PHO704: Instagram

Much of this module has been about learning to take a professional and consistent approach to one’s practice, without which it would be difficult to succeed as a commercial photographer. A crucial part of that is professional and consistent marketing and client relations. While I have no wish to become a commercial photographer, professionalism and consistency are valuable and useful disciplines that can be applied to many situations in life, so I am taking these lessons on board.

In connection with that, I have been looking at my Instagram account. At stake is changing it from a typical personal account into a business account and then applying ‘strictly business’ principles to running it. After all, Instagram is thought to have more than 1 billion members, more than 500 million active daily users and a repository of more than 50 billion images (increasing by nearly 1000 each second), and not to mention more than 500,000 active influencers and 75.3 per cent of US businesses with an account on the platform (Omnicore 2020).

In practice structuring a business account is not difficult. There are a lot of online tutorials and advice sheets out there. The best I have found so far is ‘How to Use Instagram for Business: A Practical 6-Step Guide’ by Hootsuite, a company that makes management software for social media accounts (Newberry 2020). There is also a video tutorial from the ever-reliable Sean Tucker (Tucker 2020). To this I can add ‘Basics of Business on Instagram’ (Timehin 2020), an excellent video by Ron Timehin who is now a successful commercial photographer having made his reputation on Instagram. Timehin concentrates more on nuts and bolts such as best-practice hashtagging, the grid of previously posted images, and engagement with others (an often overlooked but crucial factor).

All the advice in the world comes with two key provisos, however. The first is that to succeed on any social media platform one must have a clear focus in a distinct genre or subject area. No one becomes known for being a generalist and commissioning editors will pass you by, since there is no obvious message they can pick up. The second is that one does have to have talent. Put simply, people want great photos, ones with a wow factor in their chosen field.

Very few people have either the discipline or the talent to succeed which is why Instagram and other social media platforms can easily become an unproductive lottery. The statistics alone are overwhelming. I do plan to take a more business-like approach to Instagram but at the same time I do not intend to take it all that seriously. I am not sure that in my case the work required would produce sufficient results.

Besides, there are increasingly serious questions about social media generally as a vehicle for addiction and exploitation – see for example The Social Dilemma (Orlowski 2020) or John Naughton’s newspaper column (Naughton 2020). From a business perspective, it is also possible or even probable that Instagram will start to squeeze business accounts in order to extract more revenue from them – see ‘Will Instagram Business Profile Reach Follow the Same Path as Facebook Pages?’ (Hutchinson 2019). As the article puts it,

‘But really, overall, the main tip is to manage your expectations, and understand that such shifts can, and most likely will be coming. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use Instagram – you definitely should where it’s of benefit. But it’s important to do so in the understanding that any results you see may well be temporary. And as such, you need to establish other avenues, rather than building your foundations on rented land’ (Hutchinson 2019).

And that is the crux of the matter. Building on ‘rented land’ is generally a mug’s game, especially when the landlord is known to be rapacious. I have noticed that some really established fine arts photographers do not participate much on Instagram. Instead, they are known from hashtags and fan accounts, via their agents or galleries, or they run a general studio account. Among examples are Richard Misrach, Tim Walker and Jeff Wall. There is a strong case for saying that Instagram is best treated as a game, and a potentially dangerous game, and that in the long run it may well be better to plant one’s flag well away from ‘rented land’ and the appalling sharks that own it.

References

HUTCHINSON, Andrew. 2019. ‘Will Instagram Business Profile Reach Follow the Same Path as Facebook Pages?’ Social Media Today [online]. Available at: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/will-instagram-business-profile-reach-follow-the-same-path-as-facebook-page/561617/ [accessed 16 Nov 2020].

NAUGHTON, John. 2020. ‘The Social Dilemma: A Wake-up Call for a World Drunk on Dopamine?’. Guardian, 19 Sep [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/19/the-social-dilemma-a-wake-up-call-for-a-world-drunk-on-dopamine [accessed 18 Nov 2020].

NEWBERRY, Christina. 2019. ‘How to Use Instagram for Business: A Simple 6-Step Guide’. Hootsuite [online]. Available at: https://blog.hootsuite.com/how-to-use-instagram-for-business/ [accessed 16 Nov 2020].

OMNICORE. 2020. ‘Instagram by the Numbers (2020): Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts’. Omnicore [online]. Available at: https://www.omnicoreagency.com/instagram-statistics/ [accessed 17 Nov 2020].

ORLOWSKI, Jeff. 2020. The Social Dilemma [Film]. Netflix. Available at: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81254224 [accessed 17 Nov 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].

TUCKER, Sean. 2019. ‘Instagram: Straight Talk for Photographers’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUfvHioNs_A&t=964s [accessed 24 Sep 2020].

PHO704: Krass Clement

I like the practice of Krass Clement. I like the dark, brooding, rough-edged nature of his practice. It comes, he says, from ‘Scandinavian melancholy on the one hand and the “flaneur” tradition from the Parisian school on the other’ (Clement 2020). As someone who used to do a lot of street photography in gloomy London weather, I can understand that.

