The Owned Landscape

I’ve been reading this week about the New Topographics movement and also looking at the work of several photographers including Robert Adams, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws – all in connection with my research project, Oxford at Night.

“New Topographics” shook up landscape photography and put some superb photographers on the map, but at first I found it odd that I should be so interested in an exhibition held in 1975-6 in Rochester NY called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.

Then I realised what was drawing me. The traditional image of Oxford is like those pristine American landscapes of old that “New Topographics” was reacting against: beauty, emotion, form among golden-hued college quadrangles, dreaming spires, languid punting on the river and chaps in gowns or boating jackets.

J. M. W. Turner (1810): The High Street, Oxford. A traditional image of chaps in gowns and stately learning – but the Oxford reality is a sprawling modern city with some severe social problems.

Problem is, these days that’s baloney. Everything about our world has changed. Oxford is a huge sprawling conurbation with the same social problems, some severe, as anywhere else. And with that our aesthetics have changed too.

So my New Topographics, if you like, will be photographing what Oxford is today, not what the tourist brochures or fond imaginings suggest. In this I’ve been helped by the practice of Jeff Brouws who has spoken of a “franchised landscape” of insatiable consumerism and of the “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape”.

As Neoliberalism tightens its grip on our societies, I would extend the Franchised Landscape into the Owned Landscape. It’s particularly obvious after dark. Almost every part of the inner city is claimed, from corner stores to office blocks and often by a corporation whose ownership is emblazoned via signs, brandings, posters and every variety of lurid neon coloration. While a natural landscape might envelop us and encourage us to feel a part of it, the Owned Landscape excludes us. We are shut out as if from a corporate Eden. Often we can only approach the Owned Landscape through plate glass, barred gates, moats and security guards. While such landscapes can have their own moments of beauty the cumulative effect is to render the onlooker a powerless bystander. You may be allowed in, but only under controlled conditions and, usually, only if you are prepared pay what the owner demands. No credit card? No Eden.

Below the references are some research project images I made earlier in the week.

Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York: Aperture

Brouws, J. 2019. Jeff Brouws. [Online] Available at [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Campany, D. and Hido, T. (2016). Intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album. New York: Aperture

Nottsartshistory. 2014. And now it’s dark: the American dream and suburban cultural landscapes in Jeff Brouws’ photography. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Shore, S. 2019. Stephen Shore. [Online] Available at [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Wikipedia. 2019. New topographics. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Mark Crean (16 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (15 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (17 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development

Week 4 Collaboration: Colours of the Night

My Week 4 collaboration project was with Kimmi, Mike and Paul. The theme was Colours of the Night. This allowed us to compare and contrast four different cities since we each live in one: Bristol, Reading, Oxford and Seville.

We all did some research into the photographers and influences which interested us. Then we compared notes. We arranged to go out and shoot early in the week and to keep an eye on the colour palettes in our environments, then pool and compare images, then go out and shoot again, compare again, and finally make a selection of 4-5 images each. In the meantime, and having pooled our ideas and influences, we were able to write them up as introduction and background to the project. We elected to present as a website page rather than as a pdf. A website allows big, colourful views and perhaps is the better choice for this subject.

Our ideas were various and included the work of the photographers David Egan, Todd Hido, Patrick Joust, Rut Blees Luxembourg, Jeff Brouws and Harry Gruyaert.

What did I learn? Well, how to have fun for a start. Also that background research matters and that frequent pooling and evaluation of shared work matters – in a spirit of positive critical assessment. There is no other way to produce something which fits together and where images from different photographers flow smoothly. I am pleased that we were able to write up our research. This allowed us to introduce the project, ground it in a point of view and offer a fuller experience to the viewer. That’s the difference between an essay and a rather random assortment of images.

A positive reception at the webinar but for me two things emerged: first that fewer images might have made a stronger presentation and second that a bit more mix ‘n’ match in the sequence of images might have helped too.

At the time of writing, our collaboration is available at this link:

The final images I contributed to our project are below

Mark Crean ( 17 October 2019): Colours of the Night

Week 4 Reflection

A challenging week but I really enjoyed myself. We were asked for brief reactions to the collaboration projects presented this week by my cohort. All these projects created something that could only have been brought to life as a collaboration. Stronger together than apart.

