river’ is more of a tin-mining stream coursing through a valley. This is one of Southam’s earlier bodies of work. It has a highly atmospheric, spontaneous, slightly off-kilter feel to it, likely because Southam was using a hand-held camera in contrast to the large tripod-mounted plate cameras that he used for much of his subsequent work.
Southam has spoken interestingly of how he came to approach this subject, in the form of a long talk available online (Southam 2020). He started out wanting a portrait of local distinctiveness, a record or topography of a particular landscape. However, he found that this approach was not really touching the lives of the people who lived in the valley. His project felt ‘flat’ and something was missing.
The key came when Southam was looking at a painting of Manchester in the 1850s by William Wyld (‘Kersal Moor, 1852’), which is all golden light and smoking chimneys, and he realized that what had really been motivating him was the story of pastoral set against the industrial sublime, in fact the painting’s subject. Much of the Red River, too, was a smoky and polluted landscape. At the same time, Southam realized that other stories – he calls them ‘myths’ – had been motivating him unconsciously, in particular Biblical stories and the stories in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which he was re-reading.
This realization enabled Southam to concentrate on specific things in the landscape, or on specific images to frame, because he now understood why he was doing it. He was showing the effects of industrialization on a traditional pastoral landscape and its people far more than he was simply making a portrait of a valley. This was no pastoral childhood wonderland but a mucky and sometimes disturbing reality.
Southam’s realization provided the close, evocative contact his project had lacked until then. Southam believes that these stories exist in all of us. We imbibe them growing up from children’s books or in school or as part of our culture. Some are indeed myths and collectively we have been carrying them for thousands of years. And while we may often carry them unconsciously, they are deeply influential and can affect our attitude to everything we see.
Southam’s talk in this video is a fascinating example of the creative process at work and a reminder that we have to bring the whole of ourselves to a project. Unless we do, the chances are we won’t understand our motivations and so our project, too, may end up lacking because we are not connecting with what our subconscious is telling us.
In another talk online, with time with Martin Parr, Southam points out that ‘the process of developing a piece of work is actually led by the place itself’ (Parr 2019). It is a kind of reverse process that begins by accident, in Southam’s experience. Something draws us to a particular locale, but we do not yet know what. As the images pile up we are confronted by the need to establish why we are drawn to this place, what our work is really about, and how we are going to tell the story.
These are really helpful points to hear and completely relevant to my own project, particularly the clash of pastoral and industrial which is ever-present in the English countryside. I am faced with exactly the questions Southam poses and I need to go through the same process. When I find out why I am doing what I do, then I will begin to know something.
I have attended several online lectures in the past few weeks. The idea is to sample different organizations, to participate in some ‘Lens Culture’ and to get a feel for where contemporary practice is going in different fields. The following are the first two on my list:
Curating Photography with Susan Bright
This was an online talk at the Royal Photographic Society (Bright 2021) and majored on Susan Bright’s experience as curator of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography (The Photographers’ Gallery 2019) which I visited twice in 2019. Bright emphasized how important it is to study the space for any exhibition, to make maquettes of the layout and to consider how a visitor will move through the rooms and encounter the art. She said that, like good design, the secret of good curation is that it should be invisible, but that it must be complete in every way and in every particular of lighting, colour scheme and hanging. The visitor must feel that they have been carefully considered. Bright said that a good exhibition should ‘shift’ you, in other words that it should take you out of the day-to-day and into something special. She recommended that we look at the work of Katrina Sluis and of the curator Isobel Parker-Philip. Overall, I found this a carefully prepared and very helpful event because it has given me some important curatorial points to follow if (or when) I offer my own gallery exhibition.
One Camera, One Lens and Natural Light – Danny Wilcox Frazier
This talk hosted by the VII Agency was about how to go a long way with very simple ingredients (Wilcox Frazier 2021). Wilcox Frazier’s study Driftless – of disadvantaged rural communities in Iowa – was shot on film with one camera, one lens and nothing else. The result is deeply moving (Wilcox Frazier 2007). The key point was that good projects come from being fully immersed in them. There are no shortcuts. Your subjects need to trust you, too: they have to know who the photographer is. You must ‘share of yourself’ in Wilcox Frazier’s words. He emphasized that ‘a clear intent and a stronger voice need to be ever present in your work’. ‘A unique way of seeing’ and ‘a strong individual voice’ are what matter. It is easy to get carried away by technology and the wilder shores of conceptual art, but sometimes it is helpful to be reminded of the bedrock of good photography in a back-to-basics way. I am glad I attended this talk and its dark, powerful images redolent of a Magnum essay by Larry Towell or Matt Black.
