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.
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 Fig. 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 Figs 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.
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.
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.
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:
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’.
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.
They are very aware of space or emptiness and seem to compose very carefully with this in mind.
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 .
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.
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 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.
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
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.
The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
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.
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)
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.
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