PHO705 Week 9: Online Lectures

Contemporary Photography and the Environment is a talk by the curator Kim Knoppers in Self Publish, Be Happy’s Contemporary Photography series on Vimeo (Knoppers 2021). I found the talk useful because it is something of a survey of contemporary practice in this subject – and it offered several useful ideas.

The first point is that it is important for the photographer to overcome public image fatigue. This affects almost all subjects today but especially those covering global warming and the environment. The days when an image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe could capture attention are long gone.

A second point is that we need to think carefully about what we mean by ‘nature’. This is largely a culturally determined and, today, a contested term. In some ways we live in a nostalgic version of what nature is, evidenced by 1001 wildlife documentaries that show the spectacle but often not the reality. We tend to see nature and culture as opposites, but this is a false binary, and we tend to under-appreciate the relationships involved. These are not only the sometimes very complex relationships between things in the natural world itself but the relationships involved in depicting it and changing our perceptions of it. So the photographer today needs to consider the role of activism and environmental law, for example, and the role of video and sound in producing a work of art.

This is a really helpful message to encourage the photographer to move beyond the static single image. It suggests that compelling works today are likely to be stories based on collaboration between many different interests and artistic techniques.

Knoppers cited several photographers whose work it might pay to study, not least since some of them used mixed media. These include Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, with whom I am already familiar, but also Melanie Bonajo, Mark Dorf, Douglas Mandry, Almudena Romero, Lucas Foglia and Fabio Barile. I have already looked at the work of Foglia and Barile and it resonates very strongly with me, particularly Foglia whose career began as a student of Gregory Crewdson.

The overall message of this talk is that essentially we and the planet are all one organism. This is the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1979) and the emphasis is therefore on wholeness. In a world awash with competing theories and a surfeit of images, the challenge for the photographer is that ‘imagination and the camera give us the opportunity to re-enchant a disenchanted world’ (Knoppers 2021).

Many of these ideas bear directly on my current project, particularly the emphasis on moving beyond the static image and into the realm of story-telling and collaboration. The emphasis on examining the culturally determined aspects of what we call ‘nature’ is important too. However, throughout her talk Knoppers emphasized the importance of intimacy. Intimacy builds relationships. Something that is overly conceptual can seem cold and aloof. What the artist needs to aim for is, in her words, ‘clear, detailed and visually seductive’ (Knoppers 2021).

References

KNOPPERS, Kim. 2021. ‘Contemporary Photography and the Environment’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/photographyenvironment?autoplay=1 [accessed 20 Mar 2021].

LOVELOCK, James. 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

PHO705 Week 8: Online Lectures

I have attended several online lectures in the past few weeks. The idea is to sample different organizations, to participate in some ‘Lens Culture’ and to get a feel for where contemporary practice is going in different fields. The following are the first two on my list:

Curating Photography with Susan Bright

This was an online talk at the Royal Photographic Society (Bright 2021) and majored on Susan Bright’s experience as curator of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography (The Photographers’ Gallery 2019) which I visited twice in 2019. Bright emphasized how important it is to study the space for any exhibition, to make maquettes of the layout and to consider how a visitor will move through the rooms and encounter the art. She said that, like good design, the secret of good curation is that it should be invisible, but that it must be complete in every way and in every particular of lighting, colour scheme and hanging. The visitor must feel that they have been carefully considered. Bright said that a good exhibition should ‘shift’ you, in other words that it should take you out of the day-to-day and into something special. She recommended that we look at the work of Katrina Sluis and of the curator Isobel Parker-Philip. Overall, I found this a carefully prepared and very helpful event because it has given me some important curatorial points to follow if (or when) I offer my own gallery exhibition.

One Camera, One Lens and Natural Light – Danny Wilcox Frazier

This talk hosted by the VII Agency was about how to go a long way with very simple ingredients (Wilcox Frazier 2021). Wilcox Frazier’s study Driftless – of disadvantaged rural communities in Iowa – was shot on film with one camera, one lens and nothing else. The result is deeply moving (Wilcox Frazier 2007). The key point was that good projects come from being fully immersed in them. There are no short cuts. Your subjects need to trust you, too: they have to know who the photographer is. You must ‘share of yourself’ in Wilcox Frazier’s words. He emphasized that ‘a clear intent and a stronger voice need to be ever present in your work’. ‘A unique way of seeing’ and ‘a strong individual voice’ are what matter. It is easy to get carried away by technology and the wilder shores of conceptual art, but sometimes it is helpful to be reminded of the bedrock of good photography in a back-to-basics way. I am glad I attended this talk and its dark, powerful images redolent of a Magnum essay by Larry Towell or Matt Black.

