PHO703 Week 4: Using the Apparatus

My experience of this week’s activities:

We were asked about our relationship with our chosen apparatus. I do not really have a relationship with my chosen apparatus. It is just an electronic box – pleasant to use and it mostly does what I want. I am sure a dozen other, similar camera systems would also be both. So, overall, I am not particularly fussy about what I use. It just needs to be competent for the task in hand.

For this week’s activity – making images with a totally unfamiliar apparatus – I chose an old Canon compact camera I have never used before and probably about 15 years old. To be frank, I though it was rubbish. It was poorly designed with very small and fiddly controls and the images it produced were crude in the extreme. Any modern smartphone would be better than this by an order of magnitude. The Japanese camera industry’s decline has roots long in the making.

I used to do a lot of ‘contemplative photography’ as part of a meditation programme. It was called Miksang which is Tibetan for ‘good eye’. The basic idea is to meditate for half an hour, then go out with a camera while trying to maintain the meditation but with a specific task in mind: for example, looking for a certain colour, looking for only dots or splashes of colour, looking for textures, looking for space (my favourite), and so forth. No photograph would be made unless there was a ‘flash’ of recognition and contact with something in the physical world. When that happened, the task was to use the photograph to express that moment of recognition, which is not necessarily the same as simply showing what is there. Andy Karr and Michael Wood organized these ideas into a programme and published them as a book (Karr and Wood 2011).

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘contemplative photography’. As a mindfulness practice, it is somewhat based on the Zen idea that if the archer’s mind is clear and empty of all discursive thought (i.e. distractions) then the arrow has already hit the target before it is released. Or, the image has already been made (in the mind) before the shutter is pressed. These ideas do express a truth, in my view.

I can see this being a way towards the freedom that Flusser talks about (Flusser 2000: 81-2), because if the image has already been made in the mind then it is free of dependence on an apparatus. I should probably make more of these ideas in my practice, because I know from experience how useful they can be. I don’t think they are suitable for every circumstance but they probably tie in quite closely with my temperament and with my current project.

I made five images with the Canon compact, as requested. I also made a completely accidental ghosted exposure with my regular camera while having to move it a couple of times during a long exposure. The results are quite pleasing, in fact. I have experimented with the results in Photoshop, to see how they might look if expressed in other ways. However, the problem that soon arose is that experimentation is aimless without a clear intent. I do not have a clear intent so at present experimentation is just messing around. While that’s fine, I do not feel it is productive.

So for now I will leave these experiments and ideas and let them swirl around in my unconscious. Later, something new will probably emerge. I have to be patient.

References

FLUSSER, Vilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion, 76–82.

KARR, Andy and Michael WOOD. 2011. The Practice of Contemplative Photography : Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes. 1st ed. Boston: Shambhala.

 

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Fig.1: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, taken with an old Canon compact camera and the jpeg converted to black and white in Silver Efex.
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Fig.2: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, This image was made by converting Fig. 1 above using Photoshop warp and paint filters and then applying a split tone using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
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Fig.3: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley – accidental image ghosting caused by moving the camera during a long exposure. This image was made with my regular Olympus camera.
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Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by applying a Photoshop mosaic filter to Fig. 3 above, using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
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Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a (digital) cyanotype using Photoshop.
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Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a split tone using Photoshop. The key colours are taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.

 

PHO703 Week 3: Zines

My part in the Great Zine Challenge was a collaboration with Mike and Marcel on the theme of objects found on the ground – lost, discarded, forgotten, whatever. First we went out and made some photographs. Then in online meetings we chose six images each, in square format, and agreed a page size, rough layouts and a running order of images. We then each produced our own version at home with our own twist to the basic scheme. I have called my version Foundlings.

If anyone is interested, a pdf of the full zine is here:

PHO703-Week3-zine

Below are a couple of images of the printed result and the assembly stage:

PHO703-Week3-zine-1
Fig.1: Mark Crean 2020. An accordion fold zine (A5 landscape format) by Mike, Marcel and Mark.
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Fig.2: Mark Crean 2020. Printed and the pages cut to size, the zine is now ready for assembly into accordion folds.

I thank my team mates for a very enjoyable project!

PHO703 Week 3: Collaboration or Participation?

This is what has struck me so far about collaboration or participation. But why confine oneself to just one term when there might be more enjoyment in having both? The great thing about collaboration is that one can just get down and do it instead of talking about it.

In order to avoid a long post, I will cover how I think the subject affects my own practice in a second post.

An example of collaboration (and also of participation) is an exhibition held last year here in Oxford at the Old Fire Station arts centre (Arts at the Old Fire Station 2019). It was called ICON and involved a professional photographer, Rory Carnegie, and a group of clients from Crisis Skylight Oxford (a charity which works with those facing homelessness and with people having a tough time). The aim was to recreate some of the most famous photographs of the past few decades using the clients as cast, crew and collaborators. The photographer was really just another member of the crew.

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Fig. 1: Rory CARNEGIE 2019. World Cup with Gavin, Doug, Wayne, Emma, Nick, Ryszard, Demelza, Anthony, George and Mark | after ‘England Victory, Wembley’, 1966.

