For this module I am continuing with my research project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark. And as with the last module I am presenting my images in black and white rather than in colour.
It normally takes me a few weeks to settle into a new module. A theme for the module will emerge and when it does I have a much better idea of what I need to do and where I am coming from each time I go out to make photographs. In other words, I have formed a clear intent.
At the moment I am trying out a few things. Last module I used a 35mm lens for almost every image. This time I am varying that from wider to closer. I am also bringing in a wider choice of subject matter such as signs, symbols, shop fronts – the daily clutter of where we all live. Showing where we don’t live is easy – and often very dull. It is the typical, picture-perfect postcard view. Showing where we live but presenting something new about it is far more interesting and, overall, this is currently my intent. It is an experiment and the next couple of weeks will show whether it works and sits comfortably with me.
Click on an image below for a larger, lightbox view:
I am looking forward to finding out about the next module, but in the meantime I have a few little jobs to keep me busy during the holidays …
A Book Dummy
Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have covered my progress so far in a previous post.
Black and White
I will continue to look for accomplished photographers who use black and white and with whose approach I ‘click’. Learning how to ‘see’ or visualise a potential image in black and white before pressing the shutter of my camera will take time to master.
I plan to continue with some photography walks through the holidays. I need to keep up the connection and nurture the threads of my thinking, and to take advantage of a still relatively quiet city especially at night. That may well change (or not) if the two universities here restart full student and academic activities in late September and October.
Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have started mapping this out in Adobe In Design but I am very aware of my own inexperience. The Self Publish, Be Happy company’s instructional videos on Vimeo are going to be helpful here and I have noticed that one of their designer-publishers, Brian Paul Lamotte, offers one-to-one tutorials so I may well be taking that up (Self Publish Be Happy 2020). Another look at the curation and sequencing sections of Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks would be a good idea, too (Colberg 2017). I will likely use either Saal Digital or Blurb for the printing, at least for now, because it is easy and reasonably affordable.
I have drafted a few spreads to give myself an idea of what is possible. Of course, the immediate result is that all kinds of new story lines and points of comparison have arisen. For example, is this going to be a walk driven by enough of an internal narrative so that the sequencing flows through to the end without interruption? Or, are there going to be pauses and diversions, a stop along the way, for example, to examine a Becher-style grid of windows or street lights? At this stage I have no idea. I only know that these ideas are possible and arising.
Here (Figures 1-12 below) is a brief gallery view of some sample spreads. Click for a lightbox view with captions.
COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.
SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY. 2020. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://selfpublishbehappy.com/ [accessed 14 Aug 2020].
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Sample spreads for a book dummy. From: Mark Crean. 2020. From Silent City. Collection of the author.
The photographer Robert Adams has some very good words about curation and editing. These are important, partly because I am coming up to submitting my portfolio of work for the module and partly because I am embarking on the preparation of a proper book dummy for my project which will require really careful curation.
‘But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule.
‘And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard.
‘It’s the same struggle that Flannery O’Connor said a writer faces: “The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny”’ (Wolf 2019).
‘I think photography is editing, start to finish, editing life, selecting part of it to stand for the whole. The process starts, obviously, with what you choose to include in the finder when you make the exposure. It continues as you study the contact sheets or thumbnails in order to decide which to enlarge. It goes on, sometimes for years, as you try to determine which enlargements are successful. Dorothea Lange, one of my heroes, used to ask herself, sotto voce, “Is it a picture? Is it a picture?” Most photographers are like that, confident one day and unsure the next. And then there is the long search for which pictures may strengthen each other, and in what relationships. That final step usually involves for us laying out all the conceivably appropriate pictures for a book in a line, in a roughly plausible sequence, after which we make a stack of the pictures in that order and go through it to see how they might work as singles or doubles on a spread. Those two steps are then repeated over and over again’ (Chang 2009).
I like the idea that good curation is ‘editing life’ and that the photographer (or artist) must stand back and judge their work ‘with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny’. These are important reminders.
ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.
For the past couple of weeks I have continued with my work in progress, making several visits to the Cowley and Florence Park areas of East Oxford. I have tried to do a little more about searching for telling details, an aspect of my practice I have not devoted enough attention to. The search for nuance and suggestion continues … . Click below for a lightbox view.
Figures 1-12. Mark CREAN. 2020. Silent City. Collection of the author.
