"I eventually decided to re-acquaint myself with photography and bought myself an entry level DSLR. Because of my love for London and its inhabitants, I ended up taking street portraits and my passion for portraiture really started to grow from strength to strength. As I gained more knowledge with my portraiture work, I started my first photographic project entitled ‘the People of Soho’ focusing on making portraits of the local people in this small, but vibrant area of Central London which I had a real passion for."
"I am a firm believer that for any photographic project to be successful, you must have a passion for the area (and subject) you are photographing"
Peter Zelewski, 2016
This week the word that I can’t seem to escape is ‘passion’. It’s the thing that got this all started, the unquenchable desire to take photos, to keep striving to capture something interesting, to challenge myself to be more creative, more technically competent, just better!
I’ve been thinking about this as two facts seem unavoidably juxtaposed…firstly, the fact that the passion I had for photography has been inexorably seeping away for some time, most noticeably during the difficulties of the last module, and secondly, that passion is an absolutely vital component of successful photographic (or any creative) practice. You can’t really have one without it.
This week I’ve been listening to photographer interviews on ‘A Small Voice’ podcast and a recurring theme with all the interviewees is a determination and drive to create that allows them to overcome the various challenges that are an inevitable aspect of photographic practice. This drive always boils down to pure passion for the art of photography, it keeps them coming back for more despite the setbacks, it keeps them going even when the prospect of reward is not apparent. The sheer love of doing it is enough.
I absolutely identify with this drive. I felt exactly the same when I first picked up a camera in 2013. I couldn’t wait to get out with the camera, I’d get twitchy if more than a day passed without it. But that fire doesn’t burn with quite such vigour any more, and my work is suffering as a result. I am keen to relocate the fire. This module, with the emphasis on developing a sustainable professional practice, has focused my mind and I see the next 12 weeks as the beginning of the re-ignition process. The hardship of a life of creative struggle is hard enough to endure, but is so much more difficult without the passion to keep going. So I’m looking for the passion!
One of my key goals for this module is to develop a robust professional approach to my practice, a practical routine that ensures that I create regularly and attend to my creative impulses regularly, allowing them to grow and develop in time.
I’m keen to settle on a routine that works for me, right now, and accounts for my other professional and personal commitments. So far, I have tended to set too demanding a target (e.g. shooting 4 times a week) which has resulted in disappointment and then complete inaction. I do value time to research, read and reflect on how the knowledge gained might interact with or influence my own work. This process often prevents me from getting out with the camera as I don’t find it useful to shoot while unresolved ideas are rattling round in my head. Interestingly, Juno Calypso, a photographer who was referenced in this week’s work acknowledges that being constantly productive may not suit everyone:
"In terms of the balance, I think it’s different for everyone. Some people need to make new work every week, but at the moment I’m happy making work once or twice a year. It sounds lazy but I always remind myself that Jeff Wall only makes 3 or 4 images a year."
Juno Calypso, 2016
Another challenge has been the task of balancing full time work, my MA and my photographic interests (which I intentionally describe as separate to my MA studies). This is of course not a challenge unique to myself, with many others facing similar demands. I am encouraged by the experiences of Peter Zelewski, a photographer whose work I have followed for some time, who has managed to develop a nationally recognised practice while working as a graphic designer. Again, he constantly references the passion that fuels his singular interest in producing striking portraiture. I am also reminded of another influential photographer for me, Wayne Grivell, who has continued to produce incredibly accomplished and beautiful work despite having an accomplished career as an architect.
I need to eliminate excuses and prioritise the work that it will take to explore my dormant passion for photography and set aside the time and space required for self development and creative growth. I am excited about what lies ahead in the coming weeks.
The end of the module seems to be hurtling towards me. It’s always a bad sign when the weekly seminars and activities die down, indicating that we should be entirely consumed with final preparation for assignment submissions. I don’t seem to have anywhere near enough time to submit the work on time, so I’ve been distracting myself with cutting up pieces of paper and firing off a stapler for the first time in years…I’ve been making a zine!
Everything about my work seems provisional at the moment. The project I originally envisioned has been subconsciously evolving and growing throughout this module. This may not yet be entirely evident in the output I’ve produced so far in this module but the ideas continue to bubble up, with material changes to my methodology slowly resolving themselves in my mind as I keep moving forward.
An example of this is in the creation of the zine. When I set out on this project, I envisaged a photobook submission as a key outcome of the project. The type of books produced by Hoxton Mini Press, for example, felt like the sort of direction I should be aiming for with my project. Where the work is at present, with so much in flux and an anticipation that there will be further significant changes in my methods and output in the coming months, producing a photobook with the attendant suggestion of a completed piece of work seemed inappropriate.
In addition to this, as the project has become increasingly inclusive and the emphasis has shifted slightly - being less introspective and towards more of a dialogue between contributors, the use of the photobook, which often denotes and propounds a determinedly monocular perspective just doesn’t quite fit for me at this stage.
Contacts page - signposting resources and organisations that are relevant to the project
I wanted the tangible product of the work to this point to feel accessible and without pretension to high art - rather a provider of information than an exposition of my personal view. I wanted it to feel like a class companion rather than the course lecturer, something to be discovered and that hopefully stimulates further inquiry, but which doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
I’m aiming for three one-off zines at this point, with a variation of content, layout and paper type. Putting the first one together was in some ways more complicated than predicted, while in other ways it was quite an intuitive and rewarding process.
In the week 9 reading, an interview with Daido Moriyama (2009) I was struck by his flexibility when approaching the physical output of his own work, taking varying degrees of direct ownership of the processes of collating, sequencing and printing his images at different stages of his career and as the particular project dictated at the time. He certainly hasn’t been wedded to one particular form of production and has a great awareness of the role the physical production of the work has on the way the images are received. Moriyama states:
“An actual photographic print creates one type of world that is totally different from the world that comes about from printed matter. That difference is something I really like. Sure enough, I still think the same thing. The photograph comes to life through the printing. My photographs are made complete on the printed page. Even if the same photograph appears in different magazines, and differs based on the printing method of the particular media, the way in which the photograph is seen also changes. That transformation is something that I find really interesting. That is why the same photograph can have a different look based on the media that it passes through. It takes on a different meaning. It has a different way of coming to life.”