BRIGHT, Susan. 2021. ‘Curating Photography with Susan Bright’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/SusanBright [accessed 19 Mar 2021].
While we are still in lockdown I have been experimenting with an online 3D exhibition using a system developed by Kunstmatrix in Germany (Kunstmatrix 2021). They call it ‘Augmented Reality’.
This is an experiment, so in order to become familiar with their system I have assembled some images from my previous main project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark (Crean 2021). The virtual gallery space and setting it up works quite well but as always with these matters the key is publicity and getting people in through the virtual ‘door’. I will try various methods over the next few weeks and monitor the results. If they are favourable, then I will know that I have a potential outlet for my Final Major Project.
Below is an embedded version of the exhibition. Click on it to be taken to the full site. You can wander round using a mouse (or finger) or the arrow keys on your keyboard, but in practice I have found that taking the guided tour is likely the easiest way for a first visit.
Fig. 1: Mark Cean 2021. A virtual exhibition of Silent City using the Kunstmatrix 3D system.
The Kunstmatrix system looks to be in fairly early days. Plenty of other artists and organizations have mounted exhibitions on the platform but there are a few rough edges and the help files are brief. I would hope that the owners are encouraged by enough popularity to take their platform further. The pandemic has spurred much more interest in these possibilities while bricks-and-mortar spaces are off limits.
Keith Arnatt’s practice was recommended to me by my supervisor and by John Duncan, one of my portfolio reviewers.
Arnatt began as a conceptual artist. Usually, conceptual art is of little appeal to me because often it seems too contrived and emotionally dead. This is not the case with Arnatt, however. In the best of his work he was too playful, too creative and too challenging for that. Besides, it is hard not to warm to someone who compared a discussion of photography versus art to discussing sausages versus food and who wrote what he called a ‘Trouser-Word Piece’ with some highly pertinent questions originally asked by the philosopher John Austin:
‘a definite sense attaches to the assertion that something is real, a real such-and-such, only in the light of a specific way in which it might be, or might have been, not real. ‘A real duck’ differs from the simple ‘a duck’ only in that it is used to exclude various ways of not being a real duck. … It is this identity of general function combined with immense diversity in specific applications which gives to the word ‘real’ the, at first sight, baffling feature of having neither one single ‘meaning’, nor yet ambiguity, a number of different meanings’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 148)
These are questions that lie at the heart of all photography: it is indexical but at the same time it is only a representation, it appears ‘real’ but it is in fact an illusion on a sheet of paper, it suggests that something happened but offers no evidence, outside the photograph, that anything happened at all. Something in us wants photographs to be real, but they never are.
Arnatt brought to his practice not only a keen intelligence but a deep knowledge of art and painting and a love of philosophy. The first lesson here is that the more one can bring to an image, of knowledge and life, the richer it is likely to be. Simply clicking a shutter is not really enough. As David Hurn writes: ‘He drew on his art background all the time, clearly referencing the work of Samuel Palmer for Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) … all his ideas about art and photography come together in these pictures, which are to me about looking – about the difference between knowing something and seeing something’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 10).
The second lesson here is easily forgotten but always present. In Arnatt’s own words: ‘the ability of the camera to transform that which is photographed seems to me to be an eternal source of fascination. The fact that it does this just this. Going back to Miss Grace’s Lane again … the way that these materials become transformed, both by the light by which they are photographed and by the photographic process itself, just fascinated me’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 136).
Three or four of Arnatt’s various bodies of work overlap with my own project.
