I have continued to look for images in the manner of Tarkovsky in Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). That means a ‘Zone’ of alterity and strangeness, using elements such as windows, passages and gaps to suggest portals between modes of consciousness. The idea is to create a story of what it feels like to be there, in that moment, far from one’s usual moorings and in a place that definitely does not resemble most people’s idea of Oxford or of any other popular tourist destination and architectural gem. So I am trying to show my Oxford, not someone else’s, much as Krass Clement photographed his Dublin (British Journal of Photography 2017).
Clicking on an image in the gallery will produce a larger lightbox view.
I have been looking at the role of sound in photography and as a possible accompaniment to my research project.
I started with the artist and academic Angus Carlyle and his many works involving both photography and sound such as In the Shadow of the Silent Mountain (Carlyle 2015). This led me on to what I might describe as the psycho-geography of sound on websites such as Favourite Sounds (Favourite Sounds 2020) or Soundcities (Soundcities 2020) and even on commercial sites such as Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura 2020). I had not realized that mapping places by their sounds was so popular or so rich in possibilities.
Some of the world’s big cities have now been mapped by their myriad of different sounds, with each audio clip geotagged and then inserted into Google Maps. Thus, the viewer can navigate a city by its sounds simply by clicking the star points on a Google street map and listening to the attached clip. This has certainly set me thinking that it would be possible to do that with Oxford. So far as I know, no one yet has sound-mapped Oxford and doing so for me would mean little more than taking a recorder on my photography shoots and geotagging the clips with my smartphone.
However, using sound in this way may be fascinating but it is also a documentary and firmly indexical approach. My research project is not documentary but more poetic and conceptual. Sound, if I used it in my research project, would need to be carefully woven into the images until it had become part of the story and not, as with a documentary approach, offered simply a parallel aural track.
This has led me to consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s very careful use of sound in his films, mainly with the Russian composer Eduard Artemyev. In fact Artemyev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky’s films are so highly regarded that they have been released as stand-alone albums. There is a fascinating paper by Metin Colak, ‘The Functions of Sound in Tarkovsky’s Films’ (Colak 2013), which suggests how Tarkovsky used sound in his films to reinforce, suggest or subvert the story lines of, among others, Solaris, Stalker and Mirror. A key point is that natural and composed sound is so carefully interleaved that it is sometimes difficult to know whether one is listening to water dripping or to Eduard Artemyev’s score.
It is clear that Tarkovsky treated sound like poetry and used it as delicately:
‘I find music in film most acceptable when it is used like a refrain. When we come across a refrain in poetry we return, already in possession of what we have read, to the first cause which prompted the poet to write the lines originally. The refrain brings us back to our first experience of entering that poetic world, making it immediate and at the same time renewing it … By using music, it is possible for the director to prompt the emotions of the audience in a particular direction, by widening the range of their perception of the visual image. … Perception is deepened’ (Tarkvosky 158).
Properly employed, therefore, the sounds we hear in a work of art are ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). This is where sound and my research project meet.
Using sound in this way is both exciting and challenging. It also connects to Mark Fisher’s essay on art of all kinds in connection with the weird and the eerie (Fisher 2016). Fisher covers Tarkovsky but he singles out Brian Eno in connection with sound, particularly Ambient 4:On Land (Eno 1982) which embodies the British landscape. A soundscape that accomplished for a project like mine would be a dream, although soundscapes are not hard to come by. MyNoise, for example, offers 200 different sound generators on a single webpage (myNoise 2020) and the result could easily be inserted into a project.
However, to make images and sound work together artistically is another story. An excellent example is the Border Cantos, a marvellous collaboration between Richard Misrach and the composer Guillermo Galindo (Misrach 2020) using instruments made from discarded items on the US-Mexico border. The result is, again, ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). It is also a good example of how a traditional fine arts photographer like Misrach is moving into new artistic territory made possible by more sophisticated internet tools..
I do plan to continue thinking about this idea. I suspect it is too complex to be folded into an MA course at a relatively late stage. A soundtrack of poor quality would be worse than none. However, for a post-MA, expanded project I think it could be brilliant. Everything would be deepened and the possibility of an audio-visual display rather than a conventional gallery show would become possible.