What particularly appeals to me about Clement’s practice is that he owns his work. Whether he is in Germany, Paris or Dublin, or his native Denmark, there is no mistaking that this is his experience of those places. That is why Clement’s images seem so authentic.

‘“All photography is, in a sense, a kind of self-portrait,” he continues. “To me, it is also deeply personal. Different moods, circumstances and environments affect what you perceive – so the similarities and differences [between those two books] relate to where you find yourself. If you ask Rudi, my publisher, he will say that it was the excellent Irish porridge that was the determining factor”’ (British Journal of Photography 2017).

(Please click on an image above for a Lightbox view and captions)

Clement is ‘more concerned with capturing a state of mind than with situations’ (Clement 2020), and on looking through his portfolios and what I can find online of his many photobooks one can see that he employs stream-of-consciousness techniques and sudden narrative jumps and switches. This is an essentially poetic way of approaching the world, and photography, and it resonates with me. As Alec Soth observed:

‘It’s true that I find poetry to be the medium most analogous to photography. Originally, this annoyed me, because I thought poetry was pretentious. But over time I’ve come to love it. … Like photography, poetry is about suggestion—it’s about leaving a place for the reader/viewer to fill in the gaps’ (Strecker 2020).

These are all important concerns for me. My project is moving from documentary into something much more subjective. It probably shares a certain brooding, low-light darkness with Clement but the real lesson here is that I need to own my practice, which means staying true to my experience and dropping emulation and ‘That image by X looked good so I will make something like it’. This does not work. Another lesson here is in forming and sequencing a story. Plodding along from A to B to C as if following a street map does not work either, at least not when one is approaching photography more as poetry than as documentary.

References

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2017. ‘Wandering through the Irish Capital in Krass Clement’s Dublin’. British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/krass-clement-dublin/ [accessed 27 October 2020].

CLEMENT, Krass. 2020. ‘Krass Clement – Photographer’. Krass Clement [online]. Available at: http://www.krassclement.com/introduction.html [accessed 28 October 2020].

STRECKER, Alexander. 2020. ‘Simply Paying Attention With Alec Soth’. LensCulture [online]. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/alec-soth-simply-paying-attention-with-alec-soth [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Krass CLEMENT. 2017. Untitled. From: Krass Clement. 2017. Dublin. Bristol: RRB Photobooks.

Figure 2. Krass CLEMENT. 2003. Untitled. From: Krass Clement. 2003. Berlin Notat. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

PHO704: Images and Sound

I have been looking at the role of sound in photography and as a possible accompaniment to my research project.

I started with the artist and academic Angus Carlyle and his many works involving both photography and sound such as In the Shadow of the Silent Mountain (Carlyle 2015). This led me on to what I might describe as the psycho-geography of sound on websites such as Favourite Sounds (Favourite Sounds 2020) or Soundcities (Soundcities 2020) and even on commercial sites such as Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura 2020). I had not realized that mapping places by their sounds was so popular or so rich in possibilities.

Some of the world’s big cities have now been mapped by their myriad of different sounds, with each audio clip geotagged and then inserted into Google Maps. Thus, the viewer can navigate a city by its sounds simply by clicking the star points on a Google street map and listening to the attached clip. This has certainly set me thinking that it would be possible to do that with Oxford. So far as I know, no one yet has sound-mapped Oxford and doing so for me would mean little more than taking a recorder on my photography shoots and geotagging the clips with my smartphone.

However, using sound in this way may be fascinating but it is also a documentary and firmly indexical approach. My research project is not documentary but more poetic and conceptual. Sound, if I used it in my research project, would need to be carefully woven into the images until it had become part of the story and not, as with a documentary approach, offered simply a parallel aural track.

This has led me to consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s very careful use of sound in his films, mainly with the Russian composer Eduard Artemyev. In fact Artemyev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky’s films are so highly regarded that they have been released as stand-alone albums. There is a fascinating paper by Metin Colak, ‘The Functions of Sound in Tarkovsky’s Films’ (Colak 2013), which suggests how Tarkovsky used sound in his films to reinforce, suggest or subvert the story lines of, among others, Solaris, Stalker and Mirror. A key point is that natural and composed sound is so carefully interleaved that it is sometimes difficult to know whether one is listening to water dripping or to Eduard Artemyev’s score.

It is clear that Tarkovsky treated sound like poetry and used it as delicately:

‘I find music in film most acceptable when it is used like a refrain. When we come across a refrain in poetry we return, already in possession of what we have read, to the first cause which prompted the poet to write the lines originally. The refrain brings us back to our first experience of entering that poetic world, making it immediate and at the same time renewing it …  By using music, it is possible for the director to prompt the emotions of the audience in a particular direction, by widening the range of their perception of the visual image. …  Perception is deepened’ (Tarkvosky 158).

Properly employed, therefore, the sounds we hear in a work of art are ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). This is where sound and my research project meet.

Misrach Border-Cantos
Fig.1: Richard Misrach 2020. Website landing page for the ’Border Cantos’, a collaboration between Misrach and the composer Guillermo Galindo.