The first is A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) of 1982-84. This raises the questions, just as important today, of what we really mean by concepts such as beauty, landscape, countryside. The landscapes Arnatt found in alleged beauty spots are far from the countryside of our fond imaginings. Often they are scrappy and unkempt, litter-haunted, and already showing signs of urban encroachment and metropolitan alienation. In the same era, the New Topographics movement and Arnatt’s contemporary Fay Godwin were questioning our ideas about landscape and beauty in similar ways. What we mean by ‘landscape’ and ‘landscape photography’ are questions core to my own project.
In The Forest of Dean (1986) Arnatt took this further by showing ‘landscape’ as a working environment, although in rather soft, wash tones: our habitual tendency to see ’landscape’ as a pleasant vista blinds us to the reality of what actually happens there. Robert Adams has asked similar questions in much of his work albeit in a more pointed and even brutal way, as in his images of unsustainable clear-cut logging in the Pacific North West. This too overlaps with my project because any view of the landscape here involves showing unsustainable farming – agribusiness – and its consequences.
Arnatt’s interest in the camera’s ability to transform that which is photographed is best seen in two other bodies of work, Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) and Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-89). These are lushly colourful works, and democratic in the vein of Eggleston or Shore: everything is available to our lens; it is our preconceptions about what ‘should’ make a photograph that get in the way. However, the colour in these works is there for a reason. Arnatt brought his knowledge of painting to every image, in composition, in the sometimes golden light of English Romanticism and in painterly textures and arrangements that recall, quite deliberately, classic still life paintings by Old Masters.
This is the third lesson: that good photographs have layers of meaning and derive their energy from the interplay of depiction and connotation. What may be shown is often only a starting point, even a metaphor. The photograph references a much wider, richer world across time that both changes the meaning of the image and expands our understanding and appreciation of it. We are not just looking at a mouldy loaf of bread (see Fig. 3) but at the whole history of how these objects have been approached in Western art. This is something I have barely tried in my photography but I am now sure it would be richer if I did. The subject was well summed up by David Bate:
‘The old famous complaint by Walter Benjamin, that photographers were “incapable of photographing a tenement rubbish heap without making it look beautiful” is precisely what Keith takes up, not to reject Benjamin’s remarks, but to show – to show the viewer – that what you see depends on how it is photographed, that photography organises what it sees. As Martin Parr notes in a piece on Keith Arnatt, those pictures are simultaneously appealing and disgusting. A piece of mouldy bread looks exquisite, like a Turner landscape. This is a perfect paradox’ (Bate 2009).
This returns me to Hurn’s point above about ‘the difference between knowing something and seeing something’. It is the difference between pointing the camera at something half-thinking ‘well, that looks quite interesting’ and immersing oneself in a frame, becoming aware of its possibilities, giving it one’s full attention, before pressing the shutter. Perhaps this is the really important quality to take from Arnatt’s practice as a photographer.
ARNATT, Keith., David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
I went to several talks during the ADAPT’21 festival.
Julia Fullerton-Batten’s talk on her series of lockdown portraits in 2020, Looking Out From Within, was fascinating (Fullerton-Batten 2020). This style of performative photography is not really my thing but even so I admire it greatly. It is not only Fullerton-Batten’s formal and compositional expertise, and her allusions to classical paintings and portraiture, that I admire. It is also the complex process behind the scenes involving crews, lighting, props, make-up, logistics and much else.
This was a very valuable insight into the world of commercial photography (albeit repurposed during a pandemic). The actual taking of the image is the least of it in many ways. This was a lesson in the importance of careful planning, people management and, above all, collaboration. It was also a lesson in how to be bold. Do not hang back or fall prey to impostor syndrome but make your best effort to power ahead. In this respect, Fullerton-Batten emphasized that putting one’s work out there, in open calls and competitions, is very important (albeit with so many competitions available now she said that it pays to do one’s research and be selective).
Bruno Ceschel’s Keynote Address reminded me of the importance of keeping informed of contemporary practice particularly in the fields in which one is involved. In this regard, I have started to look at his series of presentations with photographers and critics, Contemporary Photography (Self Publish, Be Happy 2021), and catch up on its podcast equivalent, Gem Fletcher’s The Messy Truth (Fletcher 2021). Ceschel emphasized that photography books are changing: originality and ingenuity in both content and presentation far beyond the actual images themselves increasingly matters if a book is to succeed.
