PHO702 Week 11: Consolidating Practice

I imagine the point of this week’s coursework is to encourage one to think about what a photograph actually is, what it might mean and try to express, and how all that might change completely depending on the context in which the photograph is presented. In the words of Allan Sekula, ‘The photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning’ (Sekula 1982: 91).

If one doesn’t do that, then trying to curate one’s photographs and assemble them into a portfolio that says something is going to be very hit and miss, not much more than ‘Well, this one doesn’t look too bad.’ Good curation strikes me as a learned skill that comes with practice.

Part of the process is opening oneself to the connections, patterns, suggestions that arise when a group of photographs is assembled together on a table, perhaps in no particular order. The task is to order them by finding those connections. Another part of the process is considering, carefully, what one is trying to say across a portfolio (or exhibition or book). It may be a story, and perhaps there are words with the images that help to form one. Or it may be an anti-story, a story that refuses a narrative, obliging us to concentrate only on the image before us, as with Cramer or Barth: ‘Images shot through with story and place, but which demand we ignore both place and story. This is what we are, they say, but what are we?’ (Darwent 2007 on Daniel Gustav Cramer). Either way, whether one believes that photographs are good at storytelling or not, behind it all there does sit ‘what are we?’. Paul Strand said that ‘Your photography is a record of your living’ (Adams and Byrne 1994: 119) and today, we might add, of your unconscious mind too.

I am locating my own practice in a long tradition of Fine Arts photographers who have either concentrated on the modern urban world, particularly in North America, or who have often concentrated on photography at night – there is plenty of overlap. Thus as influences I would cite among others William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power in the first group and Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and David George in the second group. But either group, of course, can be traced all the way back to practitioners like Stieglitz or Steichen.

My project is an exploration of my hometown – Oxford and its environs – after dark. My intent has three aspects. To express the uncanny, to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and the mundane (sometimes a part of the uncanny, in fact), and to show our modern urban world as I see it today, which means power relations and inequality. All of these aspects are found in one degree or another in the practitioners mentioned above. My challenge is to take this and distil it so that it becomes my own personal vision and not merely channelling or, worse, copying what others have done. That is a challenge every time I press the shutter and equally a challenge of curation too. It takes time and practice and is not the work of a moment.

Finally, the most original book I have read over this module is Hans Belting’s An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting sees the photograph (and possibly all of art) as primarily an exchange of gazes, the gaze of the photographer or artist and our own gaze. Belting calls this encounter ‘a symbolic perception’ (Belting 2014: 154) because he believes that images are distinct from the medium in which they appear. They float free and migrate across history from one medium to another, but they are always found in the present moment. I find this both comforting and very exciting. Every time we make an image of any kind, we are also returning to the caves at Lascaux. Uncanny.

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

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

DARWENT, Charles. 2007. ‘Daniel Gustav Cramer: Mountain (Trilogy Part Three)’. Domobaal [online]. Available at: https://www.domobaal.com/exhibitions/41-07-daniel-gustav-cramer-07.html [accessed 22 Apr 2020].

SEKULA, Allan. 1982. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’. In Victor BURGIN (ed.). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan, 84–109.

PHO702 Week 10: Reflections

Two things stood out for me this week. First, the huge variety of approach and subject matter among my own MA cohort and of course more widely in photography generally. There is very little people aren’t interested in or which photography cannot cover. And second, the sheer energy fizzing away in both my cohort’s projects and presentations and in the work of practitioners elsewhere.

I picked up several things from the readings, background material and forum posts, particularly the really good presentation by Mandy Jandrell on how she researched and created ‘The Blue Hour’ (Jandrell 2018). All three of Peter Fraser, Uta Barth and Mandy Jandrell emphasize how important it is to ‘see fresh’ by dropping assumptions and stripping things down to their essentials. As Uta Barth says, ‘ … the process of making photographs forced me to learn how to truly see, to see the light, to study how things in an image relate to the edge, how to crop and frame the most mundane and incidental subject matter into a compelling image. I remember a teacher talking about the difference of making an engaging photograph of an ordinary thing versus making an ordinary photograph of an engaging thing’ (Mirlesse 2012).

So if we begin by asking ourselves how does human vision actually work, then what do we go on to photograph? I really liked Peter Fraser’s statement in his Tate Shots video, that it is about ‘ … seeing situations I’ve never ever seen before. And it’s in that moment that a certain kind of intensity, a flash of recognition … takes place. It’s got everything to do with the fact that I’ve never ever seen that scene before’ (Tate Shots 2013). For me this ties in closely with Uta Barth noting that Zen ‘asks us to engage deeply in every moment’ and, in the case of Barth’s own practice, that we are asked to absorb ourselves in the moment but are given ‘no central subject that will distract you’ (Mirlesse 2012). The result is very effective.