Using sound in this way is both exciting and challenging. It also connects to Mark Fisher’s essay on art of all kinds in connection with the weird and the eerie (Fisher 2016). Fisher covers Tarkovsky but he singles out Brian Eno in connection with sound, particularly Ambient 4: On Land (Eno 1982) which embodies the British landscape. A soundscape that accomplished for a project like mine would be a dream, although soundscapes are not hard to come by. MyNoise, for example, offers 200 different sound generators on a single webpage (myNoise 2020) and the result could easily be inserted into a project.

However, to make images and sound work together artistically is another story. An excellent example is the Border Cantos, a marvellous collaboration between Richard Misrach and the composer Guillermo Galindo (Misrach 2020) using instruments made from discarded items on the US-Mexico border. The result is, again, ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). It is also a good example of how a traditional fine arts photographer like Misrach is moving into new artistic territory made possible by more sophisticated internet tools..

I do plan to continue thinking about this idea. I suspect it is too complex to be folded into an MA course at a relatively late stage. A soundtrack of poor quality would be worse than none. However, for a post-MA, expanded project I think it could be brilliant. Everything would be deepened and the possibility of an audio-visual display rather than a conventional gallery show would become possible.

References

ATLAS OBSCURA. 2020. ‘Atlas Obscura – Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations’. Atlas Obscura [online]. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

CARLYLE, Angus. 2015. ‘In the Shadow of the Silent Mountain’. Angus Carlyle [online]. Available at: https://www.anguscarlyle.com/in-the-shadow-of-the-silent-mountain.html [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

COLAK, Metin. 2013. ‘The Functions of Sound in Tarkovsky’s Films’. Paper presented at Audio Technologies for Music and Media international conference,-Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, 2013. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281837007_The_Functions_of_Sound_in_Tarkovsky’s_Films [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

ENO, Brian. 1982. Ambient 4: On Land [sound recording: CD]. Perf. Brian Eno et al. Rough Trade. Available at: https://www.roughtrade.com/gb/brian-eno/ambient-4-on-land [accessed 2 Oct 2020].

FAVOURITE SOUNDS. 2012. ‘Favourite Sounds’. Favourite Sounds [online]. Available at: https://www.favouritesounds.org/about.php?projectid=55 [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

FISHER, Mark. 2016. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater.

MISRACH, Richard and Guillermo GALINDO. 2020. ‘Border Cantos’. Border Cantos [online]. Available at: http://bordercantos.com/ [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

MYNOISE. 2020. ‘Background Noises • Ambient Sounds’. myNoise [online]. Available at: https://mynoise.net/noiseMachines.php [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

SOUNDCITIES. 2020. ‘Soundcities by Stanza. The Global Soundmaps Project’. Soundcities [online]. Available at: https://www.soundcities.com/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1987. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Austin: University of Texas.

Figures

Figure 1. Richard MISRACH, 2020. Website landing page for the ’Border Cantos’. From: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo. 2020. ‘Border Cantos’. Border Cantos [online]. Available at: http://bordercantos.com/ [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

PHO704 Week 8: Photography and its Fine Arts Markets

This week has been helpful for its insights into the world of galleries, dealers, auctioneers and museums.

However, there is a lack of nuts and bolts here. For example, if a gallery takes on an artist or photographer, what kind of contract is involved and what are the artist’s or photographer’s typical obligations? Some more on that would have been helpful. I have found some articles and contract templates online – see Artquest 2020 and Dan Schultz 2017 – but it is hard to know how relevant they are.

The two larger questions here, however, are whether Fine Arts is a market I fit into and what in fact ‘Fine Arts’ actually means in terms of photography.

There seems considerable debate about what Fine Arts Photography really involves. As a category it is generally regarded as slippery, going back at least to Modernism and the work of Steichen, O’Keeffe, Weston and probably much earlier. Perhaps a satisfactory approach is Stephen Shore’s observation that ‘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). Fine Arts Photography prioritizes aesthetics and conception far above the simply depictive, something recently addressed in Medium Format Magazine in connection with Ansel Adams’ ideas of ‘visualization’ (Gordon 2020):

‘ … the fine art photographer synthesizes the external event (the thing worthy of having your camera pointed at it) with the internal event (the intuitive recognition of an idea or concept related to the thing). Credit is due to Ansel Adams for these terms, the internal and external events … Ansel said: “Visualization is the most important factor in the making of a photograph. Visualization includes all the steps from selecting the subject to making the final print.”

‘ … The representational photographer depicts physical appearances as found and doesn’t typically interfere with the subject or the light. In contrast, the fine art photograph may be entirely the result of interference. The finished print might scarcely resemble the found state’ (Gordon 2020).

This approach is not only true to my own experience, but it allows Fine Arts Photography to incorporate other genres such as landscape and portraiture when those merge into it. Fashion is notably one and an example would be the practice of Tim Walker. Conceptual art is another important genre within Fine Art Photography, as in the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.

