PHO702 Week 4: Reflections, Work in Progress

This post combines the week’s reflective task with my work in progress in order to avoid two posts which would largely repeat each other.

First, the reflective task is about the intent of my practice. My intent has changed since I started this course. My original intent was simply to portray a city at night. Then the intent became to portray a particular kind of city in a particular kind of way, which was the substance of my research proposal at the end of the first module. Since then my intent has changed again and I expect it will continue to change. I am deliberately experimenting at the moment, trying things I have never tried before, and I have also been obliged to modify my approach because exceptionally bad winter weather for a very long time has made night photography alone problematic – so I am now also experimenting with daytime photography in order to keep shooting.

My current intent is based on looking at the work of four photographers, mainly: William Eggleston, Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Stephen Shore. What has emerged is fairly simple:

  1. They do not privilege any particular object or kind of image. Everything falls within their view because they are looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is Eggleston’s ‘democratic forest’.
  2. They are interested in the colours and tones of the night and particularly those created by modern lighting such as neon signs. This can often produce quite soft, saturated fields of colour in their photographs.
  3. They are very aware of space or emptiness and seem to compose very carefully with this in mind.
  4. They are generally not trying to freight any one image with an obvious sense of place. An image may be taken in say Memphis or London but it is not saddled with the symbolic or indexical baggage of trying to say ‘this stands for the whole city’. These artists travel light and allow their images to float free.

What I am trying to discover is whether the second point – night-time colour and tones – when combined with the third point – space and emptiness – produces the quality of the uncanny.

So my current intent is whether I can combine points 1,2 and 3 to express the uncanny in my images of a city at night.

The ambiguous comes in at this point. The uncanny is ambiguous because one has an eerie sensation of not being at all sure what is really going on. I think that photography is inherently ambiguous anyway, which is the source of its power. This is the tension and interplay between the two sides in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth, and the myth that it doesn’t. It is the old debate about representation versus reality.

Do I think my attempts so far are successful? Sometimes, but generally not often. I tend to get in too close and my images would benefit from my stepping back and allowing more space. I have often used a 50mm equivalent lens, but I intend to switch to a 35mm equivalent lens because I think this would add more space again. In addition, digital is sharper and resolves more detail than the 35mm films of old. This can be an issue because detail and sharpness can produce an indexicality among objects one doesn’t necessarily want. I may need to alter my post production to introduce flatter colour planes and an uncertain, even dreamy air more conducive to the uncanny.

Finally I think I need to be more disciplined and more selective in what I choose to photograph. I need to make more effort to look for those empty and uncanny scenes and more effort to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Both come with practice and more shooting, I hope. In an appallingly wet February in England, this is not easy but I intend to keep going. I know that what results will change my intent again. This is an interactive process. The whole point of doing this course is discovery.

So, following after the references are some current works in progress, preceded by two ‘key’ images from Blees Luxemburg and Eggleston. They are the intent, what I tried to lodge in my mind before going out and making images.

BLEES LUXEMBURG, Rut. 2009. Commonsensual : The Works of Rut Blees Luxemburg. London: Black Dog.

EGGLESTON, William. 2002. Ancient and Modern. London: Jonathan Cape.

EGGLESTON, William. 1989. The Democratic Forest. London: Secker & Warburg

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

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

SUSSMAN, Elisabeth, Thomas WESKI, Donna M. DE SALVO and William EGGLESTON. 2008. William Eggleston : Democratic Camera : Photographs and Video, 1961-2008. New York : Munich: Whitney Museum of American Art .

Mark Crean. 2020. Oxford at Night.

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

PHO702 Week 2: Work in Progress

This post about my work in progress really follows on directly from my previous post about questions of authenticity, representation and reality in photography. I have been experimenting with the photograph’s essential ambiguity – that there is no one ‘truth’ it ever shows. There are many truths, or readings. Which ones come to the fore depend on the photographer’s selectivity, on the context in which the image is presented, and on the (often unconscious) cultural assumptions both photographer and viewer employ.

