While we are still in lockdown I have been experimenting with an online 3D exhibition using a system developed by Kunstmatrix in Germany (Kunstmatrix 2021). They call it ‘Augmented Reality’.
This is an experiment, so in order to become familiar with their system I have assembled some images from my previous main project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark (Crean 2021). The virtual gallery space and setting it up works quite well but as always with these matters the key is publicity and getting people in through the virtual ‘door’. I will try various methods over the next few weeks and monitor the results. If they are favourable, then I will know that I have a potential outlet for my Final Major Project.
Below is an embedded version of the exhibition. Click on it to be taken to the full site. You can wander round using a mouse (or finger) or the arrow keys on your keyboard, but in practice I have found that taking the guided tour is likely the easiest way for a first visit.
Fig. 1: Mark Cean 2021. A virtual exhibition of Silent City using the Kunstmatrix 3D system.
The Kunstmatrix system looks to be in fairly early days. Plenty of other artists and organizations have mounted exhibitions on the platform but there are a few rough edges and the help files are brief. I would hope that the owners are encouraged by enough popularity to take their platform further. The pandemic has spurred much more interest in these possibilities while bricks-and-mortar spaces are off limits.
Keith Arnatt’s practice was recommended to me by my supervisor and by John Duncan, one of my portfolio reviewers.
Arnatt began as a conceptual artist. Usually, conceptual art is of little appeal to me because often it seems too contrived and emotionally dead. This is not the case with Arnatt, however. In the best of his work he was too playful, too creative and too challenging for that. Besides, it is hard not to warm to someone who compared a discussion of photography versus art to discussing sausages versus food and who wrote what he called a ‘Trouser-Word Piece’ with some highly pertinent questions originally asked by the philosopher John Austin:
‘a definite sense attaches to the assertion that something is real, a real such-and-such, only in the light of a specific way in which it might be, or might have been, not real. ‘A real duck’ differs from the simple ‘a duck’ only in that it is used to exclude various ways of not being a real duck. … It is this identity of general function combined with immense diversity in specific applications which gives to the word ‘real’ the, at first sight, baffling feature of having neither one single ‘meaning’, nor yet ambiguity, a number of different meanings’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 148)
These are questions that lie at the heart of all photography: it is indexical but at the same time it is only a representation, it appears ‘real’ but it is in fact an illusion on a sheet of paper, it suggests that something happened but offers no evidence, outside the photograph, that anything happened at all. Something in us wants photographs to be real, but they never are.
Arnatt brought to his practice not only a keen intelligence but a deep knowledge of art and painting and a love of philosophy. The first lesson here is that the more one can bring to an image, of knowledge and life, the richer it is likely to be. Simply clicking a shutter is not really enough. As David Hurn writes: ‘He drew on his art background all the time, clearly referencing the work of Samuel Palmer for Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) … all his ideas about art and photography come together in these pictures, which are to me about looking – about the difference between knowing something and seeing something’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 10).
The second lesson here is easily forgotten but always present. In Arnatt’s own words: ‘the ability of the camera to transform that which is photographed seems to me to be an eternal source of fascination. The fact that it does this just this. Going back to Miss Grace’s Lane again … the way that these materials become transformed, both by the light by which they are photographed and by the photographic process itself, just fascinated me’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 136).
Three or four of Arnatt’s various bodies of work overlap with my own project.
The first is A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) of 1982-84. This raises the questions, just as important today, of what we really mean by concepts such as beauty, landscape, countryside. The landscapes Arnatt found in alleged beauty spots are far from the countryside of our fond imaginings. Often they are scrappy and unkempt, litter-haunted, and already showing signs of urban encroachment and metropolitan alienation. In the same era, the New Topographics movement and Arnatt’s contemporary Fay Godwin were questioning our ideas about landscape and beauty in similar ways. What we mean by ‘landscape’ and ‘landscape photography’ are questions core to my own project.
In The Forest of Dean (1986) Arnatt took this further by showing ‘landscape’ as a working environment, although in rather soft, wash tones: our habitual tendency to see ’landscape’ as a pleasant vista blinds us to the reality of what actually happens there. Robert Adams has asked similar questions in much of his work albeit in a more pointed and even brutal way, as in his images of unsustainable clear-cut logging in the Pacific North West. This too overlaps with my project because any view of the landscape here involves showing unsustainable farming – agribusiness – and its consequences.
