PHO702 Week 9: Enter the Academy

The reflective task for this week is to Identify and research a real-life group exhibition that my work might fit into, establish its intent and discuss it.

I will choose the ‘London Nights’ exhibition held by the Museum of London in 2018 as an exhibition that my own work would fit well into – though clearly I would have to travel down and make some photographs of London first! I have been doing just that for many years anyway, in fact, though not for my degree course. My project is on urban night photography and that was the subject of this successful and wide-ranging exhibition which surveyed the field from Paul Martin to Bill Brandt to contemporary practitioners like Rut Blees Luxemburg. (Sparham 2017)

In the book of the exhibition Anna Sparham, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of London, makes several points relevant both to the exhibition and to my practice. (Sparham 2018) I would say that the intent of the exhibition was to show not only the history of night photography but also to show what is distinct about it, how it reflects changing times and cultures, and also how night photography is well suited to portraying the restless energy, rush, mysteriousness and alienating strangeness of any great modern city though in this case specifically London. Sparham writes:

‘The notion of the night is, after all, where the imagination has always run wild.’ (Introduction)

‘The concept of night photography is best explored through images that stand distinct in appearance to daylight.’  (Introduction)

‘The unsettling sense of change or loss can be intensified at night, when limited light adds to the drama and tension.’ (78)

‘Fear, threat and suspicion often lead the imagination to blend with reality.’ (86)

Sparham goes on to note that ‘voyeurism, privacy and surveillance’ are all issues with urban night photography and are becoming more so.

To unpack these remarks a little (the images that follow are not from the exhibition):

Night photograph has to be approached as something quite distinct. It is not simply photography without daylight and won’t produce successful images if treated as such. Brassaï’s spooky deserted streets are highly atmospheric at night but during the day are just another bland boulevard.

Brassai_Avenue-de-lObservatoire-in-the-Fog-1933
Fig. 1. BRASSAÏ, 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire. Light and shadow, weather, point of view and the headlights of a car are all used to distinguish this scene from the unremarkable urban space it might be during the day.

Sparham points out that images made at night need to capture ‘an aesthetic and characteristic distinct from the diurnal’. (Sparham 2018: 125) Blees Luxembourg always comes to mind as a practitioner successful in this aspect and she is certainly an influence. However, so is David George. Blees Luxemburg is adept at photographing the city at night, but to my eye George has the surer sense of place and is more clearly photographing London at night. (George 2020) A sense of place is an issue here. I am photographing Oxford at night, not Leamington Spa.

GEORGE, David. 2015. Hackney at Night.
Fig. 2. GEORGE, David. 2015. Hackney at Night. George’s images of East London at night are notable to me for their strong sense of place.

Night jumbles up our senses and primal instincts come to the fore. We are more alert to danger. This sense of disorientation is an essential ingredient of night photography and, when allied to the uncertain and the deserted, produces a sensation of the uncanny. Almost all the practitioners I am mentioning – Brassaï, Brandt, Hido, Blees Luxemburg, George – are accomplished at this. It is one of the most important things I need to learn.

Good images require tension. Aesthetics alone, in the sense of beauty, colour, light, are not enough. The search for tension is perhaps why Brandt used his wife as a stand-in for a pedestrian or even a lonely streetwalker in some of his night photography, and of course Brassaï went for the real thing. In addition, tension creates a story. The moment there is tension we start to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘What happened?’ This is clearly an important ingredient for some practitioners. For example, it could be argued that the only difference between an arranged tableau by Gregory Crewdson and an image by Todd Hido is that Crewdson has introduced a character and set up a story. The other qualities – the low light, the dodgy suburban buildings, the feeling of alienation – are very similar.

gregory-crewdson-untitled-2001
Fig. 3. CREWDSON, Gregory. 2001. Untitled. A very similar suburban atmosphere to some of the practice of Todd Hido, but with characters added in an arranged tableau to create a story.

Night photography reflects the time, culture, ethics and so on of where it is made. Thus surveillance, for example, has become a pressing contemporary issue. It has become so partly from a climate of fear, and partly from the increasing encroachment of private capital in public spaces. What used to be open or merely neglected is often now fenced off, surveyed by CCTV and patrolled by private security companies. Unless one wishes to live in a bubble, these things are now part of the night and should therefore be noted. This marks a move away from the more aesthetic ‘beautiful mysterious’ of Eggleston or Shore forty or so years ago. A comparison here would be with Mark Power’s ongoing study Good Morning America. (Power 2020) Many of the images in that have very sharp social edges.

