This is my video presentation in Week 10 of PHO702, off a link to YouTube:
The direct link is https://youtu.be/9aZEiGJOF0Q
This is my video presentation in Week 10 of PHO702, off a link to YouTube:
The direct link is https://youtu.be/9aZEiGJOF0Q
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].
O’HAGAN, Sean. 2015. ‘Shady Character: How Stephen Shore Taught America to See in Living Colour’. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/09/stephen-shore-america-colour-photography-1970s [accessed 4 Mar 2020].
PINKHASSOV, Gueorguy. 1998. Sightwalk. London: Phaidon.
PINKHASSOV, Gueorgui. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification – Magnum Photos’. [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gueorgui-pinkhassov-sophistication-simplification/ [accessed 6 Mar 2020].
SINGH, Dyanita. 2020. ‘Dayanita Singh’. [online]. Available at http://dayanitasingh.net/ [accessed 4 Mar 2020].
Figure 1. Dyanita SINGH. 2018. ‘The Pothi Box’. Dyanita Singh [online]. Available at: http://dayanitasingh.net/pothi-box/ [accessed 9 Feb 2020].
Figure 2: Melissa HARRIS, 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020]; Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2020. ‘Sophistication Simplification’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gueorgui-pinkhassov-sophistication-simplification/ [accessed 6 Mar 2020].
Figures 3. Richard MISRACH. 1975. Saguaro Cactus; Gueorgui PINKHASSOV. 2018. Blackpool illuminations.
Figures 4-13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.
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.
HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].
MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html [accessed 25 February 2020].
Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.
The uncanny has a chequered history. According to the OED it was not until at least the late eighteenth century that the word acquired something of its modern meaning; ‘Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c1850.)’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2020). Perhaps that is also true of other cultures and is why Freud devoted so much of his essay on The Uncanny to investigating the term’s meaning and origins (Freud 2003), although Freud was of course investigating the German term unheimlich.
‘Uncanny’ at one time seems to have been a rather vague put-down. An example is Alfred Horsley Hinton, editor of Amateur Photographer, criticizing some of Steichen’s work in 1904 (for example, Steichen’s images of New York’s Flatiron Building): ’I admire Steichen’s work for myself but it is the admiration one feels for something strange and uncanny – I can’t think that such work is healthy or would in this country have a beneficial influence’ (Rahmlow 2016). Horsley couldn’t understand the symbolic, impressionistic, subjective nature of Steichen’s work and clearly yearned for something bracingly noble and simple to understand, a statue of Prince Albert perhaps.
Thus Freud’s essay of 1919, which has set the tone for our modern understanding of the uncanny, was also a much-needed housecleaning and forensic examination. Freud called the uncanny ‘that species of frightening which goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud 2003: 124) and he tried to locate this in the unconscious and repression, at first in the infantile castration complex and then later and especially in the repression of death. Freud also located the uncanny in the repression of what he called ‘insurmountable primitive beliefs’ that he believed modern man still carried deep in the psyche. This is not an expression that would find favour today. We might now refer to traditional belief systems (for example the myths and beliefs of the San people or of indigenous cultures in Australia). More generically, we might even refer to primal instincts, and there is no doubt that in darkness our sense do change, become more prickly and alert to danger.
Interestingly, Freud invoked Otto Rank’s idea of the double or doppelgänger in this process: ‘The double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, “an energetic denial of the power of death”’ (Freud 2003: 141).
Photographs are of course doubles (and Freud’s essay is full of eyes and seeing as symbols of the castration complex). The indexicality of photographs makes them ghostly doubles of reality but their subjective representational aspects always produce uncertainty. In addition, photographs disturb our sense of time. They show us the past in the present moment, both dead and strangely alive. This is Barthes’ ‘noeme (that-has-been’)’ and he spent a great deal of Camera Lucida exploring it (Barthes 2000). In discussing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne, for example, Barthes writes: ‘But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake’ (Barthes 2000: 96). Both Barthes and Sontag saw the photograph as a species of memento mori and in Camera Lucida Barthes wrote of how society tends to repress the threatening unruliness of art: ‘Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.’ (Barthes 2000: 117). In sum, as Nicholas Middleton writes in his study of the uncanny and photography, ‘Death is the ultimate incarnation of the abstract that is the uncanny’ (Middleton 2020).
I had not realized just how long and complex the story of art and the uncanny actually is. There is already Gothic horror in the eighteenth century and a plethora of dark imaginings in the nineteenth century as the strangeness of an increasingly urban world began to take hold. Ideas of the uncanny were incorporated by the Surrealists, because the yoking together of two completely unexpected elements can provoke that unsettling sensation of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context, after Freud. Examples are Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’ of 1921 and some of Lee Miller’s marvellously original photographs. See Figures 1 and 2.