Arnatt’s interest in the camera’s ability to transform that which is photographed is best seen in two other bodies of work, Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) and Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-89). These are lushly colourful works, and democratic in the vein of Eggleston or Shore: everything is available to our lens; it is our preconceptions about what ‘should’ make a photograph that get in the way. However, the colour in these works is there for a reason. Arnatt brought his knowledge of painting to every image, in composition, in the sometimes golden light of English Romanticism and in painterly textures and arrangements that recall, quite deliberately, classic still life paintings by Old Masters.
This is the third lesson: that good photographs have layers of meaning and derive their energy from the interplay of depiction and connotation. What may be shown is often only a starting point, even a metaphor. The photograph references a much wider, richer world across time that both changes the meaning of the image and expands our understanding and appreciation of it. We are not just looking at a mouldy loaf of bread (see Fig. 3) but at the whole history of how these objects have been approached in Western art. This is something I have barely tried in my photography but I am now sure it would be richer if I did. The subject was well summed up by David Bate:
‘The old famous complaint by Walter Benjamin, that photographers were “incapable of photographing a tenement rubbish heap without making it look beautiful” is precisely what Keith takes up, not to reject Benjamin’s remarks, but to show – to show the viewer – that what you see depends on how it is photographed, that photography organises what it sees. As Martin Parr notes in a piece on Keith Arnatt, those pictures are simultaneously appealing and disgusting. A piece of mouldy bread looks exquisite, like a Turner landscape. This is a perfect paradox’ (Bate 2009).
This returns me to Hurn’s point above about ‘the difference between knowing something and seeing something’. It is the difference between pointing the camera at something half-thinking ‘well, that looks quite interesting’ and immersing oneself in a frame, becoming aware of its possibilities, giving it one’s full attention, before pressing the shutter. Perhaps this is the really important quality to take from Arnatt’s practice as a photographer.
ARNATT, Keith., David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
I went to several talks during the ADAPT’21 festival.
Julia Fullerton-Batten’s talk on her series of lockdown portraits in 2020, Looking Out From Within, was fascinating (Fullerton-Batten 2020). This style of performative photography is not really my thing but even so I admire it greatly. It is not only Fullerton-Batten’s formal and compositional expertise, and her allusions to classical paintings and portraiture, that I admire. It is also the complex process behind the scenes involving crews, lighting, props, make-up, logistics and much else.
This was a very valuable insight into the world of commercial photography (albeit repurposed during a pandemic). The actual taking of the image is the least of it in many ways. This was a lesson in the importance of careful planning, people management and, above all, collaboration. It was also a lesson in how to be bold. Do not hang back or fall prey to impostor syndrome but make your best effort to power ahead. In this respect, Fullerton-Batten emphasized that putting one’s work out there, in open calls and competitions, is very important (albeit with so many competitions available now she said that it pays to do one’s research and be selective).
Bruno Ceschel’s Keynote Address reminded me of the importance of keeping informed of contemporary practice particularly in the fields in which one is involved. In this regard, I have started to look at his series of presentations with photographers and critics, Contemporary Photography (Self Publish, Be Happy 2021), and catch up on its podcast equivalent, Gem Fletcher’s The Messy Truth (Fletcher 2021). Ceschel emphasized that photography books are changing: originality and ingenuity in both content and presentation far beyond the actual images themselves increasingly matters if a book is to succeed.
Ceschel pointed out that 2020 was hit by three successive waves: the pandemic, a social shift (social justice and racial equality movements) and a political shift (the struggle over authoritarian and xenophobic governance). He believes that the combination will change everything going forward. I hope he is right, but for my own practice the message is ‘stay open and adaptable and be prepared for changes’.
Thank you, Falmouth. I really appreciated ADAPT’21.