However, one of the points in this week’s coursework  – see O’ Hagan 2012 and Heyman 2015 – is that what may motivate the artist and what the market makes of that may be very different things. It seems unlikely that, say, Paul Graham would consider himself a fine arts maker although to the art market he has become one. Tim Walker is forthright:

‘I find the word “art” a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer. Art isn’t decided at the moment it’s made – a lot of people would disagree with me, but I think time decides what art is. The most unlikely things become art. For me to say, “This is art photography,” I’m just not that sort of person; this is photography, this is me playing with a camera. Call it what you will but I would call it photography’ (Smith 2012).

While Snowdon is famously alleged to have claimed that photographs ‘should be seen in a magazine or a book and then be used to wrap up the fish and chucked away’.

Tim_Walker_Shoot-for-the-Moon
Fig. 1: Tim Walker 2019. From his book, Shoot for the Moon (Walker 2019). Walker has said, ‘I find the word “art” a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer’ (Smith 2012).

How do I fit into this? I think many of my images would fit into a fine arts definition since the images are made for conceptual and aesthetic reasons more than for documentary ones. I think I could see myself signing a contact with a gallery, on the basis of the kind of templates mentioned above. But I still see myself as a photographer rather than as an artist. Art is for others and the market to decide. Some of this week’s coursework suggests that the fine arts world is has more than its fair share of sharks, tycoons and money ramps, which is not really my world at all – even though as both Boll and Heyman point out, photograph is still only a very small percentage of the overall market for the arts (Boll 2011, Heyman 2015). In fact one can argue that the entire idea of Fine Arts Photography is something of a ramp following the ‘discovery’ of photography as a lucrative new revenue source by galleries and museums in the 1970s, as described by Douglas Crimp in his essay ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’ (Crimp 1999). I could play ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ but I am better as a contrarian snapper.

References

ARTQUEST. 2020. ‘Contracts with Galleries’. Artquest [online]. Available at: https://www.artquest.org.uk/artlaw-article/contracts-with-galleries/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

BOLL, Dirk. 2011. ‘The Structure of the Art Market’. In Dirk BOLL (ed.). Art for Sale: A Candid View of the Art Market. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 29–49.

CRIMP, Douglas, 1999. ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’. In Jessica EVANS and Stuart HALL (eds). 1999. Visual Culture: The Reader. London: SAGE, 213-23.

GORDON, Michael E. 2020. ‘Photography Is Easy. Art Is Hard.’ Medium Format Magazine [online]. Available at: https://mediumformat.com/photography-is-easy-art-is-hard/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

HEYMAN, Stephen. 2015. ‘Photography’s Place in the Global Art Market’. International New York Times [online]. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1678821643/805AA85CE9144436PQ/1?accountid=15894 [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2012. ‘Photography: A Guardian Masterclass: The World’s Most Expensive Photograph …Is of a Scene That Doesn’t Exist. Photography Critic Sean O’Hagan Examines the Changing Landscape of a Thriving Medium’. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1159222358?pq-origsite=summon [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

SCHULTZ, Dan. 2017. ‘Art Gallery Contract’. Dan Schultz Fine Art [online]. Available at: https://www.danschultzfineart.com/art-gallery-contract/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

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

SMITH, Karl. 2012. ‘Interview with Tim Walker’. Tim Walker [online]. Available at: https://www.timwalkerphotography.com/articles/interview-with-tim-walker [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

WALKER, Tim. 2019. Shoot for the Moon. London: Thames and Hudson.

Figures

Figure 1. Tim WALKER. 2019. Untitled. From: Tim Walker. 2019. Shoot for the Moon. London: Thames and Hudson.

PHO704: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino published Invisible Cities in 1972. It is a deceptively simple work, in which Marco Polo describes 55 increasingly improbable and fantastical cities to Kublai Khan while it gradually dawns on the reader that in each case Polo is in fact describing his home city, Venice. At the same time it also becomes clear that Polo is describing urban problems such as overcrowding and inequality that have a disturbingly modern rather than medieval ring.

Invisible Cities has turned out to be a highly influential work. It is postmodern in arrangement and poses all the postmodern questions about authority, identity, reality and structure. Even its arrangement is far more complex than first appears. The 55 cities described are grouped into 11 themes and are carefully arranged in a mathematical structure whose inspiration derives from the Oulipo literary circle of which Calvino was a member. Gerry Johansson’s decision to caption his photobook Pontiac by street name as if navigating a geographical matrix is strangely similar (Johansson 2010).

Invisible Cities has inspired many artists. In 2019 Manchester International Festival presented it as performance art involving music, dance, design and visuals (Kenton 2019). However, it is the novel’s influence on photography that really concerns me here. Invisible Cities is saying that reality is what we choose to make of it. There is no objective Venice, Paris, London or New York out there. We each make our own version and we make it anew each time we visit. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in a review of Invisible Cities,

‘Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value. … Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps’ (Winterson 2001).

In some ways this knowledge – that reality is our own imagining – is an old as civilization. It is, for example, the opening sentence of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). It is also at the core of Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977). Barthes points out that the idea of an all-powerful creator/author imposing a canonical version of anything is a fantasy (Barthes 1977). We write our own book, tell our own story out of the ingredients we find before us.