Wilcox-Frazier-Driftless
Fig. 1: Danny Wilcox Frazier 2002. Brothers share a smoke at a gun range, Swisher, Iowa.

References

BRIGHT, Susan. 2021. ‘Curating Photography with Susan Bright’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/SusanBright [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS’ GALLERY. 2019. ‘Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography’. The Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/feast-eyes-story-food-photography [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

WILCOX FRAZIER, Danny. 2007. ‘Driftless’. Danny Wilcox Frazier [online]. Available at: https://dannywilcoxfrazier.com/driftless-gallery [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

WILCOX FRAZIER, Danny. 2021. ‘One Camera, One Lens and Natural Light’. VII Agency [online]. Available at: https://viiphoto.com/recordings-resources/ [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Danny WILCOX FRAZIER. 2002. ‘Brothers share a smoke at a gun range, Swisher, Iowa’. From: Danny Wilcox Frazier. 2002. Driftless. Available at: https://dannywilcoxfrazier.com/driftless-gallery [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

 

PHO705 Week 8: Online Exhibitions

While we are still in lockdown I have been experimenting with an online 3D exhibition using a system developed by Kunstmatrix in Germany (Kunstmatrix 2021). They call it ‘Augmented Reality’.

This is an experiment, so in order to become familiar with their system I have assembled some images from my previous main project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark (Crean 2021). The virtual gallery space and setting it up works quite well but as always with these matters the key is publicity and getting people in through the virtual ‘door’. I will try various methods over the next few weeks and monitor the results. If they are favourable, then I will know that I have a potential outlet for my Final Major Project.

Below is an embedded version of the exhibition. Click on it to be taken to the full site. You can wander round using a mouse (or finger) or the arrow keys on your keyboard, but in practice I have found that taking the guided tour is likely the easiest way for a first visit.

The Kunstmatrix system looks to be in fairly early days. Plenty of other artists and organizations have mounted exhibitions on the platform but there are a few rough edges and the help files are brief. I would hope that the owners are encouraged by enough popularity to take their platform further. The pandemic has spurred much more interest in these possibilities while bricks-and-mortar spaces are off limits.

References

CREAN, Mark. 2021. ‘Silent City – 3D Virtual Exhibition’. KUNSTMATRIX [online]. Available at: https://artspaces.kunstmatrix.com/en/exhibition/5199174/silent-city [accessed 17 Mar 2021].

KUNSTMATRIX. 2021. ‘Organize and Present Your Art Online’. KUNSTMATRIX [online]. Available at: https://www.kunstmatrix.com/en [accessed 7 Mar 2021].

 

 

PHO705 Weeks 6-7: ADAPT’21

I went to several talks during the ADAPT’21 festival.

Julia Fullerton-Batten’s talk on her series of lockdown portraits in 2020, Looking Out From Within, was fascinating (Fullerton-Batten 2020). This style of performative photography is not really my thing but even so I admire it greatly. It is not only Fullerton-Batten’s formal and compositional expertise, and her allusions to classical paintings and portraiture, that I admire. It is also the complex process behind the scenes involving crews, lighting, props, make-up, logistics and much else.

This was a very valuable insight into the world of commercial photography (albeit repurposed during a pandemic). The actual taking of the image is the least of it in many ways. This was a lesson in the importance of careful planning, people management and, above all, collaboration. It was also a lesson in how to be bold. Do not hang back or fall prey to impostor syndrome but make your best effort to power ahead. In this respect, Fullerton-Batten emphasized that putting one’s work out there, in open calls and competitions, is very important (albeit with so many competitions available now she said that it pays to do one’s research and be selective).