I will illustrate this with a rather Ruscha-esque approach which I will call ‘Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building’. The Blavatnik School of Government is one of Oxford University’s most prestigious new faculties, housed in a spectacular modern building designed by the top-drawer architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. The Faculty’s website describes it in glowing terms: ‘The building has been hailed as a stunning new addition to Oxford’s historic skyline, and most of all through its design represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that are key to the School’s overall mission of improving public policy.’ (Blavatnik 2020)

Inspection of the site, however, reveals that there are many different views of the Blavatnik Building and some are not very ‘stunning’ or prestigious at all. Nor is there necessarily much ‘openness’ about the design since from some angles the elite student body inside the building is completely shut off by thick plate glass from the regular citizens who live and work outside it. The building can variously be seen as a prison block, a rather sinister and remote research facility or an ungainly blob dropped into a landscape of security fencing and CCTV cameras – as well as, of course, a very fine piece of modern architecture.

Which views are valid? All? Or none? And does presenting these views as a grid in a single image alter one’s perception over viewing the images one by one? Anyway, these are the ideas I am experimenting with in my work in progress at the moment.

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

CREAN, M. 2020. Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

PHO702 Week 2: Authentication and Representation

The question in the main discussion forum this week was what Roland Barthes may have meant when he said in Camera Lucida: “In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (Barthes 1980: 89) – and how this might affect both my own practice and that of others.

I think Roland Barthes may be saying that the evidential force of a photograph is often taken to be greater than whatever it depicts. Thus the fact of being shown a photograph of himself at an event he had forgotten all about is more forceful than the fact that he was there: ‘And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).’ (Barthes 2000: 85) But, crucially, Barthes qualifies this by saying that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not in fact about the object depicted but about time. (Barthes 2000: 89)

We can and do make common-sense assumptions about photographs being directly representational, but even so the reality-appearance debate is on very shaky ground. It has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted in people by showing them doctored photographs of them doing things they have never in fact done. (Wade 2002) And the apparent ‘reality’ of a photograph might be a simulacrum: how real is Disneyland? Perhaps reality is only a shifting mental construction. Probably we should bear in mind that an ambiguous experience can become solidified into certainty when our belief system kicks in. We believe what we want to believe.

So when we look at a photograph perhaps we first check whether it conforms to our sense of reality. If it does we may think the image shows something real, authentic, even if it actually doesn’t (like the venerable Loch Ness hoax). And if the image doesn’t conform to our sense of reality we may say that it is fictional. It doesn’t ‘authenticate’ our ideas about either reality or ourselves – like the fantastically brilliant ‘centaur’ image by Joel-Peter Witkin below.

Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small TownJoel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town

However, a child would probably think quite differently about the centaur image and why should their reaction be invalid? Magical realism is central to myths and human creativity of every kind.

This leads on to Roger Scruton’s insistence that a photograph is a photograph because it is involved in a causal chain of direct representation that can only be broken at the price of the image no longer being a photograph at all: ‘The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance’. (Scruton 1981: 594-5) Scruton maintains this is what painters do but his argument privileges figurative art above all else. I presume Scruton would have said that Joel-Peter Witkin’s work was really a painting pretending to be a photograph. But it manifestly is a photograph. Oh well.

It’s been suggested that Barthes may have said that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not about the object depicted but about time because he could not account for the sheer emotional impact certain photographs had on him. This makes what Barthes says more personal than general, and throws his original statement into doubt, but at least it allows him to present the photograph not as Scruton’s cold objective form but as felt experience. It’s not about theory, and not particularly about representation per se. A photograph is where the what-has-been hits the here-and-now. Maybe our ideas about authenticity arise from that clash.