I participated in two portofolio reviews in Week 6 of this module. The first was with John Duncan. What emerged from his feedback is this:
I should look closely at Jem Southam’s TheRed River (Southam 1989), at Keith Arnatt’s Miss Grace’s Lane (Arnatt 2021) and at the practices of Willie Doherty (Doherty 2021) and John Gossage, particularly Gossage’s The Pond (Gossage 2010). I have subsequently started looking at these works and the suggestions are very helpful, particularly the practice of John Gossage and Arnatt’s use of Palmeresque lighting in Miss Grace’s Lane (there being no shortage of detritus to photograph here).
The writings of Jonathan Meades are an example of how ideas and themes can be put together imaginatively in order to explore a particular subject.
I need to think harder about distance in my images. Some can be too close in and some too wide and placing the results side by side can be disorientating.
Landscape can be seen as a metaphor for many different things, for example illness and archaeology, or politics and power. How much have I thought about that? John Duncan cited Helen Chadwick’s The Viral Landscape (Chadwick 2020) as an example.
I need to work harder to avoid the obvious and anything that could find a place in a typical advertisement. I need to be more aware of photographic clichés and well-worn tropes and stay away. Originality and working hard to make an image my unique vision of a subject is crucial.
It is important to know what other photographers and artists are currently doing in the same sphere and position one’s work accordingly. That is why keeping oneself informed of wider contemporary practice matters.
Installations quickly become dull if they only show a row of images all of the same size and mount. People are looking for more imaginative approaches these days.
Keep any initial pitch to a single short paragraph and make sure that you begin by summing up your project in a single sentence.
As always, I need to be more ruthless at culling my ‘darlings’ and reducing my edit to a tighter selection of images.
This was an extremely helpful experience with a lot of important ideas. The emphasis overall was that the best creative achievements are the result of very careful thought, a refusal to compromise with clichés, and very hard work. I am so grateful that John Duncan told it straight.
My second review two days later was with John Angerson. This too was a very valuable, relaxed experience. The points that emerged from this review are these:
I need to pull back a bit and show more context in my images.
I need to tidy up some of my images, meaning more care in composition and post processing.
Some images might benefit from using a higher viewpoint. Perhaps I should consider a portable stepladder? This strikes me as an excellent idea.
With a landscape project, involving people does not have to mean portraiture. For example, it could instead mean including old and interesting images from generations ago – for example, the grandparents or great-grandparents of those who work the land today and the implements of the time. This can add a whole other dimension to a project. Try to look beyond the rather obvious idea that ‘a few portraits might help’. I should look at the work of James Ravilious on rural life and farming from earlier decades (Ravilious 2021).
Photography books are changing. Books that consist only of photographs are rarely enough anymore. A book today needs layers. We all need to think much more widely about other things that can become part of a book as well about the physical format, design and materials of a book.
Collaboration can turn a stalled project around and make all the difference. Stay open to it.
Write down 5–6 things that really interest you but that have absolutely nothing to do with photography. Think carefully about why you are drawn to them. Then think carefully about what you photograph and where you photograph it. See if there are points in common. These may just be emotions or states of mind, but pay attention to them. With any project, one is always trying to reach the core idea at its heart but sometimes this can be difficult to express and bring to awareness. Exercises like this can help. John Angerson called it ‘mind mapping’ and suggested that when one’s core idea is finally in the open, then one will start to take images with a coherent personal vision.
Taken together, these two portfolio reviews were among the most useful, challenging and still enjoyable photography experiences I have had in a long time.
I much enjoyed Nathan Jurgenson’s Guest Lecture in Week 4 (Jurgenson 2021) and have gone on to buy and read his book, The Social Photo (Jurgenson 2019).
This has changed my understanding of photography and social media, much for the better. I now see what drives it: that the image can be regarded as a kind of emoji and the smartphone as an eye in our pocket. On social media, we communicate in a visual language of forms. We are in the world of signs and symbols. Mythologies (Barthes 2009) was prescient.
As Jurgenson points out, this is very different from a traditional arts-based appreciation of photography with its emphasis on rules and tradition. ‘As a visual discourse, social photos are a means to express feelings, ideas and experiences in the moment, a means sometimes more important than the specific ends of a particular image’ (Jurgenson 2019: 18).
