I have continued with my current research project, Hometown Nights, an exploration of my home city of Oxford after dark.
For the past few weeks I have mostly concentrated on the river Thames and the structures along its banks as it flows through the city. I still need a visit or two to the Oxford Canal, which begins here, and to one or two bridges as the Thames leaves Oxford – but, broadly, I have now covered most of this element of the project at least on a ‘first pass’ basis. It will look different, and in fact may look better, at other seasons of the year. We will see.
My project is called Hometown Nights, a walk through my hometown – Oxford and its environs – after dark when the imaginings of the night come out to play, the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the strangeness of the urban world takes hold.
I have three intentions here. First, is the expression of the uncanny. Second is expressing the extraordinary in the ordinary, catching the photographic possibilities in the apparently mundane (as with Eggleston, Shore and Power, for example). The third aspect of my intent is how I look the social relations and power dynamics of the modern urban world in an increasingly unequal and divided society.
For this module I am thinking of concentrating on two things. First, water: the river, canals, water features and so forth of Oxford. Second, earth: the Cowley area of East Oxford which has both some industry and some notably deprived estates.
However, the point of doing this entire course is to change everything. Right now, I have no particular idea whether these plans will stand up or whether I will find that my vision and intent are changing, in which case my project will change too. This is very much a ‘don’t know’ situation. I welcome this, as for me it is the only way of learning and embracing the new.
Words I have going round in my head at the moment are collaboration, experimentation and different kinds of media (in bold so I remember). I have a difficult relationship with social media because I have found it psychologically harmful in the past, but likely I need to spend time assembling a platform on Instagram to start trailing my project.
This week I have made a few photography walks, both to gather images for the week’s activity of repeat photography and to make some new images to take my project forward.
It will take me a few trips before things settle down and I am in the zone again. I attach some work in progress below. It is not intended to form a coherent whole. It is just what happened.
The brief for this week mentions ‘methodology’. That sounds like a posh word for a Thermos of coffee, a ham sandwich, a torch (if at night) and a lot of walking in the free summer air. Only then does it all come alive.
My current research project is called Hometown Nights and is an exploration of my home city, Oxford in England, and its environs after dark. I have kept with the same project since the start of this degree course last September.
To quote from my Critical Review of Practice for PHO702: ‘I am locating my practice in a long tradition of urban night photography. The genre goes back to practitioners such as Steichen and Stieglitz, but my primary interest here is twofold: first, the tradition of photographers of urban American culture such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power; and second, with contemporary practitioners who have often concentrated on night photography such as Rut Blees Luxemburg, Todd Hido, Nick Turpin, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, David George and Awoiska van der Molen.’
This is very much a work in progress because I haven’t yet found which particular approach and style of photography after dark is my own and the one to zero in on. But … I hope I am getting there.
My most recent Work in Progress Portfolio- submitted for PHO702 – can be found here:
I have revised my project a little. I am now calling it Hometown Nights instead of Oxford at Night and I am extending its scope to include not only the city of Oxford but its immediate environs. This therefore now includes Kidlington, a large and directly adjoining village of some 14,000 people which in practice has become an Oxford suburb.
This has turned out to be an interesting addition because suburbs and old city centres are very different places. A suburb has different architecture, a different treatment of space, a different purpose (residential, not commercial) and much else. In other words, this is a challenge not only of photography and interpretation but of psychogeography.
If the world situation changes and I revise my project back strictly to Oxford, what I learn here will be put to good use in the closer-in city suburbs within the Oxford ring-road.
Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author.
I am very much enjoying the work of the photographer David George (George 2020). Much of his practice is in urban areas (particularly London) after dark and it really strikes a chord with me. It is not only that the urban landscapes of parts of Hackney or Peckham are similar to parts of Oxford but that I like George’s whole approach. He is not afraid of darkness and extensive shadows if the composition is there. He uses only natural light and, so far as I can tell, an ordinary digital camera. He has a gentle, unfussy approach and concentrates on what he sees on his night-time forays rather than on trying to send a portentous State of the Nation message. This is all the kind of territory in which I feel at ease. See Figure 1.
There is plenty for me to learn here.
First, George brings clarity to his practice in the form of short but direct statements of his intent for each of his projects (George 2020). There is the uncanny (The Gingerbread House), the Pastoral tradition (Backwater, Hackney by Night), the Sublime (Enclosures, Badlands and Borders), the Romantic tradition (Albedo) or childhood (Shadows of Doubt). Each project is informed by the artistic and literary traditions behind the theme, and by the work of other photographers in the field. It is impressively simple and clear, but also researched.