In this, Barthes and Sontag agree: “All photographs are momento mori. … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ (Sontag 2008: 15)

To be honest I don’t really know where this leaves my practice. One can riff on these ideas all day but they seem completely detached from my daily life. The danger here, apart from insanity by theory, is paralysis by analysis.  What I need to do is drop the generic – the photographs anyone else could have taken – and concentrate on the images only I could have taken, good or bad – but at least they may be reasonably authentic in a personal sense and from a consistent point of view.

In this light, here is an image I made over the assessment period. Yes it is a bit forlorn but it’s an authentic assessment of how I was feeling at the time. By that stage, in late December, I had had enough of Christmas.

Mark Crean. 2019. Christmas Reindeer.
Mark Crean. 2019. A Night in the Suburbs.

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. ‘Photography and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 7(3). 577–603. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1343119Links to an external site. [accessed 03 February 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.

WADE, Kimberley A., Maryanne GARRY, J. Don READ and D. Stephen LINDSAY. 2002. ‘A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(3), 597–603.

PHO702: Human Choices and My Practice

John Berger’s statement about ‘human choices’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292) – ‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen’ – is qualified later in the same essay by another and potentially more interesting statement about the message of a photograph: ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it.’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 294)

My practice – and so my current project Oxford at Night – is now quite heavily concerned with that second statement in the light of studying three photographers in particular over the assessment period. I can probably explain this best with an image from my work-in-progress portfolio submitted in PHO701 (Crean 2019) and comparing it to some of the ideas in the work of Thomas Struth.

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

In the first place, this image is taken (unadventurously) straight-on, a framing that Struth began with perhaps under the influence of the Bechers but then moved beyond with beneficial results. More importantly there is this statement from Struth: ‘I always enjoy and pay a lot of attention to the context and atmosphere which certain groups of buildings create … architecture and the space it creates have to read in relationship to the human body and mental condition.’ (Struth 2012:51)

In other words, buildings are something we relate to and live among. They influence how we think and feel (or thought and felt in the case of old buildings) and therefore as assemblages they become social and political statements. Struth again: ‘Just as it is not possible to take photographs “objectively”, and any approach is innately subjective, it is also innately political. Unpolitical practicality doesn’t exist.’ (Struth 2010: 151)

So for my practice I need to dial down the ‘pretty picture’ effect or a straining for the sublime and start looking much more carefully at the kind of statements – political, social, psychological – that groups of buildings make. A large part of that is looking at different framing choices and focal lengths. This is not simply for effect or variety. Richard Sennett has pointed out that as Struth has progressed in his work, he has used off-centre framing and choice of subject to introduce an awareness of the past, present and future. (Struth 2012: 60) This can be seen by contrasting the formal and straight-on approach of his early monochrome images from Germany or New York with, for example, this image:

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

In Figure 2 there is the past (a street market), the present (current buildings, what the camera recorded) and a possible future (new development).

Finally, Struth’s images are never what they seem. That is their power. This has been well expressed by James Lingwood: ‘ … there is a double subject in Struth’s work: the specific places and the people pictured but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them. Beneath or beyond the immediate subject of the photograph … there is always an underlying enquiry.’ (Struth 2010: 169)

The enquiry, I suspect, is that what ties together much of Struth’s various projects – architecture, the ‘Paradise’ series on vegetation, the museum series, the family portraits and more recently his images of science laboratories – is the power of the human network, whether latent or overt, and its resilience (or not) in the face of the overwhelming power of science and technology. These are all points well made by reviewers or in documentary interviews with Struth (Hodgson 2011, Bloomberg TV 2017). Cities are networks, of course. Perhaps I should try harder to see Oxford as one and start to express that in my own practice.

The second photographer who is causing me to re-evaluate my practice is Stephen Shore. Shore has spoken widely of several things that resonate with me. There is ‘conscious attention’, ‘attentionality’, ‘the presence of attention’. (Shore 2018) This heightened awareness and conscious seeing is the difference between the way we naturally see and the perhaps more formal and distanced way we may choose to make photographs, a distinction which Shore likens to the difference between speaking and writing. (Shore 2018)

In other words, no matter how monumental or sublime a photograph may be, it will still need to be filled with the kind of detail and conscious attention Shore is talking about. This is something I need to pay much more attention to.