Bruno Ceschel’s Keynote Address reminded me of the importance of keeping informed of contemporary practice particularly in the fields in which one is involved. In this regard, I have started to look at his series of presentations with photographers and critics, Contemporary Photography (Self Publish, Be Happy 2021), and catch up on its podcast equivalent, Gem Fletcher’s The Messy Truth (Fletcher 2021). Ceschel emphasized that photography books are changing: originality and ingenuity in both content and presentation far beyond the actual images themselves increasingly matters if a book is to succeed.

Ceschel pointed out that 2020 was hit by three successive waves: the pandemic, a social shift (social justice and racial equality movements) and a political shift (the struggle over authoritarian and xenophobic governance). He believes that the combination will change everything going forward. I hope he is right, but for my own practice the message is ‘stay open and adaptable and be prepared for changes’.

Thank you, Falmouth. I really appreciated ADAPT’21.

References

FLETCHER, Gemma. 2021. ‘‎The Messy Truth – Conversations on Photography’. Apple Podcasts [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-messy-truth-conversations-on-photography/id1459128692 [accessed 12 Mar 2021].

FULLERTON-BATTEN, Julia. 2020. ‘Looking Out From Within 2020’. Julia Fullerton-Batten [online]. Available at: https://www.juliafullerton-batten.com/projectmenu.php?catNo=1&gallNo=96 [accessed 10 Mar 2021].

SELF PUBLISH, BE HAPPY. 2021. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy: Contemporary Photography’. Vimeo [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/spbh [accessed 14 Mar 2021].

PHO705 Weeks 6-7: Portfolio Reviews II

I participated in two portofolio reviews in Week 6 of this module. The first was with John Duncan. What emerged from his feedback is this:

  • I should look closely at Jem Southam’s The Red River (Southam 1989), at Keith Arnatt’s Miss Grace’s Lane (Arnatt 2021) and at the practices of Willie Doherty (Doherty 2021) and John Gossage, particularly Gossage’s The Pond (Gossage 2010). I have subsequently started looking at these works and the suggestions are very helpful, particularly the practice of John Gossage and Arnatt’s use of Palmeresque lighting in Miss Grace’s Lane (there being no shortage of detritus to photograph here).
  • The writings of Jonathan Meades are an example of how ideas and themes can be put together imaginatively in order to explore a particular subject.
  • I need to think harder about distance in my images. Some can be too close in and some too wide and placing the results side by side can be disorientating.
  • Landscape can be seen as a metaphor for many different things, for example illness and archaeology, or politics and power. How much have I thought about that? John Duncan cited Helen Chadwick’s The Viral Landscape (Chadwick 2020) as an example.
  • I need to work harder to avoid the obvious and anything that could find a place in a typical advertisement. I need to be more aware of photographic clichés and well-worn tropes and stay away. Originality and working hard to make an image my unique vision of a subject is crucial.
  • It is important to know what other photographers and artists are currently doing in the same sphere and position one’s work accordingly. That is why keeping oneself informed of wider contemporary practice matters.
  • Installations quickly become dull if they only show a row of images all of the same size and mount. People are looking for more imaginative approaches these days.
  • Keep any initial pitch to a single short paragraph and make sure that you begin by summing up your project in a single sentence.
  • As always, I need to be more ruthless at culling my ‘darlings’ and reducing my edit to a tighter selection of images.

This was an extremely helpful experience with a lot of important ideas. The emphasis overall was that the best creative achievements are the result of very careful thought, a refusal to compromise with clichés, and very hard work. I am so grateful that John Duncan told it straight.

My second review two days later was with John Angerson. This too was a very valuable, relaxed experience. The points that emerged from this review are these:

  • I need to pull back a bit and show more context in my images.
  • I need to tidy up some of my images, meaning more care in composition and post processing.
  • Some images might benefit from using a higher viewpoint. Perhaps I should consider a portable stepladder? This strikes me as an excellent idea.
  • With a landscape project, involving people does not have to mean portraiture. For example, it could instead mean including old and interesting images from generations ago – for example, the grandparents or great-grandparents of those who work the land today and the implements of the time. This can add a whole other dimension to a project. Try to look beyond the rather obvious idea that ‘a few portraits might help’. I should look at the work of James Ravilious on rural life and farming from earlier decades (Ravilious 2021).
  • Photography books are changing. Books that consist only of photographs are rarely enough anymore. A book today needs layers. We all need to think much more widely about other things that can become part of a book as well about the physical format, design and materials of a book.
  • Collaboration can turn a stalled project around and make all the difference. Stay open to it.
  • Write down 5–6 things that really interest you but that have absolutely nothing to do with photography. Think carefully about why you are drawn to them. Then think carefully about what you photograph and where you photograph it. See if there are points in common. These may just be emotions or states of mind, but pay attention to them. With any project, one is always trying to reach the core idea at its heart but sometimes this can be difficult to express and bring to awareness. Exercises like this can help. John Angerson called it ‘mind mapping’ and suggested that when one’s core idea is finally in the open, then one will start to take images with a coherent personal vision.

