After some thought, I have decided to rename my project Silent City and to concentrate solely on black and white photography. I think this is a better fit for me and for the whole project, for the reasons I gave in a previous post.
This somewhat simplifies my agenda. I will need to educate myself about black and white photography and to learn how to ‘see’ in black and white. What I mean by that is learning how to judge a potential image’s shapes and patterns, its graphical content and range of greyscale tones when colour information is removed. Some images work well in black and white but some do not work well at all. The punctum of an image may be all about colour – a red umbrella against dark blue, for example – or the image may be rather busy with detail and without colour information we cannot adequately decode the content and construct a 3D image in the mind. We are more likely to see a tangle. I need to be proficient enough to understand this before making the image and not leave it to the contact sheet stage when it is too late. But what is the point of doing this course without taking up a few challenges?
I will also need to learn about post-processing for black and white, since all my images emerge in colour to begin with because I have a digital camera. I would also like to learn about silver gelatin emulation, if this is possible on digital. The quality of a good silver gelatin film print is simply wonderful. Black and white needs that careful attention to tonality. I have noticed that Metro Labs in London offer a service for silver gelatin from digital files, so we will see.
The photographer and essayist Ming Thein has some helpful articles on the differences (both practical and psychological) between shooting in colour and in black and white (Thein 2020). I have also found helpful his instructional videos on creating an effective workflow for black and white photography using Adobe Photoshop and other software tools.
Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.
Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.
Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.
Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,
‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:
‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,
‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open. … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need? Clarity. What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? To tell a truth as simply as possible.
Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.
I have now moved on from photographing the Thames as it flows through Oxford. Instead I am covering the Cowley area of East Oxford which is a mixture of retail, residential and light industry with some pockets of dispiriting deprivation. However, it is all part of the same urban world: a city after dark.
I am also experimenting with black and white in my practice. At least for this module I will be submitting my work in progress in black and white rather than in colour. I think it is more suited to the gritty nature of what I am currently photographing, and also more expressive of the uncanny. In this I am following earlier photographers such as Bassaï and Brandt. But … this is only an experiment, so we will see.
I may also change the title of my project from Hometown Nights to Silent City. Although I quite like it as a title and it does carry an echo of Summer Nights, Walking by Robert Adams, Hometown Nights has a jolly air to it that is not really in accord with the sobering reality of disadvantaged urban areas in the midst of a pandemic.
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. From Silent City. Collection of the author.
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.
Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Converted warehouses near Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. St Frideswide’s at Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. St Mary’s at Iffley. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. A sluice near Osney. Collection of the author. Figure 7. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By River Garden. Collection of the author.
Figure 8. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Folly at Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 9. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Donnington Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 11. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. In Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Osney. Collection of the author.
Figure 13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The bank at River Park. Collection of the author.
Figure 14. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. North from Osney Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 15. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The Thames at Donnington. Collection of the author.
Figure 16. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Folly Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 17. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Osney Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 18. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. By Gasworks Bridge. Collection of the author.
Figure 19. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. The lock-keeper’s cottage at Iffley. Collection of the author.
Figure 20. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. In Iffley Village. Collection of the author.
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.
Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author
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.
This is my video presentation in Week 10 of PHO702, off a link to YouTube:
The direct link is https://youtu.be/9aZEiGJOF0Q
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