These ideas are taken further in Shore’s excellent book The Nature of Photographs (Shore 2007). He outlines the photographer’s four tools: flatness (i.e. depth of field effects), frame, time and focus. But the tools lead to the same place: the mental level of an image and the relationship between this and the depictive level.

The mental level begins with the photographer: ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organization of the photograph.’ (Shore 2007: 117) However, this is not going to be communicated fully unless the photographer is also aware of how we ‘read’ an image visually and construct a 3D illusion from a 2D original: ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.’ (Shore 2007: 97)

So, using these ideas, here is an image from my work in progress portfolio which I think works quite well:

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

I had a mental image immediately I saw this: the 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper. My ‘mental map’ helped me to frame the image as long diner windows, crop it slightly to give a more noir cinematic look, ensure there was enough detail of the building and street to convey the impression of being outside at night and looking in – and then quite simply wait until the customers inside the diner had moved into what struck me as an appropriate position. This, I hope, goes some way towards meeting Shore’s criteria for conscious attention and the relationship between mental and depictive levels.

Even so, I need to hold the mental and the depictive levels in my mind more forcefully in future before pressing the shutter.

The third photographer I have been paying a lot of attention to is Todd Hido, a specialist in night photography. During PHO701 I often tried to channel his look and failed. This image, for example, doesn’t come off at all, but having spent more time with Hido I think I can see why.

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

First, Hido is interested in narrative and is carefully selective about what starts off a story: ‘Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window – that’s what catches my attention. …  I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there.  … I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. … I recognized that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships.’ (Hido 2014: 19) Hido is careful with angles, framing and leading lines. He does not often shoot straight-on and is no slave to the rule of thirds. These are all things my own photograph has failed to accommodate but which Figure 5 below has accommodated.

Second, Hido (like Stephen Shore) brings ‘attentionality’ to the details. The image in Figure 5 is not any old house but in John Berger’s terms a human choice being exercised: ‘The way people present themselves to the world says a lot about what’s happening inside their home. … These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible, the subtle psychology of the space. … I find myself drawn to places that reveal more of a story.’ (Hido 2014: 25) The viewer is asked to pay attention and the image itself offers the details that will allow a story to form. This is where I need to be going.

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

Third, Hido is interesting on how he processes and prints his images: ‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter … the interpretation comes in making the print.’ (Hido 2014: 53) Colour casts may be added or subtracted. More or less use is made of flare, reflections, smudges from ice or rain on windscreens. By contrast, I have so far processed my images straight, with few changes and nothing major by way of re-interpretation. Perhaps I should start experimenting.

Hido reiterates all these points in his YouTube videos (Christie’s 2017, Van Vliet 2018) so they must be important to him.

Finally, here is an image from my work-in-progress portfolio that I think works quite well, but not well enough:

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

In the light of all the foregoing what I would say here is this: The image shows a strong and apposite contrast but it would be more expressive if it were not straight-on, used a wider angle for more context, if the lighting to the rear of the image was reduced in post to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and if there were people in the image. I might have had to wait to a while, but the right people in this image would have added both dynamism and (the point of the image) social comment. The Devil is always in the many small decisions that make or break an image.

To sum up what these three photographers have inspired in me:

  1. The psychology of space, which leads to the politics, social conditions and aesthetics of the space. This is the double subject: the contrast and mingling of the mental and the depictive.
  2. ‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
  3. Post-processing and printing are really important, painterly approach or not. The photographer in post influences how the viewer reads the image and creates the illusion of a 3D image and story in the mind.

So, my hopes for the coming term.