Taken together, these two portfolio reviews were among the most useful, challenging and still enjoyable photography experiences I have had in a long time.

References

ARNATT, Keith. 2021. ‘Miss Grace’s Lane 1986-87, Selection’. Keith Arnatt Estate [online]. Available at: http://www.keitharnattestate.com/works/w53.html [accessed 9 Mar 2021].

CHADWICK, Helen. 2020. ‘Helen Chadwick’s Viral Landscapes in 1989’. Modern Art Oxford [online]. Available at: https://www.modernartoxford.org.uk/mao-archive-helen-chadwicks-viral-landscapes-1989/ [accessed 8 Mar 2021].

DOHERTY, Willie. 2021. ‘Willie Doherty at the Kerlin Gallery’. Kerlin Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.kerlingallery.com/artists/willie-doherty [accessed 8 Mar 2021].

GOSSAGE, John R. and Gerry BADGER. 2010. The Pond. Second edition. New York, N.Y.: London: Aperture .

RAVILIOUS, James. 2021. ‘James Ravilious – Photographer of Rural Life 1939-1999’. James Ravilious [online]. Available at: http://www.jamesravilious.com/ [accessed 7 Mar 2021].

SOUTHAM, Jem, D. M. THOMAS, F. A. TURK and Jan RUHRMUND. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

PHO705 Week 5: The Social Photo

I much enjoyed Nathan Jurgenson’s Guest Lecture in Week 4 (Jurgenson 2021) and have gone on to buy and read his book, The Social Photo (Jurgenson 2019).

This has changed my understanding of photography and social media, much for the better. I now see what drives it: that the image can be regarded as a kind of emoji and the smartphone as an eye in our pocket. On social media, we communicate in a visual language of forms. We are in the world of signs and symbols. Mythologies (Barthes 2009) was prescient.

As Jurgenson points out, this is very different from a traditional arts-based appreciation of photography with its emphasis on rules and tradition. ‘As a visual discourse, social photos are a means to express feelings, ideas and experiences in the moment, a means sometimes more important than the specific ends of a particular image’ (Jurgenson 2019: 18).

I particularly liked Jurgenson’s coverage of the interplay between permanent and ephemeral in the social photo and his examination of the use of augmented reality (such as photo filters) to create a nostalgia for the present that reifies experience and thereby makes it shareable. We cannot simply say something: we first have to dress it in clothes of spurious significance. The slightly alarming consequence is that we have turned ourselves into tourists of our own experience. In documenting our lives we turn our experiences into consumer items, available one by one on our media streams.

Jurgenson’s attempts to justify this new online world in the middle part of the book fall flat, in my reading. He defends social media and the internet generally against critics who either fail to understand that online is also a form of ‘real’ life or whose criticism conceals an agenda of regulation to suit political or commercial interests. The problem here is that while it is hard to disagree with Jurgenson, his book has been overtaken by the events of 2020. These have shown very clearly that social media is a beast that needs to be tamed. Two examples: the alarming rise in generalized anxiety disorder among young people during the pandemic (Co-Space 2021) and the shocking attempt to overthrow the results of the US presidential election. Social media and its empire of lies have propelled both.

The latter part of The Social Photo is a welcome updating of the pioneering work on photography of Barthes and Sontag. Notable is Jurgenson’s evisceration of Silicon Valley’s Big Data movement, ‘This long-held positivist fantasy of the complete account of the universe that is always just around the corner’, which is cynically used as ‘a moral mandate for ever more intrusive data collection’ (Jurgenson 2019: 108).