I particularly liked Jurgenson’s coverage of the interplay between permanent and ephemeral in the social photo and his examination of the use of augmented reality (such as photo filters) to create a nostalgia for the present that reifies experience and thereby makes it shareable. We cannot simply say something: we first have to dress it in clothes of spurious significance. The slightly alarming consequence is that we have turned ourselves into tourists of our own experience. In documenting our lives we turn our experiences into consumer items, available one by one on our media streams.
Jurgenson’s attempts to justify this new online world in the middle part of the book fall flat, in my reading. He defends social media and the internet generally against critics who either fail to understand that online is also a form of ‘real’ life or whose criticism conceals an agenda of regulation to suit political or commercial interests. The problem here is that while it is hard to disagree with Jurgenson, his book has been overtaken by the events of 2020. These have shown very clearly that social media is a beast that needs to be tamed. Two examples: the alarming rise in generalized anxiety disorder among young people during the pandemic (Co-Space 2021) and the shocking attempt to overthrow the results of the US presidential election. Social media and its empire of lies have propelled both.
The latter part of The Social Photo is a welcome updating of the pioneering work on photography of Barthes and Sontag. Notable is Jurgenson’s evisceration of Silicon Valley’s Big Data movement, ‘This long-held positivist fantasy of the complete account of the universe that is always just around the corner’, which is cynically used as ‘a moral mandate for ever more intrusive data collection’ (Jurgenson 2019: 108).
The most interesting part of The Social Photo for my own practice is what Jurgenson has to say about truth and knowledge: ‘If the history of the medium were boiled down to a single debate, it would be the constant insecurity around the “truth” of a photograph’ (Jurgenson 2019: 95). Photography’s slippery relationship with truth leads us on to the gap between knowing and not knowing that the best photographs inhabit. Jurgenson points out that Barthes said of the punctum, ‘what I can name cannot really prick me’ (Jurgenson 2019: 99). Facts alone cannot describe reality. Documentation is never all it seems. Following Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard, Jurgenson points us to ‘the essential and productive tension between visibility and invisibility, what is known and what is not’, that every instance of knowledge ‘is also an instance of nonknowledge, its opposite, what is unknown. … Nonknowledge, then, is the seductive and magical aspect of knowledge’ (Jurgenson 2019: 101-102).
This interplay is exactly what currently propels my own practice. I am photographing human presence largely in the form of its absence, and thus what the image knows is constantly undercut by what it does not know and cannot show.
The Social Photo has proved a welcome tonic to my studies. It will help me to improve the way I present myself and my work on social media.
BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.
Since my Final Major Project Entropias is a brand-new one I have much research still to do. I plan to break it down as follows:
Methodology I intend to tell my story by dividing this project into the following subject areas, mainly to allow a shooting schedule that will cover the whole area and its many activities. I will approach land and place as
Culture: the picturesque, the patriarchal gaze
Disposable, a dumping ground
Community and ownership
Heritage and Tourism
Eerie, weird and poetic places
This division would be a trap if adhered to rigidly. A different methodology will emerge naturally. For example, William Ewing (Ewing 2014) offers as themes Artefacts, Rupture, Playground, Scar, Control, Enigma, Hallucination and Reverie. There are many, more creative typologies than my initial choice.
The History of Land and Place I will need to study landscape historians and writers such as W. G. Hoskins, Oliver Rackham, John Lewis-Stempel and Robert Macfarlane, and whatever is available from historical records online such as the The Victoria History of the County of Oxford (Page et al 1907) which itemizes my patch in minute detail for a thousand years.
The Land as Art and Culture Cultural, aesthetic and photographic history from writers such as Simon Schama, David Campany, J. A. P. Alexander, Robert Adams, John Taylor, W. J. T. Mitchell and Liz Wells, and whatever these volumes lead me towards. Growing familiarity with the history of the painting of place will be as important as that of photography.
Photographers I can only start with those I know and work outwards. This means the practice of photographers such as Robert Adams (and his New Topographics peers), Richard Misrach, Mark Power, Paul Seawright, Nadav Kander, Michael Kenna, Paul Graham, Chrystel Lebas, Mathieu Asselin, Gregory Halpern, Matt Black, Fay Godwin, Edward Burtynksy, Thomas Struth and more.
I have been able to secure new or second-hand copies of books by some of the above and I am now reading them.
EWING, William A. 2014. Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.