ATLAS OBSCURA. 2020. ‘Atlas Obscura – Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations’. Atlas Obscura [online]. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].
SOUNDCITIES. 2020. ‘Soundcities by Stanza. The Global Soundmaps Project’. Soundcities [online]. Available at: https://www.soundcities.com/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].
TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1987. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Austin: University of Texas.
Figure 1. Richard MISRACH, 2020. Website landing page for the ’Border Cantos’. From: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo. 2020. ‘Border Cantos’. Border Cantos [online]. Available at: http://bordercantos.com/ [accessed 9 Nov 2020].
This week has been helpful for its insights into the world of galleries, dealers, auctioneers and museums.
However, there is a lack of nuts and bolts here. For example, if a gallery takes on an artist or photographer, what kind of contract is involved and what are the artist’s or photographer’s typical obligations? Some more on that would have been helpful. I have found some articles and contract templates online – see Artquest 2020 and Dan Schultz 2017 – but it is hard to know how relevant they are.
The two larger questions here, however, are whether Fine Arts is a market I fit into and what in fact ‘Fine Arts’ actually means in terms of photography.
There seems considerable debate about what Fine Arts Photography really involves. As a category it is generally regarded as slippery, going back at least to Modernism and the work of Steichen, O’Keeffe, Weston and probably much earlier. Perhaps a satisfactory approach is Stephen Shore’s observation that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level’ (Shore 2007: 97). Fine Arts Photography prioritizes aesthetics and conception far above the simply depictive, something recently addressed in Medium Format Magazine in connection with Ansel Adams’ ideas of ‘visualization’ (Gordon 2020):
‘ … the fine art photographer synthesizes the external event (the thing worthy of having your camera pointed at it) with the internal event (the intuitive recognition of an idea or concept related to the thing). Credit is due to Ansel Adams for these terms, the internal and external events … Ansel said: “Visualization is the most important factor in the making of a photograph. Visualization includes all the steps from selecting the subject to making the final print.”
‘ … The representational photographer depicts physical appearances as found and doesn’t typically interfere with the subject or the light. In contrast, the fine art photograph may be entirely the result of interference. The finished print might scarcely resemble the found state’ (Gordon 2020).
This approach is not only true to my own experience, but it allows Fine Arts Photography to incorporate other genres such as landscape and portraiture when those merge into it. Fashion is notably one and an example would be the practice of Tim Walker. Conceptual art is another important genre within Fine Art Photography, as in the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.
However, one of the points in this week’s coursework – see O’ Hagan 2012 and Heyman 2015 – is that what may motivate the artist and what the market makes of that may be very different things. It seems unlikely that, say, Paul Graham would consider himself a fine arts maker although to the art market he has become one. Tim Walker is forthright:
‘I find the word “art” a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer. Art isn’t decided at the moment it’s made – a lot of people would disagree with me, but I think time decides what art is. The most unlikely things become art. For me to say, “This is art photography,” I’m just not that sort of person; this is photography, this is me playing with a camera. Call it what you will but I would call it photography’ (Smith 2012).
While Snowdon is famously alleged to have claimed that photographs ‘should be seen in a magazine or a book and then be used to wrap up the fish and chucked away’.
How do I fit into this? I think many of my images would fit into a fine arts definition since the images are made for conceptual and aesthetic reasons more than for documentary ones. I think I could see myself signing a contact with a gallery, on the basis of the kind of templates mentioned above. But I still see myself as a photographer rather than as an artist. Art is for others and the market to decide. Some of this week’s coursework suggests that the fine arts world is has more than its fair share of sharks, tycoons and money ramps, which is not really my world at all – even though as both Boll and Heyman point out, photograph is still only a very small percentage of the overall market for the arts (Boll 2011, Heyman 2015). In fact one can argue that the entire idea of Fine Arts Photography is something of a ramp following the ‘discovery’ of photography as a lucrative new revenue source by galleries and museums in the 1970s, as described by Douglas Crimp in his essay ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’ (Crimp 1999). I could play ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ but I am better as a contrarian snapper.
Italo Calvino published Invisible Cities in 1972. It is a deceptively simple work, in which Marco Polo describes 55 increasingly improbable and fantastical cities to Kublai Khan while it gradually dawns on the reader that in each case Polo is in fact describing his home city, Venice. At the same time it also becomes clear that Polo is describing urban problems such as overcrowding and inequality that have a disturbingly modern rather than medieval ring.