How would my work fit into the above and what might a reviewer say? I hope a reviewer would say that my work portrays Oxford in the way that David George portrays East London or Todd Hido portrays suburban America, though in my case sometimes with a sharper social bite. Perhaps they would also say that while my practice is clearly in this tradition, it is not unique enough to be truly distinctive.

So, finding my own voice within this long tradition emerges as my number one priority.

GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 02 Apr 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 02 Apr 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna. 2017. ‘London Nights Exhibition Opens at The Museum of London 2018 – YouTube’. [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5lOoizXyLE [accessed 02 Apr 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna and Inua ELLAMS. 2018. London Nights. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

PHO702 Week 7: Vision 2020

Vision 2020 at Falmouth was above all fun, informative and enjoyable. I really liked the theme of sustainability and climate change because the presentations showed me how much I don’t know about the world today and the outlook of those who in a few years will be running it.

Standouts: the workshops on studio lighting, medium format photography, speedlights and preparation for print. The first two were entirely new subjects for me and both were fascinating. I particularly liked the way medium format imposes its own slower and more considered approach to making photographs.

Zed Nelson’s film The Street was a definite high point. (Nelson 2019) I have walked that street in Hoxton countless times and never noticed the half of it. This is a great example of the power of in-depth research and it also raises a point about hyper-realism: the extent to which stills and film show us what is really there but usually hidden by our own inattention and the flow of time. The Street is a fine example of visual storytelling with so many lives woven in and out of the film. And these lives raised so many ‘what if’ questions: what if the developers had left the street alone, where is he moving to, will the pie and mash shop survive, what if Colleen had married her beau all those years ago? An image is only a fleeting slice of time but as the film showed, in reality that time stretches back seven or eight decades in the memory of some. To them that time is real and in its many interviews with the street’s residents the film brought that time to life.

The Street is also a story about the often confusing and brutal realities of change in modern Britain with its unequal power dynamics. This has encouraged me to reflect on the degree to which I too am involved in a project which will tell a story whether I like it or not. Therefore it is up to me to identify the story I am in fact telling, analyse it and identify its key elements. So, a bitter-sweet and compelling work that is helpful for my practice.

I was deeply impressed by the quality of the work and enormous care that had gone into each of the FMJ presentations. And I really appreciated the longer presentations by Toby Smith on ‘Visualising Climate Change’ and also Jo Coombes’ work on the Adgreen agency. Both struck me as great examples of how to build a career (or photographic practice) ethically, intelligently and with purpose. The do’s and don’t of marketing one’s work effectively were helpful in both cases – something else I need to know a lot more about.

Penryn is a lovely campus. The welcome was warm. The thought and preparation that had gone into Vision 2020 were awesome. I am very grateful and hope to visit again next year. It’s too good to miss!

NELSON, Zed. 2019. The Street [Film]. London: Verve Pictures

PHO702 Week 6: Work in Progress

The topics in Week 6 have led me to think about the importance of context and decoding in my practice, the kind of power dynamics that may be going on in it, and how my work may be received by others – my audience.

Well, I could start by saying that I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class male – all true but also an invitation to self-castigation. All I can do is try to be as aware as possible of the influences that have formed me.

Context and decoding mean that I need to think carefully about what I am looking at before I press the shutter. I need to ask myself ‘What is really going on here?’ Otherwise, the danger is that I will end up photographing surfaces – shiny and alluring no doubt – but miss the dynamics of what lies beneath them.

Power dynamics lead straight to ethics. As a photographer I have a fair degree of control. I can choose when I press the shutter but my subjects cannot choose when or how they are photographed. I need to be aware of that and not objectify people or places.

The wider context of my work is that for the moment at least I am following in the footsteps of practitioners such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power. This is all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, expressing the uncanny, not glossing over difficult social realities and power imbalances, and not privileging any particular thing over another. Everything is potentially material for my lens. In the words of Stephen Shore, ‘To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photograph is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.’ (O’Hagan 2015)

This feeds into thoughts about the audience for my work. These are photographers known for their books and so my intent is for a book in same tradition. A question to resolve is how to tell a story in such a book because a book tells a story whether one wants it to or not. Story-teling is very much a work in progress for me.

There are, however, many different kinds of book. This week has helped me to think about that. I do plan a fairly conventional photography book but looking at the practice of Dyanita Singh has led me to think that in addition I could produce many variant ‘books’. (Singh 2020). A ‘book’ can also be a box, a frame or a concertina containing cards not pages. Dyanita Singh, for example, offers her images in sets of many different formats.

SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. Pothi Box.
Fig.1.SINGH, Dyanita 2018. ‘The Pothi Box, an unbound book of 30 image cards held together in a wooden structure. It is meant to be hung on a wall or placed as an object on a table. The structure has been built to allow the collector to change the front image as often as they like. The image cards, however, exist as a set of 30 and are not meant to be separated from each other or the box.’ (Singh 2020)

Now, my work in progress this week. The first two slides contain material from Richard Misrach and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, text and images. This is the intent I tried to keep in my mind as I went out to photograph.

Richard Misrach Georgui Pinkhassov
Fig. 2. Richard Misrach and Georgui Pinkhassov

Richard Misrach Georgui Pinkhassov
Fig. 3. Richard Misrach and Georgui Pinkhassov

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 9. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 10. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 12. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 13. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

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

PINKHASSOV, Gueorguy. 1998. Sightwalk. London: Phaidon.

PINKHASSOV, Gueorgui. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification – Magnum Photos’. [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gueorgui-pinkhassov-sophistication-simplification/ [accessed 6 Mar 2020].

SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. ‘Dayanita Singh’. [online]. Available at http://dayanitasingh.net/ [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

PHO702 Week 6: A Sea of Images

Two things in particular stood out for me this week. First is the degree to which our images put out a view of the world – an ideology, in fact – whether we are aware of it or not. And second, that in a largely visual culture now almost drowning in images, it is easy to forget that what we may take to be real, solid, permanent very often isn’t at all. What is required here is what Andy Grundberg identified in his review of the 1988 exhibition ‘Odyssey: the Art of Photography at National Geographic’ (Grundberg 1998): ‘Rather than approach the Geographic archive as a resource that required decoding and a context, they apparently settled for connoisseurship. … what is required is a critical point of view.’ (Grundberg 1998).

So what arises is the question of objectification in images, intentional or otherwise. While this was certainly the case in the long-gone glory days of National Geographic and its coverage of tribal cultures around the world, in fairness National Geographic never claimed to offer more than ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. Like Life magazine, National Geographic was a very successful piece of popular culture, and perhaps it still is though much of its output is now online. National Geographic offered a window on the world to many people who had no other and it also offered a host of science-based articles on animal behaviour, biology, archaeology and so on. It is easy to be overly critical of the National Geographic approach. In the magazine’s heyday, many of its readers would have been aware of a very different reality – war, famine and chaos – around the world offered to them nightly on TV news, so perhaps they saw through the dream too but enjoyed it all the same.

Nevertheless, the need for contextualization and decoding remains and is important. (They are, to begin with, a foundational approach to dealing with advertising.) Examples are the objects of popular culture decoded with striking insight by Roland Barthes in Mythologies. (Barthes 2009) This approach has been wittily updated by Peter Conrad in his BBC Radio 4 series 21st Century Mythologies (Conrad 2014). The upshot is that is it easy to see the surface and miss the deeper picture, whether it is the story and power dynamics behind the Nando’s Chicken franchise or the Shard (Conrad) or behind wrestling spectacles or steak frites (Barthes). Many practitioners do try to contextualize their work, too. Stephen Shore has talked widely about his practice (Shaw 2018), as has Richard Misrach (Harris 2015). The essays and reviews of Robert Adams can all be read as contextualizations of his landscape practice (Adams 1981) which then emerges in bodies of work such as Los Angeles Spring. (Adams 1986)

However, the message of the week is that the sheer number of images in our world makes contextualization and decoding both harder and more important than it used to be. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 79). In Simulcra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggested that the modern world’s multiplication of signs, symbols and images leads us to take representations for reality, or even representations of representations for reality. (Baudrillard 1994) Baudrillard went on to say that ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland … The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.’ (Baudrillard 1994: 12-13) – statements that have stuck because, I suspect, they are both absurd and strangely true at the same time.

A final point. Images can also show us what we cannot normally see, often because something happens too quickly for our ordinary vision. In this regard images can heighten our reality – the hyper-real. This is a problem in the Baudrillardian sense because we can only actually see a representation of what happened – for example, a bullet passing through an object in a millisecond. However, this is also a source of art and freedom. At their best, images which catch these things freeze a moment from the flow of time and offer it to us as something that was there – a fleeting combination of elements – but which normally we simply would not notice. An example is this tableau by Alex Webb, a moment when everything came together, then fell apart. (Webb 2020)

WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti
WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti.