Second, George is very aware of time and change, that he is often photographing old industrial landscapes on the cusp of change in an increasingly post-industrial West. There is affection but no judgement in this understanding, just observation of a never-ending process: ‘These new landscapes have their own charm and nuances, replacing the old pastoral vistas; all created by man’s intervention in the environment for eons, with new interventions and the creation of a new era in English Landscape’ (George 2020). George cites New Topographics, the Bechers and Joel Sternfeld among others as influences – all influences I need to know more about. I suspect that the idea of change, in the way George describes it, needs to inform my own practice.
Third, George is not afraid of creating atmosphere, an air of mystery, perhaps introducing the poetic. I much appreciate finding this in his images because it is very easy to be cowed by the strictures of postmodernism – which can often seem too cerebral and basically joyless – and forget that both photographer and viewer respond emotionally to the image. There is something visceral in a really effective image, and if one is not enjoying the making then what is the point. For me, this particularly applies to dealing with dark areas using only available light. In George’s words: ‘ … the shadow offers the viewer imaginative access to the image and therefore ownership of the narrative within the photograph, the viewer becoming an active storyteller rather than a passive observer, which is a much more interesting way to interact with the photographic image’ (Keller-Privat 2018). This is so refreshing to hear.
Finally, I like George’s approach to curation and storytelling. He is open to collaboration in more than one medium and there is no fixation with the Barthesian author-as-controller. In Hackney at Night George collaborated with the writer Karen Falconer: her short story, his images. ‘What I wanted was to take the reader on a gentle meander through the night, to feel like they’d have a bit of a dream … I want the reader to make up their own relationship between text and image. This isn’t a shouty book: we’re all grownups, so make up your own stories, it’s much more fun’ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
So, overall, a lovely find.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘David George: Hackney At Night’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/12/hackney-at-night/ [accessed 4 Apr 2020].
FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].
I guess the point of this week’s topic is to show how all photographs contain messages, including political messages. I need to be aware of that, especially in my own work, and also aware of how a viewer is likely to receive those messages. They may be received very differently depending on the context (e.g., in a newspaper or on the wall of an art gallery).
The question of the role of aesthetic choices in this struck me as fascinating. It goes to the heart of the debate over the practice of Sebastãio Salgado (see below). I particularly like Susie Linfield’s approach in her excellent book The Cruel Radiance (Linfield 2010), because she takes a much wider and more forgiving view than either Ingrid Sischy (Sischy 1991) or Susan Sontag (Sontag 2004):
Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions (Linfield 2010: 22).
In order words, photographs may be there to change us or to shock us but they also perform many other functions and are interpreted in many other ways. This becomes clear in Linfield’s essays in her book on James Nachtwey and Giles Peress (Linfield 2010). Personally I find Nachtwey’s meticulously composed, distant, almost formal images of suffering much more deeply disturbing than a typical combat photograph. Peress shares some of the same qualities but he is also very effective in suggesting something by showing only its traces. One can see this in his image of a beleaguered Kurdish mountain village. This is apparently normal life among the women and children – but it isn’t normal and both they and we, the viewers, know it. See Figure 1.
The question of traces, the after-the-event, leads on to David Campany’s idea of ‘Late Photography’ in Safety in Numbness (Campany 2003) not least as a niche that the still image can occupy in the face of citizen journalism and instant video news. I do not entirely agree with Campany’s conclusions, however: ‘We may have been able to see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal. Photography was struggling to find a way to reconcile itself with a new position beyond the event. And it was discovering that sombre melancholia was a seductive mode for the still image’ (Campany 2003).
Campany is describing the images of Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zero in New York, but ‘sombre melancholia’ is only one of a wide range of emotions the still image can arouse. The still image can arouse anger, for example, as in Martha Rosler’s approach to the traces of homelessness in her classic The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (Rosler 1974-5). There is a similar approach to the same subject and its traces in the practice of Leif Claesson (Claesson 2020).
Rosler raises a very good point present in the work of almost all the photographers mentioned this week: ‘Documentary as we know it carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1989: 306). I had not realized how problematic documentary can be, and Rosler’s point feeds right into another question, whether truly shocking images can change anything or, instead, leave the viewer feeling apathetic and helpless. It is clear that this issue has long been widely understood – see for example Berger 2009: 32 – but I am not sure that anyone has found a conclusive answer. What is left are strategies: some work, some don’t.