Invisible Cities has turned out to be a highly influential work. It is postmodern in arrangement and poses all the postmodern questions about authority, identity, reality and structure. Even its arrangement is far more complex than first appears. The 55 cities described are grouped into 11 themes and are carefully arranged in a mathematical structure whose inspiration derives from the Oulipo literary circle of which Calvino was a member. Gerry Johansson’s decision to caption his photobook Pontiac by street name as if navigating a geographical matrix is strangely similar (Johansson 2010).
Invisible Cities has inspired many artists. In 2019 Manchester International Festival presented it as performance art involving music, dance, design and visuals (Kenton 2019). However, it is the novel’s influence on photography that really concerns me here. Invisible Cities is saying that reality is what we choose to make of it. There is no objective Venice, Paris, London or New York out there. We each make our own version and we make it anew each time we visit. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in a review of Invisible Cities,
‘Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value. … Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps’ (Winterson 2001).
In some ways this knowledge – that reality is our own imagining – is an old as civilization. It is, for example, the opening sentence of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). It is also at the core of Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977). Barthes points out that the idea of an all-powerful creator/author imposing a canonical version of anything is a fantasy (Barthes 1977). We write our own book, tell our own story out of the ingredients we find before us.
This realisation – that what I photograph is my reality and no one else’s – has had an electrifying effect on my practice. It relieves me of the burden of emulating or competing with anyone else, and so it is freeing. Nearly all images have at least some indexical value but at the same time they are also an expression of the mind behind the camera.
In turn this has helped me better to understand the practice of other photographers. One example is Maria Kapajeva’s book You Can Call Him Another Man, about a trove of images she found of her father’s life before she was born – and therefore of a man she both knew and did not know at all (Kapajeva 2018). An image, any image, shows what we both know and do not know. The image is free to acquire new meaning in whoever views it. It is not confined to the dusty reading of an archive.
A second example is Invisible City by Ken Schles (Schles 2014), a vintage noir journey around the junkie-ridden chaos of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. The whole point of the book, however, is that this is his experience of New York, not yours or mine. As Schles points out,
‘We are solitary creatures situated in a place and point in time that is unique to each of us. The New York City my friends and neighbors knew was different from the NY I experienced. Let’s be honest: we’re all perpetual outsiders to each other’s experience. That’s the tragedy of being human. But we can struggle against that. So there’s possibility as well: we may be locked into our own place and time, but we can share our little revelations, those small realizations of the everyday, and share in whatever knowledge that might bring us or open us to. That’s a very human trait: the attempt to communicate something meaningful. Sharing these other ways of seeing gives us perspective on what each of us experiences’ (Bocchetto 2015).
Sharing our own experience while acknowledging that we are all outsiders to each other’s experience is the common theme here, whether Calvino, Kapajeva or Schles. I think it needs to become an important theme of my practice too.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142:148.
Gemma Fetcher’s presentation (Fletcher 2020) was full of energy and exciting in how it revealed photography as a tool for discovery and an interface with wider cultural issues. That makes photography much more worthwhile than simply a camera and a print. I also picked up from her these points:
Focus intently on what you want to say and never forget to question the cultural assumptions that have influenced you and which may sit unexamined in your images.
Nurture an everyday commitment to ‘just showing up’ and practise, practise, practise.
Collaboration is vital. One needs to build relationships even without the expectation that anything might come from them. Art directors, for example, are constantly looking for new photographers to work with. That is part of their job. They should be keen to meet but you need to approach them in the right way. One can treat the first meeting as a ‘chemistry check’. You are trying to build an ongoing, intimate relationship and that can take time. A one-off approach to work can be self-defeating and is, arguably, exploitative. It is certainly not collaborative.
Fletcher referenced an article on Viviane Sassen in connection with photography’s powers of discovery and means of engaging with wider social and cultural issues. In Sassen’s own words:
‘It’s so important to allow yourself the freedom to be truly creative. Experimentation is central to my practice. … I feel like I’m always solving little puzzles or making combinations … It’s all just trial and error. I’m always looking for that little bit of magic. …You need to photograph every day, make stuff every day and not be precious about it’ (Fletcher 2018).
