PHO704 Week 1: On Turning Professional

I have learned a lot from this week’s coursework. These are the points I have picked up:

1. It is very important to be authentic, which means one has to know oneself and establish a style or form of practice. It is not possible to make someone else’s photographs. Commissioning editors look out for authenticity and an original voice among a sea of all too similar ideas.

‘What I am looking for will carry with it the sense that the work is powered by the authentic concerns of the photographer, that it is in some way heartfelt and has an integrity to its approach and treatment of its subject. For me, the presence of that authentic voice is what lifts a body of work above the everyday’ (Read 2016: 218).

2. Thorough and ongoing research is vital. It is not possible to tell a story without research, and not is it possible to understand and let alone fulfil a client brief without research. Storytelling matters. All brands have a story. Most good conversations are about a story. Not everything is a story, but it is important to understand narrative and its dynamics. A good photographer today needs a working knowledge of journalistic practice.

‘The photographer needs to understand and implement the fundamental requirements of traditional storytelling based upon facts, but they need to go further than the journalist because they also need to this an understanding of visual language and visual narratives. … My point is not to underplay the importance of journalism to the journalist, but to understand that the photographer needs to take the fundamentals of good journalism and apply them to photography to ensure the images created transcend their ethereal surface nature and provide context and narrative information’ (Scott 2020).

3. Collaboration is important and is becoming more so. The days of the stand-alone auteur are long gone. Collaboration matters because increasingly clients are looking for a full cross-media submission. They want good images, but they also want good video, graphic design, web skills and communication skills. Only a team-based approach can provide this. Besides, it often takes feedback from others to give one a sense of where one is going and whether one’s ideas stand up.

In addition, collaboration matters because it is a gateway to your audience having fuller understanding of the work. It is no longer smart, if ever it was, to regard one’s audience as merely passive consumers. Audiences today want participation and empowerment. That means that ‘art’ today is increasingly defined as a collaboration between artist and audience. This requires a team-based approach because works are better understood when informed by the expertise of others. A coral reef makes for a pretty picture, but a picture of a coral reef accompanied by scientific data, environmental research and an understanding of wildlife and diversity make for a more interesting story about our world and climate change.

‘Importantly, working within the collaborative structure had the advantage of helping to constitute a group identity, which in turn led to the development of a mission statement in which a series of ethical and political objectives could be clearly defined. … The process of designing for visual information advocacy—a term that sums up how non governmental organisations employ imagery in order to garner public support—involves situating the photograph within a multimodal context. … The inclusion of additional modes has the function of anchoring meaning into the photograph by providing the audience with an awareness of the environmental or social problems relevant to a given location’ (Scott 2016: 232).

4. Multimedia is important, which means at least a working knowledge of stills, video, web and graphics. Clients are looking for flexibility and adaptability. As Lydia Pang says in her podcast On Commissioning, ‘ You’re a creative: what’s your output?’ – not where are your photographs, or video, or graphics (Pang 2020). The datastream is not compartmentalized.

5. One needs a good grasp of the nuts and bolts of the business. As Tom Seymour explains in his Falmouth video presentation, it’s all about the story, the angle, the edit, the source, the pitch, the press release (Seymour 2020). Each is a different stage, and each requires careful attention to get it right because otherwise one is not giving commissioning editors or potential clients the information they need on which to base a decision.

6. Have a plan and keep it tight. One needs to see oneself as a clearly defined brand and ensure that this flows through all one’s communications in a consistent way. That means self-knowledge: what one does, how one does it, who the audience are. Marketing is absolutely crucial. One has to learn how to market one’s brand. The nuts and bolts were set out in a recent video presentation by Charlie Giles of the Association of Photographers (Giles 2020).

Put like this, establishing oneself, marketing what one offers and delivering what the client wants sound an almost impossible Everest. In practice, however, I think it can be broken down into smaller and far less forbidding steps. An example would be Instagram. It is a platform that can be approached purely as a business tool. There are many tutorials and how-to documents out there now about the steps required to make Instagram work as a business tool rather than as a pleasure platform. This is a well-trodden path (see Timehin 2020).  Perhaps a similar approach – one subject at a time, broken down into steps – will make all the other elements easier to approach too.