Ceschel pointed out that 2020 was hit by three successive waves: the pandemic, a social shift (social justice and racial equality movements) and a political shift (the struggle over authoritarian and xenophobic governance). He believes that the combination will change everything going forward. I hope he is right, but for my own practice the message is ‘stay open and adaptable and be prepared for changes’.
Thank you, Falmouth. I really appreciated ADAPT’21.
I participated in two portofolio reviews in Week 6 of this module. The first was with John Duncan. What emerged from his feedback is this:
I should look closely at Jem Southam’s TheRed River (Southam 1989), at Keith Arnatt’s Miss Grace’s Lane (Arnatt 2021) and at the practices of Willie Doherty (Doherty 2021) and John Gossage, particularly Gossage’s The Pond (Gossage 2010). I have subsequently started looking at these works and the suggestions are very helpful, particularly the practice of John Gossage and Arnatt’s use of Palmeresque lighting in Miss Grace’s Lane (there being no shortage of detritus to photograph here).
The writings of Jonathan Meades are an example of how ideas and themes can be put together imaginatively in order to explore a particular subject.
I need to think harder about distance in my images. Some can be too close in and some too wide and placing the results side by side can be disorientating.
Landscape can be seen as a metaphor for many different things, for example illness and archaeology, or politics and power. How much have I thought about that? John Duncan cited Helen Chadwick’s The Viral Landscape (Chadwick 2020) as an example.
I need to work harder to avoid the obvious and anything that could find a place in a typical advertisement. I need to be more aware of photographic clichés and well-worn tropes and stay away. Originality and working hard to make an image my unique vision of a subject is crucial.
It is important to know what other photographers and artists are currently doing in the same sphere and position one’s work accordingly. That is why keeping oneself informed of wider contemporary practice matters.
Installations quickly become dull if they only show a row of images all of the same size and mount. People are looking for more imaginative approaches these days.
Keep any initial pitch to a single short paragraph and make sure that you begin by summing up your project in a single sentence.
As always, I need to be more ruthless at culling my ‘darlings’ and reducing my edit to a tighter selection of images.
This was an extremely helpful experience with a lot of important ideas. The emphasis overall was that the best creative achievements are the result of very careful thought, a refusal to compromise with clichés, and very hard work. I am so grateful that John Duncan told it straight.
My second review two days later was with John Angerson. This too was a very valuable, relaxed experience. The points that emerged from this review are these:
I need to pull back a bit and show more context in my images.
I need to tidy up some of my images, meaning more care in composition and post processing.
Some images might benefit from using a higher viewpoint. Perhaps I should consider a portable stepladder? This strikes me as an excellent idea.
With a landscape project, involving people does not have to mean portraiture. For example, it could instead mean including old and interesting images from generations ago – for example, the grandparents or great-grandparents of those who work the land today and the implements of the time. This can add a whole other dimension to a project. Try to look beyond the rather obvious idea that ‘a few portraits might help’. I should look at the work of James Ravilious on rural life and farming from earlier decades (Ravilious 2021).
Photography books are changing. Books that consist only of photographs are rarely enough anymore. A book today needs layers. We all need to think much more widely about other things that can become part of a book as well about the physical format, design and materials of a book.
Collaboration can turn a stalled project around and make all the difference. Stay open to it.
Write down 5–6 things that really interest you but that have absolutely nothing to do with photography. Think carefully about why you are drawn to them. Then think carefully about what you photograph and where you photograph it. See if there are points in common. These may just be emotions or states of mind, but pay attention to them. With any project, one is always trying to reach the core idea at its heart but sometimes this can be difficult to express and bring to awareness. Exercises like this can help. John Angerson called it ‘mind mapping’ and suggested that when one’s core idea is finally in the open, then one will start to take images with a coherent personal vision.
Taken together, these two portfolio reviews were among the most useful, challenging and still enjoyable photography experiences I have had in a long time.
Much of this week has been taken up with preparing for portfolio reviews. This has also doubled as a consideration of my work in progress since early January. It has been a very useful exercise, forcing me to think more carefully about my intent and where this project might go, since it is still in early days.
A pdf of my final portfolio (at web resolution) is below. It consists of the best of my work in progress on my Final Major Project to date.
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