  1. The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
  2. I am considering revising my project and may change it to Oxford in daytime as well as at night. Months of unusually wet weather and consequent flooding and damage/disruption in the Thames Valley now are seriously limiting opportunities for night photography.
  3. People may be present by their absence in much of the foregoing work but I would prefer it if people were more central and present by their presence in mine. Better people skills in my practice will remain a goal and a challenge. In fact I keep thinking about Daido Moriyama … If I could blend Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido and Daido Moriyama into one then I think I might be on to something.

The question asked is ‘Outline your plans for further development within the module PHO702 – where are you going next?’ I would like a much sharper and more nuanced understanding of modern photographic practice. I would like to know – because I am practising it – where I fit in to this wide river. And I would like to incorporate the ideas discussed above in order to become a ‘better’ photographer. Or, as Stephen Shaw puts it, ‘To make all my decisions conscious, I started filling the pictures with attention.’ (Shore, 2018)

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figures

Figure 1: CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.
Figure 2: STRUTH, T. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3: CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.
Figure 4: CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford.
Figure 5: HIDO, T. 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From HIDO, Todd. 2016. Todd Hido – Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture, 78-9.
Figure 6: CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.

Week 9: Research Project Development

I was able to get out and shoot at night a couple of times this week. The weather cleared a bit allowing me to make some time-lapse and longer-exposure images which I had been waiting to do. Contact sheet attached.

I think I have worked out a reasonable way of progressing the project. Oxford can be disassembled, if you will, into four distinct parts: the old university city, the Victorian expansion, the interwar expansion and 1930s estates, and the newer postwar areas including the 15-mile Oxford ring road.

I will need to study these areas and work my way through them systematically, keeping in mind three key themes: the impact of the university and the new global elitism of the city centre, the neon and general commercial blare of the modern city at night, and the impact of the first two on those who live among them but who are often marginalised or prevented by lack of opportunity or wealth from full participation.

It is clear that I am going to need more skills to make a proper job of this. These include a knowledge of psychogeography and of transient and liminal contexts, and better portrait skills for any candid documentary work. So there are some items to add to an agenda.

Mark Crean (2019): Week9-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Time-lapse photographs in central Oxford.

Week 8: Research Project Development

I’ve been out shooting a few times this week for my Oxford at Night project but torrential rain, gales and the rest has spoiled at lot of it so there are not many images I am all that happy with. Contact sheets are appended below.

I have, however, worked out a provisional framework for how to take my project further over the next few months. Details will follow in a Week 9 post because they are also involved with preparing my portfolio of project work in progress.

In addition to the set coursework this week, I have also looked at some books from the library as background material for the project. By far the most impressive has been Magnum Contact Sheets. It is all about curation and curation is exactly what I need to do. Without curation, I am likely to amass hundreds of digital images which are not coherent and which fail to pick out the stories I am trying (or hoping) to tell. So, taking curation seriously will help me to think more carefully. And the book offers plenty of memorable quotations to ponder from some of the world’s great photographers and, even better, they don’t all agree.

“I don’t always like to look at contact sheets because it’s work and you can make mistakes, but it’s part of the process. You have to do it … because very often you don’t see things the first time and you do see them the second or third time.” – Elliott Erwitt, p.70

“You can’t be hung up on what you think your ‘real’ destination is. The journey is just as important.” – Steve McCurry, p. 297

“A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down – whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in flight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes and image that is sheer jubilation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson, p. 18

I have also looked at a collection of Werner Bischof’s images. It is so sad that he died at a young age. Something he is quoted as saying in the Introduction resonates with me:

“What are regarded as ‘fine photographs’ are often static, and when you concentrate on composing perfect pictures you are likely to fall into the trap of losing touching with life, with its colour and movement […] Yet why not tell a positive ‘human story’ through beautiful pictures?” – Werner Bischof, quoted in Introduction by Claude Roy

Finally, I have started working through Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography by Jesse Alexander. It’s worthwhile anyway but I’ll admit that a fair part of the reason for my interest comes from a tip in Grant Writing for Dummies, namely do some research and get to know the work of those you will be applying to.