The most interesting part of The Social Photo for my own practice is what Jurgenson has to say about truth and knowledge: ‘If the history of the medium were boiled down to a single debate, it would be the constant insecurity around the “truth” of a photograph’ (Jurgenson 2019: 95). Photography’s slippery relationship with truth leads us on to the gap between knowing and not knowing that the best photographs inhabit. Jurgenson points out that Barthes said of the punctum, ‘what I can name cannot really prick me’ (Jurgenson 2019: 99). Facts alone cannot describe reality. Documentation is never all it seems. Following Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard, Jurgenson points us to ‘the essential and productive tension between visibility and invisibility, what is known and what is not’, that every instance of knowledge ‘is also an instance of nonknowledge, its opposite, what is unknown. … Nonknowledge, then, is the seductive and magical aspect of knowledge’ (Jurgenson 2019: 101-102).

This interplay is exactly what currently propels my own practice. I am photographing human presence largely in the form of its absence, and thus what the image knows is constantly undercut by what it does not know and cannot show.

The Social Photo has proved a welcome tonic to my studies. It will help me to improve the way I present myself and my work on social media.

References

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

CO-SPACE. ‘Co-Space Study’. Co-Space [online]. Available at: http://cospaceoxford.org/ [accessed 20 Feb 2021].

JURGENSON, Nathan. 2019. The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media. London: Verso Books.

JURGENSON, Nathan. 2021. ‘Guest Lecture: Nathan Jurgenson’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/249/pages/guest-lecture-nathan-jurgenson-february-2021?module_item_id=49657 [accessed 18 Feb 2021].

PHO705 Week 2: Research and Influences

Since my Final Major Project Entropias is a brand-new one I have much research still to do. I plan to break it down as follows:

Methodology
I intend to tell my story by dividing this project into the following subject areas, mainly to allow a shooting schedule that will cover the whole area and its many activities. I will approach land and place as

  • Culture: the picturesque, the patriarchal gaze
  • Liminal, edgeland
  • Disposable, a dumping ground
  • Commodity, agribusiness
  • Workplace
  • Community and ownership
  • Heritage and Tourism
  • Sustainable resource
  • Eerie, weird and poetic places

This division would be a trap if adhered to rigidly. A different methodology will emerge naturally. For example, William Ewing (Ewing 2014) offers as themes Artefacts, Rupture, Playground, Scar, Control, Enigma, Hallucination and Reverie. There are many, more creative typologies than my initial choice.

The History of Land and Place
I will need to study landscape historians and writers such as W. G. Hoskins, Oliver Rackham, John Lewis-Stempel and Robert Macfarlane, and whatever is available from historical records online such as the The Victoria History of the County of Oxford (Page et al 1907) which itemizes my patch in minute detail for a thousand years.

The Land as Art and Culture
Cultural, aesthetic and photographic history from writers such as Simon Schama, David Campany, J. A. P. Alexander, Robert Adams, John Taylor, W. J. T. Mitchell and Liz Wells, and whatever these volumes lead me towards. Growing familiarity with the history of the painting of place will be as important as that of photography.

Photographers
I can only start with those I know and work outwards. This means the practice of photographers such as Robert Adams (and his New Topographics peers), Richard Misrach, Mark Power, Paul Seawright, Nadav Kander, Michael Kenna, Paul Graham, Chrystel Lebas, Mathieu Asselin, Gregory Halpern, Matt Black, Fay Godwin, Edward Burtynksy, Thomas Struth and more.

I have been able to secure new or second-hand copies of books by some of the above and I am now reading them.

References

EWING, William A. 2014. Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

PAGE, William, L. F. SALZMAN, H. E. SALTER, M. D. LOBEL, Alan CROSSLEY and Simon TOWNLEY. 1907. The Victoria History of the County of Oxford. London: Archibald Constable: Published for University of London Institute of Historical Research by Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/vch–oxon [accessed: 16 Jan 2021].

PHO705 Week 1: Entropias

I am starting a new project for my FMP. My old project Silent City – Oxford after dark – has served me well for a year but current lockdown restrictions make it impossible to pursue. I will take it up again later when the pandemic has abated, but for now, time for a change.

Entropias is about the impact of man on the land, specifically on the small parcel of nine or ten square miles in Oxfordshire where I live (see Fig. 1 below).