So the power of intent, concentration and solid research are very important. The other thing this week has helped me to appreciate is to be much more aware of how others might react to my work. Again, Fraser, Barth and Jandrell all talk about it. As Fraser said of his exhibition, ‘I am confronted with a physical expression of my own unconscious mind, and the mysteriousness and scope and range of the unconscious’ (Tate Shots 2013).

I am wary of conventional exhibitions, largely for the reasons covered by critics like Emma Barker in Week 9: that galleries and museums are ‘cultures of display’ where everything becomes Art with a capital A and one has to deal with slippery and perhaps rather superior curators (Barker 1999). These places can distance us, patronize us, perhaps even bore us and take us further away from why we are there: an intimate 1:1 encounter between artist and viewer. ‘The strange power of the experience of looking, the experience of being absorbed [by it]’ (Hodgson 2011 on an encounter with the practice of Thomas Struth).

In this respect Mandy Jandrell’s multimedia work, and how she creates it, were a massive tonic and really interested me. It opens up the possibilities of making an exhibition of my own work, but this does not have to be the conventional pictures on a long wall. I have no idea what may transpire but the point is that I do feel it has lit a spark and I can feel open to more to possibilities than I thought. This is particularly the case with regard to collaboration with other artists, whether words, sound or images.

This connects a little to another point Barth makes: ‘I think serious artists repeatedly engage the same central questions, but this should not be confused with a consistent style. I am always excited when a change of signature style opens new doors for exploring a core idea’ (Mirlesse 2012). This is both freeing and intimidating at the same time. For now, I will take the point: do not get stuck in a rut and do not be afraid to experiment. Creativity is experiment.

At the moment, I would define my own work by saying that I am practising in a long tradition of Fine Arts photography, in the genre of night photography. But this sounds terribly terribly dull put like that. The question therefore is how to open it all up, stretch oneself, be creative, make things more exciting. You don’t invite an audience to be bored. My impression from the forum this week is that everyone felt like that. We have all got to where we are right now. The question is where we would love to be and how to get there in a year’s time.

BARKER, Emma. 1999. ‘Introduction’. In Emma BARKER and Open UNIVERSITY (eds.). Contemporary Cultures of Display. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 8–21.

HODGSON, Francis. 2011. ‘Thomas Struth: An Objective Photographer?’ Financial Times 8 Jul [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/video/634f1212-a5ba-3859-a61c-618d87ed6e9a [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

JANDRELL, Mandy. 2018. ‘The Blue Hour’. Vimeo [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/269862769 [accessed 1 Apr 2020].

MIRLESSE, Sabine. 2012. ‘Light, Looking: Uta Barth’. BOMB Magazine [online]. Available at: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/light-looking-uta-barth/ [accessed 9 Apr 2020].

TATE SHOTS. 2013. ‘Peter Fraser’. Tate Shots [online]. Available at: https://youtu.be/F8glmAtCnnU [accessed 10 Apr 2020].

PHO702: Photography is Dead

Well, the fashion photographer Nick Knight thinks photography is dead. What interests me in why. In his own words:

I think photography is dead. I think photography stopped years ago and we shouldn’t try and hold back a new medium by defining it with old terms. … For 150 years they did the same thing. Then something else comes along at the end of the 1980s and you could do things you could never do before. …  I call it image-making … because that’s what I do. Because that can take in sound and movement and 3D, which I think are really part of this new art form. So it’s based on image. That gets away from the thing of truth.  … It’s a totally new medium and that’s what I think I do (Blanks 2016).

Agree with it or not, but I think the upshot is really exciting and something I need to be aware of in my own practice. Digital means the coming together of both still and moving images, sound, installations, sculpture, people and much besides. Fashion is not documentary and therefore the intent and need for truthfulness may be very different from other genres but what this means is that as a photographer I do not have to feel confined by a traditional Fine Arts world. I do not have to think that the only outcome of a project is a traditional gallery exhibition. In fact thinking so is likely to be a mistake that limits my audience, my creativity and my opportunities for work. Similar ideas have been expressed by Stuart Franklin:

Photography is a hugely valuable career, especially now. We are starting to live in a post-television era. In a way it’s like being back in the 1950s before TV became dominant in news or documentary. On the Internet and in print there is an important role for photography, but it must step up to challenge. There are sites of opportunity and there is always a market for quality. Today quality in photography is not so much about craft (as it once was), but about strong narrative, visual eloquence and affective communication. … Photographers must find spaces where important stories can be told and then use social media to build an audience. It’s a challenge, but like any challenge the more prepared one is the easier the task; and that involves learning (Aesthetica 2015).