I have been looking at Simon Morley’s The Sublime (Morley 2010). This is relevant to my practice first because the uncanny (an important element in night photography) can be seen as an aspect of the sublime, and second because there is the sublime around in Oxford – some big views and vistas of the Thames, streets and squares full of large medieval buildings in seemingly perfect arrangements, and slightly sinister and uncanny areas when darkness falls.
Morley begins by laying down a baseline definition of the sublime:
‘The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, likes beyond the human – God or gods, the daemon or Nature – is a matter for great disagreement. Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence 1976′ (Morley 2010: 12).
Morley suggests that the sublime experience is the moment reason and certainties crumble. ‘The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative. … Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’ (Morley 2010: 12). Morley’s divides the sublime into four different kinds, each one stemming from the ideas of Longinus, Burke, Kant or Schiller. This is not the place to engage in a long intellectual discussion, but the essential point I am trying to take away from this is that the sublime is an experience and it always involves coming up against limits – the limits of nature or self, beyond which lies the unknown. Reaching these limits is unsettling and the unknown beyond them may evoke feelings that range from awestruck to terrifying.
The question, however, is what these ideas mean in practice and how may they affect me photographically. It is not hard to find the sublime in the history of art, in for example the awe and exultation often associated with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or in the mighty new industrial age of Lang’s Metropolis. Or, of course, in much of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams in which the Rückenfigur is first the photographer and then the viewer.
Photographically, there are many ways of expressing these ideas today. The sublime of the photographic seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto can be compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and both can be compared to the paintings of Barnett Newman who announced in 1948 that the ‘Sublime is Now … We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions’ (Morley 2010: 25-7).
While for another project I would love to produce something akin to Sugimoto’s seascapes, my walks along the Thames on summer evenings this year have produced something quite different. I have felt a more Burkean sublime, an experience, based in nature and shot through with pastoral and melancholy. Oxford is much about preserving the past – one thinks of Lewis Carroll or Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – but of course that past is gone and the truth is that much of it was always a sentimental fiction. All I can do is photograph what I see before me and try to bring out something of its complex mixture of sublime, pastoral, elegiac, modern and sometimes disturbing.
Two aspects of the sublime easier for me to express are the uncanny and the modern sublime of the contemporary world of bright lights, grands projets, huge structures and high technology, a world all about power.
The uncanny is that unsettling feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity that can arise when we come up against a kind of limit and perhaps long-forgotten childhood memories surface and are re-experienced through now-adult eyes. The modern locus of this is Freud (Freud et al. 2003) and sometimes the surrealists and I covered it in the previous module.
The modern sublime is something all around us, at a time when the valuation of Apple Corp is greater than the GDP of Russia. It is in William Klein’s Atom Bomb Sky, New York of 1955 or Nadav Kander’s images of vast new building projects along the Yangtze in China (Kander 2010). Oxford has little of this, being mostly an old and suburban place. There are one or two views of exalted and powerful places and I covered some of them this summer (see figures 3 and 4).
The sublime is a very interesting story and is definitely something I need to study more and bring into my images. It offers another source of tension and ambiguity, and I need that in my images – the tension, for example, between what the modern world promises and the sometimes dispiriting and exploitative results the modern world can produce. That too is part of the story.
FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.
KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.
MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. London: Whitechapel Gallery.
Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.
What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:
First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.
Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:
‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).
Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.
‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).
This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.
Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).
‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).
Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:
‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).
This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.
I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.
Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Falmouth University’s annual Landings exhibition is now running (27 July to 03 August) and can be accessed here: http://landings.space/
My own contribution is called ‘Silent City’ and is a curation of my work in progress, mostly this module and a few images from the last module (Crean 2020). This is on my Adobe portfolio website and can be accessed here: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/landings-2020
I have enjoyed putting this together. It is good practice for a mini-exhibition and forces me to address my intent and clarity of concept. It has also brought out the fact that Oxford (any city, in fact) presents so many different faces over so many historical eras that it is probably better to divide my work into sub-themes or chapters which is what I have done with my Landings work.
Other lessons here are the importance of collaboration, planning and marketing. Landings is a ‘we’ project, not a ‘me’ project. No one could possibly have done it all on their own and the result is immeasurably stronger for being a collaboration. I have also admired and enjoyed taking part in the marketing on Instagram, Twitter and so forth. I know from comments from followers not connected with Falmouth that this material found an audience.
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.
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