PAGE, William, L. F. SALZMAN, H. E. SALTER, M. D. LOBEL, Alan CROSSLEY and Simon TOWNLEY. 1907. The Victoria History of the County of Oxford. London: Archibald Constable: Published for University of London Institute of Historical Research by Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/vch–oxon [accessed: 16 Jan 2021].
I am starting a new project for my FMP. My old project Silent City – Oxford after dark – has served me well for a year but current lockdown restrictions make it impossible to pursue. I will take it up again later when the pandemic has abated, but for now, time for a change.
Entropias is about the impact of man on the land, specifically on the small parcel of nine or ten square miles in Oxfordshire where I live (see Fig. 1 below).
My project is a blend of geography, autobiography and metaphor in the terms used by the photographer Robert Adams (Adams 1981: 14). An analogue would be landscape, longing and desire (Bate 2016: 134).
This area has a long history. The Romano-British built a villa here. All four settlements on my patch were already established agricultural communities at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. Hampton Gay had a much larger population two hundred years ago than it does today (Page et al 1907: vol. 6, 152–159). Medieval village fields of ridge-and-furrow strips are still in evidence, as is their pasture. Sanfoin, for fodder, was grown here hundreds of years ago. The same fields today are home to an organic, grass-fed beef farm, although many hedgerows date from the enclosures of 1750–1850.
However, the centuries have come with huge differences all of which mean that the land here is under pressure as never before. The primary causes are the vast growth in human population and in the waste and detritus this produces, the introduction of chemically dependent ‘agribusiness’ farming which depletes the soil and drives out wildlife, invasive pests like ash dieback and Dutch elm diseases, and a sea change in our cultural lenses.
We no longer see land as home and part of a whole of which we are only one element. What we see is a commodity, a consumable, a scene. We are all tourists and consumers now.
The essential contrast and tension here is between the culturally conditioned conceptions about place and nature we all have and the sometimes tough day-to-day reality of lived life in a man-made environment. A good recent example in book form is Small Town Inertia (Mortram 2017), though that is portraiture whereas my focus is environment. It is the difference between what we actually experience and nature as spectacle in an Attenborough TV programme or the ‘Automotive Sublime’ beloved of the advertising industry.
I am at an early, experimental stage with this project and still feeling my way into it. But I am excited!
ADAMS, Robert. 1981. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. New York, NY: Aperture.
BATE, David. 2016. Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
MORTRAM, J. A. 2017. Small Town Inertia. Liverpool, UK: Bluecoat Press.
PAGE, William, L. F. SALZMAN, H. E. SALTER, M. D. LOBEL, Alan CROSSLEY and Simon TOWNLEY. 1907. The Victoria History of the County of Oxford. London: Archibald Constable: Published for University of London Institute of Historical Research by Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/vch–oxon [accessed: 16 Jan 2021].
This module’s Live Brief Challenges, which were presented yesterday, have turned out to be very worthwhile. I teamed up with Tim, Mark, Marcel, Stephen and John for what turned out to be an exercise in studying a new arts enterprise and then proposing a new branding for the enterprise together with a brand strategy and matching visual language going forward.
There was a lot to learn and these are the things that emerged for me:
Collaboration and teamwork are central to a successful creative endeavour. It is important to treat differences of opinion not as points of conflict but as indications of a rich range of options. The challenge is to blend those different views into the best offer one can make.
Research is vital. My research included taking two video courses in brands and marketing (Boyd 2020, Pederson 2017), looking at case studies of rebranding exercises by a commercial marketing agency (Summa 2020) and researching the likely market for the new arts enterprise we were pitching to. This led me to look not only at all kinds of arts enterprises, from the Frieze media and events company (Frieze 2020) to the Gagosian Gallery (Gagosian 2020) but also to look at what turned out to be a goldmine of data arising from the Burning Man festival in America and the Nowhere festival in Spain (Burning Man Journal 2019, Nowhere 2019). Both festivals assemble and make public full statistical data year-on-year about their audience and its demographics. By looking at hard data covering why people attend arts festivals, we were able to come much closer to answering a key question: what is your audience?