Finally, there is no substitute for hard work and thinking on one’s feet. In creating and shooting a worldwide campaign for Panasonic cameras, Edmond Terakopian made nearly 15,000 images in all kinds of settings and several different countries in less than two months. He curated this down to less than 20 final images for the client. It must have been very demanding work – but he got the job (Terakopian 2020). I hope he was well rewarded!

References

GILES, Charlie. 2020. ‘The Fundamentals of Marketing Yourself as a Photographer’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PANG, Lydia. 2020. ‘On Commissioning’. The Messy Truth [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/lydia-pang-on-commissioning/id1459128692?i=1000442904984 [accessed 21 Sep 2020)

READ, Shirley. 2016. ‘Essay: “Shirley Read: Finding and Knowing – Thinking about Ideas”’. In Shirley READ (ed.). Photographers and Research. Routledge, 218–22. Available at: https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/books/e/9781315730462 [accessed 21 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Conohar. 2106. ‘Essay: “Conohar Scott: Collaborative Working”’. In Shirley READ (ed.). Photographers and Research. Routledge, 230–4. Available at: https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/books/e/9781315730462 [accessed 21 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Grant. 2020. ‘Every Photographer Is a Journalist but Not Every Journalist Is a Photographer!’ ited Nations of Photography [online]. Available at: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2020/07/18/every-photographer-is-a-journalist-but-not-every-journalist-is-a-photographer/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SEYMOUR, Tom. 2020. ‘Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/44e40a05380d0df14d38c59bed78489db86b1e49-1600865116374/capture/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020. ‘Shooting an International Campaign’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TIMEHIN, Ron. 2020. ‘Basics of Business on Instagram’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PHO704 Week 1: Research

A new module kicks off, and the topic in this first week is all about research.

My to-do list at present is rather scrappy and forbiddingly long, but this is what I think I need to concentrate on:

I am continuing with my established research project, Silent City, a walk through the city of Oxford after dark. I am planning to continue this practice in black and white rather than in colour.

1. I need to further my understanding and knowledge of black and white photography.

2. Having looked at some of the classics and the greats in previous modules, I need to look more at contemporary photographers and the modern scene. This means getting to know websites such as American Suburb X (American Suburb X 2020), the photographic sections on Vice (Vice 2020), Aperture (Aperture 2020), the British Journal of Photography online (British Journal of Photography 2020), younger and contemporary practitioners on Magnum (Maghum 2020) and so forth. I have taken out subscriptions to the British Journal of Photography online and to Black+White magazine (Black+White Photography 2020) online. I will also need to widen my list of those I am following on Instagram.

3. I need to broaden my reading and think more laterally. I would like to read fewer works of academic criticism and more of literature around the subject. So, I need to read literature on cities, both factual and fiction, whether novels like Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Calvino 1997) or the Encyclopedia of Oxford (Hibbert and Hibbert 1988) or Dickens on Night Walks (Dickens 2010).

4. Psychogeography: I read Merlin Coverley’s summary work in a previous module (Coverley 2010), but I need to look more closely into the subject. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is one book to consult (Sinclair 2003). This is important because psychogeography is a gateway into understanding a city’s nuances, details and atmosphere, the things that make it this particular place rather than any city anywhere.

5. I would like to become much more professional in my overall approach. This means getting to grips with brand strategy and marketing, understanding how to interface with clients, understanding how to write the right kind of pitches and briefs, and instilling the organization and discipline to fulfil them. I am hoping much of the coursework this term will help with that, but in addition there are excellent tutorials on LinkedIn Learning (free for Falmouth Students) which I already use for Adobe software products (LinkedIn Learning 2020).