Collaboration – Drew and James

Two contrasting portraits show how even small changes in body language and gesture can alter everything. So, what is identity and how is it conveyed? A very effective collaboration.

Kaleidoscope of Colours – Jasmine, Justin and Matthew

The idea of evoking an emotional response through changes in the “kaleidoscope” of the colour spectrum produced in me the response: Excitement! This is the world eye and brain could never see until the invention of microscopy, photography and modern electronics.

Daily Commute – Chris and Jacy

Pleasant abstract touches, humorous, delicate, lovely colour palette. A collaboration that makes a point about crowds and people in boxes gently and with subtlety.

Erupting – Clare, De, Lor and Victoria

Muted, earthy tones, the images go well together and all make me wonder what’s going on and can I know more please. A simple idea but with many connections leading from it and the potential for strong social comment in terms of the eruption of concrete and human activity in natural landscapes.

Light at Night – Isabelle, Hans and Marcel

Very atmospheric with images that work really well together. There’s a strange, otherworldly air of waiting, not knowing and emptiness to the images. This is a night without people, perhaps just with ghosts (or photographers). I love the poem by Rilke.

Tracing Light – Lauren and Tim

A classic but very clever collaboration of images and text. Top quality in both cases. Images and text cross-comment on one another – very skilful – so meanings are constantly shifting and deepening. Thus the viewer is challenged and, being challenged, participates. “There never was and never will be one true version” (Daniel Meadows).

Adapted Spaces – Andy, Phil and Ross

What do we mean by “space” and how can anyone “use” something that’s apparently empty and which doesn’t really exist? I love these ideas. A neat idea and the images fit together. In fact as the images show, little is empty and what’s apparently unused is claimed by others. I just don’t look closely enough to notice.

Colours of the Night – Kimmi, Mark, Mike and Paul

This was the project I took part in. Comments on a separate post except to thank Mike for his hard work and generous offer of hosting on his website.

Predator or Collaborator?

The photographer Daniel Meadows describes this as the “documentarist’s dilemma”: whether the photographer is approaching the subject as a predator or as a collaborator.

Meadows was giving a talk last night to accompany his recently opened exhibition of documentary portraits from the 1970s and 1990s – Daniel Meadows: Now and Then – at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It swiftly became clear that Meadows was very much a collaborator in his practice. His aim, he said, was to express the uniqueness of every person he met. And the relaxed, open nature of his many portraits showed that photographer and subject had met as equals sharing a simple human moment. No predator could do that. Predators take but collaborators make images. Indeed, Meadows said he is still in touch with some of the people he had originally met on the street and photographed in the 1970s.

Daniel Meadows (1974): Florence Alma Snoad. Her striking features have inspired a string trio by the Slovene composer Brina Jež Brezavšček.

So, an appropriate talk to hear when the topic for Week 4 of this course is collaboration. It was also quite humbling. Meadows described himself as a lifelong “documentarist”. There was no trace of the lofty auteur or photographer as hero-celebrity, just quiet friendliness and observation. And no question that Meadows’ archive which he has generously gifted to the Bodleian Library is a joint effort between practitioner and subject.

This is clearly the way to go in my practice, though overcoming nerves about approaching potential subjects will be a challenge. Still, I’m very grateful to Meadows for another comment about not comparing oneself to others which, he said, he did rather a lot when starting out: “My pictures didn’t look like what good pictures are meant to look like. It took me 40 years to realize that I was just making my pictures, and that was fine.”

Daniel Meadows: Now and Then (2019) [Exhibition]. Weston Library, Oxford. 04 October-24 November 2019.

Project Development: Research Categories

I am going to start from the general in organizing research into my project, the City at Night. I hope that sufficient winnowing will enable me to identify a kernel of interest that is worth expressing.

Photographic History
At the moment I have the following to research as a starting point:

  • Brassai
  • Bernard Eilers (early experiments in colour)
  • Harry Gruyaert (his use of colour and some images from his series “Made in Belgium”, interestingly a collaboration with a writer)
  • Todd Hido
  • Dan Holdsworth
  • Edward Hopper
  • Joshua K. Jackson
  • Dina Litovsky and her “Meatpacking” series:
  • London Nights exhibition:
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Daido Moriyama and Shinjuku (in Tokyo)
  • Trent Parke
  • Nick Turpin (Turpin, N. (2017). On the night bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press)

Need: identify key photographers of the city over the past century or more and concentrate on their work at night or after dark. Who are the people I definitely need to know about, modern and old? Important to widen the scope to include photography of night and dark, not just cities.