I think this is a good example of collaboration, mainly, but also participation. There was an agreed shared aim around a defined project. Those who took part did so as fully equal members, i.e. they collaborated to create the whole project. And they were also participants in individual images, standing in as performers for the subjects in the original image. In this sense they were rather like the participants in Gillian Wearing’s Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say of 1992-3 (Wearing 2020).

The whole project strikes me as a development of the practice of Anthony Luvera (Luvera 2020), but this time a project with a more formal organisation and more people.

The result was a great success. All the details can be seen at the URL I have referenced. This includes an Exhibition Guide, which is really about the development and methodology of the project. There is also an Evaluation Report, a really useful document and an idea well worth keeping in mind as a way not only of monitoring results but improving methods and avoiding pitfalls the next time round.

A second example: I am a member of Oxford Photographers, a group of photographers local to Oxford (Oxford Photographers 2020). We could be described as a collective, because we share a common aim (the promotion and enjoyment of photography in and around Oxford). We hold regular meetings in venues, go on photowalks and the like. We all go along as participants. From time to time we collaborate on specific projects, usually exhibitions, in which everyone helps to formulate the project aims and takes part on an equal basis.  We also cooperate, sometimes in smaller groups, by pooling resources either without a shared objective (it could just be borrowing kit) or if the objective is shared then each participant approaches it independently in their own way and not under the single umbrella of a collaboration.

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Fig. 2: Oxford Photographers 2020. Exhibition Poster.

In practice I think a lot of these terms are pretty fluid and change as time and culture change. My references for the foregoing would be Maria Lind (Lind 2007), Ariella Azoulay (Azoulay 2016) and TATE Art Terms (TATE 2020). Interestingly, TATE Art Terms does not have an entry for collaboration. This suggests that the focus now seems to be more on process and outcomes, in terms the TATE does acknowledge such as Community Art, Social Turn, Socially Engaged Practice, Participatory Art, Activist Art and Relational Aesethetics. These ideas can overlap, too, especially in really large-scale projects which involve the coming together of many different people and organisations such as Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (Mellor 2011). The result is a much wider and more accommodating view of what we think Art is.

References

ARTS AT THE OLD FIRE STATION. 2019. ‘ICON: Arts at the Old Fire Station’. Exhibition [online]. Available at: https://oldfirestation.org.uk/project/icon/ [accessed 17 Jun 2020].

AZOULAY, Ariella. 2016. ‘Photography Consists of Collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’. Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 31(1 91), [online], 187–201. Available at: http://cameraobscura.dukejournals.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/content/31/1_91/187.full.pdf+html [accessed 17 Jun 2020].

LIND, Maria. 2007. ‘The Collaborative Turn’. In Johanna BILLING, Maria LIND, and Lars NILSSON (eds.). Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices. London: Black Dog, 15–31.

LUVERA, Anthony. 2020. ‘Anthony Luvera – Artist, Writer, Educator’. [online]. Available at: http://www.luvera.com/ [accessed 18 Jun 2020].

MELLOR, David Alan. 2011. ‘Jeremy Deller Interviewed by David Alan Mellor’. Photoworks (17), 14–17 [online]. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&amp [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

OXFORD PHOTOGRAPHERS. 2020. ‘Oxford Photographers: A Group of Photographers Based in Oxfordshire’. [online]. Available at: https://oxfordphotographers.org/ [accessed 15 Apr 2020].

WEARING, Gillian. 2020. ‘”I’m Desperate”’. TATE [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wearing-im-desperate-p78348 [accessed 17 Jun 2020].

TATE. 2020. ‘Art Terms’. [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms [accessed 18 Jun 2020].

PHO703 Week 2: Mediation I

The activity for this week is to look at a remix or repurpose of some of my existing images. I have taken a different approach because I do not much care for remixing my images in any substantial way (I exclude simple things like crops or colour changes), though if others wish to they are welcome to. If I make a photograph of, for example, a wolf, I am also trying to respect a beautiful and dignified animal. My concern is that in the process of remixing, I will disrespect both those qualities. Changing one of my images from colour to monochrome, for example, is too quotidian to me to count as a remix and simply not very interesting.

My approach, therefore, has been to search through Google for everything associated with the word ‘Jericho’. Jericho is a district of Oxford I photographed during the last module. It is also, as Google reveals, the name of just about anything else one can think of: places from Ibadan to India, New Jersey to New Zealand, beers, rock bands, wrestlers, charities, hotels, tourist destinations, restaurants, books, firearms, films, antiquities, posters – the list goes on. Somewhere in all this there is the original place in the Middle East called Jericho, as in the Bible, but even that has vanished under a flood of other things. So, what, at the end of the day, is Jericho? Photographically, I suspect it is only a label without a meaning. Any meaning arises from the act of curation and re-assembly of a set of labels. So, while I am not remixing by combining images in Photoshop, I am remixing by changing and combining meanings and contexts. There is an element here of found photography placed out of context, as in Sultan and Mandel’s Evidence of 1977 (Sultan and Mandel 2003)

So I have put together a mash-up (assembled below as a pdf), including some of my own images, of what I discovered. All these images directly involve the name ‘Jericho’. I am not Tacita Dean (Dean and Ridgewell 2001), though I suppose like Dean I have been curating the (online) flea markets, and I make no claims to art or even to accuracy (this is Google, after all). The result is simply what happened.