Kaneko et al (2009:27)
Having produced the first zine, I understand what he means and can see this exemplified in my own work. Putting together the zine has given me a different view of the work and how it might best be presented. Holding something in my hands has also triggered various thoughts about paper type, page size, printing method etc that all cumulatively contribute to the effect of the work as a whole. Having produced a book via Blurb in an earlier mini-project, I can’t help but be more interested in being more hands-on in future printing of my work when comparing the Blurb book with my homemade zine, which though a shambolic amateur affair still seems to have more to say than the glossy professionally printed Blurb effort.
As always, much to reflect on, and hopefully I’ll aim to experiment more with papers, and printing techniques in the upcoming module break.
Kaneko, R., Vartanian, I., Moriyama, D., Martin, LA. and Wada, K. (2009) Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s, New York: Aperture.
Week 7 focused on challenging us to consider how we would put together a publication to accompany the project exhibition. This task follows on closely from the mini-project we were set between module one and two, which ended up with me putting together a rubbish little book.
As I’ve intimated in entries about other aspects of the work, I feel like my ideas about any publication arising from this project will evolve as the work does. My ideas about the project and the work I want to produce have already shifted significantly since the beginning of this module and my views about publication have developed accordingly. Prior to commencing this module I had pictured a bound hardback photobook as the pinnacle of my ambitions. I had visions of a selection of my images being presented, along with some writing by myself and possibly a selection of quotes from my interview subjects. This would have been a very monovisual book, with only my perspective presented. This no longer seems like an appropriate way to present the work that I aim to produce during this project, mainly because I’ve accepted and increasingly encourage the input of others into the creation of the work. As such, I hope to present more of their work alongside mine, either unfiltered or in some way composited with my work or that of other project participants.
One of the other questions posed this week is whether the publication will contain non-photographic content. As stated, I always envisaged my publication containing text, and have already started experimenting with how this might work best.
Having bought a selection of blank books of different sizes to try putting together a mock up, as the submissions came in from my contributors I changed tack. At this stage of the project, particularly considering the provisional nature of the ‘Searching for Meaning’ exhibition, I am working on a small, almost disposable zine format. The emphasis at the moment needs to be more on the essence of the project to this point, with a significant component of work from the contributors as well as a sample of the charity and organisational contacts that are pertinent to the project. One of the key aspects of this project for me is that it offers some way to open a dialogue on the issues covered and also hopefully provides some clues to where support might be available. The format has to be such that the content provided by my contributors has sufficient prominence alongside my own work, to demonstrate that the idea of solitude can be subverted by a more collegiate attitude. Something that, again, is developing in my own practice as I proceed with this project.
This week’s reading, from Parr and Badger (2006) emphasised that the photobook has a long and illustrious history. I also couldn’t help thinking that to contribute to this heritage one should strive to produce something that is not a generic repetition of what has gone before, but is rather a sincere object that faithfully represents the individuality of the project it accompanies. Ideally too, the book adds something to the other strands of the output of the work and I can only hope to eventually arrive at this destination in my case.
Parr, M. and Badger, G. (2006) The Photobook: A History, Volume II. London: Phaidon.
This week, which continues building towards the end of module exhibition, explored the way images can be displayed and experienced by the viewer. The interview with Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale of the Caravan Gallery covered their own journey developing and using a non-traditional exhibition space to promote dialogue with communities and inspire photographic activities around the world. Their enthusiasm for what they do and their willingness to simply have a go and not allow themselves to be limited in the pursuit of their artistic objectives is an inspiration. Also, their willingness to collaborate and their flexibility of vision in even deciding that a small caravan could be used for their purposes are big lessons.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might, at this late stage, try and mount an exhibition for this module. The gallery space seems less and less appealing, as well as feeling less appropriate for the work at this stage of its development. I’m unsure whether the gallery space might ultimately be the best place for this work to be shown, but certainly in its current inchoate state it doesn’t seem to merit the elevation that being placed in a gallery space almost inevitably confers.
I think photographs unavoidably respond to the space in which they are displayed. This effect can occur independently of the artist if the space is chosen without consideration to the intentions of the work and whether the space/light/ambience are conducive to, or congruent with, that intention. Where possible then, it is important for the artist to consider where their images are best placed and seek to influence this if possible. One must accept that the message the viewer receives from your work is somewhat out of your control, and may be at variance from that intended, but it remains important to control as many variables as possible to give the work the best chance to communicate clearly and the space where it is displayed and the audience who might be exposed to it are such variables.
Of course, one of the key aspects of my project is the concept of being alone and considering how people are affected by that state. It could be argued then that considering the images in neutrally coloured spaces where a single photograph occupies a single wall might give the images the space required to be considered clearly, but I’m not sure this is quite what the work needs. For sure, my original ideal for this project has gradually shifted to become one that is less clear cut, more accommodating to blurred definitions and uncomfortable contradictions. These feelings don’t seem best suited to the gallery space at the moment. I am sure as the work develops the ideal location for it will become clearer. As I continue working towards the end of this particular module I hope to be able to make a coherent provisional choice.
This week we were introduced to the task that will take up most of our efforts for the rest of the module, that of preparing for an exhibition, publication and workshop to be presented in August. There is great potential to see the work develop and find new direction in this process. I’m interested that we are being asked to mount a workshop, as this formed a key part of my project proposal in the last module. I feel however that the greatest possibility for development for me lies in the exhibition and publication aspects of the task.
One of the key lessons for me in this module has been that there is so much space for my work to develop into. Up till now I’ve only ever considered the peak output of my images in terms of a single photograph, hopefully as well-constructed as possible, presented in a frame on a wall. The inescapable realisation is that the medium of photography is so much more robust and versatile than this. It can withstand pressure from ambitious and audacious practitioners and be stretched and pulled into various forms that are born from the camera but don’t necessarily end up in a standard or easily recognisable format. The simplest example of this is probably the fact that images are now consumed largely in virtual screen-based formats, so already the traditional medium of the physical photograph has been subverted. Once this constraint has been escaped, the question becomes ‘what next?’… the answers are potentially endless.
