This post about my work in progress really follows on directly from my previous post about questions of authenticity, representation and reality in photography. I have been experimenting with the photograph’s essential ambiguity – that there is no one ‘truth’ it ever shows. There are many truths, or readings. Which ones come to the fore depend on the photographer’s selectivity, on the context in which the image is presented, and on the (often unconscious) cultural assumptions both photographer and viewer employ.
I will illustrate this with a rather Ruscha-esque approach which I will call ‘Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building’. The Blavatnik School of Government is one of Oxford University’s most prestigious new faculties, housed in a spectacular modern building designed by the top-drawer architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. The Faculty’s website describes it in glowing terms: ‘The building has been hailed as a stunning new addition to Oxford’s historic skyline, and most of all through its design represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that are key to the School’s overall mission of improving public policy.’ (Blavatnik 2020)
Inspection of the site, however, reveals that there are many different views of the Blavatnik Building and some are not very ‘stunning’ or prestigious at all. Nor is there necessarily much ‘openness’ about the design since from some angles the elite student body inside the building is completely shut off by thick plate glass from the regular citizens who live and work outside it. The building can variously be seen as a prison block, a rather sinister and remote research facility or an ungainly blob dropped into a landscape of security fencing and CCTV cameras – as well as, of course, a very fine piece of modern architecture.
Which views are valid? All? Or none? And does presenting these views as a grid in a single image alter one’s perception over viewing the images one by one? Anyway, these are the ideas I am experimenting with in my work in progress at the moment.
John Berger’s statement about ‘human choices’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292) – ‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen’ – is qualified later in the same essay by another and potentially more interesting statement about the message of a photograph: ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it.’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 294)
My practice – and so my current project Oxford at Night – is now quite heavily concerned with that second statement in the light of studying three photographers in particular over the assessment period. I can probably explain this best with an image from my work-in-progress portfolio submitted in PHO701 (Crean 2019) and comparing it to some of the ideas in the work of Thomas Struth.
In the first place, this image is taken (unadventurously) straight-on, a framing that Struth began with perhaps under the influence of the Bechers but then moved beyond with beneficial results. More importantly there is this statement from Struth: ‘I always enjoy and pay a lot of attention to the context and atmosphere which certain groups of buildings create … architecture and the space it creates have to read in relationship to the human body and mental condition.’ (Struth 2012:51)
In other words, buildings are something we relate to and live among. They influence how we think and feel (or thought and felt in the case of old buildings) and therefore as assemblages they become social and political statements. Struth again: ‘Just as it is not possible to take photographs “objectively”, and any approach is innately subjective, it is also innately political. Unpolitical practicality doesn’t exist.’ (Struth 2010: 151)
So for my practice I need to dial down the ‘pretty picture’ effect or a straining for the sublime and start looking much more carefully at the kind of statements – political, social, psychological – that groups of buildings make. A large part of that is looking at different framing choices and focal lengths. This is not simply for effect or variety. Richard Sennett has pointed out that as Struth has progressed in his work, he has used off-centre framing and choice of subject to introduce an awareness of the past, present and future. (Struth 2012: 60) This can be seen by contrasting the formal and straight-on approach of his early monochrome images from Germany or New York with, for example, this image:
In Figure 2 there is the past (a street market), the present (current buildings, what the camera recorded) and a possible future (new development).
Finally, Struth’s images are never what they seem. That is their power. This has been well expressed by James Lingwood: ‘ … there is a double subject in Struth’s work: the specific places and the people pictured but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them. Beneath or beyond the immediate subject of the photograph … there is always an underlying enquiry.’ (Struth 2010: 169)
The enquiry, I suspect, is that what ties together much of Struth’s various projects – architecture, the ‘Paradise’ series on vegetation, the museum series, the family portraits and more recently his images of science laboratories – is the power of the human network, whether latent or overt, and its resilience (or not) in the face of the overwhelming power of science and technology. These are all points well made by reviewers or in documentary interviews with Struth (Hodgson 2011, Bloomberg TV 2017). Cities are networks, of course. Perhaps I should try harder to see Oxford as one and start to express that in my own practice.
The second photographer who is causing me to re-evaluate my practice is Stephen Shore. Shore has spoken widely of several things that resonate with me. There is ‘conscious attention’, ‘attentionality’, ‘the presence of attention’. (Shore 2018) This heightened awareness and conscious seeing is the difference between the way we naturally see and the perhaps more formal and distanced way we may choose to make photographs, a distinction which Shore likens to the difference between speaking and writing. (Shore 2018)
In other words, no matter how monumental or sublime a photograph may be, it will still need to be filled with the kind of detail and conscious attention Shore is talking about. This is something I need to pay much more attention to.
These ideas are taken further in Shore’s excellent book The Nature of Photographs (Shore 2007). He outlines the photographer’s four tools: flatness (i.e. depth of field effects), frame, time and focus. But the tools lead to the same place: the mental level of an image and the relationship between this and the depictive level.
The mental level begins with the photographer: ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organization of the photograph.’ (Shore 2007: 117) However, this is not going to be communicated fully unless the photographer is also aware of how we ‘read’ an image visually and construct a 3D illusion from a 2D original: ‘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)
So, using these ideas, here is an image from my work in progress portfolio which I think works quite well:
I had a mental image immediately I saw this: the 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper. My ‘mental map’ helped me to frame the image as long diner windows, crop it slightly to give a more noir cinematic look, ensure there was enough detail of the building and street to convey the impression of being outside at night and looking in – and then quite simply wait until the customers inside the diner had moved into what struck me as an appropriate position. This, I hope, goes some way towards meeting Shore’s criteria for conscious attention and the relationship between mental and depictive levels.