ALEXANDER, J.A.P. 2015. Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Fairchild Books.

BISCHOF, Werner. 1989. Werner Bischof. London: Thames and Hudson.

BROWNING, Beverly A. 2014. Grant Writing for Dummies. Fifth edit. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

LUBBEN, Kristen. 2017. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1

Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2

Weeks 6 and 7: Research Project Development

My research project development in Weeks 6 and 7 has mainly consisted of study rather than going out and shooting, which I’ve only managed once.

However, I have been able to sit down with some large-format photography books and study how a successful project is put together. Learning how a successful project works is important for me because I have almost no experience of it.

Among several I’ve looked at, the stand-out is Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is a wonderful body of work anyway, but what has become clear to me – apart from the need for impeccable production values – are these items:

  1. A strong idea. The Mississippi river is just that, providing a natural linking and flow to the images.
  2. Keep an open mind and be alert to possibility. It is clear from reading around that some of the many characters in Soth’s story are the result of chance encounters. But these were seen as opportunities and taken.
  3. Everyone meets as an equal. The portraits are the strongest feature of the work, for me. To a degree they are posed because with a large plate camera they have to be. But Soth is never less than on the level with his subjects. He shows them as they are, in all their uniqueness and humanity. There is no judgement. There is compassion in these portraits, in fact. This is very important.
  4. Find sub-themes and interests or allow them to emerge naturally. Beds are famously one for Soth, but when they are present in images they are treated with subtlety. They always signify something else – a beginning, an ending, a conception, a fall from grace, human presence, an absence, and so on. There are other themes in this story: mementos and graffiti, textures, Christian symbols, snapshots on a bedroom wall – all adding up to something more.
  5. Tap into myths and archetypes. Soth is fortunate, because America’s foundation myths are still so strong. The pioneer, the explorer, the homesteader – they are all here. So too are the preacher man, the outlaw and the narrowly ex-slave. The capstone image of the essay – Johnny Cash’s birthplace, a humble weatherboard cabin – is a story out of the lives of Washington or Thoreau. And overall there is in the insistent melancholy of another American myth: that America’s settlers came to an Eden, but their ungodly ways have turned it into a hell. Robert Adams in Los Angeles Spring uses the same approach.

So I am very glad to have got close to Sleeping by the Mississippi. This is the way I should be heading.

Two other essays I have much enjoyed are Hidden by Paul Seawright and Dust by Nadav Kander, both very different from Alec Soth. I looked at them mainly because of their treatment of colour – delicate (Kander) and bleached (Seawright). Finding a colour palette is something else I need to do. I liked a similar approach in both books – tiny humans, vast landscapes, vast events, but presented with very careful and sophisticated composition and framing. The result immediately puts a question mark over time and human significance. Kander’s collapsed concrete structures at former Soviet nuclear sites already look as old, and as irrelevant, as anything left by the Kings of Assyria two or three thousand years ago.

Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers has some very interesting ideas. This observation by the book’s editors is fascinating:

“The Japanese have a unique understanding of landscape. The term of ‘landscape’ in Japanese is fukei, which combines the notion of ‘flow’ or ‘wind’ (fu), and ‘view’ or ‘-scape’ (kei) – hence ‘flowing view’. Landscape is thus not considered static, but transient, ephemeral, never stopping.

“The flow of time is a vital part of this understanding: in the Japanese arts, time’s passage in nature, and the changing seasons, are central motifs. …

“Fukei photography is by no means restricted to natural subjects: it can be about cities, people and architecture. Whatever its subject, the fukei photograph is a paradox: a fixed view of something that is understood to be by definition in flux.” (p. 42)

Below are the books I’ve looked at and following are two contact sheets from my one project development walk in Weeks 6 and 7.

Earth. 2009. Prix Pictet. Kempen: TeNeues.

EVANS, Harold. 1997. Pictures on a Page : Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. Rev. London: Pimlico.