The role of the curator has been introduced this week with some of our cohort taking these roles in our own forthcoming exhibition. I remember the words of Lynn Smith, who said to me some time ago that developing relationships with curators was one of the most important things a photographer could do to move their career forward.
Reading interviews with curators from prominent institutions around the world I was struck by their common challenges, their knowledge and their protective love for the medium of photography, while they simultaneously acknowledged the changing landscape in which they are working. As an individual practitioner it’s easy to be so preoccupied with one’s own work and perspective that you’re unable to appreciate the rolling waves engulfing you, the tide of which is changing the context in which your work exists without you even knowing. So curators can be a vital resource to the practitioner, helping to contextualise the work and present it to an audience that the practitioner themselves may not be able to access. I believe the individual practitioner must maintain a clear sense of their own direction and their own motivation for producing the work, but be open to the additional ‘big picture’ perspective that a curator can provide and be prepared to be challenged by, and respond to, their objective expert view.
The more I consider how I envisage my project developing with broader parameters in mind, the more exciting the possibilities seem. I’m not sure if I will have all the time and resources necessary to explore everything but I want to try some things and see where I end up.
"If nothing else, the advent of post-photography is an uncomfortable reminder that the present we all embody, the photographic presence that is the very guarantee of our being, is no more than one ephemeral effect within history's own ongoing and inexorable processes of reproduction and erasure."
Geoffrey Batchen, 2002: 127 (1)
"The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom - and thus its significance - in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the way in which, despite everything, it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in face of the chance necessity of death."
Vilém Flusser, 2004: 82 (2)
This massive topic seems to have arrived at a bad time for me. It’s too big, the implications seem too profound. I’m trying to follow the light, but it only seems to lead to new cul de sacs of blinding confusion, with each turn confounded by a shroud of abstruse theory cast in language that leaves the deepest, blackest shadows on either side.
We are asked to challenge the very practice of photography, to seek to question the physical form of the image, how its representation comments on the medium or opens new horizons for further exploration. But, in a weird way, all I can think about is death and how photography predicts, reports and simultaneously defers this final state.
Maybe the death is that of the idea of human as autonomous photographer with a singular vision. Maybe the death is of the idea of someone seeing something they find interesting, deciding therefore to take a photograph of it, and being satisfied simply with having done so. Or possibly we should just accept that photography as we know it is dead (or soon will be) and so we should all just move along and find something else to do.
And what are we supposed to be free from?
A simple Google search of ‘freedom’ brings up two definitions:
I’ve never felt enslaved by my camera, nor have I ever felt my rights to act as I wish impinged upon by the apparatus of photography. Yet this week, I’m repeatedly reminded how tightly chained I actually am to the apparatus and it’s a thoroughly demoralising idea.
I understand the reason for a general anxiety to reframe the position and pre-eminence of photography and the physical photograph itself in the rising daylight of the digital age. I support this effort, while feeling somewhat removed from it, existing in a parallel place where the conflict feels a lot less pivotal.
For me, right now, the real struggle lies in simply clinging on to the thing that brought me here in the first place…the unaltered, naïve joy derived from taking photographs. I’ve lost it at the moment. I hope it’s buried underneath all this stuff and not gone for good.
This week we’ve been looking at collaboration and participation in photography and the practical and ethical issues arising from these methods of working. This seemed to be timed perfectly to coincide with a developing train of thought about my own project which made the reading and research this week of particular interest.
There are many, like Azoulay (2016) who have moved beyond trying to convince of the need for, or importance of, collaboration in photographic practice, arguing that it’s ‘unavoidable’1 and thus no longer worth anguished discussion. They seek rather to analyse and codify this practice, examining the ethical implications and challenges that arise from creating work with the contribution of others.
Even in my own practice, which I’d previously considered to be a very self-centred and introspective one, I readily concede that I have had a long and very fruitful collaboration with my printer George, at Digitalarte who not only helps me to realise my prints in the way that optimises the visual impact of my work and stays as faithful as possible to my original vision, but who has also had direct and positive influence on my photographic practice and workflow over the years I’ve been working with him. So, I am easily convinced of the inescapable need to collaborate.
What I hadn’t previously considered in much detail, and what is increasingly relevant to my own project, is the dynamic of the relationship between collaborators and how that can influence not only the way that contributions are elicited and made to the work, but also the integrity of the results gained by this collaboration.
Like with anything, there’s always a power play at work and it’s important to acknowledge this as a photographer entering into collaboration, in order to mitigate it if that’s what will serve the project best. To use a topical example, a proposal to highlight the plight of the Grenfell Tower residents by giving them cameras and asking them to document their terrible experiences would be open to a number of very searching questions depending on who was giving them the cameras and what the proposed outcomes were likely to be – a project suggested by the Conservative Party publicity office would be received and interpreted very differently to one sponsored by an independent charity.
So, as the photographer I have a responsibility to consider this relationship with my potential collaborators and how I can create a framework that allows them to contribute in a free and unbiased manner, and that is also sensitive to how their involvement in the project might compromise their own integrity or privacy.
My project, aiming to examine urban solitude, originally planned to interview selected people about their own experiences and use their responses to feed into the work. The more I think about this initial plan the less comfortable I am with it, as it feels too much like simply using other voices to tell my own story, rather than allowing these voices to speak sincerely for themselves, telling their own story in their own words, however divergent they might be from my own concept of the original idea. I will write more about this in a separate post, but there will have to be changes to my project methodology as a result of closer consideration of the implications, and benefits, of a more collaborative approach to the work.
Reflecting on the work this week, I realise that I must work harder to ensure that my collaborators have their own agency and that they are given the right platform on which to add their own unique voice to the project as it develops.