Cultural History
Find source material on cities, the metropolis, the urban experience particularly after dark, and specifically on Oxford itself. Investigate the city as a worldwide modern phenomenon. What do Oxonians themselves think of their city after dark? It could be views of the mayor but it could equally be someone waiting for a late bus. Check local groups and meetings around social and urban-city questions or even consider advertising for subjects and input.

Also find source material on night and darkness and their effect on our physical and mental states. Some may be film, fiction or poetry.

Narrative Approach
How to organize material: thematic, by the hour, by subject, by season or weather and so on? How will the project treat time? Will “night” be seen as a general condition or times of night treated specifically (for example pub closing hours, transport timings)? How will individual images treat time, for example live composite or long exposure images? How will “night” be defined since it is only a label for what elapses between dusk and dawn? There is the question of in-between or liminal states as day becomes night and night becomes day again. Do we experience time differently at night? How do our other senses react to it? 

Social Commentary
State, process or event? Will the project be generally descriptive, like an urban landscape exercise? Or will it attempt to show the lives of various subjects – night workers, revellers, travellers, the homeless, the marginal and so forth? Oxford is always full of new arrivals and visitors not only tourists, but students, migrant workers and commuters. It is unusually cosmopolitan.

Subject Matter and Sub-themes
Define night, define “city” and define Oxford if at all possible. Then decide how much to show of the city’s many possible subjects, from architecture to individual people, venues and areas (centre vs suburbs), commercial and domestic properties, etc. Possibility of finding and following specific subjects (street food vendors, for example). This in turn raises the question of treatment: the anonymous subject versus the identified subject with a voice.

Key here will be keeping the range in check and on-topic since the potential subject matter is unlimited. What does “night” mean and reveal that “daylight” doesn’t?

Mission Statement
Why this project and what it tries to do in a few sentences only. To do this, however, I need to conduct enough research to narrow the topic down from generalities to what, specifically, I am trying to express.

Ethical Considerations
Distressed people, homeless people, inebriated people and so forth. Is it acceptable to bring them into my practice and if so how? (At the moment I am thinking probably not except for revellers.)

Photographic Techniques
There are single images, but also live composite images and long exposures, collage, contact sheets and so on. There is also video. All are available, but if the delivery medium is a book my options are more limited.

Textual Considerations
No text, short captions, long captions, witness statements from subjects photographed, poetry, excerpts from appropriate literature, narration or statements by the photographer and so forth. All to be decided.

Colour vs monochrome. Colour palettes. Film emulation. Overall treatment of things like contrast and tonal values. Close-up vs wider angles. Deep versus shallow depth of field and “bokeh” images. Abstract versus naturalistic.

To enliven this otherwise wordy post, here is the trailer of a short film by Gerrit Messiaen about the photographer Harry Gruyaert. I have always liked his work, the use of colour, the often dim or subdued lighting, the sense of impermanence, the surrealist touches and, sometimes, his portrayal of the thin watery light of northern Europe. He is an influence, for sure.

See also:

Claus, H. and Gruyaert, H. (2000). Made in Belgium. Paris: Delpire Éditeur

Harry Gruyaert – Photographer. (2018). [film] Directed by G. Messiaen. Belgium.

Project Development: the City at Night

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts which start my project development.

For my first project I have chosen the City at Night. This will be specifically my home town of Oxford, not just any city. I doubt this will be my final project, but I need to gain experience of forming up a project and of organising, researching and progressing one before I embark on anything more ambitious and final.

To begin with, I am going to divide things into various headings or categories.

Key Metrics
I think it is important to have a some “big picture values” before getting caught up in the details.

Target Market: Oxford residents, those who know Oxford, those interested in the urban experience and in photographic projects of this kind, those who visit photography bookshops online or offline.

Delivery Medium: A book of approximately 75-100 images.

Schedule: As an experimental project, allow 12 weeks. As a major project, allow 1-2 years.