My project is a blend of geography, autobiography and metaphor in the terms used by the photographer Robert Adams (Adams 1981: 14). An analogue would be landscape, longing and desire (Bate 2016: 134).

This area has a long history. The Romano-British built a villa here. All four settlements on my patch were already established agricultural communities at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. Hampton Gay had a much larger population two hundred years ago than it does today (Page et al 1907: vol. 6, 152–159). Medieval village fields of ridge-and-furrow strips are still in evidence, as is their pasture. Sanfoin, for fodder, was grown here hundreds of years ago. The same fields today are home to an organic, grass-fed beef farm, although many hedgerows date from the enclosures of 1750–1850.

Google Maps Screenshot
Fig. 1: Google Maps 2021. Kidlington, Hampton Poyle, Hampton Gay and Thrupp, Oxfordshire. The area is about three miles across and is bisected by the River Cherwell and (on the left) the Oxford Canal

However, the centuries have come with huge differences all of which mean that the land here is under pressure as never before. The primary causes are the vast growth in human population and in the waste and detritus this produces, the introduction of chemically dependent ‘agribusiness’ farming which depletes the soil and drives out wildlife, invasive pests like ash dieback and Dutch elm diseases, and a sea change in our cultural lenses.

We no longer see land as home and part of a whole of which we are only one element. What we see is a commodity, a consumable, a scene. We are all tourists and consumers now.

The essential contrast and tension here is between the culturally conditioned conceptions about place and nature we all have and the sometimes tough day-to-day reality of lived life in a man-made environment. A good recent example in book form is Small Town Inertia (Mortram 2017), though that is portraiture whereas my focus is environment. It is the difference between what we actually experience and nature as spectacle in an Attenborough TV programme or the ‘Automotive Sublime’ beloved of the advertising industry.

I am at an early, experimental stage with this project and still feeling my way into it. But I am excited!

References

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

BATE, David. 2016. Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

MORTRAM, J. A. 2017. Small Town Inertia. Liverpool, UK: Bluecoat Press.

PAGE, William, L. F. SALZMAN, H. E. SALTER, M. D. LOBEL, Alan CROSSLEY and Simon TOWNLEY. 1907. The Victoria History of the County of Oxford. London: Archibald Constable: Published for University of London Institute of Historical Research by Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/vch–oxon [accessed: 16 Jan 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. GOOGLE MAPS. 2021. Kidlington, Hampton Poyle, Hampton Gay and Thrupp, Oxfordshire. The area is about three miles across and is bisected by the River Cherwell and (on the left) the Oxford Canal. From: Google Maps. 2021. Avaialble at: https://www.google.co.uk/ maps/@51.836753,-1.2927486,2431m/data=!3m1!1e3 [accessed 16 Jan 2021].

 

PHO704: Live Brief Challenge Presentations

This module’s Live Brief Challenges, which were presented yesterday, have turned out to be very worthwhile. I teamed up with Tim, Mark, Marcel, Stephen and John for what turned out to be an exercise in studying a new arts enterprise and then proposing a new branding for the enterprise together with a brand strategy and matching visual language going forward.

There was a lot to learn and these are the things that emerged for me:

  1. Collaboration and teamwork are central to a successful creative endeavour. It is important to treat differences of opinion not as points of conflict but as indications of a rich range of options. The challenge is to blend those different views into the best offer one can make.
  2. Research is vital. My research included taking two video courses in brands and marketing (Boyd 2020, Pederson 2017), looking at case studies of rebranding exercises by a commercial marketing agency (Summa 2020) and researching the likely market for the new arts enterprise we were pitching to. This led me to look not only at all kinds of arts enterprises, from the Frieze media and events company (Frieze 2020) to the Gagosian Gallery (Gagosian 2020) but also to look at what turned out to be a goldmine of data arising from the Burning Man festival in America and the Nowhere festival in Spain (Burning Man Journal 2019, Nowhere 2019). Both festivals assemble and make public full statistical data year-on-year about their audience and its demographics. By looking at hard data covering why people attend arts festivals, we were able to come much closer to answering a key question: what is your audience?
  3. A consistent visual language is an important part of branding. It can be deployed in different scenarios but if done well the language always tells your audience who you are. However, getting it right is very hard. We came up with an idea – using circles and spheres as a language (and eventually a logo) – but I think we all found it much more difficult than we thought to produce first-class work.
Contrapol Presentation-final-1
Fig.1 Live Brief Challenge 2020. From a presentation on brand promises.
Contrapol Presentation-final-2
Fig. 2: Live Brief Challenge 2020. From a presentation on visual language and branding.