6. As for the actual photographic work, I need to fill in areas of Oxford I have not yet photographed. I need to visit some areas I photographed in previous modules but not with the understanding and approach I have now. I need to bring in more variations in the quality of light, which means more shoots at dusk or dawn rather than at night. I need to look more at details, which means at signs, symbols and signifiers (enter the world of Barthes). And I need to consider a story or theme, if there is one. The river and canals threading through Oxford is one possibility, and a poetic one too. This could provide a backbone to my work.

7. My final intent is still centred around producing a book of photographs. This means more study of photography books, their design, curation and production, and therefore more attention to companies like Self Publish, Be Happy (Self Publish, Be Happy 2020).

References

AMERICAN SUBURB X. 2020. ‘AMERICAN SUBURB X – Since 2008, an Epicenter for Photography, Art and Culture’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

APERTURE. 2020. ‘Aperture’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY. 2020. ‘Black+White Photography – Cool, Creative and Contemporary’. Black+White Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.blackandwhitephotographymag.co.uk/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2020. ‘British Journal of Photography – The Latest Photography News and Features, since 1854.’ British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

CALVINO, Italo. 1997. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage.

COVERLEY, Merlin. 2010. Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

DICKENS, Charles. 2010. Night Walks. London: Penguin.

HIBBERT, Christopher and Edward HIBBERT. 1988. The Encyclopaedia of Oxford. London: Macmillan.

LINKEDIN LEARNING. 2020. ‘LinkedIn Learning: Online Courses for Creative, Technology, Business Skills’. LinkedIn Learning [online]. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/learning [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos – A Photographic Cooperative of Great Diversity and Distinction Owned by Its Photographer Members’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY. 2020. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: http://selfpublishbehappy.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SINCLAIR, Iain. 2003. London Orbital : A Walk around the M25. London: Penguin.

VICE. 2020. ‘Photos – VICE’. VICE [online]. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/topic/photos [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PHO703: Where to Now?

I am looking forward to finding out about the next module, but in the meantime I have a few little jobs to keep me busy during the holidays …

A Book Dummy

Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have covered my progress so far in a previous post.

Black and White

I will continue to look for accomplished photographers who use black and white and with whose approach I ‘click’. Learning how to ‘see’ or visualise a potential image in black and white before pressing the shutter of my camera will take time to master.

My Project

I plan to continue with some photography walks through the holidays. I need to keep up the connection and nurture the threads of my thinking, and to take advantage of a still relatively quiet city especially at night. That may well change (or not) if the two universities here restart full student and academic activities in late September and October.

PHO703: Adams and Curation

The photographer Robert Adams has some very good words about curation and editing. These are important, partly because I am coming up to submitting my portfolio of work for the module and partly because I am embarking on the preparation of a proper book dummy for my project which will require really careful curation.

First:

‘But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule.

‘And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard.

‘It’s the same struggle that Flannery O’Connor said a writer faces: “The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny”’ (Wolf 2019).

And second:

‘I think photography is editing, start to finish, editing life, selecting part of it to stand for the whole. The process starts, obviously, with what you choose to include in the finder when you make the exposure. It continues as you study the contact sheets or thumbnails in order to decide which to enlarge. It goes on, sometimes for years, as you try to determine which enlargements are successful. Dorothea Lange, one of my heroes, used to ask herself, sotto voce, “Is it a picture? Is it a picture?” Most photographers are like that, confident one day and unsure the next. And then there is the long search for which pictures may strengthen each other, and in what relationships. That final step usually involves for us laying out all the conceivably appropriate pictures for a book in a line, in a roughly plausible sequence, after which we make a stack of the pictures in that order and go through it to see how they might work as singles or doubles on a spread. Those two steps are then repeated over and over again’ (Chang 2009).

I like the idea that good curation is ‘editing life’ and that the photographer (or artist) must stand back and judge their work ‘with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny’. These are important reminders.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

WOLF, Sasha. 2019. ‘From Robert Adams to Rinko Kawauchi: How Photographers Work’. Financial Times, 04 Oct [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/4f15e162-e4a5-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc [accessed 02 Aug 2020].