I shall be covering my work in progress and how this week’s idea impact it in a following post.

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

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

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

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

CONRAD, Peter. 2014. 21st Century Mythologies. [radio broadcast]. BBC Radio 4, 2014.

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1998. ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html?pagewanted=all [accessed 04 Mar 2020]

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

WEBB, Alex. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. 2020 [online]. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H [accessed 25 Mar 2020].

PHO702 Week 5: Work in Progress

The topic this week was the Gaze. I went out with the gaze of William Eggleston as my intent, or at least that of the ‘Beautiful Mysterious’ which is the title of a recent book on his practice (Adabie 2019)

First, here are four images by Eggleston that I tried to keep in mind as my intent, followed by some of my own work in progress. The idea is that nothing before my lens is favoured, but nothing is rejected either. I am looking for the special in the ordinary.

EGGLESTON, William. 1970-5. 'The Beautiful Mysterious'.
Fig. 1. EGGLESTON, William. 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 2. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5 CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 9. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

Fig. 10. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 12. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

 

ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze and My Practice

In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:

‘ … all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal.’ (Harris 2015)

Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.

To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.

I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.

First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig,1. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.

For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.

CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 2. CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night.

Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:

First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 4. CREAN, Mark. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.

I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 5. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.

There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6. CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.

So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.

ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3). [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html. [accessed 25 February 2020].

PHO702 Week 2: Work in Progress

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.

Blavatnik School of Government. 2020. ‘Our Building’. [online]. Available at: https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/our-building [accessed 14 Feb 2020].

CREAN, M. 2020. Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

PHO702: Human Choices and My Practice

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.

CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford
Figure 1: CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.

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:

STRUTH, T. 1995. Jiangha Lu, Wuchan
Figure 2: STRUTH, T. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan.

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:

CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford
Figure 3: CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.

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.

CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford
Figure 4: CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford.

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.

HIDO, T. 2001. From House Hunting.
Figure 5: HIDO, T. 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting.

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:

CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford
Figure 6: CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. ‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
  3. 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.

  1. The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)

References

BEZZOLA, Tobia. 2019. Vanishing Point: Thomas Struth. [Photo London Fair interview]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbzm9dGYiUE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=5&t=12s [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Bloomberg TV. 2017. Thomas Struth: A Life in Photography [Brilliant Ideas Ep. 51]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoOP6DSY3O4 [accessed 20 Jan 2020].

CHRISTIE’S. 2017. Todd Hido: Studio Visit [Christie’s documentary]. Available at: http://www.christies.com/features/Todd-Hido-Studio-Visit-8191-3.aspx [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night [work in progress portfolio]. Available at: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/oxford-at-night [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

HIDO, Todd. 2016. Todd Hido – Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.

HIDO, Todd and Greg HALPERN. 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

HODGSON, Francis. 2011. Thomas Struth: An Objective Photographer? [Financial Times review]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/video/634f1212-a5ba-3859-a61c-618d87ed6e9a [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. How to See: the Photographer with Stephen Shore [MOMA documentary]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SHORE, Stephen, David CAMPANY, Marta Dahó, Sandra S. Phillips and Horacio Fernández. 2014. Stephen Shore: Survey. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

STRUTH, Thomas, Anette KRUSZYNSKI, Tobia BEZZOLA and James LINGWOOD. 2010. Thomas Struth : Photographs 1978-2010. Mosel: Schirmer.

STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.

TRACHTENBERG, Alan. 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, Conn: Leete’s Island Books.

VAN VLIET, Masha. 2018. In Conversation with … Todd Hido: Bright Black World [REFLEX Amsterdam documentary]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGxQ71WXxNk [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Figures

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.

The Owned Landscape

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.

J. M. W. Turner (1810): The High Street, Oxford. A traditional image of chaps in gowns and stately learning – but the Oxford reality is a sprawling modern city with some severe social problems.

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

Brouws, J. 2019. Jeff Brouws. [Online] Available at http://www.jeffbrouws.com/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Campany, D. and Hido, T. (2016). Intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album. New York: Aperture

Nottsartshistory. 2014. And now it’s dark: the American dream and suburban cultural landscapes in Jeff Brouws’ photography. [Online]. Available at https://nottsarthistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/and-now-its-dark-the-american-dream-and-suburban-cultural-landscapes-in-jeff-brouws-photography/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Shore, S. 2019. Stephen Shore. [Online] Available at http://stephenshore.net/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Wikipedia. 2019. New topographics. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Topographics. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Mark Crean (16 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (15 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (17 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development