GRUYAERT, Harry. 2015. Harry Gruyaert. London: Thames & Hudson.

KANDER, Nadav and Will SELF. 2014. Nadav Kander : Dust. Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

SOTH, Alec and Hanya YANAGIHARA. 2019. I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating. London: MACK.

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.

TUCKER, Anne, Ivan VARTANIAN, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KANBAYASHI. 2005. Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers. New York : London: Aperture.

Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development

Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development

 

Week 5: Research Project

I opted to get myself sorted out with membership of the Bodleian Library this week and therefore to concentrate on some study. The Bodleian is an incredibly useful resource to have on my doorstep and I intend to use it a lot more now.

To become more familiar with night photography, since my research project is Oxford at Night, I ordered up and then sat down and went through the following books. I am not going to write immediate off-the-cuff impressions here but I have made notes and jotted down quotable quotes too. I will say, however, that being able to study the practice of Robert Adams, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg from their original large-format photography books is a joy.

Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

Blees Luxemburg, R. (2009). Commonsensual : the works of Rut Blees Luxemburg. London: Black Dog.

Brandt, B., Haworth-Booth, M. and Mellor, D. (1985). ‘Bill Brandt: behind the camera: photographs 1928-1983’. In Behind the camera. New York: Aperture.

Brassaï. (1988). ‘Brassaï : Paris le jour, Paris la nuit’. In Paris le jour, Paris la nuit. Paris: Paris Musées.

Hido, T. (2016). ‘Todd Hido – intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album’. In Intimate distance. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.

Moriyama, D. and Maggia, F. (2010). Daido Moriyama : the world through my eyes. Milan: London: Skira.

Sparham, A. and Ellams, I. (2018). London nights. 1st edn. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

The Owned Landscape

I’ve been reading this week about the New Topographics movement and also looking at the work of several photographers including Robert Adams, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws – all in connection with my research project, Oxford at Night.

“New Topographics” shook up landscape photography and put some superb photographers on the map, but at first I found it odd that I should be so interested in an exhibition held in 1975-6 in Rochester NY called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.

Then I realised what was drawing me. The traditional image of Oxford is like those pristine American landscapes of old that “New Topographics” was reacting against: beauty, emotion, form among golden-hued college quadrangles, dreaming spires, languid punting on the river and chaps in gowns or boating jackets.

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

Problem is, these days that’s baloney. Everything about our world has changed. Oxford is a huge sprawling conurbation with the same social problems, some severe, as anywhere else. And with that our aesthetics have changed too.

So my New Topographics, if you like, will be photographing what Oxford is today, not what the tourist brochures or fond imaginings suggest. In this I’ve been helped by the practice of Jeff Brouws who has spoken of a “franchised landscape” of insatiable consumerism and of the “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape”.

As Neoliberalism tightens its grip on our societies, I would extend the Franchised Landscape into the Owned Landscape. It’s particularly obvious after dark. Almost every part of the inner city is claimed, from corner stores to office blocks and often by a corporation whose ownership is emblazoned via signs, brandings, posters and every variety of lurid neon coloration. While a natural landscape might envelop us and encourage us to feel a part of it, the Owned Landscape excludes us. We are shut out as if from a corporate Eden. Often we can only approach the Owned Landscape through plate glass, barred gates, moats and security guards. While such landscapes can have their own moments of beauty the cumulative effect is to render the onlooker a powerless bystander. You may be allowed in, but only under controlled conditions and, usually, only if you are prepared pay what the owner demands. No credit card? No Eden.

Below the references are some research project images I made earlier in the week.

Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York: Aperture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Development: Research Categories

I am going to start from the general in organizing research into my project, the City at Night. I hope that sufficient winnowing will enable me to identify a kernel of interest that is worth expressing.