This is really important to hear.
Amy Simmons on ‘Commercial Considerations’ (Simmons 2020) was a tight and helpful presentation. Even though I have no wish to become a commercial photographer in advertising, the ideas and methods discussed are applicable to improving one’s practice in almost any field. For example, I had not realized how complex and painstaking the commercial commissioning process is, and how all of it depends on collaboration and teamwork. Unless one is prepared to work as part of a team, there is no way forward.
Simmons helpfully provided a list of key points to remember when putting one’s work out there and I hope I remember them.
Find out who your main potential clients are and who is the correct contact at each one.
Send professional emails with full links and embedded images to save the recipient work and time.
Send printed content to potential contacts, perhaps postcards with one’s details on the back. Others will see them and big agencies often keep a database of postcards and other printed material to consult later.
Arrange portfolio views if possible. Nothing beats meeting in person but you need to prepare for it and research the client’s activities, so that you can demonstrate some commitment. Do not be afraid to ask for critique.
Attend events and private views in your chosen industry. It is a good way of starting to network and of discovering who the key industry people are. Some big advertising agencies have private galleries, so find out if it might be possible you show your work there.
Take part in industry charity exhibitions. It is a good way to become involved and to become better known.
Conduct business professionally and respond promptly to emails and phone calls.
Be yourself (despite the pressure) and let your passions shine through. Do not try to fake it since that never works.
This is a very useful list. A second helpful list in Simmons’ presentation was of the key points to remember when assembling and presenting a portfolio of work. This is so helpful in almost any context.
I enjoyed this very much. An online course can be difficult without personal contact and I welcome contact. Just getting to know one’s peers a little better is a pleasure in itself. I felt there was a good exchange of ideas in a relaxed atmosphere. It was pointed out to me that my research project could be of a city at night anywhere and so might my project be enriched if I did not feel I had to tie it so closely to Oxford? I admit I had not though of that and it is an idea well worth further consideration. So, overall, a win and I hope everyone felt so.
For my work in progress over the past two weeks I have continued to explore the themes expressed in Tarkovsky’s films Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) and Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). These are that one is leaving the normal, everyday world behind and entering a ‘zone’ of alterity and strangeness, in my case in the world of the city after dark. The zone is strange because a full understanding of it is hidden from us. We have no understanding of the agency at work in the zone, or even whether there is one.
In Solaris, the scientists aboard a space station are unable to tell whether the apparently intelligent ocean on the planet of Solaris is trying to help them, hinder them, punish them or simply express itself. The ocean remains a mystery and the indeterminacy of their situation is slowly driving the scientists mad. In Stalker, a similar situation applies but with a further development. Those who reach a special room in the centre of a mysterious Zone whose origins are unclear are given whatever their heart desires. The frightening reality is that we may well be unaware of what we truly but unconsciously desire, and if our deepest desire is given to us that knowledge now made conscious may destroy us. In the film, a stalker called Porcupine reaches the room and is granted money. Soon afterwards, he commits suicide.
Much of Stalker is shot in a half light through frames, doorways and windows or along tunnels. These are all portals and are ideas I need to explore in my practice, but the film asks us to question whether these are portals to another world or in fact to our own unconscious. The film therefore questions not only agency but the whole idea of what we think of as the individual, personality and free will. Once we are parted from our normal, everyday world, we may well discover that these ideas are much more fluid and indeterminate than we suppose. We are all two selves, Tarkovsky suggests: the ego, and something else, something we will never fully understand.
I am currently thinking about how these powerful ideas might affect my research project. They are surely going to affect story and narrative (which are not the same thing). The apparent story of my research project is of the city of Oxford, but the real story is much more likely to be the complicated uncertainty of what it means to be human. There are no certainties, just the eerie mysteries that Tarkovsky so eloquently explored. One question that now arises is that if I do not fully understand myself, how can I ever be more than the classic unreliable narrator of my own story?
Clicking on an image in the gallery will produce a larger, lightbox view.
TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1972 Solaris. [Film].
TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. [Film].
Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
I have finally been to see this exhibition by the fashion photographer Nick Knight (Knight 2020 A). The images (which literally are photographs of roses from Knight’s garden) are inspired by the work of 16th and 17th century still life painters like Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jan van Huysum. So this is an exhibition that is both painterly and traditional in a classic sense and modern at the same time.
Knight has made an explanatory video of the exhibition and of the process of creating and finally printing the images (Knight 2020 B):
While I love Knight’s images for what they are, the things that interest me about this exhibition from the point of view of current coursework are these:
Knight spends hours, sometimes, choosing and arranging his blooms, contemplating them from different angles, thinking about composition and watching the light change across his arrangements. There is quiet, patient attention here, a reminder that really good images do not come from thinking that one can stroll in, snap away and wrap in half an hour. Absorption in the process matters, just as it did for the painters whose art Knight is following.
The ‘studio’ is Knight’s kitchen. The light is all natural, from windows – no other lights were used. The only props are his own glass vases. This is an object lesson in how a little can be all you need.
All images are made with an iPhone, nothing else. Knight’s workflow consists of making an iPhone image, running a copy through Instagram filters for colour changes and tonality, then sending both files to a professional retouching studio. There, the files are combined, sharpened (and I would guess exposure curves are adjusted), enlarged hugely to a final print size of 8 ft or more, then retouched again to remove artefacts and blemishes from the enlargement process. The results were printed in California, proof images were marked up by Knight, there was more retouching and proofing, and at last a final image was made.
This combination of classic still life art and the most modern technology, knit together with painstaking attention to detail, is intriguing. The result strikes me as very effective, bringing to a different genre Knight’s mastery of light, tonality and composition from his many years in fashion photography.
As Knight has pointed out, one needs to judge these images on their own terms. The brushstrokes and washes of traditional painting have been replaced by their new digital equivalents rather than omitted or forgotten. It is noticeable that the images have not been enlarged to be ‘sharp’ and indexically accurate but to be rich, luscious and painterly. From close-up the images can look blurred and indistinct but from about 8-10 feet away they look perfect.
A final lesson is in humility. I was fortunate enough to meet Nick Knight who was there, at his own exhibition, on a cold wet Wednesday, miles from home and months now after the opening, surrounded by hordes of children and National Trust visitors at Waddesdon Manor. And yet he was happy to talk and explain his art to anyone who asked. I think that shows awesome dedication and a willingness to share. Knight said to me that today ‘is a very exciting time to be in photography’. Partly that is because of the new possibilities that technology now allows, but partly it is because there are inspiring figures like Nick Knight out there to show the way.
KNIGHT, Nick. 2020 A. ‘Roses from My Garden’ [exhibition]. Waddesdon, Oxfordshire: Waddesdon House and Gardens. Exhibition from 4 July – 1 November 2020: Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden.
Figure 1. Nick KNIGHT. 2020. From: Nick Knight. 2020. ‘Roses from My Garden’ [exhibition]. Waddesdon, Oxfordshire: Waddesdon House and Gardens. Exhibition from 4 July – 1 November 2020: Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden.
This continues my previous post and covers some of the things I would need to know if I wanted to become a professional commercial photographer.
The Legal Stuff
It is clear that to turn professional I would need to acquire a working knowledge of contract law, rights and obligations, and typical industry contracts. The documents available on the AOP website are a good place to start (Association of Photographers 2020). I have applied for membership.
I would also need to acquire a working knowledge of how images are typically bought, sold and leased, and with what kind of deals concerning territorial and reproduction rights. A couple of useful fees calculators have been suggested, on the Getty Images and the AOP websites.
I would need to obtain and carry release forms. These could be useful almost anywhere. A professional photographer has recommended a release form app to me, Easy Release, which means forms can be available on one’s iPhone or tablet. Useful when in the field.
Finally, it would be important to take out proper insurance, if and when appropriate.
Fees and Charges
‘How much am I worth?’ is not a question I find easy. The commercial photographer Ron Timehin offers some helpful suggestions (Timehin 2020). In any potentially awkward conversation, one can start by asking whether there is a budget available for the work. If the answer is ‘yes’, one can take the upper hand by saying something like, ‘My normal day rate is £350, how does that fit with your budget?’ According to Timehin, in 2020 £300-£400 per day is a good rate for beginners, and this should include curation and post-production time too. With successful commissions, he says, one should be able to increase one’s day rate annually.