I know very little about multimedia and the world beyond the still image, but I am glad to have come across these ideas. They emphasize the importance of looking at wider ways of reaching an audience. And – this is not to be underestimated – the value of experimenting with new ideas, making mistakes and simply having fun.

AESTHETICA MAGAZINE. 2015. ‘Interview with Magnum Photographers Mark Power and Stuart Franklin’. Aesthetica Magazine 20 Jul [online]. Available at: https://aestheticamagazine.com/interview-with/ [accessed 19 Apr 2020].

BLANKS, Tim. 2016. ‘Nick Knight, Techno-Shaman’. Business of Fashion 12 Jul [online]. Available at: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/nick-knight-in-conversation-tim-blanks-techno-shaman [accessed 20 Apr 2020].

PHO702 Week 10: Work in Progress

I have revised my project a little. I am now calling it Hometown Nights instead of Oxford at Night and I am extending its scope to include not only the city of Oxford but its immediate environs. This therefore now includes Kidlington, a large and directly adjoining village of some 14,000 people which in practice has become an Oxford suburb.

This has turned out to be an interesting addition because suburbs and old city centres are very different places. A suburb has different architecture, a different treatment of space, a different purpose (residential, not commercial) and much else. In other words, this is a challenge not only of photography and interpretation but of psychogeography.

If the world situation changes and I revise my project back strictly to Oxford, what I learn here will be put to good use in the closer-in city suburbs within the Oxford ring-road.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig 2: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 30, 2020
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 31, 2020
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 31, 2020
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 31, 2020
Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

OxfordAtNight-March 31, 2020
Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Hometown Nights.

Figures

Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author.

 

PHO702 Week 9: Enter the Academy

The reflective task for this week is to Identify and research a real-life group exhibition that my work might fit into, establish its intent and discuss it.

I will choose the ‘London Nights’ exhibition held by the Museum of London in 2018 as an exhibition that my own work would fit well into – though clearly I would have to travel down and make some photographs of London first! I have been doing just that for many years anyway, in fact, though not for my degree course. My project is on urban night photography and that was the subject of this successful and wide-ranging exhibition which surveyed the field from Paul Martin to Bill Brandt to contemporary practitioners like Rut Blees Luxemburg (Sparham 2017).

In the book of the exhibition Anna Sparham, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of London, makes several points relevant both to the exhibition and to my practice (Sparham 2018). I would say that the intent of the exhibition was to show not only the history of night photography but also to show what is distinct about it, how it reflects changing times and cultures, and also how night photography is well suited to portraying the restless energy, rush, mysteriousness and alienating strangeness of any great modern city though in this case specifically London. Sparham writes:

The notion of the night is, after all, where the imagination has always run wild. (Introduction)

The concept of night photography is best explored through images that stand distinct in appearance to daylight. (Introduction)

The unsettling sense of change or loss can be intensified at night, when limited light adds to the drama and tension. (78)

Fear, threat and suspicion often lead the imagination to blend with reality. (86)

Sparham goes on to note that ‘voyeurism, privacy and surveillance’ are all issues with urban night photography and are becoming more so.

To unpack these remarks a little (the images that follow are not from the exhibition):

Night photograph has to be approached as something quite distinct. It is not simply photography without daylight and won’t produce successful images if treated as such. Brassaï’s spooky deserted streets are highly atmospheric at night but during the day are just another bland boulevard. See Figure 1.

Brassai_Avenue-de-lObservatoire-in-the-Fog-1933
Fig. 1: Brassaï 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire. Light and shadow, weather, point of view and the headlights of a car are all used to distinguish this scene from the unremarkable urban space it might be during the day.

Sparham points out that images made at night need to capture ‘an aesthetic and characteristic distinct from the diurnal’ (Sparham 2018: 125). Blees Luxembourg always comes to mind as a practitioner successful in this aspect and she is certainly an influence. However, so is David George. Blees Luxemburg is adept at photographing the city at night, but to my eye George has the surer sense of place and is more clearly photographing London at night (George 2020). See Figure 2. A sense of place is an issue here. I am photographing Oxford at night, not Leamington Spa.