This realisation – that what I photograph is my reality and no one else’s – has had an electrifying effect on my practice. It relieves me of the burden of emulating or competing with anyone else, and so it is freeing. Nearly all images have at least some indexical value but at the same time they are also an expression of the mind behind the camera.

In turn this has helped me better to understand the practice of other photographers. One example is Maria Kapajeva’s book You Can Call Him Another Man, about a trove of images she found of her father’s life before she was born – and therefore of a man she both knew and did not know at all (Kapajeva 2018). An image, any image, shows what we both know and do not know. The image is free to acquire new meaning in whoever views it. It is not confined to the dusty reading of an archive.

ken-schles-invisible-city-2014
Fig. 1: Ken Schles 2014. From Invisible City. There is darkness on the edge of town …

A second example is Invisible City by Ken Schles (Schles 2014), a vintage noir journey around the junkie-ridden chaos of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. The whole point of the book, however, is that this is his experience of New York, not yours or mine. As Schles points out,

‘We are solitary creatures situated in a place and point in time that is unique to each of us. The New York City my friends and neighbors knew was different from the NY I experienced. Let’s be honest: we’re all perpetual outsiders to each other’s experience. That’s the tragedy of being human. But we can struggle against that. So there’s possibility as well: we may be locked into our own place and time, but we can share our little revelations, those small realizations of the everyday, and share in whatever knowledge that might bring us or open us to. That’s a very human trait: the attempt to communicate something meaningful. Sharing these other ways of seeing gives us perspective on what each of us experiences’ (Bocchetto 2015).

Sharing our own experience while acknowledging that we are all outsiders to each other’s experience is the common theme here, whether Calvino, Kapajeva or Schles. I think it needs to become an important theme of my practice too.

References

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

BOCCHETTO, Alex. 2015. ‘Ken Schles on “Invisible City” and “Night Walk”’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2015/01/interview-ken-schles-on-invisible-city-night-walk-and-existential-impulses.html [accessed 3 Nov 2020].

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

FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2010. ‘Pontiac’. Gerry Johansson [online]. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 3 Nov 2020].

KAPAJEVA, Maria. 2018. ‘You Can Call Him Another Man’. Maria Kapajeva [online]. Available at: http://www.mariakapajeva.com/book-to-order/ [accessed 26 Oct 2020].

KENTON, Tristram. 2019. ‘Manchester’s Mythical Makeover: Invisible Cities – Manchester International Festival’. Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2019/jul/04/invisible-cities-manchester-international-festival [accessed 29 Oct 2020].

SCHLES, Ken. 2014. Invisible City. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl.

WINTERSON, Jeanette. 2001. ‘Invisible Cities’. Jeanette Winterson [online]. Available at: http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/invisible-cities/ [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Ken SCHLES. 2014. Untitled. From: Ken Schles. 2014. Invisible City. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl.

PHO704 Weeks 5-6: Work in Progress, and Tarkovsky

For my work in progress over the past two weeks I have continued to explore the themes expressed in Tarkovsky’s films Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) and Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). These are that one is leaving the normal, everyday world behind and entering a ‘zone’ of alterity and strangeness, in my case in the world of the city after dark. The zone is strange because a full understanding of it is hidden from us. We have no understanding of the agency at work in the zone, or even whether there is one.

In Solaris, the scientists aboard a space station are unable to tell whether the apparently intelligent ocean on the planet of Solaris is trying to help them, hinder them, punish them or simply express itself. The ocean remains a mystery and the indeterminacy of their situation is slowly driving the scientists mad. In Stalker, a similar situation applies but with a further development. Those who reach a special room in the centre of a mysterious Zone whose origins are unclear are given whatever their heart desires. The frightening reality is that we may well be unaware of what we truly but unconsciously desire, and if our deepest desire is given to us that knowledge now made conscious may destroy us. In the film, a stalker called Porcupine reaches the room and is granted money. Soon afterwards, he commits suicide.

Much of Stalker is shot in a half light through frames, doorways and windows or along tunnels. These are all portals and are ideas I need to explore in my practice, but the film asks us to question whether these are portals to another world or in fact to our own unconscious. The film therefore questions not only agency but the whole idea of what we think of as the individual, personality and free will. Once we are parted from our normal, everyday world, we may well discover that these ideas are much more fluid and indeterminate than we suppose. We are all two selves, Tarkovsky suggests: the ego, and something else, something we will never fully understand.

I am currently thinking about how these powerful ideas might affect my research project. They are surely going to affect story and narrative (which are not the same thing). The apparent story of my research project is of the city of Oxford, but the real story is much more likely to be the complicated uncertainty of what it means to be human. There are no certainties, just the eerie mysteries that Tarkovsky so eloquently explored. One question that now arises is that if I do not fully understand myself, how can I ever be more than the classic unreliable narrator of my own story?

Clicking on an image in the gallery will produce a larger, lightbox view.

References

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1972 Solaris. [Film].

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. [Film].

Figures

Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.

