Week 9: Research Project Development

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.

Mark Crean (2019): Week9-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Time-lapse photographs in central Oxford.

Week 8: Research Project Development

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.

Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-1

Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2
Mark Crean (2019): Week8-ContactSheet-2

Weeks 6 and 7: Research Project Development

My research project development in Weeks 6 and 7 has mainly consisted of study rather than going out and shooting, which I’ve only managed once.

However, I have been able to sit down with some large-format photography books and study how a successful project is put together. Learning how a successful project works is important for me because I have almost no experience of it.

Among several I’ve looked at, the stand-out is Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is a wonderful body of work anyway, but what has become clear to me – apart from the need for impeccable production values – are these items:

  1. A strong idea. The Mississippi river is just that, providing a natural linking and flow to the images.
  2. Keep an open mind and be alert to possibility. It is clear from reading around that some of the many characters in Soth’s story are the result of chance encounters. But these were seen as opportunities and taken.
  3. Everyone meets as an equal. The portraits are the strongest feature of the work, for me. To a degree they are posed because with a large plate camera they have to be. But Soth is never less than on the level with his subjects. He shows them as they are, in all their uniqueness and humanity. There is no judgement. There is compassion in these portraits, in fact. This is very important.
  4. Find sub-themes and interests or allow them to emerge naturally. Beds are famously one for Soth, but when they are present in images they are treated with subtlety. They always signify something else – a beginning, an ending, a conception, a fall from grace, human presence, an absence, and so on. There are other themes in this story: mementos and graffiti, textures, Christian symbols, snapshots on a bedroom wall – all adding up to something more.
  5. Tap into myths and archetypes. Soth is fortunate, because America’s foundation myths are still so strong. The pioneer, the explorer, the homesteader – they are all here. So too are the preacher man, the outlaw and the narrowly ex-slave. The capstone image of the essay – Johnny Cash’s birthplace, a humble weatherboard cabin – is a story out of the lives of Washington or Thoreau. And overall there is in the insistent melancholy of another American myth: that America’s settlers came to an Eden, but their ungodly ways have turned it into a hell. Robert Adams in Los Angeles Spring uses the same approach.

So I am very glad to have got close to Sleeping by the Mississippi. This is the way I should be heading.

Two other essays I have much enjoyed are Hidden by Paul Seawright and Dust by Nadav Kander, both very different from Alec Soth. I looked at them mainly because of their treatment of colour – delicate (Kander) and bleached (Seawright). Finding a colour palette is something else I need to do. I liked a similar approach in both books – tiny humans, vast landscapes, vast events, but presented with very careful and sophisticated composition and framing. The result immediately puts a question mark over time and human significance. Kander’s collapsed concrete structures at former Soviet nuclear sites already look as old, and as irrelevant, as anything left by the Kings of Assyria two or three thousand years ago.

Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers has some very interesting ideas. This observation by the book’s editors is fascinating:

“The Japanese have a unique understanding of landscape. The term of ‘landscape’ in Japanese is fukei, which combines the notion of ‘flow’ or ‘wind’ (fu), and ‘view’ or ‘-scape’ (kei) – hence ‘flowing view’. Landscape is thus not considered static, but transient, ephemeral, never stopping.

“The flow of time is a vital part of this understanding: in the Japanese arts, time’s passage in nature, and the changing seasons, are central motifs. …

“Fukei photography is by no means restricted to natural subjects: it can be about cities, people and architecture. Whatever its subject, the fukei photograph is a paradox: a fixed view of something that is understood to be by definition in flux.” (p. 42)

Below are the books I’ve looked at and following are two contact sheets from my one project development walk in Weeks 6 and 7.

Earth. 2009. Prix Pictet. Kempen: TeNeues.

EVANS, Harold. 1997. Pictures on a Page : Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. Rev. London: Pimlico.

GRUYAERT, Harry. 2015. Harry Gruyaert. London: Thames & Hudson.

KANDER, Nadav and Will SELF. 2014. Nadav Kander : Dust. Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

SOTH, Alec and Hanya YANAGIHARA. 2019. I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating. London: MACK.

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.

TUCKER, Anne, Ivan VARTANIAN, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KANBAYASHI. 2005. Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers. New York : London: Aperture.

Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development

Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night
Mark Crean (2019): Oxford at Night – Research Project Development


Week 5: Research Project

I opted to get myself sorted out with membership of the Bodleian Library this week and therefore to concentrate on some study. The Bodleian is an incredibly useful resource to have on my doorstep and I intend to use it a lot more now.

To become more familiar with night photography, since my research project is Oxford at Night, I ordered up and then sat down and went through the following books. I am not going to write immediate off-the-cuff impressions here but I have made notes and jotted down quotable quotes too. I will say, however, that being able to study the practice of Robert Adams, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg from their original large-format photography books is a joy.

Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

Blees Luxemburg, R. (2009). Commonsensual : the works of Rut Blees Luxemburg. London: Black Dog.