The principles involved here are really worthwhile. They are a lesson in thinking clearly about a project and identifying its key requirements. They are also a lesson in consistency and professional execution, things that are important not only for a commercial photographer but in many other walks of life. A part of what I will take away from the Live Challenge is ‘The Branding Process in Eight Steps’ (Chiaravalle and Findlay Schenck 2020), but in many ways this checklist should really be called ‘How to Think Clearly and Analyse a Problem in Eight Steps’.

  • Determine exactly what you are branding
  • Research everything about the product and its market
  • Position a brand by defining what makes it unique
  • Define a brand by stating what unique benefits it offers, what it stands for, what value it promises to deliver, and the brand image that will permeate all communications
  • Develop a brand identity including a logo and other signature elements and a brand ‘voice’ and use consistently in all communications
  • Launch using publicity, social media, promotions and presentations
  • Manage a brand by ensuring that it continues to deliver its brand promises fully and consistently
  • Monitor, evaluate and update a brand against changes in the market and in your own business

References

BOYD, Drew. 2020. ‘Branding Foundations’. LinkedIn Learning [online]. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/learning/branding-foundations-2/building-a-successful-brand?u=56738929 [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

BURNING MAN JOURNAL. 2019. ‘Black Rock City Census’. Burning Man Journal [online]. Available at: https://journal.burningman.org/census/ [accessed 10 Oct 2020].

CHIARAVALLE, Bill and Barbara FINDLAY SCHENCK. 2020. ‘Branding For Dummies Cheat Sheet’. Branding for Dummies [online]. Available at: https://www.dummies.com/business/marketing/branding/branding-for-dummies-cheat-sheet/ [accessed 5 Oct 2020].

FRIEZE. 2020. ‘Home | Frieze’. Frieze [online]. Available at: https://www.frieze.com/ [accessed 6 Oct 2020].

GAGOSIAN. 2020. ‘Gagosian’. Gagosian [online]. Available at: https://gagosian.com/ [accessed 6 Oct 2020].

NOWHERE. 2019. ‘Nowhere Census 2019’. Nowhere [online]. Available at: https://www.goingnowhere.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Nowhere-Census-2019.pdf [accessed 10 Oct 2020].

PEDERSEN, Lindsay. 2017. ‘Create a Brand Strategy’. LinkedIn Learning [online]. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/learning/create-a-brand-strategy/tailor?u=56738929 [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

SUMMA. 2020. ‘Case Studies’. Summa [online]. Available at: https://en.summa.es/proyectos/ [accessed 20 Nov 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. LIVE BRIEF CHALLENGE. 2020. ‘From a presentation on brand promises’. From: Live Brief Challenge (Falmouth University). 2020. Collection of the author.

Figure 2. LIVE BRIEF CHALLENGE. 2020. ‘From a presentation on visual language and branding’. From: Live Brief Challenge (Falmouth University). 2020. Collection of the author.

PHO704: Gerry Johansson and Storytelling

I have been looking at the practice of several photographers in connection with techniques of storytelling and narration. Some work in black and white exclusively while others do so for at least a part of the time.

The first on my list is Gerry Johansson. Mark Power has described Johansson’s images as ‘non-judgemental, deceptively simple celebrations of the ordinary’ (Power 2013) and it is certainly the case that Johansson’s images are typically rather melancholic, often appear to be empty of detail and are without a doubt carefully considered and composed. As Powell points out, however, closer inspection reveals that all the necessary detail is in the frame but it is just not the kind of detail one (perhaps lazily) expects to find.

Johansson himself appears to repudiate the idea that he Is telling stories at all: ‘“For me it is important not to create a story with the pictures,” says Gerry Johansson. “Normally when you edit you try to sequence the photographs. But for me it is important that each picture is considered as a single, individual image”’ (Warner 2019). However, the same interview then goes on to point out that ‘Johansson’s photography is largely driven by intuition, but when it comes to making a book, logic and order triumph. Almost all of his 31 photobooks are defined by their geography, if not the subject matter, and their equally-sized photographs are generally organised either alphabetically or chronologically, a bid to encourage readers to interpret them individually’ (Warner 2019).