PHO703: Robert Adams and James Nachtwey

Two other points arise from a look at Robert Adams – see my earlier post. The first is his attention to framing and composition.

‘The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. … But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit – so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. … But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last’ (ART21 2020).

Involved in this is careful attention to detail, but for a purpose and not simply because something happens to catch the photographer’s eye in a meretricious way: ‘By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it is conveyed by artists is through attention to form’ (ART21 2020).

Careful framing is a constant battle in my experience and is often more difficult at night when one often cannot really see everything in the viewfinder.

The second point is that problematic word, beauty. Adams is very open about being in pursuit of it: ‘Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty’ (ART21 2020).

However, I think it is more productive for me to consider this not in terms only of ‘beauty’, whatever that may be, but in terms of the tension between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion. Many if not all artists must struggle with this. It has been very well expressed by the documentary photographer James Nachtwey: ‘I don’t think that in my pictures the beauty overcomes the tragedy. It sometimes envelopes it and makes it more poignant. It makes it more accessible. The paradox of the co-existence of beauty and tragedy has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages. Photography is no exception’ (Caponigro 2000).

How does this relate to my practice? First, it has made me appreciate that I have not been paying enough attention to detail and particularly not to the extent that a carefully selected detail can reveal much more about an overall story than one may think.

Second, that the interplay between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion, creates tension and is particularly relevant when photographing at night. One can choose almost any pair of opposites and the tension between them will be there. Good images require tension. So in my walks along the Thames this summer, the tranquil and the uncanny and sometimes the quite menacing have all arisen. And they have arisen, too, in the contrast between quiet suburban streets or peaceful old houses and brash and anonymous new shopping centres or run-down, inner city deprivation. So the tension between these elements is also something I need to pay more attention to, both in individual images and in the sequencing of an overall portfolio.

Finally, Adams and Nachtwey agree at one point: much of photography is all about collaboration, and to the extent that we carry all that has gone before us we are also all re-photographers.

Adams: ‘Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community’ (Adams and Byrne 1994).

Nachtwey: ‘I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I’m photographing – not the other way around. I’m not trying to make statements about photography. I’m trying to use photography to make statements about what’s happening in the world’ (Caponigro 2000).

So it’s not all about me, and it never was. Thank heavens. What a release.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture, 13.

ART21. 2020. ‘Photography, Life, and Beauty: Robert Adams’. Art21 [online]. Available at: https://art21.org/read/robert-adams-photography-life-and-beauty/ [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2000. ‘An Interview with James Nachtwey’. John Paul Caponigro [online]. Available at: https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/james-nachtwey/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].

PHO703: Robert Adams

I looked at the work of Robert Adams in the first module but that was only briefly, in connection with the New Topographics movement, and in any case I did not yet have the understanding to appreciate what he was trying to do.

A second, more careful look suggests that Robert Adams is a considerable influence on my work, even if I haven’t fully appreciated it. I well remember studying Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986) ten months ago, and something about those images has undoubtedly remained with me. I would guess this is the quality for which Adams has often been praised: the deceptive simplicity of his images – they are far deeper than they first appear to be. They do not just show the American landscape. They show the story of what has happened to it, but in a way that encourages the viewer to discover it for themselves. There is no striving here for the shock and awe of the American sublime (which the New Topographics movement was a reaction against anyway). Adams is nuanced and never insistent.

Robert Adams Summer Nights Walking
Fig.1: Robert Adams 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking.

The work I have been looking at recently is mostly from Summer Nights, Walking (Adams 2009). The apparent intent was lyrical: ‘My original goal was mainly to document some of the evening peace and mystery that I remember as a child, those dusks when the lightning bugs came out’ (Chang 2009). But Adams then quickly adds, ‘I should have been suspicious … .’ In reality Adams found only glimpses of his childhood. In the interim, the streets of his childhood had become so unsafe that he was obliged to hire a bodyguard to accompany him on his photography walks (Chang 2009), and the fireflies and wildlife had disappeared under new suburban sprawl.