Today the uncanny is perennially popular. It can be experienced in the alien but still recognizable suburban world of many of J.G Ballard’s novels and it is a staple of the cinema (one thinks of the unsettling creepiness of many Hitchcock films). The same is true of science fiction’s replicants and cyborgs. They take us back to the robotic Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman which Freud analysed in his original essay and forwards to a contemporary interest in cutting-edge robotics and automata (Tronstad 2008).
The uncanny also takes us to a rich history in photography. I was very interested to see that an entire exhibition was recently devoted to it, ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ (Tique Magazine 2016).
The most useful survey of the modern uncanny I have found so far is by Caterina Albano in Esse Arts (Albano 2008). I particularly like the way she links the uncanny to a contemporary visual culture in which death is airbrushed away and meaning dissipates amid a bewildering display of Baudrillardian signs and simulacra: ‘Both psychoanalytically and culturally, the notion of the uncanny is increasingly inscribed within a discourse that invests estrangement, alienation and the other. Julia Kristeva poignantly underlines the experience of strangeness and depersonalisation as integral to the construction of contemporary subjectivity’ (Albano 2008). This is a very postmodern condition.
How does all this affect my practice? Since this is a large and complex subject, that will take time. I can begin, however, by realizing two things. First, that the estrangement and alienation of modern urban life are fertile ground for the uncanny. And second, that the uncanny works by combination to produce cognitive dissonance: the familiar with the unfamiliar, the expected with the unexpected and the presence of one thing with the absence of another. Like photography itself, these are all doubles.
ALBANO, Caterina. 2008. ‘Uncanny: A Dimension in Contemporary Art’. Esse Arts + Opinions [online]. Available at: https://esse.ca/en/uncanny-a-dimension-in-contemporary-art [accessed 2 Mar 2020].
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin.
MIDDLETON, Nicholas. 2005. ‘Photography & The Uncanny’. Photography & The Uncanny [online]. Available at: http://www.nicholasmiddleton.co.uk/thesis/thcontents.html [accessed 2 Mar 2020].
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY. 2020. ‘Uncanny, Adj. : Oxford English Dictionary’. Oxford English Dictionary [online]. Available at: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/210106?redirectedFrom=uncanny#eid [accessed 4 Mar 2020].
RAHMLOW, Kurt E. 2016. ‘The Admiration One Feels for Something Strange and Uncanny: Impressionism, Symbolism, and Edward Steichen’s Submissions to the 1905 London Photographic Salon’. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 15 (1), Spring 2016 [online]. Available at: https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring16/rahmlow-on-impressionism-symbolism-steichen-1905-london-photographic-salon [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.
TIQUE MAGAZINE. 2016. ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’. Tique [online]. Available at: https://www.tique.art/exhibitions/magical-surfaces-uncanny-contemporary-photography/ [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
TRONSTAD, Ragnhild. 2008. ‘The Uncanny in New Media Art’. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16(2-3), Feb-Mar 2008 [online]. Available at: https://www.leonardo.info/LEA/perthDAC/RTronstad_LEA160203.pdf [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 1. Man RAY. 1921. Cadeau. From: TATE. 2020. ‘The Uncanny – Art Term’. TATE [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/uncanny [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Lee MILLER. 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.
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:
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.
My work in progress here is 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 DAHO, Sandra S. PHILIPS and Horacio FERNANDEZ. 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 .
Figure 1. Rut BLEES LUXEMBURG. 1998. Narrow Stage. From: Liebeslied. Rut Blees Luxemburg [online]. Available at: https://rutbleesluxemburg.com/liebeslied-2.html [accessed 21 Feb 2020]; William EGGLESTON. c. 1973. Untitled.
Figures 2-13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.
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’. Blavatnik School of Goverment [online]. Available at: https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/our-building [accessed 14 Feb 2020].
Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford. Collection of the author.
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:
So, my hopes for the coming term.
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).
BEZZOLA, Tobia. 2019. ‘Vanishing Point: Thomas Struth’. Photo London Fair interview [online]. 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 [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoOP6DSY3O4 [accessed 20 Jan 2020].
CHRISTIE’S. 2017. ‘Todd Hido: Studio Visit’. Christie’s documentary [online]. 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 [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/oxford-at-night [accessed 23 Jan 2020].
HIDO, Todd. 2016. 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 8 Jul. 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 [online]. 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 DAHO, Sandra S. PHILIPS and Horacio FERNANDEZ. 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 [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGxQ71WXxNk [accessed 23 Jan 2020].
Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Thomas STRUTH. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From: Thomas Struth and Richard Sennett. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2019. In East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Todd HIDO, 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From: Todd Hido. 2016. Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford. Collection of the author.
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.
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.