GEORGE, David. 2015. Hackney at Night.
Fig. 2: David George 2015. Hackney by Night. George’s images of East London at night are notable to me for their strong sense of place.

Night jumbles up our senses and primal instincts come to the fore. We are more alert to danger. This sense of disorientation is an essential ingredient of night photography and, when allied to the uncertain and the deserted, produces a sensation of the uncanny. Almost all the practitioners I am mentioning – Brassaï, Brandt, Hido, Blees Luxemburg, George – are accomplished at this. It is one of the most important things I need to learn.

Good images require tension. Aesthetics alone, in the sense of beauty, colour, light, are not enough. The search for tension is perhaps why Brandt used his wife as a stand-in for a pedestrian or even a lonely streetwalker in some of his night photography, and of course Brassaï went for the real thing. In addition, tension creates a story. The moment there is tension we start to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘What happened?’ This is clearly an important ingredient for some practitioners. For example, it could be argued that the only difference between an arranged tableau by Gregory Crewdson and an image by Todd Hido is that Crewdson has introduced a character and set up a story. The other qualities – the low light, the dodgy suburban buildings, the feeling of alienation – are very similar. See figure 3.

gregory-crewdson-untitled-2001
Fig. 3: Gregory Crewdson 2001. Untitled. A very similar suburban atmosphere to some of the practice of Todd Hido, but with characters added in an arranged tableau to create a story.

Night photography reflects the time, culture, ethics and so on of where it is made. Thus surveillance, for example, has become a pressing contemporary issue. It has become so partly from a climate of fear, and partly from the increasing encroachment of private capital in public spaces. What used to be open or merely neglected is often now fenced off, surveyed by CCTV and patrolled by private security companies. Unless one wishes to live in a bubble, these things are now part of the night and should therefore be noted. This marks a move away from the more aesthetic ‘beautiful mysterious’ of Eggleston or Shore forty or so years ago. A comparison here would be with Mark Power’s ongoing study Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Many of the images in that have very sharp social edges.

How would my work fit into the above and what might a reviewer say? I hope a reviewer would say that my work portrays Oxford in the way that David George portrays East London or Todd Hido portrays suburban America, though in my case sometimes with a sharper social bite. Perhaps they would also say that while my practice is clearly in this tradition, it is not unique enough to be truly distinctive.

So, finding my own voice within this long tradition emerges as my number one priority.

References

FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George Photography [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna. 2017. ‘London Nights Exhibition Opens at The Museum of London 2018’. Museum of London [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5lOoizXyLE [accessed 2 Apr 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna and Inua ELLAMS. 2018. London Nights. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

Figures

Figure 1. BRASSAÏ. 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire.
Figure 2. David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. From: Karen Falconer and David George. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
Figure 3. Gregory CREWDSON. 2001. Untitled.

PHO702: David George

I am very much enjoying the work of the photographer David George (George 2020). Much of his practice is in urban areas (particularly London) after dark and it really strikes a chord with me. It is not only that the urban landscapes of parts of Hackney or Peckham are similar to parts of Oxford but that I like George’s whole approach. He is not afraid of darkness and extensive shadows if the composition is there. He uses only natural light and, so far as I can tell, an ordinary digital camera. He has a gentle, unfussy approach and concentrates on what he sees on his night-time forays rather than on trying to send a portentous State of the Nation message. This is all the kind of territory in which I feel at ease. See Figure 1.

David George 2015. Hackney by Night.
Fig. 1: David George 2015. Hackney by Night.

There is plenty for me to learn here.

First, George brings clarity to his practice in the form of short but direct statements of his intent for each of his projects (George 2020). There is the uncanny (The Gingerbread House), the Pastoral tradition (Backwater, Hackney by Night), the Sublime (Enclosures, Badlands and Borders), the Romantic tradition (Albedo) or childhood (Shadows of Doubt). Each project is informed by the artistic and literary traditions behind the theme, and by the work of other photographers in the field. It is impressively simple and clear, but also researched.

Second, George is very aware of time and change, that he is often photographing old industrial landscapes on the cusp of change in an increasingly post-industrial West. There is affection but no judgement in this understanding, just observation of a never-ending process: ‘These new landscapes have their own charm and nuances, replacing the old pastoral vistas; all created by man’s intervention in the environment for eons, with new interventions and the creation of a new era in English Landscape’ (George 2020). George cites New Topographics, the Bechers and Joel Sternfeld among others as influences – all influences I need to know more about. I suspect that the idea of change, in the way George describes it, needs to inform my own practice.