Brandt, B., Haworth-Booth, M. and Mellor, D. (1985). ‘Bill Brandt: behind the camera: photographs 1928-1983’. In Behind the camera. New York: Aperture.

Brassaï. (1988). ‘Brassaï : Paris le jour, Paris la nuit’. In Paris le jour, Paris la nuit. Paris: Paris Musées.

Hido, T. (2016). ‘Todd Hido – intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album’. In Intimate distance. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.

Moriyama, D. and Maggia, F. (2010). Daido Moriyama : the world through my eyes. Milan: London: Skira.

Sparham, A. and Ellams, I. (2018). London nights. 1st edn. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

The Owned Landscape

I’ve been reading this week about the New Topographics movement and also looking at the work of several photographers including Robert Adams, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws – all in connection with my research project, Oxford at Night.

“New Topographics” shook up landscape photography and put some superb photographers on the map, but at first I found it odd that I should be so interested in an exhibition held in 1975-6 in Rochester NY called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.

Then I realised what was drawing me. The traditional image of Oxford is like those pristine American landscapes of old that “New Topographics” was reacting against: beauty, emotion, form among golden-hued college quadrangles, dreaming spires, languid punting on the river and chaps in gowns or boating jackets.

J. M. W. Turner (1810): The High Street, Oxford. A traditional image of chaps in gowns and stately learning – but the Oxford reality is a sprawling modern city with some severe social problems.

Problem is, these days that’s baloney. Everything about our world has changed. Oxford is a huge sprawling conurbation with the same social problems, some severe, as anywhere else. And with that our aesthetics have changed too.

So my New Topographics, if you like, will be photographing what Oxford is today, not what the tourist brochures or fond imaginings suggest. In this I’ve been helped by the practice of Jeff Brouws who has spoken of a “franchised landscape” of insatiable consumerism and of the “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape”.

As Neoliberalism tightens its grip on our societies, I would extend the Franchised Landscape into the Owned Landscape. It’s particularly obvious after dark. Almost every part of the inner city is claimed, from corner stores to office blocks and often by a corporation whose ownership is emblazoned via signs, brandings, posters and every variety of lurid neon coloration. While a natural landscape might envelop us and encourage us to feel a part of it, the Owned Landscape excludes us. We are shut out as if from a corporate Eden. Often we can only approach the Owned Landscape through plate glass, barred gates, moats and security guards. While such landscapes can have their own moments of beauty the cumulative effect is to render the onlooker a powerless bystander. You may be allowed in, but only under controlled conditions and, usually, only if you are prepared pay what the owner demands. No credit card? No Eden.

Below the references are some research project images I made earlier in the week.

Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York: Aperture

Brouws, J. 2019. Jeff Brouws. [Online] Available at http://www.jeffbrouws.com/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Campany, D. and Hido, T. (2016). Intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album. New York: Aperture

Nottsartshistory. 2014. And now it’s dark: the American dream and suburban cultural landscapes in Jeff Brouws’ photography. [Online]. Available at https://nottsarthistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/and-now-its-dark-the-american-dream-and-suburban-cultural-landscapes-in-jeff-brouws-photography/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Shore, S. 2019. Stephen Shore. [Online] Available at http://stephenshore.net/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Wikipedia. 2019. New topographics. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Topographics. [Accessed 17 October 2019].

Mark Crean (16 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (15 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development
Mark Crean (17 October 2019): Oxford at Night – Project Development

Project Development: Research Categories

I am going to start from the general in organizing research into my project, the City at Night. I hope that sufficient winnowing will enable me to identify a kernel of interest that is worth expressing.

Photographic History
At the moment I have the following to research as a starting point:

  • Brassai
  • Bernard Eilers (early experiments in colour)
  • Harry Gruyaert (his use of colour and some images from his series “Made in Belgium”, interestingly a collaboration with a writer)
  • Todd Hido
  • Dan Holdsworth
  • Edward Hopper
  • Joshua K. Jackson
  • Dina Litovsky and her “Meatpacking” series: http://dinalitovsky.com/meatpacking/
  • London Nights exhibition: https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/10/london-nights-the-exhibition/
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Daido Moriyama and Shinjuku (in Tokyo)
  • Trent Parke
  • Nick Turpin (Turpin, N. (2017). On the night bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press)

Need: identify key photographers of the city over the past century or more and concentrate on their work at night or after dark. Who are the people I definitely need to know about, modern and old? Important to widen the scope to include photography of night and dark, not just cities.

Cultural History
Find source material on cities, the metropolis, the urban experience particularly after dark, and specifically on Oxford itself. Investigate the city as a worldwide modern phenomenon. What do Oxonians themselves think of their city after dark? It could be views of the mayor but it could equally be someone waiting for a late bus. Check local groups and meetings around social and urban-city questions or even consider advertising for subjects and input.

Also find source material on night and darkness and their effect on our physical and mental states. Some may be film, fiction or poetry.