Another overview of current conditions I have found helpful is Sean Tucker’s recent video Pricing Your Photography and Finding Clients (Tucker 2020).
When to Say Yes and When to Say No
If you are trying to earn a living, working for nothing is hardly attractive but it can still be tempting. Ron Timehin has said that he only takes on assignments when they fulfil at least two of three criteria (Timehin 2020):
Passionate or experiential attraction
Timehin says that exposure (i.e. publicity) can be a fourth reason, but that one has to be very careful. ‘Exposure’ is often used as an excuse by people who don’t want to pay for something and who in consequence will value what you do at nothing. The first three criteria are much more important.
Looking at representation by a photography agency would come towards the end of the process of becoming a professional photographer, at least in my case. Unless I can give a consistently professional impression, why would any agent want me on their books at all? If I did opt to have an agent, then I would need to research which agencies specialize in the kind of genres I am active in. Agents can offer much more than one might think (Pfab 2020), so they are not to be disregarded.
Knowing a specialist law firm or two would be helpful if only for advice. One suggested is Swann Turton.
An accountant is important in my view, if one can be afforded. A good accountant will help one to maximise return on investment and minimise taxes as well as deal with the authorities. Estimating and invoicing using proper forms is important, so these must be obtained perhaps in the first instance from the AOP. If enough business comes in, then accounting software would soon become necessary.
And all this before writing the first emails, pitching to a client or making the first exploratory cold call! It is easy for the work required to seem forbidding, but if broken down into separate steps and taken one item at a time, I am sure it can be done.
ASSOCIATION OF PHOTOGRAPHERS. 2020. ‘AOP’. The Association of Photographers [online]. Available at: https://www.the-aop.org/ [accessed 28 Oct 2020].
This has been a good week, now that I am starting to consider the commercial aspects of the different genres within the wide field of photography.
However, there are a lot of things I would need to sort out before I could expect anyone to buy my photography. While I do not wish to become a commercial photographer, all the topics are an excellent way of improving my practice and, as they say, getting my act together.
The following are the main things to have struck me, following the course’s Live Lecture this week (Pfab 2020) and my reading of Scott Grant’s The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Grant 2016). It is by no means a complete list.
Decide where I stand. In my case the genres are social documentary, editorial and Fine Arts.
Research the customers for those markets such as agencies, galleries, magazines and other publications. Find out who the commissioning editors and influencers are. Seek out workshops and events in this area. One cannot start networking without meeting people.
Start to learn about the main players are and how they operate. To some extent, that can by done by reading interviews (e.g. Ryan 2020) or checking for interview videos on YouTube. It can make a real difference when contacting someone if you can say you really liked their recent article, or book, or interview, etc. It shows interest and research.
Assemble a creditable portfolio, printed and online. Ensure that it contains relevant work that reflects where I stand in the market.
Assemble a website. For now I will continue to use the Adobe Portfolio system because it is fairly easy and well organized.
Establish a business account on Instagram and learn how to get the best from the platform when treated as a business. Look at other forms of social media on the same basis, such as FaceBook and LinkedIn.
Have some business cards printed. These are extremely useful in many circumstances. They are not only part of being professional but also part of being sincere when given to people one has met on the street and asked to photograph, for example.
Establish a consistent tone and format for all communications, including email. This is professional etiquette, but it also helps a client acquire a better idea of who they are dealing with.
Branding can be a helpful discipline. I have learned a lot from working through two series on LinkedIn Learning (Boyd 2020, Pedersen 2017).
Branding obliges one to identify essentials: it focuses on exactly what I can offer, what values I have, and what overall mission statement I can provide to explain myself. Values (ethics, what matters to someone) are easily overlooked but important. It feels good to work ethically and keep to an industry code of conduct. Values may be particularly important to some clients, too, such as those involved in sustainability and the climate crisis, or difficult social questions and civil rights.
There are several other topics to cover from this week, but for the sake of brevity I will include those in a separate post.
I have been greatly enjoying the work of the American photographer Gregory Halpern. His practice strikes a lot of chords with me, particularly in terms of my current practice and research interests.
Three main things draw me to Halpern.