I do think the strategy of suggestion and traces works, but perhaps that’s just me. It is at least the approach I am taking in my own project. I will show the traces of homelessness, of people, of events, of an uncanny feeling that ‘something happened here’. I think this is more powerful (and more ethical) than showing the thing itself. See Figures 2 and 3.
Finally, the question of aesthetics and the practice of Sebastãio Salgado. Ingrid Sischy makes one very strong point in her appraisal of his work: ‘To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy 1991: 92). This is spot on, if it genuinely is tragedy. Too much of the rest of her article struck me as a depressing example of the snobbery and elitism of the East Coast arts establishment. It was neither a fair nor an accurate appraisal of Salgado’s work. I much prefer the more subtle and intelligent approach taken by David Levi Strauss in his essay on this subject, particularly ‘Why can’t beauty be a call to action? Being politically correct does not signify much unless the work is both visually and conceptually compelling. To be compelling there must be tension in the work’ (Levi Strauss 2005: 9-10).
This returns us to several things. First it returns us to the qualities of the image itself. Second it suggests that practitioners and artists should be assessed with an open mind on the basis of what they can do, not on what they can’t. Some people are documentarists and perhaps involved in politics, and others simply aren’t. That is not who they are. Salgado strikes me as one of them, someone in love with the visual, the poetic, the mysterious, a bit of a visionary. There is nothing wrong with this.
It is also the case that we live in a consumer culture. Key to reaching an audience is widespread dissemination on TV, social media, in the press and through popular books. Without that audience, no message will get through no matter how worthwhile. Salgado has that audience and reach, as does the Attenborough Life team, for example. The issue is how to work with them and use their platforms of persuasion, not against them. Railing against them will change nothing.
BERGER, John. 2009. About Looking. London: Bloomsbury.
CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 19 Jan 2020].
ROSLER, Martha. c. 1989. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts on Documentary Photography’. In Richard BOLTON (ed.). The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 303–40.
The topics in Week 6 have led me to think about the importance of context and decoding in my practice, the kind of power dynamics that may be going on in it, and how my work may be received by others – my audience.
Well, I could start by saying that I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class male – all true but also an invitation to self-castigation. All I can do is try to be as aware as possible of the influences that have formed me.
Context and decoding mean that I need to think carefully about what I am looking at before I press the shutter. I need to ask myself ‘What is really going on here?’ Otherwise, the danger is that I will end up photographing surfaces – shiny and alluring no doubt – but miss the dynamics of what lies beneath them.
Power dynamics lead straight to ethics. As a photographer I have a fair degree of control. I can choose when I press the shutter but my subjects cannot choose when or how they are photographed. I need to be aware of that and not objectify people or places.
The wider context of my work is that for the moment at least I am following in the footsteps of practitioners such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power. This is all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, expressing the uncanny, not glossing over difficult social realities and power imbalances, and not privileging any particular thing over another. Everything is potentially material for my lens. In the words of Stephen Shore, ‘To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photograph is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.’ (O’Hagan 2015)
This feeds into thoughts about the audience for my work. These are photographers known for their books and so my intent is for a book in same tradition. A question to resolve is how to tell a story in such a book because a book tells a story whether one wants it to or not. Story-teling is very much a work in progress for me.
There are, however, many different kinds of book. This week has helped me to think about that. I do plan a fairly conventional photography book but looking at the practice of Dyanita Singh has led me to think that in addition I could produce many variant ‘books’. (Singh 2020). A ‘book’ can also be a box, a frame or a concertina containing cards not pages. Dyanita Singh, for example, offers her images in sets of many different formats.
Now, my work in progress this week. The first two slides contain material from Richard Misrach and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, text and images. This is the intent I tried to keep in my mind as I went out to photograph.
HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].
The topic this week was the Gaze. I went out with the gaze of William Eggleston as my intent, or at least that of the ‘Beautiful Mysterious’ which is the title of a recent book on his practice (Adabie 2019).
First, here are four images by Eggleston that I tried to keep in mind as my intent, followed by some of my own work in progress. The idea is that nothing before my lens is favoured, but nothing is rejected either. I am looking for the special in the ordinary.
ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.
Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’ (after Abadie 2019).
Figures 2-12. Mark CREAN, 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.
In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:
… all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal (Harris 2015).
Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.
To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.
I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.
First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example
Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.
For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.
Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:
Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:
First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.
The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.
I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.
I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.
There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:
So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.
ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.
Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.
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