A consistent visual language is an important part of branding. It can be deployed in different scenarios but if done well the language always tells your audience who you are. However, getting it right is very hard. We came up with an idea – using circles and spheres as a language (and eventually a logo) – but I think we all found it much more difficult than we thought to produce first-class work.
The principles involved here are really worthwhile. They are a lesson in thinking clearly about a project and identifying its key requirements. They are also a lesson in consistency and professional execution, things that are important not only for a commercial photographer but in many other walks of life. A part of what I will take away from the Live Challenge is ‘The Branding Process in Eight Steps’ (Chiaravalle and Findlay Schenck 2020), but in many ways this checklist should really be called ‘How to Think Clearly and Analyse a Problem in Eight Steps’.
Determine exactly what you are branding
Research everything about the product and its market
Position a brand by defining what makes it unique
Define a brand by stating what unique benefits it offers, what it stands for, what value it promises to deliver, and the brand image that will permeate all communications
Develop a brand identity including a logo and other signature elements and a brand ‘voice’ and use consistently in all communications
Launch using publicity, social media, promotions and presentations
Manage a brand by ensuring that it continues to deliver its brand promises fully and consistently
Monitor, evaluate and update a brand against changes in the market and in your own business
I have been looking at the practice of several photographers in connection with techniques of storytelling and narration. Some work in black and white exclusively while others do so for at least a part of the time.
The first on my list is Gerry Johansson. Mark Power has described Johansson’s images as ‘non-judgemental, deceptively simple celebrations of the ordinary’ (Power 2013) and it is certainly the case that Johansson’s images are typically rather melancholic, often appear to be empty of detail and are without a doubt carefully considered and composed. As Powell points out, however, closer inspection reveals that all the necessary detail is in the frame but it is just not the kind of detail one (perhaps lazily) expects to find.
Johansson himself appears to repudiate the idea that he Is telling stories at all: ‘“For me it is important not to create a story with the pictures,” says Gerry Johansson. “Normally when you edit you try to sequence the photographs. But for me it is important that each picture is considered as a single, individual image”’ (Warner 2019). However, the same interview then goes on to point out that ‘Johansson’s photography is largely driven by intuition, but when it comes to making a book, logic and order triumph. Almost all of his 31 photobooks are defined by their geography, if not the subject matter, and their equally-sized photographs are generally organised either alphabetically or chronologically, a bid to encourage readers to interpret them individually’ (Warner 2019).
In reality I think that Johansson most definitely has a story, or stories, and this shines through in his many photobooks. What is being talked about by Warner is more a matter of narration. The story in Johansson is often about feelings – of emptiness, wandering, strangeness and deracination. There are usually no people in his images, but the traces of them are everywhere. The images can be bleak and sometimes beautiful but in each case the story points the same way: this is what it feels like to visit the environment these people have created for themselves.
One can see this in, for example, Deutschland (Johansson 2012) and American Winter (Johansson 2018). And if the narration of a story is chronological or even alphabetical, then one can invoke narrative techniques – by time, by psychogeography, or even by taking the postmodernist approach suggested by Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977): the viewer or reader constructs their own narrative from the various parts laid out before them street-map style.
The difference between story and narrative is best expressed in what is for me Johansson’s strongest project, Pontiac (Johansson 2011). It is a real town after the famous automobile brand, but it is also a place that embodies the American Rust Belt malaise and the country’s increasing inequality and divisions. All is shown with Johansson’s trademark simplicity and understatement, on the basis of taking the viewer on a walk through the town. Each image is captioned only with a street name.
Without realizing it, I have been following a similar approach in my own research project. So what can I learn from a master of the technique? First, that no matter how much Johansson eschews formal storytelling, the images are in fact linked by signs and clues. Pontiac is a book of traces. It would be easy to say these traces add up to the pervasive malaise of the Rust Belt, but the impact of the book entirely derives from the fact that they don’t. What they add up to are communities doing the best they can in spite of the Rust Belt.
The second point is well expressed in a review of Pontiac by Joerg Colberg:
‘Unlike many other books about these kinds of town, Pontiac doesn’t seem to focus on one aspect at all. You get to see everything, from the inner city to the old and new suburbs, the churches, parking garages. It’s all there. There is a very clear and smart artistic agenda, but there is no obvious political agenda. The more often you look at the book, the more things you discover. It makes you think, but before it does that it makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012).