In reality I think that Johansson most definitely has a story, or stories, and this shines through in his many photobooks. What is being talked about by Warner is more a matter of narration. The story in Johansson is often about feelings – of emptiness, wandering, strangeness and deracination. There are usually no people in his images, but the traces of them are everywhere. The images can be bleak and sometimes beautiful but in each case the story points the same way: this is what it feels like to visit the environment these people have created for themselves.

AmericanWinter-1
Fig. 1: Gerry Johansson 2018. From American Winter.

One can see this in, for example, Deutschland (Johansson 2012) and American Winter (Johansson 2018). And if the narration of a story is chronological or even alphabetical, then one can invoke narrative techniques – by time, by psychogeography, or even by taking the postmodernist approach suggested by Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977):  the viewer or reader constructs their own narrative from the various parts laid out before them street-map style.

The difference between story and narrative is best expressed in what is for me Johansson’s strongest project, Pontiac (Johansson 2011). It is a real town after the famous automobile brand, but it is also a place that embodies the American Rust Belt malaise and the country’s increasing inequality and divisions. All is shown with Johansson’s trademark simplicity and understatement, on the basis of taking the viewer on a walk through the town. Each image is captioned only with a street name.

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Fig. 2: Gerry Johansson 2011. From Pontiac.

Without realizing it, I have been following a similar approach in my own research project. So what can I learn from a master of the technique? First, that no matter how much Johansson eschews formal storytelling, the images are in fact linked by signs and clues. Pontiac is a book of traces. It would be easy to say these traces add up to the pervasive malaise of the Rust Belt, but the impact of the book entirely derives from the fact that they don’t. What they add up to are communities doing the best they can in spite of the Rust Belt.

The second point is well expressed in a review of Pontiac by Joerg Colberg:

‘Unlike many other books about these kinds of town, Pontiac doesn’t seem to focus on one aspect at all. You get to see everything, from the inner city to the old and new suburbs, the churches, parking garages. It’s all there. There is a very clear and smart artistic agenda, but there is no obvious political agenda. The more often you look at the book, the more things you discover. It makes you think, but before it does that it makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012).

I think Colberg is saying is that Pontiac is as much about an interior journey as an exterior one. This is a book in the poetic mode of documentary (Nichols 2017). If there is no political agenda then the mode of address cannot be expository, and although each image could be assessed as observational, the clues and traces that link the images are clearly poetic in intent.

These may be subtle distinctions but they are very important. They allow for a complex narrative technique, or a double narrative. On the surface, Pontiac is the story of a typical MidWest American town narrated by street name or by psychogeography. Beneath that, however, there is another and poetic narrative quietly arranged by clues and traces within the images. It is telling a different story. Nothing is quite what one thinks it is, until one realizes what is going on, and that careful narrative technique is precisely what ‘makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012) – a very valuable lesson.

References

BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142-148.

COLBERG, Joerg. 2012. ‘Conscientious Review: Pontiac by Gerry Johansson’. Conscientious [online]. Available at: http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2012/01/review_pontiac_by_gerry_johansson/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

NICHOLS, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2018. American Winter. London: MACK.

JOHANSSON, Gerry and Greger Ulf NILSON. 2012. Deutschland : [Photographs from 1993 and 2005-2012]. 1st edn. Strandbaden, Sweden, London: Johansson & Jansson AB.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2011. ‘Pontiac’. Gerry Johansson [online]. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2013. ‘In Praise of … Gerry Johansson’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/blog/In-Praise-of-Gerry-Johansson [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

SCHUHMACHER, Sören. 2013. ‘Gerry Johansson – “Deutschland” (2013)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2013/04/exhibition-review-germany-gerry-johansson-deutschland-2013.html [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

WARNER, Marigold. 2019. ‘American Winter by Gerry Johansson’. British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/01/american-winter-by-gerry-johansson/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Gerry JOHANSSON. 2018. From: Gerry Johansson. 2018. American Winter. London: MACK.

Figure 2. Gerry JOHANSSON. 2011. From: Gerry Johansson. 2011. Pontiac. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 10 Nov 2020].