PHO704: Nick Knight: Roses From My Garden

I have finally been to see this exhibition by the fashion photographer Nick Knight (Knight 2020 A). The images (which literally are photographs of roses from Knight’s garden) are inspired by the work of 16th and 17th century still life painters like Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jan van Huysum. So this is an exhibition that is both painterly and traditional in a classic sense and modern at the same time.

Knight has made an explanatory video of the exhibition and of the process of creating and finally printing the images (Knight 2020 B):

While I love Knight’s images for what they are, the things that interest me about this exhibition from the point of view of current coursework are these:

  1. Mindfulness
    Knight spends hours, sometimes, choosing and arranging his blooms, contemplating them from different angles, thinking about composition and watching the light change across his arrangements. There is quiet, patient attention here, a reminder that really good images do not come from thinking that one can stroll in, snap away and wrap in half an hour. Absorption in the process matters, just as it did for the painters whose art Knight is following.
  2. Simplicity
    The ‘studio’ is Knight’s kitchen. The light is all natural, from windows – no other lights were used. The only props are his own glass vases. This is an object lesson in how a little can be all you need.
  3. Modernity
    All images are made with an iPhone, nothing else. Knight’s workflow consists of making an iPhone image, running a copy through Instagram filters for colour changes and tonality, then sending both files to a professional retouching studio. There, the files are combined, sharpened (and I would guess exposure curves are adjusted), enlarged hugely to a final print size of 8 ft or more, then retouched again to remove artefacts and blemishes from the enlargement process. The results were printed in California, proof images were marked up by Knight, there was more retouching and proofing, and at last a final image was made.

This combination of classic still life art and the most modern technology, knit together with painstaking attention to detail, is intriguing. The result strikes me as very effective, bringing to a different genre Knight’s mastery of light, tonality and composition from his many years in fashion photography.

As Knight has pointed out, one needs to judge these images on their own terms. The brushstrokes and washes of traditional painting have been replaced by their new digital equivalents rather than omitted or forgotten. It is noticeable that the images have not been enlarged to be ‘sharp’ and indexically accurate but to be rich, luscious and painterly. From close-up the images can look blurred and indistinct but from about 8-10 feet away they look perfect.

Nick Knight 2019
Fig. 1: Nick Knight 2019. From the exhibition Roses From My Garden.

A final lesson is in humility. I was fortunate enough to meet Nick Knight who was there, at his own exhibition, on a cold wet Wednesday, miles from home and months now after the opening, surrounded by hordes of children and National Trust visitors at Waddesdon Manor. And yet he was happy to talk and explain his art to anyone who asked. I think that shows awesome dedication and a willingness to share. Knight said to me that today ‘is a very exciting time to be in photography’. Partly that is because of the new possibilities that technology now allows, but partly it is because there are inspiring figures like Nick Knight out there to show the way.

References

KNIGHT, Nick. 2020 A. ‘Roses from My Garden’ [exhibition]. Waddesdon, Oxfordshire: Waddesdon House and Gardens. Exhibition from 4 July – 1 November 2020: Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden.

KNIGHT, Nick. 2020 B. ‘Roses from My Garden’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvaU7rtV9LI&t=237s [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Nick KNIGHT. 2020. From: Nick Knight. 2020. ‘Roses from My Garden’ [exhibition]. Waddesdon, Oxfordshire: Waddesdon House and Gardens. Exhibition from 4 July – 1 November 2020: Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden.

 

PHO704: Gregory Halpern

I have been greatly enjoying the work of the American photographer Gregory Halpern. His practice strikes a lot of chords with me, particularly in terms of my current practice and research interests.

Three main things draw me to Halpern.

The first is Halpern’s understanding of the uncertain, slippery nature of documentary photography and his gradual move away from it and into an approach with a greater awareness of fantasy and fiction.

‘Over the years I’ve become less interested in documentary and more interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, which sometimes feels like Surrealism to me. It became most obvious when I was working on ZZYZX, which starts with contemporary Los Angeles but sort of builds a semi-fictional world out of the city. That interest has continued, and the more I’ve thought about photography’s slippery relationship to “truth,” the more fascinated I’ve become in how photographic precision and Surrealism are not contradictory. Andre Breton argued that Surrealism’s goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”’ (Smyth 2020).

Halpern talks of building a ‘a semi-fictional world’ out of contemporary Los Angeles in his book ZZYZX (Halpern 2016). This is close to what I am now trying to do in my project on the city of Oxford, Silent City. I also like Halpern’s allusion here to Surrealism (and elsewhere to Magical Realism). The surreal is often formed by an unexpected conjunction of opposites, or by the unexpected presence of that which does not belong or by a sense of the inexplicable because agency and explanation are withheld. One thinks of Man Ray’s photograph Self Portrait with Gun (1932) or of Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), for example. This is the territory of the uncanny, the weird and the eerie which forms part of my research. See Figs 1-4.

Figs 1-4: Gregory Halpern 2016-2020. Social documentary becomes steadily more descriptive of a ‘semi-fictional world’ that allows the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves (Smyth 2020). Click on an image for a larger, lightbox view.

The second reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his willingness to rest in uncertainty and instead allow the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves. Halpern does not try to pretend that in apparently documentary images he is ever offering more than a subjective view.

‘What’s interesting to me about the world is its chaos and contradictions, the way opposites can be so beautiful in relation to each other. I like how you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same moment. I want my images to create cognitive dissonance. If I feel that a sensation caused by an image is singular in nature—awe, beauty, dread, for example—I wind up finding the image to be manipulative, and unfaithful to the contradictory natures of reality. I think we underestimate our viewers’ and ability to read the work.

‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

If photography is ‘never entirely fiction or non-fiction’, however, then what does a photograph really show? I would suggest that what it always shows are traces, some vivid and some faint, but traces of what? Halpern suggests that the world (and the image) are too complex to be reducible to a set of perfectly indexical facts and that what instead all images confront us with is ‘a rightfully impenetrable thing’. It is up to the viewer of make sense the image and any attempt by the artist to impose a meaning is false and unwelcome.

‘Photographers have a way of organizing/simplifying the chaos that is the world around us. And it is said that photography is uniquely suited to “reflect” the world around us, but what if our surroundings are complex to the point of being visually and verbally indescribable? That conundrum is the reality I want to reflect, with the creation of a rightfully impenetrable thing’ (Magnum Photos 2020).

The third reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his interest in the photobook as his primary mode of expression.

‘I love the space between images. The things that happen when you turn the page, when you are looking at a new image with the ghost of the previous image lingering in your mind… I love the feel of a being swept up, as if by a stream, by a book of photographs. I love the introduction to Rinko Kawauchi’s book Illuminance, in which David Chandler writes this beautiful and simple meditation on books in general: “There is something primal in the act of opening a book for the first time. That moment of expectation, that prospect of discovery, however dulled or wearied, is still there each time we take a new book in our hands. At our most innocent and instinctive, we are prepared to be changed in some way by what we are about to see”’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

The lesson here with any photobook is painstaking care in curation and sequencing so that the images flow one into another but, crucially, without losing sight of the overall intent of the whole work. As Halpern says of ZZYZX, his book on Los Angeles, ‘I wanted the pictures to evoke something simultaneously contemporary and ancient, a response to the Los Angeles of the moment, but also something not so literal. I wanted the space to also be somewhat mythical, the timeline somewhat Biblical’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

In my own practice I am not seeking to be Biblical, and I am certainly not trying to portray something on the epic scale of Los Angeles, but increasingly Halpern’s approach is the intent behind my current research project. That, and the intent David Company found in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s night photography practice:

London a Modern Project … used the visual estrangement of night photography to depict anonymous architecture. Motorway flyovers, tower blocks, car parks and garages were transformed into surfaces revealing social structures and urban behaviour’ (Company 2012: 108).

References

BOURGEOIS-VIGNON, Anne. 2018. ‘Power and the Camera: Gregory Halpern Talks Intuition, Reflection and Representation’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gregory-halpern-profile-intuition-representation/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

CAMPANY, David. 2012. Art and Photography. Abridged. London: Phaidon.

HALPERN, Gregory. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.

HALPERN, Gregory and Clément CHÉROUX. 2020. Le the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.

HALPERN, Gregory. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/gregory-halpern/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

SMYTH, Diane. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern: Let the Sun Beheaded Be’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/let-the-sun-beheaded-be/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Wicker chairs overlooking downtown LA’. From: Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

Figure 2: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Blue Tarp Smiley Face’. From Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

Figure: Gregory HALPERN. 2020. ‘Guadeloupe’. From: Gregory Halpern and Clément Chéroux. 2020. Let the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Figure 4: Gregory HALPERN. 2018. [Untitled]. From: Gregory Halpern. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.

PHO704: Finding One’s Voice

The exhibition Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean 2020) has proved a fascinating insight into the process by which an artist finds their voice.

It begins with Rembrandt as a teenager and ends with his first successes in his twenties. Rembrandt was preternaturally gifted as an artist but what becomes clear is that the interests and motifs that would later come to define the ‘Rembrandt look’ are still evident, if in embryo, in his earliest rough sketches and student works. He always had his voice. What he had to do was find it.

There is the interest in and sympathy for the elderly and infirm. There is the fascination with texture, whether that of aged skin or of a richly embroidered cloak. Exotic clothes, turbans and jewellery were always an interest, as often were dogs. There is an intense focus even in student works on the emotional dynamics of the scene, and there is the increasingly masterful use of light and shadow to define the points of interest and demarcate the frame, what would later become known as ‘Rembrandt lighting’. These all appear even if a work is a rather clumsy early attempt or is in a style (perhaps a student exercise) one would not normally associate with Rembrandt. See Figs. 1-3 for some examples.

This makes clear that finding one’s voice as an artist or photographer is a process, and that it might pay to analyse one’s work (or photographic archive) over the years to see where one’s interests really lie and what emotions, motifs and ideas emerge in one’s work more frequently than others. It is also a process that requires hard work. Even someone as gifted as Rembrandt took 10-15 years to master his craft and fully find his voice.