Lapenta, F. (2011) ‘Some Theoretical and Methodological Views on Photo-Elicitation’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
Chalfen, R. (2011) ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
This week’s topic, Remediation, has been possibly the one I’ve most struggled to get my head around since we started this course. Remediation is the refashioning or incorporation of one medium into another medium. The concept introduces and formalises the idea that all art is based, in some way, on a repurposing of something else, something that has gone before.
Other concepts introduced this week, appropriation and remixing, are closely related to the practice of remediation and I would argue exist under its overarching umbrella.
Accepting this idea has a number of interesting and possibly unintended consequences. For example, if what one creates is merely a refashioned view of some preceding thing, then who ‘owns’ that thing? And how can one claim to be solely creatively responsible or the author of something ‘original’?
Jan Verwoert in 2007 argued thus:
‘Who owns a recurring style, a collective symbol or a haunted house? Even if you appropriate them, they can never be entirely your private property. Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent – that is with an attitude that differs significantly from the blunt revisionism of neo-(or ‘turbo’-)folkloristic exploitations of the past - must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it.’ 1
If one completely accepts this premise, then it’s very difficult to argue for strict ownership/authorship of any piece of art by any single person, as we would all be obliged to credit our predecessors whose work has either directly or indirectly contributed to our own. But how far should the obligation to reference, credit and acknowledge our influences extend?
In reflecting on this week’s presentations and the accompanying reading, I’m uncomfortable with the strict differentiation between terms used. The three key terms that were introduced - remediation, appropriation and remixing - to my mind describe a single practice, that of taking something from someone else and using it for your own purposes in your own work.
This could be for a range of reasons, from homage, to pastiche, to mutation into something entirely (on the face of it) unrelated to the original piece. In this way, it’s possible to consider appropriation and remixing as existing on a spectrum, with one end being where the act (remixing) results in something very different from the original piece, while at the other end the output may be more easily ‘traceable’ back to its source (appropriation).
The challenge then comes from acknowledging where one is placed on this spectrum and what obligations this position imposes upon one’s practice. For example, it could be argued that cropping a small corner out of someone else’s photograph to be used in my new work doesn’t require permission or attribution, because of the unidentifiable and relatively small contribution that this segment makes to my work or detracts from the original. On the other hand, printing large screenshots of someone else's work which I subsequently hang and pass off as my own, entirely new work may be sailing a little too close to the remediation wind (see the work of Richard Prince for examples of the latter).
To some degree, where one feels comfortable on the spectrum is a decision for each individual practitioner. I don’t feel that my references are always explicit in my own practice (where indeed I am aware of there being any references!), yet neither am I actively trying to obscure the fact that certain artists or works have been influential in my vision and the way I work.
This week we were all asked the most cutting of questions… ‘what is your original contribution to the conversation in which your images participate?’
Maybe the ultimate answer to all of this lies in accepting that, in this world of ever-proliferating imagery, it’s a nonsense to proclaim any form of originality. If we're all merely ‘reshuffling a basic set of cultural terms’2, then we are liberated from the futility of grasping for the mirage of originality and are free to create and appropriate at will, and the implications be damned!
1. Verwoert, J. (2007) 'Apropos Appropriation: Why stealing images today feels different', Art & Research [Electronic],vol. 1, no. 2, Available at: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/verwoert.html, [Accessed 12 June 2017].
2. ‘Instead they advanced the paradigm of appropriation as a materialist model that describes art production as the gradual re-shuffling of a basic set of cultural terms through their strategical re-use and eventual transformation.’ From Verwoert, 2007.
The opening of module two introduced the practice of repeat photography – ‘rephotography’. This practice of carefully reproducing previously captured images opens up new avenues of investigation that are not available to a single, isolated image. Repeat photography places both images in a different context and invites the viewer to consider what might exist in the space between them, an uncharted region of time and cultural shift to which the pair of images can possibly provide some clues, but often little more. The potential applications for rephotography are numerous, ranging from quantitative scientific examination to sociological commentary, while others simply find it an enjoyable thing to compare images from past and present for its own sake.
The work this week challenged me to consider how rephotography might be relevant to me and my own practice, and looking forward, whether there might be an application for it in the project I’m working towards in this MA. It’s a difficult question to answer comprehensively at this point, particularly as I have no personal experience of repeat photography. There are however aspects of the practice that may be of relevance to the work I hope to produce or the way in which I hope to examine the experience of urban solitude.
The act of repeating a photograph seems to me to take the image beyond its original boundaries and opens up possibilities for communicating context and information and provoking inquiry that is simply not possible with a single image. One of the challenges I have been continuously concerned with when plotting the course of my project, is how to articulate the vast and varied differences in the way people experience being alone in the urban environment. Instinctively it felt that straight photographs were not going to be adequate to do this subject real justice and my concession to this in my proposal was the addition of creative writing to allow myself and other people involved in the project (e.g. interviewees) to find different ways to articulate aspects of their experience which would later inform the process of image-making.
Repeat photography potentially offers another tool to explore this subject, offering as it does a manageable way to comment on large periods of time and on big issues that might be too much of a mouthful for one photograph to declare. It would, for example, certainly lend itself to telling a story of absence in the urban environment (if that were the story I was trying to tell). There is also the potential to use the single frame of reference to tell the story in a different way. If I shoot one place repeatedly, rather than lots of different places only once (as currently), how does that change the angle from which the story of urban solitude might be told?
This week’s work has once again challenged me to consider more carefully how the work might eventually be presented to an audience. In The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods (2011: 130) one of the most prominent advocates and exponents of rephotography, Mark Klett, wrote:
‘Interactive approaches using digital technologies enable seemingly incompatible types and formats of data to be collected and used together. Organizing this material presents a new challenge that accentuates content over media type, and emphasizes the experience of the work as a way to discover the work’s content. If done well the results can add layers of meaning and accessibility to photographs, extending their audience and reaching across disciplines. Then the old problem that photographs alone cannot explain their histories has found a new solution.‘
Klett raises the tantalising possibility of offering an ‘experience’ to the viewer that adds meaning and potentially appeals to a wider audience. There’s obviously much to unpack there, but the desire for the work to be experienced rather than just seen certainly resonates with me and rephotography may offer a way to engage in a wider dialogue with others about how they experience solitude in the urban environment, in a way that I’d originally proposed to do using workshops and questionnaires. I hope to test this on a small scale with a mini-project, to see if there might be a wider application moving forward and will report back with my progress in due course.