Third, George is not afraid of creating atmosphere, an air of mystery, perhaps introducing the poetic. I much appreciate finding this in his images because it is very easy to be cowed by the strictures of postmodernism – which can often seem too cerebral and basically joyless – and forget that both photographer and viewer respond emotionally to the image. There is something visceral in a really effective image, and if one is not enjoying the making then what is the point. For me, this particularly applies to dealing with dark areas using only available light. In George’s words: ‘ … the shadow offers the viewer imaginative access to the image and therefore ownership of the narrative within the photograph, the viewer becoming an active storyteller rather than a passive observer, which is a much more interesting way to interact with the photographic image’ (Keller-Privat 2018). This is so refreshing to hear.

Finally, I like George’s approach to curation and storytelling. He is open to collaboration in more than one medium and there is no fixation with the Barthesian author-as-controller. In Hackney at Night George collaborated with the writer Karen Falconer: her short story, his images. ‘What I wanted was to take the reader on a gentle meander through the night, to feel like they’d have a bit of a dream … I want the reader to make up their own relationship between text and image. This isn’t a shouty book: we’re all grownups, so make up your own stories, it’s much more fun’ (British Journal of Photography 2015).

So, overall, a lovely find.

References

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘David George: Hackney At Night’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/12/hackney-at-night/ [accessed 4 Apr 2020].

FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].

KELLER-PRIVAT, Isabelle. 2018. ‘Hackney by Night: An Interview of David George and Umut Gunduz’. Miranda [online]. Available at: https://journals.openedition.org/miranda/13553#text [accessed 3 Apr 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. From: Karen Falconer and David George. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

PHO702 Week 8: Responses and Responsibilities

I guess the point of this week’s topic is to show how all photographs contain messages, including political messages. I need to be aware of that, especially in my own work, and also aware of how a viewer is likely to receive those messages. They may be received very differently depending on the context (e.g., in a newspaper or on the wall of an art gallery).

The question of the role of aesthetic choices in this struck me as fascinating. It goes to the heart of the debate over the practice of Sebastãio Salgado (see below). I particularly like Susie Linfield’s approach in her excellent book The Cruel Radiance (Linfield 2010), because she takes a much wider and more forgiving view than either Ingrid Sischy (Sischy 1991) or Susan Sontag (Sontag 2004):

Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions (Linfield 2010: 22).

In order words, photographs may be there to change us or to shock us but they also perform many other functions and are interpreted in many other ways. This becomes clear in Linfield’s essays in her book on James Nachtwey and Giles Peress (Linfield 2010). Personally I find Nachtwey’s meticulously composed, distant, almost formal images of suffering much more deeply disturbing than a typical combat photograph. Peress shares some of the same qualities but he is also very effective in suggesting something by showing only its traces. One can see this in his image of a beleaguered Kurdish mountain village. This is apparently normal life among the women and children – but it isn’t normal and both they and we, the viewers, know it. See Figure 1.

giles-peress-mountain-village-kurdistan-c1980
Fig. 1: Giles Peress c. 1980. Mountain Village, Kurdistan.

The question of traces, the after-the-event, leads on to David Campany’s idea of ‘Late Photography’ in Safety in Numbness (Campany 2003) not least as a niche that the still image can occupy in the face of citizen journalism and instant video news. I do not entirely agree with Campany’s conclusions, however: ‘We may have been able to see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal. Photography was struggling to find a way to reconcile itself with a new position beyond the event. And it was discovering that sombre melancholia was a seductive mode for the still image’ (Campany 2003).

Campany is describing the images of Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zero in New York, but ‘sombre melancholia’ is only one of a wide range of emotions the still image can arouse. The still image can arouse anger, for example, as in Martha Rosler’s approach to the traces of homelessness in her classic The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (Rosler 1974-5). There is a similar approach to the same subject and its traces in the practice of Leif Claesson (Claesson 2020).

Rosler raises a very good point present in the work of almost all the photographers mentioned this week: ‘Documentary as we know it carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1989: 306). I had not realized how problematic documentary can be, and Rosler’s point feeds right into another question, whether truly shocking images can change anything or, instead, leave the viewer feeling apathetic and helpless. It is clear that this issue has long been widely understood – see for example Berger 2009: 32 – but I am not sure that anyone has found a conclusive answer. What is left are strategies: some work, some don’t.

I do think the strategy of suggestion and traces works, but perhaps that’s just me. It is at least the approach I am taking in my own project. I will show the traces of homelessness, of people, of events, of an uncanny feeling that ‘something happened here’. I think this is more powerful (and more ethical) than showing the thing itself. See Figures 2 and 3.