There is also a good point to be made here about art and commerce. Rembrandt was a ‘professional’ in modern terms. He was someone who depended on his art for a living and who understood not only painting but the business of painting. He wasted nothing. Ideas were kept as sketches or examples of tropes that could be deployed later as details in larger oil paintings. He collaborated with others, such as professional print-makers, art-dealers, wealthy patrons like Constantijn Huygens and fellow artists like Jan Lievens. He sought out props such as shields and swords, some of which recur in his works. He would take an idea and develop from it not only a painting but sketches and the basis for an etching, then alter his ideas again to pull out details for smaller, separate etchings. Blank areas of larger copper etching plates were cut out and reused for small-scale studies.

When one looks at Rembrandt’s working methods, and of course at the later, mature portraits of merchants and grandees, all of which were commissioned, then any distinction between art and commerce simply vanishes. It was all the same mindstream.

References

ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM. 2020. ‘Young Rembrandt’ [exhibition]. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum. Exhibition from 24 February – 1 November 2020: Young Rembrandt.

Figures

Figure 1. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1628. The Artist’s Mother, Head and Bust. Ashmolean Museum.

Figure 2. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1626. The Baptism of the Eunuch. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.

Figure 3. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1632. Bearded Old Man. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

PHO704 Week 3: The Power of the Personal Project

On the strength of the suggestions in Week 3, I have started a modest personal project as a side-work to my FMP. I think this will help me work out some of the ideas in the coursework, as well as help to recapture some of the joie de vivre I felt in photography before I started this course.

My side project is called Entropias (but it is not a replacement for my main research project, Silent City). It is about the moments and the places where everything comes together, then falls apart. In other words it is about entropy which is also the cycle or mandala of life and the changing of the seasons. Something is born, arises, peaks, decays and eventually vanishes into the elements of something new, another turn of the wheel. Entropy can be expressed as energy but we probably understand it as time. Change through time is the only way we can really experience what is otherwise a law of physics.

Here are a few images.

To take this further, I have compared my ideas about Entropias with the excellent suggestions offered by Grant Scott in ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015), and in particular with his ten steps for creating a successful personal project whether intellectual or emotional (Scott distinguishes between the two):

How to Create a Successful Personal Project

  1. Find your story. Make sure that it is personal to you, that you have a unique voice to tell the story.

I have the story, of birth, change and decay. I can only tell it in my voice. For consistency I am shooting in colour and using a specific cinematic colour palette in post.

  1. 2. Do not be overly ambitious. Be realistic about what you can achieve on the basis of the time and financial commitment you are going to be able to devote to creating the project.

The project is something I can drop in and out of when I have a spare afternoon or come across a telling image (I will use an iPhone for those).

  1. Do your research. Find out if other photographers have tackled the subject you are planning to photograph. Look at how they did it, what the outcomes were, and how it was received. Then ensure that you do not repeat the same approach.

Yes, I will need to do some research for sure.

  1. Build your online community as you are working on the project and keep them informed of its progress with images and information about how you are creating the project and the process you are going through.

When I have enough decent images, I will start posting into an album on Flickr and likely on my portfolio website. I am dropping one or two images into Instagram, too.

  1. Be patient. A worthwhile personal project is not going to come together in a few days or weeks.

This project will likely be done when I realize that it is done. I am setting no deadlines.

  1. Consider using audio and moving images to add both context and additional narrative to your storytelling.

This is very tempting for my FMP but probably too ambitious for a small personal project. Music sparks ideas and associations, however, so this is not to be overlooked.

  1. Research appropriate self-publishing options for your project and engage with the photographers who are already involved with the photo book self-publishing community.

The most likely destination is an accordion-fold booklet or a Blurb-style publication, partly to keep down costs. If I make enough good images in one place (Rousham House and Gardens, for example, which is a very good venue for changing seasons) I could expand my options by approaching them with ideas for something more ambitious.

  1. Try and attend talks and workshops being given by fellow photographers working on personal projects.

Yes, absolutely, but none attended yet on this specific topic.

  1. Consider working with a journalist or writer at some point during the process of creating your project. Inevitably you will require text to accompany your images, or to include in your book, or on your website to provide context and information. This text needs to be as professional as your images, so get a professional to create it.

Not keen on this one. My project is not documentary and involving a writer would make it bigger than I currently want. What matters is to start with something I want to do and believe I can. We’ll see.

  1. Stay true to your vision but be open to your project evolving into unexpected areas. The excitement always lies in the choppy waters.

Yes! I might find telling images not from changing seasons in nature, for example, but from gritty events in a city centre or from quiet domestic moments at home. The important thing is to stay open to new ideas and rich moments, not close down.

(Adapted from Scott, 2015: 108-9)

References

Scott, G. (2015) ‘The Power of the Personal Project’. In Scott GRANT (ed). Professional photography: the new global landscape explained. New York: Focal Press, pp. 82–109. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/falmouth-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1734212&amp [accessed 7 Oct 2020).

Figures

Figures 1-8. Mark CREAN. 2020. Entropias. Collection of the author.