Klett, M. (2011) 'Repeat Photography in Landscape Research', in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
This week saw the submission of the two final assignments for this module, a project proposal and accompanying work in progress (WIP) portfolio. The production of this work has been quite a traumatic, but ultimately very enlightening process that will be formative for everything else that I produce moving forward on this course.
The difficulties approaching this work were largely due to a lack of structure in my thinking and in the approach to my own work. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve not really had any kind of ‘practice’ to speak of before starting this course, which should have probably been a clue that struggling through the ‘Positions and Practice’ module was a possibility!
Forgive me for introducing these in bullet-point format, it just seems kind of appropriate (nothing like a good bullet-point to make it seem like you’ve got something sensible to say!).
A draft image that didn't make the final WIP portfolio
Meeting the challenge of adapting to this course and the mindset required has been difficult but also great fun. I’m so glad that I decided to do this, and I’m keen to reflect on this module and put the lessons into practice.
The work during week 11 sharpened the focus on the forthcoming project proposal. The webinar was an opportunity for a group therapy session where we all expressed our growing anxiety and uncertainty about the assignment. Gary, our tutor, challenged us to consider who the audience is for the work we’re proposing to create in the weeks and months ahead.
Now, I haven’t previously given much thought to the identity and needs of the audience (I know that’s not the first time you’ve heard me say that during this module!) and there were certainly some heated discussions amongst the group, with some arguing that they’d rather create work to satisfy themselves rather than aiming to serve an audience at all. I was of the same view to begin with, but having considered things further I have to concede the importance of considering who my audience might be, and how best to reach them with my work. To ignore the audience entirely seems disingenuous, engaged as we are in this effort to create photographic work of a high standard, which none of us are intending to keep solely to ourselves. So, we must therefore concede something to the audience. After putting great effort into creating the work it seems logical to try and expose this it to as many people as possible in the way that it can be received in its best possible light. Only once you’ve accepted the need to acknowledge the audience can you identify it and position your work accordingly.
A draft image for the 'work in progress' portfolio
Gary reassured us that not being able to identify the audience at this early stage is ok, as long as we keep this in mind as a target for the medium to long term, and certainly by the time we come to plan our final projects at the end of this MA. For me, thinking about audience is all part of the necessary change in mindset that I’ve been challenged to make since starting this course. Till now I’ve just taken photographs, with no real intention to speak of. For sure there have been themes that I’ve tended to return to, and I have found fragments of audience here and there, but this has happened without any forethought or strategy. I am starting to look at the process of putting this proposal together as a really important exercise in structuring and sharpening up my thoughts on my work and it’s really forcing me to take a critical approach to my own practice. This can only be beneficial, and once you view the proposal in this light it suddenly seems like a great opportunity rather than an incredibly daunting task that I’m not equipped to complete.
As I start to set down draft thoughts for the proposal, I’m finding that the best way to approach things is to try to answer specific questions rather than trying to shape these vast themes into a coherent argument. How on earth do you neatly summarise ‘urban solitude’? It’s basically impossible! Questions like ‘what am I trying to say?’, ‘what do I want the outcomes to be?’ help me to drill down to the crux of the topic and make things more manageable. I now feel more certain that I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts, at least in a preliminary way, in time to submit the proposal and can then build on it moving forward. I’m sure shooting more will also help to refine my ideas, and that’s something I must place more emphasis on as this module fades into the next.
Week 10 was for me more like week 12 or 13! As I mentioned previously, I’d gotten into a study deficit due to the dual demands of the MA and my actual job, which meant I got round to the work for week 10 a little late. As always, it’s only a couple of weeks after the fact that I seem able to properly contextualise what I learnt during that week, as the dust settles and the information gradually seeps into the cracks in my mind where the weeds of new thought will no doubt eventually grow.
I write this having just recently finished reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.
For me this book encapsulated a lot of what annoys me about critical theory and how almost intentionally opaque it can be. Photographs are everywhere. Their reach is limitless. Their potential audience is absolutely global, transcending geographical, cultural, ethnic and economic boundaries. Yet, the discourse in which these images are discussed is often conducted amongst somewhat self-satisfied academics who are almost exclusively Western, wealthy, male and white. The language used is almost designed to obfuscate, to exclude people who aren’t in the club from being able to have an opinion. Because if you can’t speak in terms that the academics will understand, or if you lack the intellectual arrogance to simply invent language to support your argument, you do not have a voice in this debate and your contribution is invalid.
Of course, Barthes’ work is considered a seminal text in the study of photographic practice, and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely. It seems to me though, that the intrinsically democratic nature of photography obliges those who partake in critical appraisal of the medium to reflect that in their analysis. They should seek to elucidate, opening doors of understanding, rather than obscure the art and make the practice of photography seem like a more mysterious and less attainable thing. This is something that is increasingly getting on my nerves.
One of the tasks for this week’s reflection was to consider the relevance of critical theory to my own practice. I’m afraid to say that I don’t see any significant link between some of the high-minded elitist claptrap masquerading as photographic theory and the reasons why I take photographs. I appreciate there may be irony for some in the very fact that I am writing, critically, about this book and critical theory in general, in a way that many may find in itself inaccessible. For that I can only apologise.
I believe strongly that photography is a versatile art form. I believe that the analysis of this practice is important and can be beneficial for those who undertake it (hence me doing an MA). But I also strongly believe that those ‘in the know’ should strive to be as inclusive as possible in their analysis, to widen access to this beautiful practice and to enhance the enjoyment of it for those who are interested in spending more time to understand it. This can be achieved in many ways, both in the production and distribution of the analysis, and I think we all have a responsibility to consider how we can contribute to a more inclusive debate around photography.