Even so, I need to hold the mental and the depictive levels in my mind more forcefully in future before pressing the shutter.
The third photographer I have been paying a lot of attention to is Todd Hido, a specialist in night photography. During PHO701 I often tried to channel his look and failed. This image, for example, doesn’t come off at all, but having spent more time with Hido I think I can see why.
First, Hido is interested in narrative and is carefully selective about what starts off a story: ‘Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window – that’s what catches my attention. … I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there. … I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. … I recognized that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships.’ (Hido 2014: 19) Hido is careful with angles, framing and leading lines. He does not often shoot straight-on and is no slave to the rule of thirds. These are all things my own photograph has failed to accommodate but which Figure 5 below has accommodated.
Second, Hido (like Stephen Shore) brings ‘attentionality’ to the details. The image in Figure 5 is not any old house but in John Berger’s terms a human choice being exercised: ‘The way people present themselves to the world says a lot about what’s happening inside their home. … These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible, the subtle psychology of the space. … I find myself drawn to places that reveal more of a story.’ (Hido 2014: 25) The viewer is asked to pay attention and the image itself offers the details that will allow a story to form. This is where I need to be going.
Third, Hido is interesting on how he processes and prints his images: ‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter … the interpretation comes in making the print.’ (Hido 2014: 53) Colour casts may be added or subtracted. More or less use is made of flare, reflections, smudges from ice or rain on windscreens. By contrast, I have so far processed my images straight, with few changes and nothing major by way of re-interpretation. Perhaps I should start experimenting.
Hido reiterates all these points in his YouTube videos (Christie’s 2017, Van Vliet 2018) so they must be important to him.
Finally, here is an image from my work-in-progress portfolio that I think works quite well, but not well enough:
In the light of all the foregoing what I would say here is this: The image shows a strong and apposite contrast but it would be more expressive if it were not straight-on, used a wider angle for more context, if the lighting to the rear of the image was reduced in post to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and if there were people in the image. I might have had to wait to a while, but the right people in this image would have added both dynamism and (the point of the image) social comment. The Devil is always in the many small decisions that make or break an image.
To sum up what these three photographers have inspired in me:
The psychology of space, which leads to the politics, social conditions and aesthetics of the space. This is the double subject: the contrast and mingling of the mental and the depictive.
‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
Post-processing and printing are really important, painterly approach or not. The photographer in post influences how the viewer reads the image and creates the illusion of a 3D image and story in the mind.
So, my hopes for the coming term.
The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
I am considering revising my project and may change it to Oxford in daytime as well as at night. Months of unusually wet weather and consequent flooding and damage/disruption in the Thames Valley now are seriously limiting opportunities for night photography.
People may be present by their absence in much of the foregoing work but I would prefer it if people were more central and present by their presence in mine. Better people skills in my practice will remain a goal and a challenge. In fact I keep thinking about Daido Moriyama … If I could blend Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido and Daido Moriyama into one then I think I might be on to something.
The question asked is ‘Outline your plans for further development within the module PHO702 – where are you going next?’ I would like a much sharper and more nuanced understanding of modern photographic practice. I would like to know – because I am practising it – where I fit in to this wide river. And I would like to incorporate the ideas discussed above in order to become a ‘better’ photographer. Or, as Stephen Shaw puts it, ‘To make all my decisions conscious, I started filling the pictures with attention.’ (Shore, 2018)
Figure 1: CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.
Figure 2: STRUTH, T. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3: CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.
Figure 4: CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford.
Figure 5: HIDO, T. 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From HIDO, Todd. 2016. Todd Hido – Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture, 78-9.
Figure 6: CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.
I’ve been reading this week about the New Topographics movement and also looking at the work of several photographers including Robert Adams, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws – all in connection with my research project, Oxford at Night.
“New Topographics” shook up landscape photography and put some superb photographers on the map, but at first I found it odd that I should be so interested in an exhibition held in 1975-6 in Rochester NY called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.
Then I realised what was drawing me. The traditional image of Oxford is like those pristine American landscapes of old that “New Topographics” was reacting against: beauty, emotion, form among golden-hued college quadrangles, dreaming spires, languid punting on the river and chaps in gowns or boating jackets.
Problem is, these days that’s baloney. Everything about our world has changed. Oxford is a huge sprawling conurbation with the same social problems, some severe, as anywhere else. And with that our aesthetics have changed too.
So my New Topographics, if you like, will be photographing what Oxford is today, not what the tourist brochures or fond imaginings suggest. In this I’ve been helped by the practice of Jeff Brouws who has spoken of a “franchised landscape” of insatiable consumerism and of the “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape”.
As Neoliberalism tightens its grip on our societies, I would extend the Franchised Landscape into the Owned Landscape. It’s particularly obvious after dark. Almost every part of the inner city is claimed, from corner stores to office blocks and often by a corporation whose ownership is emblazoned via signs, brandings, posters and every variety of lurid neon coloration. While a natural landscape might envelop us and encourage us to feel a part of it, the Owned Landscape excludes us. We are shut out as if from a corporate Eden. Often we can only approach the Owned Landscape through plate glass, barred gates, moats and security guards. While such landscapes can have their own moments of beauty the cumulative effect is to render the onlooker a powerless bystander. You may be allowed in, but only under controlled conditions and, usually, only if you are prepared pay what the owner demands. No credit card? No Eden.
Below the references are some research project images I made earlier in the week.
Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York: Aperture
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