I think Colberg is saying is that Pontiac is as much about an interior journey as an exterior one. This is a book in the poetic mode of documentary (Nichols 2017). If there is no political agenda then the mode of address cannot be expository, and although each image could be assessed as observational, the clues and traces that link the images are clearly poetic in intent.
These may be subtle distinctions but they are very important. They allow for a complex narrative technique, or a double narrative. On the surface, Pontiac is the story of a typical MidWest American town narrated by street name or by psychogeography. Beneath that, however, there is another and poetic narrative quietly arranged by clues and traces within the images. It is telling a different story. Nothing is quite what one thinks it is, until one realizes what is going on, and that careful narrative technique is precisely what ‘makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012) – a very valuable lesson.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142-148.
Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols (Nichols 2017) is about the history and narrative techniques of documentary filmmaking and the most important issues now facing the field.
My interest lies in what Nichols has to say about story and narrative in documentaries. Story and narrative are two different things and are not interchangeable. Put simply, a narrative is how a story is told or demonstrated. The story is all the events, characters and other elements that make up a narrative. (If there is a plot, then the plot will suggest some kind of relationship between the story’s various elements.)
Nichols’ approach is highly schematic. In particular, he identifies seven different documentary modes (Nichols 2017: 22-3):
Much of the book is concerned with elucidating the differences between these modes. Each mode tends to have typical uses, for example, together with particular goals and ethical issues (Nichols 2017: 156-7). Each mode treats time and space differently, is distinct epistemologically, usually employs a different ‘voice’ and treatment of sound and has a rough equivalent in other media (Nichols 2017: 108-9). The modes may also make use of well-established models such as the investigative report, the travel piece, the poetic, the autobiographical, the history or the testimonial (Nichols 2017: 106-7).
Nichols pays particular attention to ‘voice’ in documentary filmmaking, by which he does not mean the literal spoken word. He explains:
‘The voice of documentary is each film’s specific way of expressing its way of seeing the world. The same topic and perspective on it can be expressed in different ways. … Voice, then, is a question of how the reasoning, analysis, feelings, and values in a documentary become conveyed to us. … Documentary voice is clearly akin to film style’ (Nichols 2017: 50).
This is important, because as Nichols points out, ‘Each voice is unique. This uniqueness stems from the concrete utilization of conventions and models, from techniques and modes, and from the specific pattern of encounter that takes place between filmmaker and subject’ (Nichols 2017: 53).
This sophisticated analysis matters because it is so close to how story and narrative may arise from a portfolio of still images. The techniques are similar – framing, composition, editing, jump cuts, mixed modes of expression and so forth. If a portfolio of images is accompanied by a soundtrack then its treatment would also be similar to the use of sound in various modes of documentary, as would captions. Captions are in fact an important element of ‘voice’ and require careful treatment. They may enhance an image, but equally they may subvert it, change the mode of expression, or spoil a poetic moment.
Where does my research project stand in relation to this? I think it is firmly in Nichols’ poetic mode. Qualities Nichols associates with the poetic mode include ‘Formal abstractions … see the familiar in a fresh way … Expressive … Discontinuous … images that build mood or pattern without full regard for their original proximity … may distort or exaggerate for aesthetic effect … Expressive desire to give new forms and fresh perspectives’ (Nichols 2017: 108).
These qualities do identify my work over this module. However, things are rarely clear cut. Just as documentary filmmakers mix modes in their work, so my research project occasionally strays into other territory. Some images, particularly of deprivation, are observational in their intent. Images of graffiti or signage with an apparent message could be considered expository. And, overall, a strongly personal work could be considered performative because such a work ‘seeks to move its audience into subjective alignment or affinity with its specific perspective on the world’ (Nichols 2017: 152). Whether or not I decide to change this, at least I am now more aware of what I am doing.
I am glad to have found such a detailed analysis. It leaves me with a better idea of where my research project fits in as well as with goals and techniques to concentrate on in the poetic mode. Nothing beats a clear intent. In addition, the work has given me a better understanding of the role of text and captions. These are not afterthought. I am building a ‘voice’ from many components and any one of them can change it.
NICHOLS, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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