Narrative Approach
How to organize material: thematic, by the hour, by subject, by season or weather and so on? How will the project treat time? Will “night” be seen as a general condition or times of night treated specifically (for example pub closing hours, transport timings)? How will individual images treat time, for example live composite or long exposure images? How will “night” be defined since it is only a label for what elapses between dusk and dawn? There is the question of in-between or liminal states as day becomes night and night becomes day again. Do we experience time differently at night? How do our other senses react to it? 

Social Commentary
State, process or event? Will the project be generally descriptive, like an urban landscape exercise? Or will it attempt to show the lives of various subjects – night workers, revellers, travellers, the homeless, the marginal and so forth? Oxford is always full of new arrivals and visitors not only tourists, but students, migrant workers and commuters. It is unusually cosmopolitan.

Subject Matter and Sub-themes
Define night, define “city” and define Oxford if at all possible. Then decide how much to show of the city’s many possible subjects, from architecture to individual people, venues and areas (centre vs suburbs), commercial and domestic properties, etc. Possibility of finding and following specific subjects (street food vendors, for example). This in turn raises the question of treatment: the anonymous subject versus the identified subject with a voice.

Key here will be keeping the range in check and on-topic since the potential subject matter is unlimited. What does “night” mean and reveal that “daylight” doesn’t?

Mission Statement
Why this project and what it tries to do in a few sentences only. To do this, however, I need to conduct enough research to narrow the topic down from generalities to what, specifically, I am trying to express.

Ethical Considerations
Distressed people, homeless people, inebriated people and so forth. Is it acceptable to bring them into my practice and if so how? (At the moment I am thinking probably not except for revellers.)

Photographic Techniques
There are single images, but also live composite images and long exposures, collage, contact sheets and so on. There is also video. All are available, but if the delivery medium is a book my options are more limited.

Textual Considerations
No text, short captions, long captions, witness statements from subjects photographed, poetry, excerpts from appropriate literature, narration or statements by the photographer and so forth. All to be decided.

Colour vs monochrome. Colour palettes. Film emulation. Overall treatment of things like contrast and tonal values. Close-up vs wider angles. Deep versus shallow depth of field and “bokeh” images. Abstract versus naturalistic.

To enliven this otherwise wordy post, here is the trailer of a short film by Gerrit Messiaen about the photographer Harry Gruyaert. I have always liked his work, the use of colour, the often dim or subdued lighting, the sense of impermanence, the surrealist touches and, sometimes, his portrayal of the thin watery light of northern Europe. He is an influence, for sure.

See also:

Claus, H. and Gruyaert, H. (2000). Made in Belgium. Paris: Delpire Éditeur

Harry Gruyaert – Photographer. (2018). [film] Directed by G. Messiaen. Belgium.

Project Development: the City at Night

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts which start my project development.

For my first project I have chosen the City at Night. This will be specifically my home town of Oxford, not just any city. I doubt this will be my final project, but I need to gain experience of forming up a project and of organising, researching and progressing one before I embark on anything more ambitious and final.

To begin with, I am going to divide things into various headings or categories.

Key Metrics
I think it is important to have a some “big picture values” before getting caught up in the details.

Target Market: Oxford residents, those who know Oxford, those interested in the urban experience and in photographic projects of this kind, those who visit photography bookshops online or offline.

Delivery Medium: A book of approximately 75-100 images.

Schedule: As an experimental project, allow 12 weeks. As a major project, allow 1-2 years.

Budget: Obtain quotations for various print-runs of a book, probably from Blurb. Add cost of design and jacket design, sundry origination costs, project development costs such as travel, books, tickets, meals and general expenses. Add costs of C-type test prints and other photography-related items. Add copyright permissions fees if using material like poetry. Add sales/distribution costs and a marketing budget.

Outcomes: Is this a viable project? Outcomes would need to satisfy my MA requirements but also some criteria for a successful project anyway. Those would include establishing whether there is enough of a market for a book like this, the per-copy cost such a market would bear, the size and quality of book the market would bear, sales channels and whether in the light of this the overall project cost is sustainable.

Beyond this, I am forming up categories under which I intend to cover – among other things – photographic history and research, cultural history and research, narrative approach and the question of texts and captions, social commentary, ethical considerations, treatment of place, treatment of and approach to people, photographic techniques which may be employed, stylistic questions such as colour or monochrome, the definition and limits of the subject itself (night and city), project title and subtitle, and emergent properties.

By emergent properties I mean that which emerges as the result of undertaking the project but which might not necessarily be foreseeable. These could be new themes or sub-themes, new directions, new people I meet as potential subjects, unexpected messages from my subconscious which images turn out to embody, technical issues and just about anything else. I consider these to be very, very important and I must make a careful effort to be as aware of them as I can. In some ways, they are the whole point of the project.

In the meantime, I posted a couple of contact sheets of my practice to date on the Week 3 discussion forum:

The City at Night
Mark Crean (07 October 2019): the City at Night
The City at Night
Mark Crean (07 October 2019): the City at Night