So taking that idea further, I have to consider how I will personally rise to that challenge. What will I do to help to demystify things?
Some of my views & reviews via Shutter Hub
I enjoy considering these questions and writing about photography. I'd certainly like to write more, either as a companion to my own work or as a contribution to the discourse of photography that examines the context of images related to each other and in relation to general themes.
So ultimately I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is. Can I contribute to photographic debate and critical theory in an interesting, accessible and no-nonsense style? Or shall I just make a groveling apology to Barthes’ memory and slink off into the distance with my tail between my legs!
This week’s focus was on critical theory and how we view, analyse and discuss images. I would admit that my initial stance was one of scepticism about the merits of critical theory, as it seemed to be a discipline that largely served to exclude the uninitiated from being able to participate in the discourse surrounding works of art. While I still believe this to be true in some cases, I would say that on reflection there certainly is a role for critical theory in photography. The breadth of potential contributions to the debate around the practice of photography, as well as the analysis of individual or related images, allows for many people to access or contribute to some form of discussion around photographic work. It's also possible to argue that critical theory serves to legitimise and elevate the practice of photography from merely a leisure pursuit to something that does merit consideration and discussion as an art form.
As we saw Francis Hodgson arguing this week, it's important to establish a common measure of photographic ‘quality’ as we seek to identify images that ‘matter’. I felt this to be an immediately challenging and somewhat troublesome idea (eg. who judges quality?). Of course, the concept of quality in photographic imagery could be considered to be largely dependent on the intended purpose of the image and also the audience to whom it's targeted. The family snapshot, the advertising image and the documentary project are all aspiring to different standards of aesthetics and efficacy and different measures of their ‘success’. That being said though, I don’t think this renders the pursuit of quality entirely futile. It still seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing at least at the level of the individual practitioner. It surely behooves each of us to seek to produce ‘quality’ work, aspiring to reach as closely as possible the mark that one sets for oneself at the very least, even if I personally believe that a universal and standardised measure of quality is probably an unattainable goal.
Of course, on the other side of this argument is the risk that those who are assigned the role of adjudicators of quality end up being such a homogenous group that there's an implicit and unconscious elitism both in selection of images of merit and provision of access to them. One could already argue that the ‘art world’ is not the most inclusive or welcoming environment and by seeking to establish a visual hierarchy there is certainly a concern that it is possible for inequality to become further entrenched.
Save Your Own Damn Self
Another interesting question posed this week was whether we approached our work in a predominantly emotional or cognitive way. Reflecting on this I feel that since starting to take photographs I have largely proceeded in an emotionally-driven manner and put very little thought into things at all. One of the main drivers for pursing an MA in photography was the hope of changing this and finding a more informed basis on which to continue creating imagery that was hopefully improved by being better informed. I suppose as much as I don’t feel that my approach has yet shown much sign of this, the very act of writing this CRJ is a step towards a more considered cognitive approach.
Finally, I recently read a book by David Campany – Photography and Cinema as part of my research into the link between photography and cinema and how this might help to contextualize my own practice and help me understand how I see scenes and create images. While I can’t say that after having read this book I have a clear idea of how my own work can be considered ‘cinematic’, one thought from the book has stuck with me, that being that ‘an image could simply be narrative without belonging to a narrative’. I really like this and hope to work towards producing images with more narrative content moving forward.
Weeks 7 and 8 coincided with the first real challenge of the course as I prepared for the first MA assignment, a presentation exploring my current practice, while at the same time also trying to complete a comprehensive mortality audit at work, the data for which had to be collected, analysed and presented for a deadline that fell 3 days before that of the MA assignment. To make matters worse I was also working nights over the weekend when both presentations were due.
Till now I’ve largely managed to balance the demands of the course with those of my job, but this was the first time where the combined demands of both seemed unmanageable. I was able to meet both deadlines successfully but there was certainly a toll: the quality of work suffering in both cases as well as me being largely absent from the course in that period. Reflecting on things, I’m satisfied that I was at least able to complete both tasks this time, as at one stage it didn’t seem practically possible, but I have to review whether there’s a better way to balance things in future to reduce the stress when things kick off again.
One positive and unexpected outcome was that I was able to closely combine creative output with medical work under high pressure, for pretty much the first time. Previously I’ve always felt unable to be creative when the demands of my job are high, which has frequently led to prolonged photographic fallow periods where I don’t shoot much or even think much about shooting. Here though, I was able to switch from one task to the other, under duress, and still find some useful creative insights.
This is a skill that I will have to hone further moving forward.
Following the psychogeographical thread that was handed to me by Gary McLeod and Matthew Beaumont in his thoroughly engaging book ‘Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London’ I’m also looking forward to piling into some more books on/around this subject:
I’ve really enjoyed how this course has stimulated me to read and research and opened my perspective in many ways, a massively unexpected bonus in addition to the opportunity to talk to interesting and talented people about photography.
The ethics of photography is not something that I’ve previously considered in much detail, just assuming that it didn't really apply to me. After all, I typically shoot empty spaces, at night, with no-one else involved. I've certainly felt unease on occasion when seeing photographs of homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people presented in a way that seems to place their plight below the photographer's desire for self-promotion, but apart from that it's not an issue that's been at the forefront of my thoughts.
Unsurprisingly though, I find myself writing yet another reflection where one of the key realisations is that I have much to learn and much to incorporate into my own thinking, particularly with regard to my own practice. The work of the photographer Jeff Mitchell was in sharp focus this week, as his image of refugees travelling from Croatia into Slovenia taken in 2015 was famously used by UKIP in their Brexit campaign last year.
Migrants are escorted by police as they walk from the village of Rigonce, Slovenia to a refugee camp in Brežice on October 23, 2015. Jeff Mitchell/Getty
I found Mitchell's own response to the use of this image rather interesting, as instead of being outraged, he seemed to take a much more sanguine view of things:
"Photographers are there to record stories, as they happen and when they happen, in the best way we can. But what happens after that, how our images are used, can be out of our control…
My job – telling the story of the migrants – had been done. It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up.