Budget: Obtain quotations for various print-runs of a book, probably from Blurb. Add cost of design and jacket design, sundry origination costs, project development costs such as travel, books, tickets, meals and general expenses. Add costs of C-type test prints and other photography-related items. Add copyright permissions fees if using material like poetry. Add sales/distribution costs and a marketing budget.

Outcomes: Is this a viable project? Outcomes would need to satisfy my MA requirements but also some criteria for a successful project anyway. Those would include establishing whether there is enough of a market for a book like this, the per-copy cost such a market would bear, the size and quality of book the market would bear, sales channels and whether in the light of this the overall project cost is sustainable.

Beyond this, I am forming up categories under which I intend to cover – among other things – photographic history and research, cultural history and research, narrative approach and the question of texts and captions, social commentary, ethical considerations, treatment of place, treatment of and approach to people, photographic techniques which may be employed, stylistic questions such as colour or monochrome, the definition and limits of the subject itself (night and city), project title and subtitle, and emergent properties.

By emergent properties I mean that which emerges as the result of undertaking the project but which might not necessarily be foreseeable. These could be new themes or sub-themes, new directions, new people I meet as potential subjects, unexpected messages from my subconscious which images turn out to embody, technical issues and just about anything else. I consider these to be very, very important and I must make a careful effort to be as aware of them as I can. In some ways, they are the whole point of the project.

In the meantime, I posted a couple of contact sheets of my practice to date on the Week 3 discussion forum:

The City at Night
Mark Crean (07 October 2019): the City at Night
The City at Night
Mark Crean (07 October 2019): the City at Night


Week 3: the Rise of Citizen Journalism

We were asked to comment on the rise of citizen journalism, partly with reference to an article about the photographer Damon Winter’s use of a smartphone for combat reportage in Afghanistan, and to another article by Stephen Bull. This is what I wrote in the discussion forum:

Camera phones are very powerful tools, largely now because of video, and will only improve. They are also more discreet than big cameras, safer to use in some places, and promise instant comms online. The aesthetics of camera-phone imaging are a rich and ever-changing brew of computer gaming (underestimated influence among young men, especially for combat reportage?), fashion, brand marketing, cult movies and shows, comics/anime, social media memes, etc. At first camera phones seemed strange but are now taken for granted. Using one is a question of choosing the right tool for the job, for the story. A camera phone was clearly the right tool for Damon Winter.

Among many challenges are a change in aesthetic appeal from polished photojournalism to rough and ready action stuff. But this begs the question of what an audience thinks of as real, authentic, authoritative – all changing, flexible terms open to influence. Ethical challenges are presenting war and atrocity as entertainment – a “hauntological” distancing device – or even inflaming situations to obtain better footage. Reportage challenges are opting for sensationalism instead of a story and seeing the “citizen witness” as a kind of post-factual end in itself, rather than as a potentially valuable first-hand account to be used as part of a larger, facts-based news-gathering process. Citizen journalism is often of benefit and is here to stay, and the ruthless economics of the news biz make it appealing material. Camera phones are a great tool but we must still tell our truth filters or no.

Bull, Stephen (2012). “Digital photography never looked so analogue” in Photoworks (spring/summer 2012). Brighton: Photoworks

Myers, Steve (2011). “Damon Winter explains process, philosophy behind award-winning Hipstamatic photos”.

Week 3: the Professions of Photography

Among the many questions asked this week were how non-photographers and the general public view the “professions of photography”.

We are a long way from Rear Window and Blow Up these days. It’s not an easy question to answer because I suspect that society is now so split into tribes and specialisations, exacerbated by pre-digital versus digital, that there is no overall view other than that “professionals” earn their living from what they do.

Few probably like paparazzi, but few probably see a wedding or corporate events photographer in the same way or even associate them with paparazzi. Similarly, a cadre of YouTube and Instagram photography stars make a handsome living from their video reviews and other work, but these trendy social influencers are probably not greatly associated with gritty war photography or sweaty sports togs wrestling in the pit. And even quite mainstream landscape and fine arts photographers may make more of their income from tutorials and workshops than from traditional print sales.