The upshot is that the deceptive simplicity of clapperboard houses from 50 years ago is often accompanied by a sense of menace. The shadows and the beauty combine with the sinister. Doug Rickard expressed it well in a review of Summer Nights, Walking: ‘Robert Adams refers to a William Blake prayer that deftly describes this paradox …  “The splendor of the Creation but also the reality of the Wolf and the Lion.”’ (Rickard 2010). Another reviewer found similar qualities: ‘There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson’ (Bareman 2014).

And, I suppose, by me. I am also photographing change stalked by the wolf and the lion. Everything about the streets here changed during the pandemic, even if only for a while. Oxford is all about change. The old city centre of 1001 tourist images is quickly changing as new modern buildings go up to house the university students of the future. The city limits are changing under a wave of new building. The suburbs are changing as inequality continues its relentless march and more and more people are pushed into the margins, into degraded housing or into homelessness. I first saw Oxford as a child, but like Adams in Summer Nights, Walking those far-off childhood memories are not the current reality. The point, however, is not to mourn this but to use it as a source of tension in my images, while remembering that nuance works and insistent doesn’t.

There are a couple of other points about Robert Adams that interest me, but for the sake of brevity I will cover them in separate posts.

References

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

ADAMS, Robert. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

BAREMAN, Karen. 2014. ‘Summer Nights, Walking – A Personal Understanding of Robert Adams’ Seminal Work’. Visual Resonances [online]. Available at: https://www.visualresonances.com/book-reviews/summer-nights-walking-a-personal-understanding-of-robert-adams-seminal-work/ [accessed 1 Aug 2020].

RICKARD, Doug. 2010. ‘Robert Adams – “Summer Nights Walking” (2009)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/04/robert-adams-summer-nights-walking-2009.html [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Robert ADAMS. 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking. From: Robert Adams. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

PHO703: The Sublime

I have been looking at Simon Morley’s The Sublime (Morley 2010). This is relevant to my practice first because the uncanny (an important element in night photography) can be seen as an aspect of the sublime, and second because there is the sublime around in Oxford – some big views and vistas of the Thames, streets and squares full of large medieval buildings in seemingly perfect arrangements, and slightly sinister and uncanny areas when darkness falls.

Morley begins by laying down a baseline definition of the sublime:

‘The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, likes beyond the human – God or gods, the daemon or Nature – is a matter for great disagreement. Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence 1976′ (Morley 2010: 12).

Morley suggests that the sublime experience is the moment reason and certainties crumble. ‘The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative. … Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’ (Morley 2010: 12). Morley’s divides the sublime into four different kinds, each one stemming from the ideas of Longinus, Burke, Kant or Schiller. This is not the place to engage in a long intellectual discussion, but the essential point I am trying to take away from this is that the sublime is an experience and it always involves coming up against limits – the limits of nature or self, beyond which lies the unknown. Reaching these limits is unsettling and the unknown beyond them may evoke feelings that range from awestruck to terrifying.

The question, however, is what these ideas mean in practice and how may they affect me photographically. It is not hard to find the sublime in the history of art, in for example the awe and exultation often associated with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or in the mighty new industrial age of Lang’s Metropolis. Or, of course, in much of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams in which the Rückenfigur is first the photographer and then the viewer.

Photographically, there are many ways of expressing these ideas today. The sublime of the photographic seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto can be compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and both can be compared to the paintings of Barnett Newman who announced in 1948 that the ‘Sublime is Now … We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions’ (Morley 2010: 25-7).

While for another project I would love to produce something akin to Sugimoto’s seascapes, my walks along the Thames on summer evenings this year have produced something quite different. I have felt a more Burkean sublime, an experience, based in nature and shot through with pastoral and melancholy. Oxford is much about preserving the past – one thinks of Lewis Carroll or Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – but of course that past is gone and the truth is that much of it was always a sentimental fiction. All I can do is photograph what I see before me and try to bring out something of its complex mixture of sublime, pastoral, elegiac, modern and sometimes disturbing.

Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From Silent City.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime. Three Men in a Boat? The reality is more likely an offer of illegal substances from shadows on the towpath. From Silent City.

Two aspects of the sublime easier for me to express are the uncanny and the modern sublime of the contemporary world of bright lights, grands projets, huge structures and high technology, a world all about power.

The uncanny is that unsettling feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity that can arise when we come up against a kind of limit and perhaps long-forgotten childhood memories surface and are re-experienced through now-adult eyes. The modern locus of this is Freud (Freud et al. 2003) and sometimes the surrealists and I covered it in the previous module.

Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From Silent City.

The modern sublime is something all around us, at a time when the valuation of Apple Corp is greater than the GDP of Russia. It is in William Klein’s Atom Bomb Sky, New York of 1955 or Nadav Kander’s images of vast new building projects along the Yangtze in China (Kander 2010). Oxford has little of this, being mostly an old and suburban place. There are one or two views of exalted and powerful places and I covered some of them this summer (see figures 3 and 4).

Fig . 2: Mark Crean 2020. From Silent City.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From Silent City.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From Silent City.

The sublime is a very interesting story and is definitely something I need to study more and bring into my images. It offers another source of tension and ambiguity, and I need that in my images – the tension, for example, between what the modern world promises and the sometimes dispiriting and exploitative results the modern world can produce. That too is part of the story.

References

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.

KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford.  From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.

PHO703: Michael Kenna

In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.

What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:

First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.

Michael Kenna 1995. The Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 1: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.

Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:

‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).

Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.

‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).

This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.

Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).

‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).

Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:

‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).

This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.

Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna n.d. France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France.

I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.

References

BASKERVILLE, Tim. 1995. ‘Interview with Michael Kenna’. The Nocturnes [online]. Available at: http://www.thenocturnes.com/resources/kenna.html [accessed 28 Jul 2020]

KENNA, Michael. 2020. ‘Michael Kenna’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/index2.php [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

KENNA, Michael. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.

LIGHT & LAND. 2019. ‘Michael Kenna Interview: Curiosity Is Important’. Light & Land [online]. Available at: https://www.lightandland.co.uk/blog/view/michael-kenna-interview [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

McELHEARN, Kirk. 2019. ‘The Semiotics of Black and White Photographs’. Kirkville [online]. Available at: https://kirkville.com/the-semiotics-of-black-and-white-photographs/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

SAWALICH, William. 2011. ‘Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory’. Digital Photo Pro [online]. Available at: https://www.digitalphotopro.com/profiles/michael-kenna-the-photograph-as-sense-memory/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]

Figures

Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]

 

PHO703 Week 9: Workshops

One of the tasks of this module has been to prepare a workshop or similar event connected with one’s research project. My contribution takes the form of a group photowalk in Oxford after dark on the evening of day one followed the next day by a round-table discussion and presentation of work on a platform like Zoom. I would market this on places like Meetup, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Daily Info (Oxford’s popular listings site). Ticketing could be taken care of on Eventbrite.

I have prepared a pdf with descriptions and details of the kind I would give to participants here: Crean-Oxford-Photowalk

Lockdown means this is not going to happen for a few months. However, it has been a useful and enjoyable lesson. The points that have emerged are these:

    • Know your audience
    • Become familiar the technology you will need for the job
    • Research and thorough planning are key to a smooth event
    • Understand and control your costs

It is important to have an audience in mind and to have a good idea of what that audience wants and is capable of. In my case I have done photowalks a few times before, so I know that many participants will want the opportunity to photograph some of Oxford’s historic university buildings, receive a little instruction, and network around conversation with other participants in a good pub. Some will be knowledgeable photographers with good cameras but a fair number won’t be and may come with only their smartphones.