It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just Ukip. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation.
You have to remain impartial. I’m there to record what happens. I know it sounds simplistic, but you shoot what’s in front of you."
Jeff Mitchell's best photograph: ‘These people have been betrayed by Ukip’. The Guardian, 22nd June 2016
In Mitchell's view, his work was done. What happened next was out of his hands and thus, by implication, not really his problem. The buck seems to have been decisively passed! The discussion around this topic on the forum this week suggested a range of views in response to this view. From my initially neutral stance where it seemed to me that, as the image was obtained and used in a legal manner, there was no real blame to be apportioned, I think I've been convinced to consider that as image makers there may be at least some responsibility for where the images ultimately end up.
This is of course a complex challenge particularly, as Mitchell highlights, in the 'digital age', but it is one I increasingly feel we are obliged to engage with in some way. If nothing else, I think it’s important to strive to protect the clarity of one's own voice and if the images are going to be used in a manner that seems contrary or incongruent with the motivation that underpinned the creation of the image, as artists we should seek to defend ourselves. Of course, this is a context-dependent argument, with the reason the images were created in the first place needing to be considered.
This is an extension of the idea of 'authorship' that we explored in week 3. In the case of Mitchell's work, he seems to have a less rigid view of 'authorship' and is seemingly less concerned that his photograph has been appropriated to promote a message that he may not personally agree with. Accordingly, I feel that the 'ethics' of photography is an individual and context-dependent thing and depends on a number of factors, including the sort of photography one engages in and the intended use of the images created. I can only really comment on my own motivations and respond to a personal ethical challenge. Reflecting on my own motivations for taking photographs, I would have to say that there's an element of selfishness there. A desire to express something internal, almost regardless of how, or by whom, it is received. It's like self-analysis. As such, it’s important to me that I represent the impulse that has inspired the photograph as honestly as possible. Admittedly I don’t always understand that impulse - which partly explains why I find myself studying an MA in photography - but if I have an ethic it’s the idea that I have to be as faithful to this internal impulse as possible. My hope is that the work might connect with others out there who share or are able to identify with the same impulse (I’m already hating the word ‘impulse’!)…if my work was able to connect with, or initiate communication or dialogue with others in some way, I’d be very gratified.
It’s also very important to me to support other artists as far as possible, particularly those who’ve had a role in supporting or inspiring my work. Sometimes just a few encouraging words is enough, but of course purchasing and promoting their work is even better.
As outlined here, my ethics strike even me as rather limited in scope and poorly-formed. I don’t yet feel fully-equipped to address the deeper questions of why I shoot what I do and why anyone should care. These questions seem to hang ominously over me at present, prodding me for a response. I'll need one...soon!
Week 4 focused on how the photography profession is perceived by non-photographers and the influence on the medium of the ever-advancing development of photographic technology. It was interesting to hear the reflections of my classmates, particular those who are working professionally as photographers. The general sense is that the profession is poorly-understood with sometimes only limited knowledge about what a photographer's job actually entails and what it should therefore be worth. There was also a feeling that people see photographers as having an easy life, doing something that any person could do and that this can even feed into the shoddy way that some photographers go about their work. I feel myself somewhat unqualified to offer opinions about this, as I largely identify as being in the 'non-photographer' camp, or at least I did before commencing this course.
My instinct is that photographers are maybe at least partially to blame for how they are perceived by the public. As we've already discussed, imagery is everywhere, the majority of which was created by photographers. As such, their contribution to daily life is vast, and massively under-recognised. It would not be unreasonable to expect the profession to be more forward in highlighting this important role and seeking to receive appropriate consideration accordingly. Maybe part of the problem is the disparate nature of the profession, with there being so many different types of photographers, as well as it being an often solitary practice. These facts don't lend themselves to presenting a united and powerful professional voice, that is capable of making the point that image makers should be valued for the important work that they do.
In my own practice I’ve certainly felt unable to fully own the title of 'photographer'. This may be a result of my other professional role which dominates a large part of my time and thoughts, but is also due to never quite feeling that it was credible for me to claim to be a photographer without devoting all my energies to it full-time. I think it's important to conduct oneself in as professional a manner as possible regardless of where on the photographer's spectrum you may be placed and maybe the fact that there are some people who operate in a less than professional manner partly explains why the profession is so poorly regarded.
With regards to the relentless advance of photographic technology, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the equipment choices available and lose sight of what you're actually trying to achieve, ending up simply consumed by the pursuit of the next piece of equipment that will supposedly help to elevate your work. This is a position I found myself in early in my photography journey, but it’s a false position to my mind, and it’s better to concentrate on honing the craft and using the technology as a tool, rather than seeing the latest camera as an end in itself.
Also this week, following on from the collaborative focus of week 3, I was delighted to produce a small piece of work with a classmate Chris Chucas. It was a rewarding experience that I’ll write about in a separate post.
The research for my project continues, but as I have been admonished this week, I need to 'stop thinking and go shoot!'
This week, the emphasis has been on collaborative practice. This is a new idea for me, having never previously considered myself to be a photographic collaborator. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that there's more to the idea of collaboration than at first appears to be the case. As Daniel Palmer argued in 2013 in A Collaborative Turn in Contemporary Photography? (Photographies, 6:1, 117-125, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2013.788843)
...photographic images are produced not solely by the lonely eye, or the black box of the camera (or now an interaction with software) but through an engagement with worlds that are collectively produced and experienced.
I have been challenged to reassess my views on the primacy of authorship and what that concept actually means. Is retaining authorship at all costs as important as all that? Is single authorship ultimately a false construct? I'm struck by the idea that authorship actually maybe relates to power, and where the balance of power lies in the production of an image. Photographers do ‘capture’ and ‘frame’ their subjects after all. Maybe also, if this is the case, then ceding this power opens up the possibility of producing images that can have cumulative impact…maybe two (or many) heads are better than one.