Below is a link to a pdf:

PHO703-Week2-jericho

References

DEAN, Tacita and Martyn RIDGEWELL. 2001. Floh. Göttingen: Steidl.

SULTAN, Larry, Mike MANDEL and Sandra S PHILLIPS. 2003. Evidence. New ed. New York, NY: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

PHO703 Week 1: Repeat Photography and Rephotography

What has emerged for me from this week’s topics of repeat photography and rephotography:

First, context is all. Without a powerful context or story line repeat photography – in the crude sense of then and now – does not strike me as very interesting. I am not sure it has really caught on. The Flickr Group ‘Looking into the Past’ cited by Jason Kalin (Kalin 2013: 172) has been moribund since 2016 and on Instagram the hashtag #rephotography has just 12,600 iterations.

The matter is very different with a context or story, however. Recently, before-and-after Covid-19 lockdown pictures of Venice or of smog-free views of the Himalayas from India have been hugely popular. Such images offer a visual record of a big and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime change.

Similarly effective was Now and Then, an exhibition of repeat photography by Daniel Meadows at the Bodleian Library last year in which portraits from the 1970s were shown next to re-photographs of the sitters two or three decades later (Crean 2019; Meadows 2019). The exhibition included audio recordings of the sitters describing their lives in deprived areas of northern England, and there were plenty of captions and background material including a talk and discussion with Meadows himself. In other words, this was not just the basic ‘then and now’ but a view into a story and into the lives of others.

Another recent exhibition, Shot in Soho, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London featured various photographers and their interpretations of the Soho area over the decades (Rodriguez 2019). The crucial distinction here is that each photographer offered a very clear story. A simple collection of images would not have been nearly so effective. Again, we were drawn into individual lives through the stories the photographers chose to tell.

Two more points I have picked up from this week.

First, I very much warm to the idea of repeat photography as a form of mnemonics, ‘a social practice for remembering, a particular orientation to memory, and thus a way of being in the world. Rephotography, rather than a representation of memory, suggests a practice of actively constructing and inhabiting memories and their times and places while also incorporating them into the present as active forces’ (Kalin 2013). This is very relevant because it is close to my current practice of urban photography.

Second is the perhaps unexpected conclusion that Mark Klett found emerging from his practice of rephotographing the landscapes of the early American Survey photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan (Klett 2011). What emerged was that all subsequent photographers no matter how apparently different – whether Ansel Adams or Robert Adams – had employed the same world view without realising it. They had all seen nature and man as distinct and in opposition – there is the pristine wilderness and then man despoils it – but in reality they are not distinct. Man and nature are part of the same whole, a view instinctively understood by native peoples all over the world.

So, repeat photography can have some cultural surprises hiding inside it. Another good example is the history of Afghanistan drawn out by Simon Norfolk (Norfolk 2020) and his search for the photographic locations used by the nineteenth-century photographer John Burke: war after futile war, all driven by the almost exactly the same imperial delusions and all failing in almost exactly the same way. The images – both Norfolk’s and Burke’s – tell the story together, but just one or the other alone would not.

Distinct from repeat photography is rephotography, meaning the reinterpretation, re-creation or re-staging of the past. This strikes me as very different and much more creative and interesting. I do not have any particular thoughts about it right now but perhaps I will return to the subject. I liked the interview with Jeremy Deller (Mellor 2011), however, and this set me thinking about the place of rephotography in the practices of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, artists I really like – so I have plenty of interesting connections to follow up.

The overall connection which emerges from the whole week, however, is one word: collaboration.

References

CREAN, Mark. 2019. ‘Predator or Collaborator?’. Critical Research Journal [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.photography/index.php/2019/10/19/predator-or-collaborator/ [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

KALIN, Jason. 2013. ‘Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories’. Visual Communication Quarterly 20(3), 168–79 [online]. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&amp. [accessed 04 June 2020].

KLETT, Mark. 2011. ‘Repeat Photography in Landscape Research’. In Eric MARGOLIS and L. PAUWELS (eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, 114–31.

MEADOWS, Daniel. 2019. ‘Daniel Meadows: Now and Then’. Bodleian Libraries [online]. Available at: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/display/daniel-meadows [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

MELLOR, David Alan. 2011. ‘Jeremy Deller Interviewed by David Alan Mellor’. Photoworks (17), 14–17 [online]. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&amp. [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

NORFOLK, Simon. 2020. ‘BURKE + NORFOLK’. Simon Norfolk [online]. Available at: https://www.simonnorfolk.com/burke-norfolk [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

RODRIGUEZ, Julian and Karen McQUAID. 2019. ‘Shot In Soho’. The Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/shot-soho [accessed 11 Jun 2020].

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 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 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