For the moment, my work in progress is taking me to the areas of St Clement’s and West Oxford.
It has been hard to settle this module, but I am finding that things are changing and that a theme (or themes) has emerged.
My reader of Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie (Fisher 2016) is leading me to select images that express something strange or unusual, but not the uncanny in its traditional spooky and noir form. My feeling is that a pure ‘uncanny’ approach has its uses but is too much of a cliche today to make it the only intent in one’s photography. Besides, I looked at the uncanny in a previous module and I would like to progress beyond it.
And in looking for the strange and the unusual, I am slowly detaching from the hard-edged social documentary approach with which I started this whole course. I am now moving more into fiction. This will be the influence of Calvino’s Invisible Cities ( Calvino 1997) which I am reading, but it is also the direction in which I know I need to travel.
Clicking on an image in the gallery will produce a larger, lightbox view.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For this module I am continuing with my research project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark. And as with the last module I am presenting my images in black and white rather than in colour.
It normally takes me a few weeks to settle into a new module. A theme for the module will emerge and when it does I have a much better idea of what I need to do and where I am coming from each time I go out to make photographs. In other words, I have formed a clear intent.
At the moment I am trying out a few things. Last module I used a 35mm lens for almost every image. This time I am varying that from wider to closer. I am also bringing in a wider choice of subject matter such as signs, symbols, shop fronts – the daily clutter of where we all live. Showing where we don’t live is easy – and often very dull. It is the typical, picture-perfect postcard view. Showing where we live but presenting something new about it is far more interesting and, overall, this is currently my intent. It is an experiment and the next couple of weeks will show whether it works and sits comfortably with me.
Click on an image below for a larger, lightbox view:
I am looking forward to finding out about the next module, but in the meantime I have a few little jobs to keep me busy during the holidays …
A Book Dummy
Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have covered my progress so far in a previous post.
Black and White
I will continue to look for accomplished photographers who use black and white and with whose approach I ‘click’. Learning how to ‘see’ or visualise a potential image in black and white before pressing the shutter of my camera will take time to master.
I plan to continue with some photography walks through the holidays. I need to keep up the connection and nurture the threads of my thinking, and to take advantage of a still relatively quiet city especially at night. That may well change (or not) if the two universities here restart full student and academic activities in late September and October.
Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have started mapping this out in Adobe In Design but I am very aware of my own inexperience. The Self Publish, Be Happy company’s instructional videos on Vimeo are going to be helpful here and I have noticed that one of their designer-publishers, Brian Paul Lamotte, offers one-to-one tutorials so I may well be taking that up (Self Publish Be Happy 2020). Another look at the curation and sequencing sections of Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks would be a good idea, too (Colberg 2017). I will likely use either Saal Digital or Blurb for the printing, at least for now, because it is easy and reasonably affordable.
I have drafted a few spreads to give myself an idea of what is possible. Of course, the immediate result is that all kinds of new story lines and points of comparison have arisen. For example, is this going to be a walk driven by enough of an internal narrative so that the sequencing flows through to the end without interruption? Or, are there going to be pauses and diversions, a stop along the way, for example, to examine a Becher-style grid of windows or street lights? At this stage I have no idea. I only know that these ideas are possible and arising.
Here (Figures 1-12 below) is a brief gallery view of some sample spreads. Click for a lightbox view with captions.
COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.
SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY. 2020. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://selfpublishbehappy.com/ [accessed 14 Aug 2020].
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Sample spreads for a book dummy. From: Mark Crean. 2020. From Silent City. Collection of the author.
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.
For the past couple of weeks I have continued with my work in progress, making several visits to the Cowley and Florence Park areas of East Oxford. I have tried to do a little more about searching for telling details, an aspect of my practice I have not devoted enough attention to. The search for nuance and suggestion continues … . Click below for a lightbox view.
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Silent City. Collection of the author.
I have been looking at Simon Morley’s The Sublime (Morley 2010). This is relevant to my practice first because the uncanny (an important element in night photography) can be seen as an aspect of the sublime, and second because there is the sublime around in Oxford – some big views and vistas of the Thames, streets and squares full of large medieval buildings in seemingly perfect arrangements, and slightly sinister and uncanny areas when darkness falls.
Morley begins by laying down a baseline definition of the sublime:
‘The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, likes beyond the human – God or gods, the daemon or Nature – is a matter for great disagreement. Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence 1976′ (Morley 2010: 12).
Morley suggests that the sublime experience is the moment reason and certainties crumble. ‘The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative. … Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’ (Morley 2010: 12). Morley’s divides the sublime into four different kinds, each one stemming from the ideas of Longinus, Burke, Kant or Schiller. This is not the place to engage in a long intellectual discussion, but the essential point I am trying to take away from this is that the sublime is an experience and it always involves coming up against limits – the limits of nature or self, beyond which lies the unknown. Reaching these limits is unsettling and the unknown beyond them may evoke feelings that range from awestruck to terrifying.
The question, however, is what these ideas mean in practice and how may they affect me photographically. It is not hard to find the sublime in the history of art, in for example the awe and exultation often associated with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or in the mighty new industrial age of Lang’s Metropolis. Or, of course, in much of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams in which the Rückenfigur is first the photographer and then the viewer.
Photographically, there are many ways of expressing these ideas today. The sublime of the photographic seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto can be compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and both can be compared to the paintings of Barnett Newman who announced in 1948 that the ‘Sublime is Now … We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions’ (Morley 2010: 25-7).
While for another project I would love to produce something akin to Sugimoto’s seascapes, my walks along the Thames on summer evenings this year have produced something quite different. I have felt a more Burkean sublime, an experience, based in nature and shot through with pastoral and melancholy. Oxford is much about preserving the past – one thinks of Lewis Carroll or Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – but of course that past is gone and the truth is that much of it was always a sentimental fiction. All I can do is photograph what I see before me and try to bring out something of its complex mixture of sublime, pastoral, elegiac, modern and sometimes disturbing.
Two aspects of the sublime easier for me to express are the uncanny and the modern sublime of the contemporary world of bright lights, grands projets, huge structures and high technology, a world all about power.
The uncanny is that unsettling feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity that can arise when we come up against a kind of limit and perhaps long-forgotten childhood memories surface and are re-experienced through now-adult eyes. The modern locus of this is Freud (Freud et al. 2003) and sometimes the surrealists and I covered it in the previous module.
The modern sublime is something all around us, at a time when the valuation of Apple Corp is greater than the GDP of Russia. It is in William Klein’s Atom Bomb Sky, New York of 1955 or Nadav Kander’s images of vast new building projects along the Yangtze in China (Kander 2010). Oxford has little of this, being mostly an old and suburban place. There are one or two views of exalted and powerful places and I covered some of them this summer (see figures 3 and 4).
The sublime is a very interesting story and is definitely something I need to study more and bring into my images. It offers another source of tension and ambiguity, and I need that in my images – the tension, for example, between what the modern world promises and the sometimes dispiriting and exploitative results the modern world can produce. That too is part of the story.
FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.
KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.
MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. London: Whitechapel Gallery.
Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
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.]
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