CLAESSON, Leif. Undated. Demolished Tent, from Parken.
Fig. 2: Leif Claesson (Undated). Demolished Tent, from Parken.

untitled shoot-February 19, 2020-X2190140
Fig. 3: Mark Crean. 2020. Hometown Nights. Traces of homelessness.

Finally, the question of aesthetics and the practice of Sebastãio Salgado. Ingrid Sischy makes one very strong point in her appraisal of his work: ‘To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy 1991: 92). This is spot on, if it genuinely is tragedy. Too much of the rest of her article struck me as a depressing example of the snobbery and elitism of the East Coast arts establishment. It was neither a fair nor an accurate appraisal of Salgado’s work. I much prefer the more subtle and intelligent approach taken by David Levi Strauss in his essay on this subject, particularly ‘Why can’t beauty be a call to action? Being politically correct does not signify much unless the work is both visually and conceptually compelling. To be compelling there must be tension in the work’ (Levi Strauss 2005:  9-10).

This returns us to several things. First it returns us to the qualities of the image itself. Second it suggests that practitioners and artists should be assessed with an open mind on the basis of what they can do, not on what they can’t. Some people are documentarists and perhaps involved in politics, and others simply aren’t. That is not who they are. Salgado strikes me as one of them, someone in love with the visual, the poetic, the mysterious, a bit of a visionary. There is nothing wrong with this.

It is also the case that we live in a consumer culture. Key to reaching an audience is widespread dissemination on TV, social media, in the press and through popular books. Without that audience, no message will get through no matter how worthwhile. Salgado has that audience and reach, as does the Attenborough Life team, for example. The issue is how to work with them and use their platforms of persuasion, not against them. Railing against them will change nothing.

References

BERGER, John. 2009. About Looking. London: Bloomsbury.

CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 19 Jan 2020].

CLAESSON, Leif. 2020. ‘The Park’. Leif Claesson [online]. Available at: http://www.leifclaesson.com/the-park [accessed 27 Mar 2020].

LEVI STRAUSS, David. 2005. ‘The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?’. In David LEVI STRAUSS (ed.). Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture, 3–11.

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press [online]. Available at: https://www.dawsonera.com/guard/protected/dawson.jsp?name=https://shibboleth.falmouth.ac.uk/idp/shibboleth&amp [accessed 24 Mar 2020].

ROSLER, Martha. c. 1989. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts on Documentary Photography’. In Richard BOLTON (ed.). The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 303–40.

ROSLER, Martha. 1974-5. ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’. Whitney Museum of American Art [online]. Available at: https://whitney.org/collection/works/8304 [accessed 24 Mar 2020].

SISCHY, Ingrid. 1991. ‘Good Intentions’. The New Yorker [online]. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/. [accessed 24 Mar 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.

Figures

Figure 1. Giles PERESS. c. 1980. Mountain Village, Kurdistan.
Figure 2. Leif CLAESSON. Undated. Demolished Tent. From: Parken. Leif Claesson [online]. Available at: http://www.leifclaesson.com/the-park [accessed 02 Mar 2020].
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author.

 

PHO702 Week 7: Vision 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHO702 Week 6: Work in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2015. ‘Shady Character: How Stephen Shore Taught America to See in Living Colour’. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/09/stephen-shore-america-colour-photography-1970s [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

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

PINKHASSOV, Gueorgui. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification – Magnum Photos’. [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gueorgui-pinkhassov-sophistication-simplification/ [accessed 6 Mar 2020].

SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. ‘Dayanita Singh’. [online]. Available at http://dayanitasingh.net/ [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Dyanita SINGH. 2018. ‘The Pothi Box’. Dyanita Singh [online]. Available at: http://dayanitasingh.net/pothi-box/ [accessed 9 Feb 2020].
Figure 2: Melissa HARRIS, 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020];  Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gueorgui-pinkhassov-sophistication-simplification/ [accessed 6 Mar 2020].
Figures 3. Richard MISRACH. 1975. Saguaro Cactus; Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2018. Blackpool illuminations.
Figures 4-13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

 

PHO702 Week 6: A Sea of Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1998. ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. New York Times 18 Sep [online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html?pagewanted=all [accessed 04 Mar 2020]

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. MOMA video [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

WEBB, Alex. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H [accessed 25 Mar 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Alex WEBB. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti. From: Alex WEBB. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H [accessed 25 Mar 2020].