The first is Halpern’s understanding of the uncertain, slippery nature of documentary photography and his gradual move away from it and into an approach with a greater awareness of fantasy and fiction.
‘Over the years I’ve become less interested in documentary and more interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, which sometimes feels like Surrealism to me. It became most obvious when I was working on ZZYZX, which starts with contemporary Los Angeles but sort of builds a semi-fictional world out of the city. That interest has continued, and the more I’ve thought about photography’s slippery relationship to “truth,” the more fascinated I’ve become in how photographic precision and Surrealism are not contradictory. Andre Breton argued that Surrealism’s goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”’ (Smyth 2020).
Halpern talks of building a ‘a semi-fictional world’ out of contemporary Los Angeles in his book ZZYZX (Halpern 2016). This is close to what I am now trying to do in my project on the city of Oxford, Silent City. I also like Halpern’s allusion here to Surrealism (and elsewhere to Magical Realism). The surreal is often formed by an unexpected conjunction of opposites, or by the unexpected presence of that which does not belong or by a sense of the inexplicable because agency and explanation are withheld. One thinks of Man Ray’s photograph Self Portrait with Gun (1932) or of Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), for example. This is the territory of the uncanny, the weird and the eerie which forms part of my research. See Figs 1-4.
Figs 1-4: Gregory Halpern 2016-2020. Social documentary becomes steadily more descriptive of a ‘semi-fictional world’ that allows the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves (Smyth 2020). Click on an image for a larger, lightbox view.
The second reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his willingness to rest in uncertainty and instead allow the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves. Halpern does not try to pretend that in apparently documentary images he is ever offering more than a subjective view.
‘What’s interesting to me about the world is its chaos and contradictions, the way opposites can be so beautiful in relation to each other. I like how you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same moment. I want my images to create cognitive dissonance. If I feel that a sensation caused by an image is singular in nature—awe, beauty, dread, for example—I wind up finding the image to be manipulative, and unfaithful to the contradictory natures of reality. I think we underestimate our viewers’ and ability to read the work.
‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
If photography is ‘never entirely fiction or non-fiction’, however, then what does a photograph really show? I would suggest that what it always shows are traces, some vivid and some faint, but traces of what? Halpern suggests that the world (and the image) are too complex to be reducible to a set of perfectly indexical facts and that what instead all images confront us with is ‘a rightfully impenetrable thing’. It is up to the viewer of make sense the image and any attempt by the artist to impose a meaning is false and unwelcome.
‘Photographers have a way of organizing/simplifying the chaos that is the world around us. And it is said that photography is uniquely suited to “reflect” the world around us, but what if our surroundings are complex to the point of being visually and verbally indescribable? That conundrum is the reality I want to reflect, with the creation of a rightfully impenetrable thing’ (Magnum Photos 2020).
The third reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his interest in the photobook as his primary mode of expression.
‘I love the space between images. The things that happen when you turn the page, when you are looking at a new image with the ghost of the previous image lingering in your mind… I love the feel of a being swept up, as if by a stream, by a book of photographs. I love the introduction to Rinko Kawauchi’s book Illuminance, in which David Chandler writes this beautiful and simple meditation on books in general: “There is something primal in the act of opening a book for the first time. That moment of expectation, that prospect of discovery, however dulled or wearied, is still there each time we take a new book in our hands. At our most innocent and instinctive, we are prepared to be changed in some way by what we are about to see”’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
The lesson here with any photobook is painstaking care in curation and sequencing so that the images flow one into another but, crucially, without losing sight of the overall intent of the whole work. As Halpern says of ZZYZX, his book on Los Angeles, ‘I wanted the pictures to evoke something simultaneously contemporary and ancient, a response to the Los Angeles of the moment, but also something not so literal. I wanted the space to also be somewhat mythical, the timeline somewhat Biblical’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
In my own practice I am not seeking to be Biblical, and I am certainly not trying to portray something on the epic scale of Los Angeles, but increasingly Halpern’s approach is the intent behind my current research project. That, and the intent David Company found in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s night photography practice:
‘London a Modern Project … used the visual estrangement of night photography to depict anonymous architecture. Motorway flyovers, tower blocks, car parks and garages were transformed into surfaces revealing social structures and urban behaviour’ (Company 2012: 108).
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