So my proposed route is tailored to what my audience wants, not to what I may want. In that sense it is commercial and a little touristic, but if I want the business I must know my audience. I might want to slip off to remoter or more edgy areas in search of tourism-free images, but most of my audience are not there for that – and there is nothing wrong with their preferences.

Second, it is important to be familiar with current technology. My route can be plotted in surprising detail on Google Maps and the URL for a fully annotated map can be given to every participant (Crean 2020). The URL for the Google map I have prepared is here. They will have the route, the points of interest and the walking directions all on their smartphone. The next day, the round-table discussion, calls for knowledge of conferencing software like Zoom. We are now entering an era where online learning and discussion will become much more predominant, and if I want to serve an audience I cannot afford not to know about these things.

Map 2020-07-28-2
Fig 1: Mark Crean 2020. An annotated Google Map of a proposed photowalk after dark in Oxford. If downloaded to a smartphone, much more detail becomes available including descriptions of what to photograph at each stopping point.

Third, and almost always, it is important to plan carefully and think things through. On any photowalk and especially after dark there are many things to consider. Safety is paramount and needs to be flagged up to everyone. Participant contact details are essential if people are late or get lost and there are plenty of items of kit to remind people to bring with them, if only a rainproof coat, spare batteries and a torch.

Fourth is cost. Does this idea make sense financially? A photowalk and online discussion of the kind I have planned does incur costs and if these are not passed on it must be run at a loss. And in any case, what will the market bear and what do I think my time is worth (always a challenging question)? In this case I think I would price a ‘ticket’ at £15-20 per head, on the basis of a maximum of 8-10 participants (too many participants is a turn-off). There may always be others who offer similar ideas for free, but my plan is to offer something in exchange for something. I am a knowledge worker offering expertise. Besides, the basic psychology is that if someone buys a ticket, they then think it is an event worth going to and they are much more likely to turn up.

References

CREAN, Mark. 2020. ‘Oxford: A Walk After Dark’. Google My Maps [online]. Available at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1qnSGOKbbjtgfukI_jjYo45u67inTjqyK&usp=sharing [accessed 26 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. An annotated Google Map of a proposed photowalk after dark in Oxford. If downloaded to a smartphone, much more detail becomes available including descriptions of what to photograph at each stopping point. From: Google My Maps [online]. Available at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1qnSGOKbbjtgfukI_jjYo45u67inTjqyK&usp=sharing [accessed 26 Jul 2020].

PHO703: Matt Black

Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.

Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.

Fig. 2: Matt Black 2015. El Paso, Texas.
Fig. 1: Matt Black 2015. El Paso, Texas.

Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.

Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,

‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).

Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:

‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).

This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,

‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open.  … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).

This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important

What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Clarity.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
To tell a truth as simply as possible.
(Behrmann 2020)

Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.

Fig. 1: Matt Black 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.
Fig. 2: Matt Black 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.

References

ALEXIA FOUNDATION. 2012. ‘Interview with Matt Black’. Alexia Foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.alexiafoundation.org/blog/2012/10/09/interview-with-matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].

BEHRMANN, Kai. 2020. ‘Matt Black: “Let The Pictures Come To You”’. The Art of Creative Photography [online]. Available at: https://artofcreativephotography.com/professionalphotojournalists/let-the-pictures-come-to-you-matt-black/ [accessed 21 Jul 2020].

BLACK, Matt. 2020. ‘Matt Black’. Matt Black [online]. Available at: https://www.mattblack.com/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘Matt Black’s “Moral” Photography of America’s Sprawling Poverty’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/matt-blacks-moral-photography-of-americas-sprawling-poverty/ [accessed 20 Jul 2020].

GENOVA, Alexandra. 2018. ‘The Geography of Poverty in America: Matt Black’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/poverty-and-mythologies-in-america/ [accessed 17 Jul 2020].

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].

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

Figures

Figure 1. Matt BLACK. 2015. El Paso, Texas. From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].
Figure 2. Matt BLACK. 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.  From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].