So the message is stay nimble and be prepared to adapt. Photography may be seen in a fairly utilitarian way today, simply as a way to get your message out there, promote the business (or yourself), sell your stuff whether by video or by still image. And when allied to numerous apps which help with presentation (filters, merging, cropping, airbrushing, etc.) and establishing a presence online then photography as a sales and marketing tool becomes accessible to the many not the few. This is the democratising influence of the smartphone at work. Arguably, it has started to erase photography as a distinct discipline or set of disciplines at all. A smartphone can open a shop on Etsy but a camera can’t.

Crowd-sourcing is another development from the smartphone and social media. If everyone pools their images of an event or say of a wedding in a space online, then the case for involving a seasoned pro becomes even weaker. There are just no easy answers here.

I don’t think any of this has had much influence on how I go about my practice. I do what I do, largely because it’s for pleasure not for a living. However, of course I have been influenced by the huge quantity of ideas, styles and articles available on the Internet. Instagram turned me on to some very fine wildlife photographers and wildlife photography is something I aspire to do more of. Instagram also turned me on to some fine smartphone photographers among them the writer William Dalrymple and Dimpy Bhalotia. Theirs too is work I would like to emulate.

I don’t personally find change or technical innovation a problem. I welcome them, in fact. I like the WYSIWYG electronic viewfinders on modern mirrorless cameras, for example. I love the new ideas and experimentation which emerge from smartphone photography. Problem versus opportunity is a choice.

Dimpy Bhalotia is on Instagram as @dimpy.bhalotia

Dalrymple, William (2016). The writer’s eye. London: HarperCollins

Week 2

Week 2 has turned out to be an interesting one. I’m challenged by how much I have to learn but also intrigued by a great deal of it. This is the start of bringing some attention, focus and critical understanding to my practice and to seeing it in a much wider context than hitherto. In addition, it’s been necessary to go back to first principles and work out what certain terms really mean. So, these things have caught my eye:

  • The difference between discipline and discourse.
  • “Interdisciplinary” is not just a casserole of ingredients. It means teasing out more precise relationships beyond the work and influences inside the work.
  • The particular qualities of the still image, discussed at length by Barthes and Sontag.
  • The importance of the moving image and understanding it in a world where video increasingly dominates.
  • The vital importance of context. This was discussed in some detail in the example of the zeppelin image by Sam Shere. News soon becomes social comment which soon becomes history which soon becomes art which soon becomes pop art on album covers et al. The image has a life far beyond itself.
  • Aspect, discussed by David Campany. I think this one may be really useful. Am I making a photograph of a state, a process or an event? Good questions.
  • Identity and what we really mean by this. In fact identity turns out to be extremely difficult to pin down, as experiments with police-type identikit imaging have shown.

I was surprised by the extent to which other disciplines are already present in my work even though I had not consciously thought much about it. And by the huge variety of influences which fellow students showed and talked about on the discussion board. Fascinating and full of energy.

I am also surprised by now much I warmed to Susan Sontag and did not warm at all to Roland Barthes. Maybe that will change. Need to persevere.

I offered three images in the discussion group trying to show interdisciplinary influences on my practice: one on the influence of Dharma Arts and Miksang (Good Eye), one on the question of wildlife and conservation in a planet in crisis, and one on history and its many interpretations.

Miksang, looking for a dot of red.

An Amur Leopard
An Amur leopard, unlikely to survive in the wild so how do we protect the species in captivity?

Interpretations of History
The many interpretations of history and culture.

How Far Is Distance?

In Week 1 we were asked to offer an image of “The View From Your Window”.

I offered a black-and-white image looking across an estate of houses in Oxfordshire on a wet and gloomy Sunday afternoon. And between the seer and the seen there is a veil – a suburban net curtain.

“How far is distance?” is a question his small son asked a friend of my wife the other day. Like many children’s questions it is so brilliantly simple and direct that it defies an easy answer, for what do people really mean when they say something is “in the distance” or “distant”? They may not even be referring to a physical object but to an anticipated future event or to an emotional state – to an abstraction, in fact. No wonder it can be hard to understand.

In my case it proved a good fit. I did feel emotionally distant that afternoon and I don’t actually know what goes on across the estate here. I am looking without much of a clue at other lives, other people, other states of being. So yes the view is veiled, because not fully understood. One of the points of this course is to start prodding and pulling at the veil so that eventually it will fall away.

Mark Crean (29 September 2019): The View From My Window