Photographic History
At the moment I have the following to research as a starting point:

  • Brassai
  • Bernard Eilers (early experiments in colour)
  • Harry Gruyaert (his use of colour and some images from his series “Made in Belgium”, interestingly a collaboration with a writer)
  • Todd Hido
  • Dan Holdsworth
  • Edward Hopper
  • Joshua K. Jackson
  • Dina Litovsky and her “Meatpacking” series: http://dinalitovsky.com/meatpacking/
  • London Nights exhibition: https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/10/london-nights-the-exhibition/
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Daido Moriyama and Shinjuku (in Tokyo)
  • Trent Parke
  • Nick Turpin (Turpin, N. (2017). On the night bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press)

Need: identify key photographers of the city over the past century or more and concentrate on their work at night or after dark. Who are the people I definitely need to know about, modern and old? Important to widen the scope to include photography of night and dark, not just cities.

Cultural History
Find source material on cities, the metropolis, the urban experience particularly after dark, and specifically on Oxford itself. Investigate the city as a worldwide modern phenomenon. What do Oxonians themselves think of their city after dark? It could be views of the mayor but it could equally be someone waiting for a late bus. Check local groups and meetings around social and urban-city questions or even consider advertising for subjects and input.

Also find source material on night and darkness and their effect on our physical and mental states. Some may be film, fiction or poetry.

Narrative Approach
How to organize material: thematic, by the hour, by subject, by season or weather and so on? How will the project treat time? Will “night” be seen as a general condition or times of night treated specifically (for example pub closing hours, transport timings)? How will individual images treat time, for example live composite or long exposure images? How will “night” be defined since it is only a label for what elapses between dusk and dawn? There is the question of in-between or liminal states as day becomes night and night becomes day again. Do we experience time differently at night? How do our other senses react to it? 

Social Commentary
State, process or event? Will the project be generally descriptive, like an urban landscape exercise? Or will it attempt to show the lives of various subjects – night workers, revellers, travellers, the homeless, the marginal and so forth? Oxford is always full of new arrivals and visitors not only tourists, but students, migrant workers and commuters. It is unusually cosmopolitan.

Subject Matter and Sub-themes
Define night, define “city” and define Oxford if at all possible. Then decide how much to show of the city’s many possible subjects, from architecture to individual people, venues and areas (centre vs suburbs), commercial and domestic properties, etc. Possibility of finding and following specific subjects (street food vendors, for example). This in turn raises the question of treatment: the anonymous subject versus the identified subject with a voice.

Key here will be keeping the range in check and on-topic since the potential subject matter is unlimited. What does “night” mean and reveal that “daylight” doesn’t?

Mission Statement
Why this project and what it tries to do in a few sentences only. To do this, however, I need to conduct enough research to narrow the topic down from generalities to what, specifically, I am trying to express.

Ethical Considerations
Distressed people, homeless people, inebriated people and so forth. Is it acceptable to bring them into my practice and if so how? (At the moment I am thinking probably not except for revellers.)

Photographic Techniques
There are single images, but also live composite images and long exposures, collage, contact sheets and so on. There is also video. All are available, but if the delivery medium is a book my options are more limited.

Textual Considerations
No text, short captions, long captions, witness statements from subjects photographed, poetry, excerpts from appropriate literature, narration or statements by the photographer and so forth. All to be decided.

Style
Colour vs monochrome. Colour palettes. Film emulation. Overall treatment of things like contrast and tonal values. Close-up vs wider angles. Deep versus shallow depth of field and “bokeh” images. Abstract versus naturalistic.

To enliven this otherwise wordy post, here is the trailer of a short film by Gerrit Messiaen about the photographer Harry Gruyaert. I have always liked his work, the use of colour, the often dim or subdued lighting, the sense of impermanence, the surrealist touches and, sometimes, his portrayal of the thin watery light of northern Europe. He is an influence, for sure.

See also:

Claus, H. and Gruyaert, H. (2000). Made in Belgium. Paris: Delpire Éditeur

Harry Gruyaert – Photographer. (2018). [film] Directed by G. Messiaen. Belgium.