The photographer Robert Adams has some very good words about curation and editing. These are important, partly because I am coming up to submitting my portfolio of work for the module and partly because I am embarking on the preparation of a proper book dummy for my project which will require really careful curation.
‘But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule.
‘And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard.
‘It’s the same struggle that Flannery O’Connor said a writer faces: “The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny”’ (Wolf 2019).
‘I think photography is editing, start to finish, editing life, selecting part of it to stand for the whole. The process starts, obviously, with what you choose to include in the finder when you make the exposure. It continues as you study the contact sheets or thumbnails in order to decide which to enlarge. It goes on, sometimes for years, as you try to determine which enlargements are successful. Dorothea Lange, one of my heroes, used to ask herself, sotto voce, “Is it a picture? Is it a picture?” Most photographers are like that, confident one day and unsure the next. And then there is the long search for which pictures may strengthen each other, and in what relationships. That final step usually involves for us laying out all the conceivably appropriate pictures for a book in a line, in a roughly plausible sequence, after which we make a stack of the pictures in that order and go through it to see how they might work as singles or doubles on a spread. Those two steps are then repeated over and over again’ (Chang 2009).
I like the idea that good curation is ‘editing life’ and that the photographer (or artist) must stand back and judge their work ‘with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny’. These are important reminders.
ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.
Two other points arise from a look at Robert Adams – see my earlier post. The first is his attention to framing and composition.
‘The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. … But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit – so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. … But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last’ (ART21 2020).
Involved in this is careful attention to detail, but for a purpose and not simply because something happens to catch the photographer’s eye in a meretricious way: ‘By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it is conveyed by artists is through attention to form’ (ART21 2020).
Careful framing is a constant battle in my experience and is often more difficult at night when one often cannot really see everything in the viewfinder.
The second point is that problematic word, beauty. Adams is very open about being in pursuit of it: ‘Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty’ (ART21 2020).
However, I think it is more productive for me to consider this not in terms only of ‘beauty’, whatever that may be, but in terms of the tension between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion. Many if not all artists must struggle with this. It has been very well expressed by the documentary photographer James Nachtwey: ‘I don’t think that in my pictures the beauty overcomes the tragedy. It sometimes envelopes it and makes it more poignant. It makes it more accessible. The paradox of the co-existence of beauty and tragedy has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages. Photography is no exception’ (Caponigro 2000).
How does this relate to my practice? First, it has made me appreciate that I have not been paying enough attention to detail and particularly not to the extent that a carefully selected detail can reveal much more about an overall story than one may think.
Second, that the interplay between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion, creates tension and is particularly relevant when photographing at night. One can choose almost any pair of opposites and the tension between them will be there. Good images require tension. So in my walks along the Thames this summer, the tranquil and the uncanny and sometimes the quite menacing have all arisen. And they have arisen, too, in the contrast between quiet suburban streets or peaceful old houses and brash and anonymous new shopping centres or run-down, inner city deprivation. So the tension between these elements is also something I need to pay more attention to, both in individual images and in the sequencing of an overall portfolio.
Finally, Adams and Nachtwey agree at one point: much of photography is all about collaboration, and to the extent that we carry all that has gone before us we are also all re-photographers.
Adams: ‘Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community’ (Adams and Byrne 1994).
Nachtwey: ‘I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I’m photographing – not the other way around. I’m not trying to make statements about photography. I’m trying to use photography to make statements about what’s happening in the world’ (Caponigro 2000).
So it’s not all about me, and it never was. Thank heavens. What a release.
ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture, 13.
I looked at the work of Robert Adams in the first module but that was only briefly, in connection with the New Topographics movement, and in any case I did not yet have the understanding to appreciate what he was trying to do.
A second, more careful look suggests that Robert Adams is a considerable influence on my work, even if I haven’t fully appreciated it. I well remember studying Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986) ten months ago, and something about those images has undoubtedly remained with me. I would guess this is the quality for which Adams has often been praised: the deceptive simplicity of his images – they are far deeper than they first appear to be. They do not just show the American landscape. They show the story of what has happened to it, but in a way that encourages the viewer to discover it for themselves. There is no striving here for the shock and awe of the American sublime (which the New Topographics movement was a reaction against anyway). Adams is nuanced and never insistent.
The work I have been looking at recently is mostly from Summer Nights, Walking (Adams 2009). The apparent intent was lyrical: ‘My original goal was mainly to document some of the evening peace and mystery that I remember as a child, those dusks when the lightning bugs came out’ (Chang 2009). But Adams then quickly adds, ‘I should have been suspicious … .’ In reality Adams found only glimpses of his childhood. In the interim, the streets of his childhood had become so unsafe that he was obliged to hire a bodyguard to accompany him on his photography walks (Chang 2009), and the fireflies and wildlife had disappeared under new suburban sprawl.
The upshot is that the deceptive simplicity of clapperboard houses from 50 years ago is often accompanied by a sense of menace. The shadows and the beauty combine with the sinister. Doug Rickard expressed it well in a review of Summer Nights, Walking: ‘Robert Adams refers to a William Blake prayer that deftly describes this paradox … “The splendor of the Creation but also the reality of the Wolf and the Lion.”’ (Rickard 2010). Another reviewer found similar qualities: ‘There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson’ (Bareman 2014).
And, I suppose, by me. I am also photographing change stalked by the wolf and the lion. Everything about the streets here changed during the pandemic, even if only for a while. Oxford is all about change. The old city centre of 1001 tourist images is quickly changing as new modern buildings go up to house the university students of the future. The city limits are changing under a wave of new building. The suburbs are changing as inequality continues its relentless march and more and more people are pushed into the margins, into degraded housing or into homelessness. I first saw Oxford as a child, but like Adams in Summer Nights, Walking those far-off childhood memories are not the current reality. The point, however, is not to mourn this but to use it as a source of tension in my images, while remembering that nuance works and insistent doesn’t.
There are a couple of other points about Robert Adams that interest me, but for the sake of brevity I will cover them in separate posts.
ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.
ADAMS, Robert. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.
ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.
In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.
What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:
First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.
Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:
‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).
Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.
‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).
This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.
Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).
‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).
Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:
‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).
This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.
I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.
Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.
Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.
Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.
Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,
‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:
‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,
‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open. … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need? Clarity. What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? To tell a truth as simply as possible.
Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.
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