The collaborative images produced this week by my classmates were all interesting in arriving at a shared vision that seemed to be more coherent and more unified than might have occurred with just a single author. My own concerns about who would do what in producing the image, or who would claim ‘ownership’ of it once complete seemed to be superseded by more tangible benefits of cooperation and mutual inspiration. Each contributor seemed to have benefitted from the input of their collaborator and was moved to produce something ‘more’ than they might have done if working alone.
Stephen Willats, whose own practice relies heavily on actively donating this authorship role to his subjects reflected on this in his 1983 essay The Camera as an Object of Determinism and as an Agent of Freedom
The divestment of my traditionally given authoritative position in the origination of a photographic image does not lessen its strength but rather, I have found, ensures its pertinence and meaning; for who are better able in the end to present themselves in the reality they inhabit than the subjects.
I am convinced of the potential benefits of collaboration, as either an adjunct to practice or an integral part. Of course, the necessary proportion of collaboration will vary with each practitioner, but this is something I am keen to explore more going forward.
This week’s focus has been on the interdisciplinary nature of photography. It only takes a moment to be overwhelmed by the many areas of personal, professional and intellectual life that are in some way influenced or interacted with by the photographic image or some derivation of it. Photography in an obviously recognisable form is ubiquitous of course, but this week challenged me to consider how it has also seeped into the core of so many other areas of life, and been changed, misrepresented or exploited in both positive and more questionable applications. From medical imaging and its central role in diagnostic and subsequent clinical care, to photo-composites aiming to arrive at a visual mean or archetype of a proclivity or ethnicity, the image has been unwittingly recruited into many roles.
The challenge this week was to consider where these links might particularly relate to one’s own practice. I have been intrigued by the link between photography and memory for some time. I have often felt a subconscious impulse to shoot a particular scene that then seems to gently tug at a thread deep in my memory, unravelling it enough for me to realise that something has been disturbed, without being able to grasp it solidly enough to recall details. Images suggest emotions and imply connections that are sometimes quite unsettling. This link with our psychology is something I want to explore further and is likely to be an ongoing component of my research on this MA.
Some introductory reading in this area threw up some interesting introductory ideas. For example, in Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour, Linda Henkel (Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 396–402) was able to demonstrate that the act of taking photographs on a museum visit impaired the ability to be able to recall details of the exhibits seen, compared to those who simply observed the exhibits without taking photographs. While Schacter et al. (Psychology and Aging 1997, Vol. 12, No. 2, 203-215) demonstrated that review of photographs could induce false recollections in older people. In Looking at Pictures but Remembering Scenes (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition 1992. Vol 18. No 1. 180-191), Intraub et al. discuss how ‘boundary extension’ occurs when we recollect images, leading us to perceive and recollect ‘more’ of a scene than was actually presented in a photograph.
All of these ideas challenged my original notion of photographs triggering memories for me. I’m forced to acknowledge that photographs are not always ‘truthful’ either intrinsically, or in our recollection of them, and the idea that images can induce false memories, which can then become incorporated into our personal histories is intriguing. Another unavoidable conclusion is that the idea of the photograph as ‘evidence’, as being by definition an accurate representation of what was seen, or was present, is not as indisputable as it may first appear. This is an interesting way to consider some recent controversies such as the furore surrounding President Trump’s inauguration photographs (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/22/trump-inauguration-crowd-sean-spicers-claims-versus-the-evidence).
Another strong interdisciplinary connection for me is with photography and music. Music often triggers my ideas, it helps to clear my mind, inspire a creative attitude and helps me connect with the mood of the places I photograph.
An example - This song:
Inspired this image, that I shot back in 2015:
Our Love Comes Back In The Middle Of The Night
There’s a continuum between memory, emotion, imagery and music for me that I aim to understand more as the course progresses, and this week feels like the first step on that journey.
This week I've also learnt that photography has so many potential applications beyond the immediately obvious. There are endless opportunities for collaboration with non-photographic practitioners and across photographic disciplines as long as one is open enough to see the possible connections.
An interesting and challenging start to the course. I’ve never previously considered, in any detail, the idea of photography in a truly global context. Once the thought is introduced however, it’s difficult not to be somewhat intimated by the potential breadth of the argument and its implications. Photography is an incredibly pervasive practice, that everyone save for those in the most isolated cultures interacts with multiple times per day, often subliminally. The influence of imagery is undoubted, yet how much of the imagery we consume is done so willingly? And how much do we consider the unseen agendas that have selected and presented these images for our attention? If we were privy to these agendas would we be more discerning about what we allowed ourselves to see? Would we try and take a more mindful role in guiding the images that ourselves, and others, create?
The internet is a powerful pathway by which images can quickly reach billions of retinas worldwide. It’s not possible to imagine that an image may not have global reach once uploaded. So, is there a responsibility to consider the impact and meaning the image carries when it arrives somewhere you may never see and is read by people whose perspective you may never understand? If so, how much responsibility? There’s no universally acceptable image that appeals to everyone and offends no-one, no image can be truly universal, so is this an unfair expectation of the photographer (or any maker of images)? And surely we have to retain the right to freedom of expression even if this offends? A thorny issue for sure, with previously tragic consequences (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30708237) for those who have crossed a line drawn by others.
This week I’ve been challenged to consider the homegenisation of images that occurs as a result of corporate and political imperatives, and the threat this poses to expression and recognition of individuals and cultures that fall outside of the approved categories. As Bate wrote with regard to stock photography:
‘the more a global stock image-world becomes a homogenous image-bank, the less easy it is to acknowledge or accept different views of the world.’
Photography: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. David Bate, p. 207
The awareness of this increasing homegenisation of images makes me more determined to remain open to as many sources as possible, and to seek them out if possible. It also challenges me to seek out common image tropes in my own work so that I can actively decide if they belong there, and remove them if they don’t.
This week also introduced me to the idea of photography as a window and mirror. Not an entirely novel idea I suppose, but it’s been interesting to consider whether my work is more mirror or window. I think it’s been more a reflection of internal states and conflicts so far. Gazing into my mirror has certainly allowed me to examine certain things about myself in more detail, even if it’s kinda foggy sometimes!
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal